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Where do we go from here… What you need to know about the ceasefires and de-escalation zones in Syria

Nathanael Chouraqui
Nathanael Chouraqui | September 6, 2017

Ceasefires and so-called “de-escalation agreements” have been welcomed with a mix of relief, scepticism, and concern in Syria. Nathanael Chouraqui, iguacu’s Lead Researcher on Syria and Iraq, reviews some of the questions raised by these internationally brokered deals.

What are ceasefires and de-escalation zones?

If you  follow the news on Syria, you’ll probably have heard of a growing number of internationally brokered ceasefires and “de-escalation zones”. But what are they?

Ceasefires refer simply to the cessation of hostilities between the parties engaged in conflict. They are meant to be the first step towards the implementation of a de-escalation zone, which are essentially defined as safe havens, free of fighting, for civilians.

Three de-escalation zones have been agreed so far in Syria. The first, in the southwest, was reached by Russia, the US and Jordan. It covers an area currently disputed by opposition groups and the Syrian government, and includes some of the original hotbeds of the rebellion, like the city of Dara’a.

The second covers Eastern Ghouta, a longstanding besieged rebel area on the outskirts of Damascus, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped for months. It was negotiated by Russia and Syrian rebels, with Egyptian mediation.

The third, also backed by Russia, concerns opposition-held northern parts of Homs province, in the centre of the country. A tentative fourth zone, in northwestern Idlib province, has yet to be negotiated and implemented.

What are the actual effects of ceasefires on the ground? 

It is often unclear where the ceasefire boundaries lie, which makes it difficult to measure the extent of violations and assess whether  truces are holding. While there has been a general easing in the intensity of violence in the ceasefire zones, the extent varies significantly from one zone to another.

Destruction in Quneitra, Syria. | Photo Credit: Will De Freitas


In Quneitra (southwest), the ceasefire seems to be largely holding. Fighting has effectively stopped in most parts of the area, and people are returning to the streets. Businesses are reopening in the city, and agricultural activities are on the rise.

We want our lives to be the way they were before Quneitra Citizen

Some fighting is still reported at the unsettled borders of the zone, with some minor population displacement. Fighting often occurs when groups that are not part of the deal, like the ex- al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, break the ceasefire.

In Eastern Ghouta however, the first violations of the truce began on the day after the deal was reached, on 22nd July 2017. On the 10th August 2017, in the town of Hammuriyeh, a woman, a man and a child were reported killed, and seven more people were wounded in shelling.

This attack came only a day after another Syrian army shelling killed five and wounded ten in a nearby town, according to monitors.

This truce is a lie. The regime has not implemented it. They are shelling us without interruption using all types of weapons” rebel fighter in Eastern Ghouta

How does this impact the course of the war?

The implications of the deals are difficult to analyze. Numerous truces have been negotiated since the Syrian war started, with mixed results. Many crumbled soon after the deals were signed. In the present cases, it is unclear the extent to which combatants are committed to peace.

Russia – and their ally, the Assad regime –  appear to be further strengthened by the agreements. Moscow’s diplomacy has been pivotal in securing all three agreements, and the Russian military are the only forces deployed on the ground to enforce the deals.

As for the future of the war itself, many analysts and members of the opposition fear that the ceasefires are part of a wider Russian-Syrian military strategy. Truces have been used in the past as a way for armed forces to temporary stabilise a region while re-focusing their activities in other parts of the country. This pattern was observed several times in Syria, for instance prior to the deadly battle of Aleppo in December 2016.

How safe will “safe zones” be?

Despite being agreed, the de-escalation zones have not been fully implemented yet. Few details are known regarding the specifics of the agreements, and it is very early to say how safe they will be for civilians on the ground.

Family awaiting placement in an NRC rehabilitated shelter. | Photo Credit: NRC/Sam Tarling

The security of civilians in de-escalation zones remains a major concern. Russian military police have been deployed and are effectively tasked with ensuring the safety of people in these areas.  There is currently very little clarity as to what mechanisms will be put in place to monitor their activities and actions on the ground.

In addition, mistrust exists around Russia’s involvement as their air campaign in Syria has been criticized for being particularly brutal and for leading to a large amount of civilian casualties.

Concerns over the partiality of Russian forces and the fate of opposition members and their families have also been heard. Russia’s control may mean Moscow will operate on their own terms, and critics say many of these agreements will amount to little more than the surrender of the opposition forces.

More generally, some experts fear that concentrating civilians in a single space could  make them more vulnerable to air and ground attack. And safe zones could also place Syrian civilians at greater risk by encouraging them to undertake dangerous travel to get to them.

The zones could also serve as a magnet for armed opposition groups, for example the so-called Islamic State, increasing security risks for civilians, especially if those groups utilize the zone as a safe haven for recruitment and enrollment.

Where do we go from here…

The marked decline in violence in some of the ceasefire and de-escalation zones is welcomed by the humanitarian community. However, many charities will view the agreements with caution and a number of serious questions remain unanswered at this stage.

Refugees living in an abandoned factory near Saida, Lebanon. | Photo Credit: Anthony Gale


Will humanitarian workers really be able to freely access the zone and provide help to civilians, regardless of their affiliations?

Will civilians be free to come and go? Many in the humanitarian community fear the establishment of giant camps where displaced people would be trapped.

Will the de-escalation zone prompt neighbouring countries to send back the millions of Syrian refugees they were hosting? The country could not cope with massive influx of returning people.

For now, the humanitarian community is still waiting for more information  around the geographical areas, and enforcement of the deal.

Most importantly, regardless of the robustness of the ceasefires and the implementation of the safe zones deals, the humanitarian needs in Syria are massive and keep growing. There is more and more displacement everyday (current figures suggest over 6,000 civilians per day), and not enough resources to meet the food and water crises.

Today, over 13 million people remain in need of humanitarian help in Syria, a number that just continues to grow.

Famine… What Famine?

Blandine Sixdenier
Blandine Sixdenier | June 29, 2017

What you need to know about the ongoing food crisis in South Sudan

On the 20th February 2017, famine was declared in two counties of the Unity State in central South Sudan. This was the first time a famine had been declared globally since 2011, and was brought on as a result of the country’s ongoing conflict, and to a lesser extent drought. Over 100,000 people faced starvation and a further one million were at risk of starvation.

Four months later, on the 21st June 2017, a UN backed report stated South Sudan was no longer classified as experiencing famine. This apparent turn in fortunes is, in no small part, down to the brilliant and arduous work done by aid workers in the Mayendit and Leer counties.

Despite the undoubted positives, the declassification of the famine in South Sudan must not overshadow the fact that the national food crisis is getting worse. From May to June alone, food insecurity rose from 5.5 million people to 6 million people, or roughly half the population. Since the first declaration of the famine the numbers of people facing starvation has nearly doubled to 1.7 million. In the same period, severe malnourishment in children rose from 250,000 to 276,000. Currently, 45,000 people live in “famine like” conditions in the Unity State (25,000) and Jonglei State (20,000).  

So… What is famine (technically)?

Determining famine, and the preceding stages of food insecurity, is essentially a statistical calculation, with extremely fine margins in the case of South Sudan.

The IPC (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification) have five distinct phases of food insecurity, going from Phase 1 Minimal to Phase 5 Famine. In order for a Phase 5 Famine status to be classified evidence must exist to show a prevalence of acute malnutrition exceeding 30% of the population, at least 20% of households facing a complete lack of food, and mortality rate exceeding 2 deaths per 10,000 per day due to starvation. Only when all three criteria are met will the IPC classify a “rare and extreme” Phase 5 Famine.

Due to the complexity of the classification, challenges faced by aid workers to collect data and distribute food, and the ever-changing situation on the ground, it is likely that parts of South Sudan will experience famine again in the not too distant future, and the national food crisis will continue to get worse.

Photo credits from top to bottom:

Tim Freccia / Enough Project
UN Photo / JC McIlwaine
UN Photo / JC McIlwaine
Lona Kiden

Deadly Kabul explosions felt for thousands of miles

Rahila Muhibi
Rahila Muhibi | June 2, 2017

iguacu’s Lead Researcher for Afghanistan Rahila Muhibi penned a personal note following Wednesday’s deadly explosions in Kabul in which, she has since learned, 11 members of her extended family and the families of her friends were killed.

Like so many Afghans living abroad, we stay connected with Afghanistan; for some that special bond is out of love of country, nostalgia, family members, or a combination of all three. Luckily I am in a profession that allows me to remain connected to home by daily monitoring of the situation in Afghanistan. As I woke up in London on Wednesday, 3500 miles from Kabul, and was getting ready to go to work, I saw a flood of social media alerts. So many family members, relatives and close friends were posting about the deadly explosion at the city centre of Kabul, killing 90 and injuring some 400.

At once, a very familiar feeling ran through me, a feeling I know so well now. When Taliban attacked an army base in Mazar-e Sharif in April, where I knew many people working there at the time, I felt the same rush of fear, worry and hope, and a wall of questions of what, who, where and why, all at once. As well as when the so-called Islamic State targeted peaceful protestors and all the other recent major attacks.

It was clear at the first instant this Kabul blast was not the usual daily explosion. As many times before, I first called family members I knew were working near the area. I was both desperate to know whether they were safe, and at the same time felt a dreadful reluctance to call, fearing their loss. I found my sister was safe, my nephew was unreachable but later found safe, my brother was devastated from the sound of it but reassured me he was alright. He was at the emergency site when I called, helping friends. My brother-in-law was also helping at the scene. Out of panic, I pleaded with them all to next time, please avoid all the major routes where attacks happen. I used to keep track of this information and now have lost track of it. Deep down, at the same time I said those words, I knew they could not avoid danger in such an extremely unsafe environment.

As the day unfolded, I found out at least eleven people from my close circle, including extended family and the families of friends, were killed, and so many other friends were directly affected. With an extreme helplessness, I turned to social media and other news outlets to find out more. I found the shock of the attack was felt everywhere in Kabul and everyone was affected. It felt as though the young professionals, the breadwinners and the core of Kabul were all targeted.

The images surfacing on social media were some of the most heart-wrenching, with some people feeling grateful they were alive, and others in despair with reactions of: “we live in a place where to live is accidental and to die is normal”. Then, I stumbled upon the feeling of joy when family members found each other safe, of people giving blood, and of civilians carrying the wounded on their backs. I found humanity again in the midst of a barbaric and inhumane act. This hope, this humanity, will help me eventually to move on, once again. It will help the people of Kabul to move on, and it will help us all to move on.

No matter what happens, we will remain humane.

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