Why the Syria ceasefire will not hold

The ceasefire has not meant a complete cessation of hostilities, as per the usual definition

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

The last couple of months have seen a significant amount of reduction of fighting in Syria, on the back of the Russian-sponsored “ceasefire”. And with it, a significant decrease in the influx of Syrian migrants into Europe. But the “ceasefire” has not meant a complete cessation of hostilities, as per the usual definition. And this week, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts and intense shuttle diplomacy, the peace deal is teetering on the verge of collapse.

There are four main reasons for this. Firstly, Russia reserves the right to attack any “terrorist group”. But what Russia is defining as “terrorist group” is not nearly the same as what the US and the West would. It is not just ISIS, al-Nusra and other officially designated groups. Russia designates as “terrorist group” anyone who it wants to designate as a terrorist group, basically, anyone who is not sworn to the regime of President Assad, or possibly the Kurds.

Russia can therefore attack anyone under the pretext of attacking ISIS. And as we speak they continue to bomb Aleppo to bits. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has only just gotten around to “hoping” that the ceasefire can be extended to the city, which, let us not forget, is not in fact an ISIS target.

Secondly, there are now thousands of small militias and groupings who are no longer immediately concerned with overthrowing Assad or defeating ISIS, but which, out of the chaos of the conflict, have established lucrative rackets for their members from smuggling, extortion and other similar activities. To them, any ceasefire poses a double threat.

The fragmented nature of the “opposition” means that there is a diffusion of responsibility and accountability, which makes meaningful dialogue very difficult

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

On the one hand, they will no longer be able to cover their activities behind a pretence of legitimate political fighting, and their activities will be targeted both by other fighting actors and by their local populations as the organized crime they really are.

And on the other, after all they would have been involved in during the fighting, it is hardly likely that the gang members will be safe. They will have many enemies with many scores to settle. Ironically, for most of the people caught up in this situation, they will only be safe so long as the fighting continues. So we can expect them to continue fighting and do their best to undermine any attempts at ceasefire by the larger, political actors.

Thirdly, the fragmented nature of the “opposition” means that there is a diffusion of responsibility and accountability, which makes meaningful dialogue between the Assad side and the “opposition” very difficult, as we have already seen during the current attempt at a ceasefire.

Rebel cooperation

Most rebel groups cooperate with each other to such an extent that it is very difficult to know where one groups ends (e.g. al-Nusra) and another begins. For the Russians and Assad’s troops, lines are all blurred as to who can be attacked and who cannot.

But on the “opposition” side also, lines are blurred on who is bound by the ceasefire, and “safe” from Russian bombardment, and who is going to be targeted anyway and not bound by the “ceasefire”. In between these gaps in demarcation, individuals and groups will continue to settle scores, run rackets, carry out attacks without ever being sure what this means for the ceasefire and what the consequences of their actions will be for themselves as well.

Lastly, Russia and Assad have much less reason to compromise with the “opposition” and the West. The dynamics on the ground are changing rapidly and they have the momentum to impose their political vision on ending the conflict on other parties. Aleppo is still resisting. But only just. It has almost been bombed completely into submission, and there is hardly anything left standing in the city.

Elsewhere, the situation is similar. Russia and Assad feel they are now in the position to bomb every opposition group outside of ISIS into submission. So unless the ‘opposition’ concedes on Assad’s terms, which they will not, Russia and Assad will continue to bludgeon them until they are completely broken.

After all this, the fears that the “opposition” had about the original ceasefire plan have been borne out: the plan was put forward simply to give Russia the cover it needed to consolidate its position. And that is exactly what Russia has done. The rebels now are in a position where they have little option but to concede. But they will not. And so, the tragedy will continue for a while yet.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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