The so-called ceasefire imposed by the international community in Ghouta simply serves Russia and the Assad regime's interests by sustaining their campaign of psychological warfare, and giving them an operational and political advantage.
The international community tried to impose a ceasefire in Syria on 24 February, passing resolution 2401 through the United Nations Security Council. The ceasefire never took hold and it is now clear it will not. This was inevitable.
Bashar al Assad’s regime, and the governments that support him in Iran and Russia, have repeatedly made use of ceasefires to sequence their war, taking advantage of the calm on some fronts to concentrate firepower on other areas. The only question is why Western diplomats gambled that this time would be any different.
Resolution 2401 passed unanimously, 15-0, in the Security Council—a rarity on Syria, where Russia, usually backed by China, has vetoed ten resolutions that would investigate, condemn, and/or impose penalties for Assad’s criminality. That Russia could cast its vote in the affirmative for 2401 should have been a warning sign.
The resolution spoke in its pre-amble of “deep disturbance at the lack of United Nations humanitarian access to besieged populations …, especially in [regime-besieged] Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, [and opposition-held] Foua and Kefraya,” and its “outrage at the unacceptable levels of violence escalating in several parts of the country, in particular in Idlib Governorate and Eastern Ghouta but also Damascus City, including shelling on diplomatic premises, and at attacks against civilians”.
This even-handedness—comparing the full-scale military assault on eastern Ghouta with the rebel shelling of areas of Damascus from that besieged enclave—was stitched into every line of the resolution.
2401 “demand[ed]” a “durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria, to enable the safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid,” while affirming that “the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State (Daesh) … Al Qaeda and Al Nusra Front,” now known as Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS). In all prior ceasefires, Russia has secured an exception for military operations against terrorist groups, and in all prior cases has abused this exception to liquidate whichever pocket of resistance is most troublesome at that time.
In February 2016, the US and Russia agreed to a ceasefire in Syria—freezing in place the gains of a recent round of aggression that cut opposition supply lines in Aleppo. There was some reduction in violence in some areas but the regime coalition continued with its war, and even after it murdered 140 people in Aleppo over a few days at the end of April the US went along with the pretence that the ceasefire remained in place. An insurgent offensive in early May finally shattered that illusion at a formal level.
Nonetheless, the US continued pursuing ceasefire initiatives with the Russians into late 2016, with tragic consequences for the aid workers who took Moscow at its word and tried to enter Aleppo. In all this time Russia was running down the diplomatic clock, the pro-Assad coalition made steady military progress and in November and December 2016 crushed the final urban bastion of the mainstream rebellion and deported the 40,000 survivors, another crime against humanity atop those that brought Aleppo to its knees.
The expectation has to be that eastern Ghouta will be treated in the same way, and signs already point to it. Russia managed to get language into resolution 2401 that exempts “all … individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda … and other terrorist groups” from the ceasefire. HTS—still referred to as Al Nusra by the UN and Russia—has a token presence in eastern Ghouta; the insurgents holding the area are Jaysh al Islam and Faylaq al Rahman.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made clear this week he sees these groups as “partners” of HTS, who are therefore “unprotected by the ceasefire” and “subject to actions by the Syrian air force”.
The other major flaw was that resolution 2401 demanded “that all parties cease hostilities without delay” [emphasis added]. Originally the resolution had included language that said the ceasefire would be implemented within seventy-two hours. This vague language allowed Russia to determine the timing of the start of the ceasefire—and to blame the opposition for any delays.
In the week preceding the 2401 resolution, 500 people were killed by the pro-Assad coalition in eastern Ghouta; another 100 people were killed in the three days afterwards. The shelling and airstrikes against East Ghouta have not ceased, and the pro-Assad coalition was credibly accused of using poison gas against the area after the ceasefire resolution passed.
The Russian government announced on 27 February that it would implement daily five-hour ceasefires between 9:00 and 14:00 local time. In effect, Moscow unilaterally replaced resolution 2401. On its face, it is even more bizarre than that: assuming these daily time-limited ceasefires ever come into operation, what is the point if the pro-Assad coalition can wage unrestrained warfare for nineteen hours-per-day? The answer seems to be two-fold.
First, eastern Ghouta is not like Aleppo in that it is more densely-populated, with about 400,000 people, and there is no obvious place to which the population can be deported as there was with nearby Idlib in the Aleppo case. What the pro-Assad coalition can do is offer “humanitarian corridors” during these pauses to drain away some of the population, which makes the Ghouta operation marginally easier, logistically and politically.
Second and most importantly, these temporary ceasefires are a component of the pro-Assad coalition’s “psychological warfare aimed at achieving surrender”, as the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister put it. It is a means of spreading friction between the armed opposition and the population, and within the armed groups, to weaken the resolve of the eastern Ghouta enclave to allow a conquest by the pro-Assad coalition.
Western diplomats presented resolution 2401 to Syrian opposition activists as an imperfect instrument, but nonetheless as favourable to them and a humanitarian breakthrough. Something was better than nothing, was the rough summary of their thinking. How wrong that was. The pro-Assad coalition used this time to prepare its assault and all the time the West devoted to arguing over the minutiae of the language in 2401 was time not used preparing a real policy to halt the pro-Assad coalition’s atrocities in eastern Ghouta.
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