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Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Women survey the damage near the MSF-supported Al Quds hospital, hit by airstrikes in an opposition-held area of Aleppo on 27 April 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?

The fragile Cessation of Hostilities in Syria, in place since 27 February, has unraveled in the north over the last few weeks, as fighting escalated around the strategic city of Aleppo. Forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied Iran-backed foreign fighters mounted a new offensive aimed at encircling the armed opposition in Aleppo, the most valuable piece of northern territory currently dominated by non-jihadist rebel factions. Rebel forces have counter-attacked. Rising violence and meagre progress in delivering humanitarian supplies to besieged areas have hampered any meaningful progress at the Geneva peace talks. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura held a series of urgent meetings this week with diplomats and foreign ministers from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Russia to revive the truce, alongside high-level bilateral talks between the U.S. and Russia toward the same end.

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Syria, Noah Bonsey, looks at what is at stake.

The U.S. and Russia today announced that they have concluded arrangements to extend the Cessation of Hostilities to embattled Aleppo province, which follows earlier efforts to establish a “regime of calm” aimed at decreasing violence in the capital, Damascus, and the western coastal region of Latakia. How far would this go toward salvaging the truce?

The Cessation of Hostilities needs to be nationwide in order to be viable; or, to be more precise, it needs to include all areas not controlled by the Islamic State. It doesn’t work to pick small parts of the country as truce areas while excluding other key fronts, because doing so can simply enable the regime to divert resources from areas under truce toward escalation elsewhere. In theory, the opposition can do the same, though in practice it’s only the regime and its backers that have shown much capacity for that kind of coordinated, cross-front force movement.

The diplomatic focus is and should be on stopping the escalatory cycle of violence in Aleppo, where both sides have been attacking civilian areas indiscriminately. Regime attacks have been more systematic and had deadlier impact, but Aleppo has also seen a troubling surge in indiscriminate rocket fire by rebel groups since the Cessation of Hostilities began to break down.

It’s too early to say what, if anything, the U.S.-Russia negotiations can deliver in Aleppo. Arresting the cycle of violence on this front is a huge challenge, particularly given the extent to which the Assad regime is prioritizing the Aleppo campaign and the level of Iranian support for it. Are the Russians willing to apply real pressure in an attempt to stop the regime’s offensive there? If they are willing to apply that pressure, are they capable of actually achieving a halt in the offensive? These questions remain. But there isn’t much point returning to talks in Geneva at this stage if the escalatory cycle in Aleppo can’t be stopped.

Why is Aleppo so important?

Aleppo has historically been Syria’s economic capital and, prior to the war, was its largest city. Strategically and symbolically, it is the non-jihadist opposition’s most significant territorial asset — arguably the one place in northern Syria where the intra-rebel balance of power is clearly in their favour. Jabhat al-Nusra has some assets there, but it’s the non-jihadist groups that are dominant within rebel-held portions of the city and its northern and western countryside.

Since 2014, these rebels have faced an existential threat at the hands of two foes: regime forces aiming to surround the city, and IS forces poised to sweep through the neighboring countryside from the east. More recently, Kurdish YPG forces have added additional pressure from the northwest, and from the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood they control within Aleppo. As Crisis Group has long maintained, the defeat of non-jihadist opposition factions in Aleppo could deal a potentially crippling blow to the viability of the mainstream opposition as a whole, and thus to any prospect of a political resolution. That outcome, while perhaps favourable to the regime in the short term, would be otherwise disastrous: it would leave Syria in a state of unending war between a regime too weak, brutal and stubborn to stabilize much of the country, and Salafi-jihadist groups – namely the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra – willing and able to wage perpetual insurgency against it, reinforced by some of the rank and file of losing non-jihadist rebel groups. Jihadist groups would likely exploit the regime’s inevitably heavy-handed response to ongoing insurgent attacks to augment their recruitment within Syria and beyond.

What do you make of the announcement of a new Russian-U.S. monitoring center in Geneva to oversee ceasefire violations in Syria?

Improving monitoring mechanisms is all well and good, but does not in itself address the underlying dynamics fueling escalation. The cessation of hostilities did not break down because of a failure in monitoring. It broke down because major forces on both sides had a clear interest in eroding the truce and resuming hostilities.

The Cessation of Hostilities was accomplished in the first place primarily by U.S. and Russian bilateral negotiations. The central challenge was always the commitment of the main warring parties on both sides. The U.S. was able to convince the non-jihadist armed opposition and its regional backers to go along with the truce. That’s not surprising given that the tide of the war at that point was working against the armed opposition, so they had incentive to go for de-escalation. What was always less clear is why the regime, Iran, and Iran-backed militias – including Hizbullah and other Shiite foreign fighters – would be interested in a Cessation of Hostilities, given that they had the upper hand and the momentum in military terms.

Another party that had no apparent interest in a Cessation was Jabhat al-Nusra [the local al-Qaeda affiliate], for two reasons. First, the terms of the cessation allowed for continued attacks targeting Nusra. Second, de-escalating violence and turning attention to a political track brought out key strategic and ideological differences separating Jabhat al-Nusra from non-jihadist rebel factions, and created space for pro-opposition civilian activists to resume public demonstrations. Jabhat al-Nusra does not want a political solution — they have broader maximalist, transnational goals better served by perpetual war. And they clearly wish to avoid the re-emergence of civil society on the ground, much of which is hostile to Nusra’s ideology and in some cases allied with its non-jihadist rebel rivals.

So you have a situation in which some of the key actors on the ground – the regime, Iran, Hizbollah, and other Iran-backed militias on one side, and Jabhat al-Nusra on the opposition side – had reason to prefer re-escalation to a continued Cessation of Hostilities. The surprise then is not that the truce broke down, but rather that it lasted as long as it did.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the separation of moderate opposition forces from positions occupied by militias loyal to Jabhat al-Nusra. How realistic is that?

Separating Nusra from other factions is much more complicated than Russian talking points suggest.

Nusra personnel are in some cases co-located and working in cooperation with non-jihadist rebels, including in areas, such as Aleppo, where the latter are the dominant force. That relationship has continued even as tensions between Nusra and non-jihadist factions have steadily risen over the last year, because the demands of the war provide powerful incentives for it.

Non-jihadist opposition factions face a regime that is far better equipped—not least of all with an air force—and receives much more robust, better-coordinated support from its state backers. There are major ideological, political and strategic differences distinguishing these opposition factions from Jabhat al-Nusra, but for now these are outweighed by the tactical necessity of coordination against a common foe. Nusra provides capacity that non-jihadist factions sorely need to help compensate for the regime’s armament advantage; for example, Nusra conducts suicide attacks against regime armour, while non-jihadist factions do not.

The non-jihadist factions, including major Islamist groups, who participate in opposition politics have defined a desired political endgame focused on ending Assad rule, while maintaining Syria’s current borders, preserving much of existing state institutions, and ensuring political and religious pluralism. Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salafi-jihadist core shares the objective of pushing Assad from power, but rejects the rest of that opposition platform on ideological and strategic grounds. If there is ever a viable political process offering a credible prospect of ending Assad rule, these and other differences distinguishing non-jihadist forces from al-Nusra’s hardline leadership will come to the fore, and are likely to prove irreconcilable.

But what is happening now in Geneva does not constitute such a process. The regime has made clear that it will not willingly negotiate towards a meaningful political transition, and its backers, Russia and Iran, so far have shown no sign that they will force it to do so. Meanwhile, the regime and Iran-backed foreign fighters are escalating against opposition forces on the key Aleppo front — an offensive they prepared for during the cessation of hostilities. These circumstances — rising military pressure, combined with dim prospects for tangible political progress — incentivize further cooperation between opposition and Nusra forces, rather than driving them apart.

Why have hospitals and medical facilities been targeted during the latest military offensive in Aleppo?

Collective punishment against civilians in opposition areas has been a pillar of the regime’s strategy from the beginning of this war. We see that in indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas; we see that in sieges of populated areas that in some cases have resulted in deaths from starvation; and we see that in attacks targeting markets and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and other health facilities. These tactics are part of an effort to raise the cost of opposition to the regime – and, in some cases, to depopulate these areas.

Up until now, the regime has faced no negative consequences from this element of its strategy. To the contrary, it has profited from it, as these tactics have helped it to crush, displace or co-opt opponents on key fronts. And so long as the regime sees little prospect of counter-escalation by its external adversaries, nor meaningful pressure from its own external backers, then of course it will likely continue to use such tactics.

Is the Cessation of Hostilities worth salvaging?

Yes. The impact of the truce, first and foremost, was a significant decline in violence in much of the country, and a decline in civilian casualties as a result. The most tangible difference in terms of civilian life was a significant reduction in regime and Russian bombardment, in particular air strikes, on opposition-held areas. The opposition in turn ceased most of its attacks. That created a level of calm that Syrians had not experienced in some time.

In opposition areas, in addition to the lives saved, you saw that the calm in violence created space for a return of civil activists to the streets. There were peaceful protests on a scale and scope unlike anything we’ve seen over the last couple of years. These were mostly protests against the regime, but there were even protests against Jabhat al-Nusra. This is indicative of the fact that a calm in the fighting – and in particular, a decline in the bombardment of opposition areas – was creating space for civil actors, and this posed a threat to the most hardline groups, namely Nusra.

Securing a meaningful, nationwide Cessation of Hostilities that includes all areas outside Islamic State control would save lives and prevent the complete collapse of the nascent political process. If the relevant powers — in particular, Russia, the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — fail to arrest this current escalatory cycle, then prospects for achieving a negotiated end to the conflict will fall further, and the transnational threats resulting from radicalization and displacement will worsen.

A United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivering aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in Eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years, on 30 July 2017. AFP/Amer Almohibany

Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

Russia’s proposal for humanitarian corridors for Eastern Ghouta and Rukban camp have little chance of mitigating suffering there. Instead, Moscow should push for a negotiated resolution of Eastern Ghouta through UN Security Council Resolution 2401 and secure normal aid agency access to Rukban, thereby enhancing its credibility as a mediator.

Syria’s civilians have suffered tremendously through the country’s seven years of conflict. Now, as the Syrian government and its allies prepare to retake Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, hundreds of thousands will be caught in the crossfire once more. The humanitarian corridors announced by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for Eastern Ghouta, and proposed for the Rukban camp on the border with Jordan further east, are unlikely to substantially mitigate that suffering.

To be sure, any means for civilians to safely and voluntarily escape the violence in besieged Eastern Ghouta is positive and welcome. But the corridor announced unilaterally by Russia and the Syrian government through the Wafideen camp lacks the sort of guarantees that would allow Ghouta’s nearly 400,000 residents to use it or other concerned parties, including UN Security Council members, to endorse it.

First of all, residents would have to be able to reach the corridor without fear of being targeted en route. Daily ceasefires of five hours, still punctured by intermittent shelling, are too narrow a window. Prior experience with Syrian ceasefires has generated a deep sense of distrust. It would take quite some time without any violations for people to trust that this one is different. These five-hour windows also fall short of the cessation of hostilities and durable humanitarian pause demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which Russia supported.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation.

People in Eastern Ghouta also harbour a deep-seated fear of what would happen to them once they reach government-controlled territory. Compulsory military service for male family members is a concern regardless of political orientation. Retaliation by the security state is a threat for anyone who has – or whose loved ones have – a record of opposition to the regime. In Eastern Ghouta, that may include nearly everyone.

Thus, for most, an unconditional return to areas of government control is not a safe or realistic option, as evidenced by the miniscule numbers who left thus far. State media have claimed that the armed groups prevent people from leaving, holding them as human shields for all practical purposes. Such accounts are impossible to verify, but without credible guarantees, little if any coercion would be required to prevent departures.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation. As time elapses, the argument will gain ground that those still inside are either in cahoots with, or held back by, insurgents – with the implication that neither government forces nor their Russian allies are to blame for casualties from shelling and bombing the densely populated area indiscriminately.

Eastern Ghouta requires a negotiated resolution, not a military victory that would be disastrous – for Ghouta’s residents first and foremost, but also for Syria’s future. Hundreds of thousands of people cannot be crushed militarily and then successfully reintegrated into Syria’s state and society. A non-violent alternative is possible: Russia has negotiated with Eastern Ghouta’s non-jihadist rebel factions in the past. For Moscow, these are known interlocutors, with whom it is possible to reach an agreement.

Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community ... rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Rukban’s situation is different. With no fighting ongoing in the area, residents there can leave the U.S.-policed zone around the Tanaf military base and return to their homes, no corridor needed. It is just that these homes are not safe. Last year, hundreds of Rukban residents returned to the town of Qaryatein near Homs, only to have the Islamic State (ISIS) overrun the town and massacre its civilians. Most of Rukban’s current residents are from Syria’s central Badiya desert and the country’s east, areas where ISIS has been defeated but which are not yet sufficiently secured. They would also need clarifications regarding their legal status when they return to areas of state control.

In the meantime, more should be done to deliver humanitarian assistance. Delivering aid across military lines from Damascus presents special challenges, including coordination with the U.S.-led coalition through de-confliction channels and with U.S.-backed militias inside the Tanaf zone. Still, Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community – a community the U.S. and Jordan have mostly failed to aid via the Jordanian border – rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Humanitarian corridors as proposed by Russia do not offer solutions for either Eastern Ghouta or Rukban. Yet both areas present opportunities for Russia to work toward something genuinely stabilising and life-saving, if Russia is willing to sway its ally in Damascus. Pushing for a full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which could provide an opening for a negotiated resolution in Eastern Ghouta, and securing humanitarian access to Rukban would greatly enhance Russia’s credibility as a mediator in Syria and, critically, spare more bloodshed.

This article was also published by the Valdai Discussion Club.