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.
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.