The Syrian Ceasefire: Deciphering the Chaos
The Syrian military declared on September 20, 2016 that the seven-day, U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire was over as the government and opposition exchanged accusations over who was responsible for the violations and mounting violence that followed.
The United States, and much of the West, claims that it was the deadly bombing of an aid convoy by Russian warplanes that officially ended the Syrian ceasefire. Their assertions are supported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the attack itself was confirmed by the Syrian Red Crescent. But, although there are facts to prove that the aid vehicles were targeted by airstrikes resulting in 12 casualties, it is difficult to prove whether this was in fact the first breach of the ceasefire agreement or if it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The first stage of the truce called for a week of calm and the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians trapped in besieged communities, but from the start the truce was challenged as both sides accused each other of violations. Some reports suggest it was the bombing of aid trucks near Aleppo by Russian warplanes that ended the ceasefire, while the Russian military said it was a major attack launched by the U.S. supported rebels on government forces in Aleppo that forced Syrian troops to respond.
Al Jazeera reports clear violations on both sides. The rebels reportedly violated the truce more than 300 times since it took effect, killing 63 civilians and 153 Syrian soldiers, while it has also been reported that government forces violated the ceasefire over 250 times.
Despite the conflicting reports, the United States and Russia sought to salvage the broken truce. Unfortunately, the two powers’ diplomatic relations would deteriorate before any productive discussions got under way.
To better clarify the issues at stake, it is important to examine the ceasefire itself.
Agreed upon by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the ceasefire was established to bring peace to Syria after more than five years of fighting.
A seven-day period was agreed upon, which would allow humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Castello Road, the key access route, was established as a “demilitarized zone” for that time.
The United States and Russia were also meant to create a Joint Implementation Centre that would have involved information sharing and the delineation of territories based on which of the various factions had control of them.
A key aspect of the arrangement required Russia to keep Syrian Air Force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition, while the United States continued efforts to weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria (which has intermingled with the U.S.-backed opposition in several places). Both countries failed in these efforts.
It was hoped the ceasefire would hold long enough for United Nations-mediated talks to continue between the government and opposition. The current breach damages those prospects.
A lack of trust has prevailed throughout the process. The United States and Russia have been forced to work together to fight ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, requiring unprecedented information sharing and compromise.
So today, the ceasefire has failed; Moscow has accused Secretary Kerry of promoting global terrorism; and Washington refuses to resume diplomatic discussions over Syria. The international charity, Save the Children, reports that in the five days following the collapse of the ceasefire more than 300 children were killed or wounded in Syria. In the last ten days, two more hospitals have been bombed.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called the most recent loss of life “soul-shattering,” continuing in a UN Security Council meeting: “Assad and Russia are unleashing a savagery against people they call terrorists, [but] children are not terrorists. Rescue workers are not terrorists. Hospital workers are not terrorists.”
The ceasefire, which took months to negotiate, took just days to unravel. Diplomatic relations are strained, talks have halted, and fighting has intensified. Syria is in no way better off than before the ceasefire was implemented.