Monday, July 10, 2017

The Syrian Ceasefire

What does the ceasefire in Syria mean on the ground? Which areas will observe it and which areas will not?

In theory, the ceasefire should apply to all of Syria. However, Russia has insisted that, along with its allied forces, it reserve the right to attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and al-Nusra Front forces as these two groups are outside the framework of the ceasefire, as are other groups labelled as 'terrorist' by the UN.

This means that the ceasefire is not geographically demarcated. This exception to the ceasefire is very problematic, however, because Russian forces have attacked many rebel groups and civilian areas under the justification of attacking ISIL and Nusra.

These two groups have become convenient scapegoats for Russian attacks throughout Syria. Russia has essentially reserved the right to militarily engage any armed groups in Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIL and Nusra.

The United States has been working with Russia in an attempt to designate whether certain areas are ceasefire-abiding areas or not, but they have yet to agree on the specific geographic contours of the agreement. The absence of such contours will give Russia greater military latitude.

Practically speaking, this means that large swaths of Syrian territory in which these groups are present, particularly in the eastern and northwestern parts of the country, will remain active conflict zones. 

Groups outside of the ceasefire, such as Ahrar al-Sham and others labelled as terrorist groups, remain present in parts of Homs and Hama provinces, as well as near Damascus, meaning these areas also potentially lie outside of the ceasefire zones.

What are the chances of the ceasefire holding and for how long? What could it hold and why might it not?

The ceasefire is unlikely to hold for three main reasons: First, Russia and its allies have reserved the right to attack forces outside of the ceasefire. This means that any violence on the ground that is committed by Russia or regime-led forces can be justified within the framework of the Munich agreement and the ceasefire under the pretence of fighting ISIL.

As such, Russia can have its cake and eat it, too; it has reserved the right to militarily engage armed groups while demanding that they cease all hostilities. Second, there are simply thousands of small, organised brigades in Syria that have little interest in a cessation of hostilities.

There is a network of armed groups who have benefitted handsomely from the conflict and for whom a ceasefire may threaten them and their activities.

It is counterintuitive; however, it is important to note that not all of the violence in Syria is driven by metapolitical issues, such as trying to overthrow the regime, and that there are micropolitical issues, such as security and smuggling, that also motivate armed groups.

With little incentive aside from the possible reprieve from Russian bombing, it is unlikely that many of these groups will be motivated to observe the ceasefire.

Third, most of the rebel groups inside of Syria cooperate with other groups on the battlefield. This cooperation has as much to do with their political or ideological affinities as it does their relative strengths and weaknesses and need to build alliances to make military gains.

Thus, very few armed groups inside Syria operate independently of other groups, blurring the distinctions between them. Isolating a few groups as outside of the ceasefire betrays the organisational structure of violence on the ground and the reality that most groups cooperate on the battlefield.