The announcement of a timeline for “cessations of hostilities” in Syria on Thursday might actually allow the Assad regime and its allies to continue the Syrian Civil War on their own brutal terms.
And he can continue waging war as the partial result of yesterday’s diplomatic development.
On Thursday, the International Syria Support Group, a group of countries with interests in the outcome of the Syria conflict that includes the US, and Russia, issued a statement outlining an imminent halt in fighting.
The agreement is being hailed as a potential diplomatic breakthrough after four years of war in the country.
But the “Statement of the International Syria Support Group” issued on Thursday contains several loopholes that could work to the Assad regime’s advantage and that allow him to continue some of the most destructive aspects of his campaign even with a “cessation of hostilities” in place.
Here are five reasons to be deeply sceptical of yesterday’s development.
The timeline. The cessation of hostilities begins in one week, followed by an undefined period of negotiation over a more formal halt in the conflict.
That 2-3 week window could end up being a long time, in light of what’s currently unfolding on the battlefield Assad’s forces are closing in on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and an anti-regime stronghold, with the help of Russian airstrikes. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled the city, and the opposition has had their supply lines to Turkey severed.
According to Nadim Shehadi, director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, the timeline envisioned in the Munich statement gives Russia a free hand to continue and even intensify its bombardment of Aleppo.
“This looks like a ceasefire proposal,” Shehadi told Business Insider. “But it’s in effect a licence to kill.”
The “terrorism” exception.
Per the Munich statement, the cessation “should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the United Nations Security Council.”
Under such conditions, non-jihadist rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army would be violating the cessation in attacking Assad regime forces. But it’s unclear if the opposite is true.
Both Assad has repeatedly stated that he considers all anti-regime forces to be “terrorists,” while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed a notably elastic definition of which Syrian militants his government considers to be “terrorists.”
And given the degree of pragmatic cooperation between extremist and non-extremist anti-regime groups, Russia and Assad will have a built-in justification for continuing their war against the opposition.
One “US-backed rebel commander” told Mike Giglio of Buzzfeed that the agreement “is very dangerous for us.”
The fact that the “cessation” even allows Assad to continue fighting gives him international sanction for continuing the fight against anti-regime forces.
So far, Russia has paid no apparent penalty for using an anti-ISIS operation as cover for airstrikes against non-jihadist rebels.
There’s little reason to believe the “cessation” would change these dynamics, given that the agreement it was reached at a time when Assad and Russia are operating from a position of the strength, and are on the verge of achieving one of their most important battlefield objectives.
Slight of hand on humanitarian access. The agreement calls for the delivery of aid to a number of cities that are either besieged or outside the reach of humanitarian organisations: “In order to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week by air to Deir Ez Zour and simultaneously to Fouah, Kafrayah, the besieged areas of Rural Damascus, Madaya, Mouadhimiyeh, and Kafr Batna by land, and continue as long as humanitarian needs persist,” the statement reads. “Humanitarian access to these most urgent areas will be a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country.”
The Munich statement vaguely motions towards some future agreement on full humanitarian access — while explicitly stopping short of requiring it.
The agreement doesn’t require the Assad regime to lift its siege on cities like Madaya. It doesn’t even mention Aleppo, the source of a humanitarian calamity so severe that the resulting refugee stream could turn the Syrian Civil War into an event that “is becoming an existential threat to the EU,” in the words of French ambassador to the US Gerard Araud.
The agreement allows Assad to continue the war, without imposing particularly stringent humanitarian requirements on his regime.
It helps Russia. The agreement makes it appear that Russia agreed to a fair solution to the conflict — when in reality that “solution” allows Assad to consolidate his gains with Russian assistance.
As Ulrich Speck, a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy wrote, “The goal of the ‘ceasefire’ is very likely to confuse the west about Russia’s actions and intentions in Syria, to break western unity, and by doing so, to attack the west’s political will and ability to resist and counter Russian actions.”
Shehadi believes the entire agreement is timed to free make Russia appear a constructive actor in Syria — while giving it a temporary free hand in aiding the Assad regime in Aleppo and elsewhere.
“Russia is facing a lot of problems, a lot of pressure because of what’s happening in Aleppo, and to divert attention from that pressure they have put this proposal forward,” Shehadi told Business Insider.
Just what is a “cessation of hostilities,” anyway? The phrase “cessation of active hostilities” appears in the Geneva Conventions in reference to requirements for repatriating prisoners of war.
As University of Texas legal scholar Derek Jinks wrote in a 2003 paper, “It is important to note that many commentators have suggested that the ‘general close of military operations’ standard is distinct from the ‘cessation of active hostilities standard.
The latter refers to the termination of hostilities — the silencing of the guns — whereas the former refers to the complete cessation of all aggressive military maneuvers.”
Here’s how another recent peace agreement, the January 2014 Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities in South Sudan’s civil war, defined the phrase’s requirements:
A “cessation” could mean anything from a freezing of the conflict’s frontlines (the Geneva Conversions definition, more or less) to a total halt in all armed activity.
The Munich statement says that the “ISSG task force will within one week elaborate modalities for a nationwide cessation of hostilities.”
The agreement seeks to impose an as-yet undefined set of rules on the combatants. It creates an open-ended period in which it’s unclear what the various sides’ obligations really are — one that Assad and Russia will undoubtedly exploit as they continue their assault on Aleppo.
“Look at what they’re doing on the ground,” Shehadi says of Assad and Russia’s offensive against the city. “They’re not looking for modalities. “They’re going full blast.”
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