Checking in with Syria’s ceasefire: ‘On a scale between terrible and bad, a marginal success’


March 10, 2016

On February 25, the Syrian Opposition’s High Negotiation Committee (HNC), led by former Syrian Prime Minister Riyadh Hijab and representing 70 rebel factions,  agreed to a US-Russian sponsored cessation of hostilities for a period of two weeks.

Prior to the implementation of the agreement two days later, five rebel leaders told Syria Direct they were “prepared to abide” by the agreement, but had little confidence in the regime’s “intentions” [read the interviews here].

At the start of the ceasefire US and Russian officials agreed not to “litigate” reported violations “in a public fashion” and therefore there is no official count of violations committed by either side.  

However, several outside groups are keeping unofficial tallies of breaches. For example, the independent Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported that through March 8 regime and Russian forces had breached the conflict 253 times primarily in Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia provinces.

For their part, the Syrian Reconciliation Center, a monitoring center supervised by the Russian Foreign Ministry, reported that rebel groups had committed 123 violations through March 7. 

Here, four rebel commanders and the head of the SNHR weigh in on the ceasefire’s progress thus far. All agree on a reduction in violence. Where they vary is why.

Dr. Fadl AbdulGhani, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group that has released daily reports on truce violations [see SNHR’s reports here]:

Q: How has the truce fared so far in your perspective?

Based on our daily monitoring of breaches we can honestly say that there has been a noticeable reduction in violence and destruction.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there have been no violent acts. For example, not a single day has passed during the truce in which civilians have not been killed in regime and Russian strikes.

[Ed.: Those who spoke with Syria Direct on Thursday referred to the cessation of hostilities as a truce (hudna) or ceasefire (waqf itlaq a-nar).]

I would say that on a scale between terrible and bad, the truce has been a marginal success—but this is only based on the limited options facing Syrians.

Civil Defense office in Qaboun, Damascus is now “closed for ceasefire.” Photo courtesy of The White Helmets.

Q: How can this truce successfully lead to a transition from war to a real political process?

If the sponsoring nations can maintain the truce for an extended period of time and reduce the number of violations, then we hope that it could lead to more confidence- building measures, eventually leading to the start of a political process.

But we have considerable reservations about the truce’s potential for success. The sieges have not been lifted and there is a huge difference between delivering aid to besieged areas and lifting the siege.

We have seen no progress regarding the release of prisoners and the use of torture in detention centers has continued throughout the truce—we have recorded seven deaths resulting from torture since the start of the truce.

Major Ammar al-Wawi, Secretary General of the Free Syria Army and the leader of the FSA’s al-Ababil Brigade in Aleppo province:

Q: How has the truce fared so far in your perspective?

As I’ve said in the past the truce agreement has no built-in deterrence mechanism to prevent violations. Therefore, the regime has committed a huge number of violations starting from the very beginning of the truce.

The truce failed before it started due to the absence of this deterrence mechanism.

Q: How can this truce successfully lead to a transition from war to a real political process?

I don’t believe the truce can succeed.

Those brigades that agreed to the truce deal did so based on the request of the HNC. The goal was to force the international community to face its responsibility regarding the wanton violence being dished out by Russian and regime planes.

Abu Bara, Jaish al-Islam commander in the northern Homs countryside

Q: How has the rate of fighting and shelling in your area differed during the truce compared with before it?

There has been a significant reduction in the pace of shelling and airstrikes, which has improved civilians’ freedom of movement. On the other hand when it comes to ground battles, nothing has changed at all. The battles at the front are the same as prior to the truce.

Out of the crosshairs for now, Civil Defense repairs soccer fields. Photo Courtesy of The White Helmets.

Q: In your opinion has the regime complied with the truce?

The regime has violated the truce on a daily basis throughout the past two weeks. Most of these violations have struck the front lines but some have targeted civilians with heavy machine gun and mortar fire.

Q: There are accusations from Russian monitors that the rebels have also violated the truce. How would you respond to these accusations?

We have not violated the truce and our military actions have been limited to responding to attacks against us. We are committed to the truce and to sparing the blood of unarmed civilians.

Q: What needs to happen for you to support an opposition delegation entering into talks with the regime?

The first step is the release of political prisoners. This would be a positive step that would motivate us to go to Geneva. Without this concession I don’t think there is any benefit in going.

Spokesman who requested anonymity, FSA-affiliated Second Coastal Brigade Media Office in Latakia

Q: How has the rate of fighting and shelling in your area differed during the truce compared truce compared with before it?

Some areas that the regime considers less important have witnessed less shelling during the truce, whereas the shelling has continued at the same rate and intensity in strategic areas where the regime has tried to advance.

Q: In your opinion has the regime complied with the truce?

The regime breached the truce in Latakia less than an hour into its implementation. However, the type of shelling has differed. Prior to the truce the regime relied on Russian bombers that destroyed everything in sight. But during the truce the regime has largely relied on mortar shelling and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters.

The regime has led the international community to believe that it is complying with the truce and has stopped shelling opposition areas. But in reality the regime is taking advantage of the situation by restraining from shelling areas of little strategic value, even as it continues to shell at the same rate in more strategic areas.

The regime has attempted to advance at several points along the Latakia-Idlib front but the rebels have repelled these attempts.

Q: There are accusations from Russian monitors that the rebels have also violated the truce. How would you respond to these accusations?

We have not violated the truce agreement. We are only driving back the regime army’s attempts to advance into opposition areas.

Q: In general, do you think the truce agreement has benefited the Syrian people?

The past two weeks have given people in some areas a welcome respite from the regime’s brutal shelling. From a military perspective the truce has allowed some military units to re-organize themselves.

Also there is no doubt that the truce has been valuable in that it has exposed the true colors of the regime for the 100th time—the regime is not serious about complying with international political processes.

Wael Alwan, Spokesman for Feilaq a-Rahman in East Ghouta

Q: How has the rate of fighting and shelling in your area differed during the truce compared to prior to its implementation?

The pace of crimes and massacres committed by the regime in liberated areas has certainly slowed during the truce, however that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been violations that have led to more killing and more destruction.

Q: In your opinion has the regime complied with the truce?

The regime has committed violations in multiple parts of the country. For example it has launched military incursions in Hama and in East Ghouta, where the regime seized new land in the Marj area earlier this week.

[Ed.: Syria Direct reported on the regime’s Marj operation here]

Of course all of this occurred with complete international indifference to what is a blatant violation of the ceasefire.

Officials in the opposition have called on us to not announce that the truce has failed because we don’t want any more bloodshed or destruction. Calling the truce a failure after these violations would accomplish nothing. Rather, the goal is to develop mechanisms to put real pressure on the regime to end its bombing of opposition areas.

Q: In general, do you think the truce agreement has benefited the Syrian people?

The truce period has benefitted the people because we have shown in these past 15 days that we in the opposition are capable of agreeing to a resolution and complying with it. On the other hand the regime has proven incapable—our unwilling—to comply with these political agreements.

Those in the regime know that any political agreement could lead to their removal from power. This is an existential issue for the regime and that’s why they are committed to a military solution. The regime has no interest in these diplomatic efforts.

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