Ceasefire in Syria: A Post-Mortem Report

Matthew Petti, JHU:

The roadmap to peace is now littered with detours. The international ceasefire agreement on Syria, which took effect in February, seems to have broken down completely. For a brief moment it seemed that a political solution to the war was in the works, but hopes of that have all but been dashed. While the truce was not without its violations, recent large scale violence in Latakia and Aleppo provinces over the past week seems to have derailed it completely. While this latest outburst came as a surprise to the international community, perhaps it should not have. The ceasefire agreement, for all the good it did, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Although the ceasefire was not without its problems, the reduction in violence it achieved provided a strong framework for a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. Indeed, the ceasefire allowed for the resumption of peace talks whose initial breakdown had led to the ceasefire negotiations by foreign powers. As for the situation on the ground, US officials claimed that the ceasefire was holding “better than expected,” and the Washington Post reported a tangible reduction in violence.

Additionally, the ceasefire period saw massive losses for the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) throughout the region. The cities of Shaddadi, Palmyra, and Qaryatein were all liberated by various groups, cutting links between ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria. Across the border, the Iraqi Army and local militias began their own offensive in Anbar province. While tragic, the recent ISIS attacks across the world are a symptom of the group’s major losses throughout the ceasefire period.

Nonetheless, the truce was not perfect. Clashes continued through the truce between rebel groups and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Kurdistan. Several deadly violations of the ceasefire, both by opposition forces and the government, were reported. Many of the problems arose from a clause in the agreement exempting “terrorist groups” from the ceasefire. While nearly everyone agreed that ISIS would not be a party to peace negotiations, al-Qaeda presented problems for implementation of the agreement. Jabhat al-Nuṣra (Support Front) is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and is also one of the most important opposition forces.

The current situation is, in some ways, a product of the militarization of the Syrian conflict in 2012. The early Syrian opposition promised to build democratic institutions, and established local councils for governing their territory. As protests were met with bullets and the uprising escalated to a civil war, however, armed Salafist groups quickly gained influence and overshadowed the civil society movement. (Salafism is a literalist and puritanical form of Sunni Islam. It is important to note that some Salafists eschew participation in politics altogether.) By the beginning of the ceasefire, the most influential group in northern Syria was Jeish al-Fataḥ (Army of Conquest), a sort of Salafist grand alliance. The largest members are Jabhat al-Nuṣra (JaN) and Ḥarakat Aḥrār al-Sham al-Islāmiyya (Islamic Movement of the Freedmen of the Levant), another Salafist group with a more conciliatory attitude towards democracy and international law. Where units of the Free Syrian Army existed, they were at the mercy of the Army of Conquest.

If the militarization of the conflict increased the influence of Salafist militants, its demilitarization resurrected the civil society movement. As the ceasefire took effect, spontaneous protests broke out across northern rebel-held territory in the first two weeks of March. Fearing a loss of influence, JaN attempted to suppress the movement, harassing protesters in the northern town of Ma’arat al-Nu’mān, arresting organizer Humam Hazir, and raiding the headquarters of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group called “Division 13.” These actions alienated much of the Syrian opposition, sparking further protests and threatening to create a split within the Army of Conquest, as Aḥrār al-Shām seemed to side with the protest movement. For a moment, it seemed as if the Syrian people were on the verge of reclaiming their destiny and kickstarting a political solution to the civil war.

However, the protest movement may have turned out to be a case of too little, too late. JaN still retains control of one of the most powerful armies in northern Syria, and with it the ability to coordinate rebel offensives. The group used that ability as a trump card on April 2nd, launching a massive offensive across the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia. The rest of the rebels were forced to follow suit; even Division 13, the FSA group previously targeted by JaN, participated. Having been initially caught off guard, the government of Syria has begun preparations for a counter-offensive, bringing with it the re-entry of Russian forces. This offensive almost certainly spells the end of the ceasefire in Syria; logistical difficulties and extreme mistrust between belligerents will prevent any international attempts at stopping the current wave of violence. Interestingly enough, an American airstrike killed several important JaN officials on April 3rd, signaling at least a belated attempt to reduce their influence. Sadly, the resumption of hostilities may also be a fatal blow to the resurgent civil society movement, and spell the beginning of increased Salafist domination in northern Syria.

The breakdown of the truce in Syria demonstrates the dangerous amount of influence that JaN has managed to build for itself. The group was able to sabotage a ceasefire regime established by the entire international community, while crushing a popular uprising in its core territories. As Professor Juan Cole writes, the group was “angling for an end to the ceasefire, and may have gotten its wish this weekend. That development might be good for al-Qaeda but it would be bad for everyone else.” Indeed, it appears that the future of Syria will be greatly influenced by a group which clearly does not care about the wellbeing of “everyone else.” Fortunately, the recent offensive shows that JaN is desperate and teetering on the brink of collapse. Unfortunately, that collapse may take a lot of bloodshed, and derail the fragile peace process.

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