SYRIA : CEASEFIRE OR CEASE TRYING ?

Ceasefire – the very word implies an inherently beneficial action. However, as with so much of the conflict in Syria, the reality is more complicated. In the absence of a previously agreed diplomatic framework that would be implemented after the fighting stops, a ceasefire would not only be ineffective, but could even be counter-productive. The latest ceasefire, brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, is a prime example. It is inaccurate to describe it as having ended, because it never began, having failed to achieve a single day without violence and fatalities. Indeed, its failure was easily predictable.

While Bashar Assad’s regime and most of the armed opposition accepted the ceasefire, they did so with conditions that pretty much ensured it would be still-born. Both sides agreed to cease fire as long as the other side did so too – fair enough. However, the regime said it reserved the right to respond to “terrorist groups trying to reinforce their positions by arming themselves and getting reinforcements,” as well as neighbouring countries facilitating the smuggling of fighters across borders. The Free Syrian Army reportedly demanded the release of all detainees, the withdrawal of regime forces from Aleppo, and an end to the siege of Homs.
In reality, acceptance was purely symbolic – an attempt to show the world that they are not the obstinate party. Similarly, foreign backers of all sides have been paying lip service to the need for a cessation of hostilities, while continuing to provide material support. To add more nails to the proverbial coffin, some armed opposition groups rejected the ceasefire, saying that, based on past experience, they had no faith the regime would respect it.

That brings us to another problem with ceasefires: if the first does not work (in this case, the one organised by Brahimi’s predecessor Kofi Annan), others that follow will be even less likely to succeed because of a deterioration in trust. If such internationally respected diplomatic figures as Annan and Brahimi failed so spectacularly, what hope for another attempt?

As we have seen in Syria, prior to a ceasefire, violence can actually increase as both sides try to make gains they can consolidate when the fighting stops. If a ceasefire holds, those gains will provide a stronger negotiating position. If not, they will provide a military advantage. Both sides will have used the downtime to re-arm and re organise, so if or when warfare resumes, it will be worse than before – as has been the case in Syria.

If Annan’s ceasefire failed despite the presence of UN monitors, and if Arab League observers before them were just as ineffectual, how Brahimi expected his ceasefire to take hold without any monitors on the ground is beyond me. This meant that it was easy for both sides to keep fighting and blaming each other for breaking the ceasefire, without any impartial verification.

We are unlikely to see observers again anytime soon in Syria, given the risks to their safety – the Arab League condemned the Assad regime for “failing to provide adequate protection” in areas where its mission was deployed, “a serious violation by the government of its commitments.”

Furthermore, the regime’s failure to honour previous promises to allow monitors unfettered access led to UN complaints, and the following reminder by Secretary- General Ban Ki Moon: “It is the Syrian government’s responsibility to guarantee freedom of access, freedom of movement within the country.” UN observers “should be allowed to freely move to any places…”

So with an understandable lack of appetite for sending more monitors to Syria, any future ceasefire stands no chance. Brahimi’s hope his attempt “would allow a political process to develop” is naive, to say the least. Surely the opposite is more likely: that a ceasefire could succeed only if there is a diplomatic framework previously agreed by the warring parties.

The reason any ceasefire is doomed is because, as the revolution nears its third year, we are no closer to any common ground, neither between the Assad regime and the opposition, nor between their respective foreign backers. It is more accurate to talk of ‘oppositions’ rather than ‘the opposition,’ which was divided from the start, and has become more so as time goes by. On the other side, we have pro-Assad militias that operate outside the army.

On both sides there are foreign fighters, and governments whose support has become so entrenched that they would rather maintain the conflict until their side prevails, than risk losing everything. Of course they would never publicly admit to this, but one need only observe how, while foreign governments wax lyrical about the need for a diplomatic solution, they continue to support or supply fighters on the ground, gambling on a military victory.

All these myriad players have their own agendas, some of them different or contradictory to others who nominally support the same ‘side.’ How, then, with such a complicated, entrenched mess, can we expect a cease- fire to be respected, let alone lead to a political process?

Indeed, those opposed to the Assad regime have little, if any, incentive to abide by a ceasefire that lacks such a process, because if it stuck, it would maintain the status quo, benefitting the regime as it remains in power. Likewise, a ceasefire that came with a proposal for a transition of power would be rejected by Assad.

Neither side has budged from these diametrically opposed positions, making talk of ceasefires a charade, and their implementation an exercise in futility. As such, the conflict seems destined to grind on.

And with nothing new to offer, and no real cooperation from and between world and regional powers, the resignation of Brahimi – who has described his mission as “nearly impossible” – looks more and more like a matter of when, not if.