Syria ‘cessation’ cements new status quo on the ground


Erika Solomon in Beirut – Financial Times – 8 March 2016 – After little more than a week the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria has slowed the bloodshed but maintained a patchwork of battle zones across the country — a new status quo that may do little to end the conflict, but will probably be enough for a US administration keen to push for a settlement and avoid further entanglement.

For Syria’s opposition, which launched the 2011 revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the overall situation is still an improvement on conditions before the ceasefire. There has been a marked drop in violence in some parts of their territory — such as the southern regions held by rebels close to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

But the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which represents the opposition at peace talks in Geneva, argues conditions are not good enough to guarantee it will return to negotiations this month.Other regions — like northern Syria, where radical Islamist forces dominate the uprising — remain a war zone with daily clashes and air strikes by the regime and its patron Russia. This will do little to end a haemorrhaging refugee crisis that has kept Syrians fleeing toward European shores.

“This is not cessation of hostilities. It’s a ‘reduction of hostilities’,” said analyst Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who is very critical of the US efforts in Syria. “It’s going to create a very unequal Syria where some loyalist areas get rewarded and some opposition areas struggle to survive.”

Before the ceasefire began, at least 70,000 people were camped out along the frontier with Turkey, which has so far kept its crossings sealed, partly due to European pressure. Activists say thousands more have fled to the borders even since the ceasefire as Mr Assad pushes an offensive in the north-west.

The US has burnt its regional and local allies. When the uprising flares again, be prepared for a monster worse than Isis

– Emile Hokayem, International Institute for Strategic Studies

“Actually in the western countryside of Idlib, the fighting hasn’t slowed, it’s increased,” said activist Tareq Abdelhaq. “There has been shelling night and day . . . I believe tens of thousands of people have moved to the border.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 135 people were killed during the first week of the ceasefire, 32 of them civilians.

The US-Russia brokered ceasefire aims to halt violence and stop territorial advances between Syria’s warring parties — but allows for targeting the jihadi force Isis and al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Even as rebels claim that US-backed groups signed on to the ceasefire are getting hit, Mr Assad and Russia can legitimately claim their attacks are aimed at Nusra fighters, spread across rebel territory.

Syria pre and post ceasefire airstrikes

Critics say this reveals the failure of the monitoring system, which still remains unclear. Washington prepared a “call-centre” to report violations — but media reports suggest it did not have enough Arabic speaking staff who could understand callers.

For Russia, there may be little interest in differentiating between the groups. “They have no interest in asking all these Islamist rebels what particular shade of grey they are,” said a regional diplomat close to Moscow. “For both Russia and the US, this is just about keeping a clean-shaven face — creating a nice exterior for what inside is still a mess.”

Washington has little reason to challenge the ceasefire, he argued, saying it had essentially handed the country to Moscow. Opposition groups backed by the US are increasingly bitter that Washington has no appetite to increase involvement on their behalf — limiting its role to rooting out Isis militants holding the country’s east.

“America’s priority is to stay out of Syria at any cost,” said an opposition figure involved in talks with western diplomats, who asked not to be identified. “The problem with this ceasefire is the risk of creating a new norm that western officials justify by saying ‘well, at least there’s a ceasefire’.”

Some opposition figures, like Observatory head Rami Abdelrahman, still support the ceasefire because they hope it will be enough to get Syria’s warring sides back to Geneva, where peace talks collapsed last month as a Russian-backed government offensive pummeled rebel areas in northern Aleppo.

News, comment and analysis about the conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions“The ceasefire is like putting Syria on a boat,” he said. “The waves right now are rough, but it’s better than letting the boat sink.”

The specific areas targeted by Mr Assad and Russian air cover suggest the regime is continuing offensives in strategic areas. It appears to be focused on cutting supply lines in northern Syria and keeping up pressure on the opposition near its seat of power in Damascus. In central Syria, opposition activists say the goal seems to be to split rebels in Homs and Hama, which could effectively impose a siege on the remaining rebel pockets in a largely regime-controlled region.

Rebel leaders warn that if regime advances wipe out their territory, they will change to guerrilla warfare. “It won’t be over, but maybe it will become like Vietnam,” said Bassam Haj Mustafa of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades. “We will dig down underground, but we will hang on.”

This presents a problem for Washington: As it loses the trust of the opposition and its regional backers such as Turkey and the Gulf, it could lose the ability to deliver them to talks that can end the country’s war.“The US has burnt its regional and local allies,” Mr Hokayem said. “When the uprising flares again, be prepared for a monster worse than Isis.”

Additional reporting by Noam Raydan in Beirut