Four days into the temporary truce, the guns have largely fallen silent. But government and Russian airstrikes against what they claim to be "terrorists" have continued. Syria Deeply spoke with Rami Khouri of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs on its chances of success.
The international Syria task force met on Monday at France’s behest to discuss violations of the fragile truce in Syria, but the newly imposed cease-fire may be harder to monitor than originally thought.
The 17 countries belonging to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), co-chaired by Washington and Moscow, are supposed to monitor compliance to the deal and to act quickly to clear up any violations, but without a mutually agreed-upon map of the warring parties’ territorial holdings, documenting breaches to the temporary cease-fire has proven difficult.
The cessation of hostilities does not apply to territory held by the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS) or the al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front, and the opposition has claimed the Syrian government and Russian air force are targeting moderate rebel groups under the pretext of hitting jihadists.
In the first two days of the temporary truce, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 49 violations.
In a letter addressed to United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) accused the Syrian government and its allies of committing some two dozen truce violations over the weekend, killing 29 people.
The ISSG hopes the lull in fighting will last long enough to bring warring parties to the negotiating table on March 7, but as airstrikes continue across the country, the chances are looking slim.
Syria Deeply spoke with Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, on the complexities of the cease-fire, its major problems and its potential for success.
Syria Deeply: After three days of violations, what are the chances that the ceasefire will hold?
Rami Khouri: My suspicion is that it will hold with a very low level of continued violence, just like it has so far. But the question of who does the attacking is the most interesting thing. If it’s the Russians and the Syrian government carrying out occasional attacks, but nobody else is shooting, people will probably put up with it. But if some of the rebel groups begin fighting along with the Syrian government, the Russians, ISIS and al-Nusra, then we probably won’t be able to call it a cease-fire anymore.
Syria Deeply: Do rebel groups observing the cease-fire see it as a stepping stone to a longer-lasting peace, that the peace talks set for March 7 will actually happen, or do they think maybe this is some kind of tactical move by Assad and the Russians?
Rami Khouri: I don’t think they trust the process fully, but I think they want to test it out. My guess is that the mainstream opposition, I mean most groups except for al-Nusra and ISIS, don’t just want a cease-fire and to stay where they are and to control the little bits of land that they currently control. They want this to be the first step toward re-aligning the political balance of power, so that if there is a peace process initiated in Geneva, there would be a possibility of a transition that ultimately sees Assad leave. The opposition wants Assad out and to change the system of governance to something more participatory, more equitable, more reasonable for the Syrian people. It becomes difficult because there are so many different opposition groups, but it will probably be some kind of semi-participatory, semi-democratic, semi-Islamist … something that is acceptable to all Syrians. That’s my guess. But their first aim is to stop the terrible attacks from the government and the Russians because they have a huge advantage from the air and nobody is really doing anything to stop them.
Syria Deeply: What is the largest threat to the cease-fire?
Rami Khouri: I think the largest danger to the cease-fire now is the lack of clarity regarding the areas in which the cease-fire will actually be put into effect, and on the other areas that are actually open game. The Syrian government and its allies – the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah – define the opposition in such broad terms that nearly all rebel groups are considered terrorists.
There is also a lack of a sufficiently strong monitoring mechanism, but the biggest problem is that it’s not clear at whom the government is ceasing to fire … They feel they can fire at anybody, except maybe the headquarters of some of the secular opposition groups associated with the Free Syrian Army. If the government and its allies keep attacking, these groups are going to fight back at some point and then the Turks and Saudis will get involved …
Syria Deeply: Do you think there’s an actual possibility that Turkey and Saudi will send ground troops into Syria? Would they ever make a unilateral move?
Rami Khouri: You know, the Saudis are like Donald Trump. They say outrageous things and then they actually do them, so I think we have to begin to think differently about the Saudis. They’ve been doing increasingly daring things in the last year with their military, money and diplomatic powers. It’s totally out of character. I think it’s very likely that they’d send ground troops – small numbers of Special Forces, probably. They’ve already sent planes to Turkey. This is a different leadership with different calculations and different temperament, and with almost no restraints on it. They are doing things internally, regionally in the Gulf and Yemen and further afield that they’ve never ever done before.
But I don’t think Saudi or Turkey would initiate the breakdown of the ceasefire. The biggest question is, if there is a collapse of the cease-fire, what kind of enhanced military aid will they and Western countries give to the opposition to fight back against Assad and the Russians? If the fighting resumes and the balance of military power stays the same, then the opposition is doomed. Assad and his allies have shown that they will flatten the entire country, they don’t care, as long as Assad stays in power. That would be a terrible tragedy for Syria, beyond the tragedy it has already suffered.
So, the question is, if you’re supporting the opposition and you’re trying to get Assad out, are you going to try and do it militarily, by leveling the playing field and giving the opposition surface to air missiles? They’ve been hesitating to do that. They’ve given them anti-tank missiles and one or two other sophisticated types of weaponry, but once you get to anti-aircraft missiles … what if those fall into the hands of al-Nusra or ISIS?
This is the real dilemma and it has been the same dilemma since day one – the external supporters of the opposition trying to bring down Assad have never clearly indicated how far they will go militarily, financially, politically and diplomatically in supporting the opposition.
We’re not talking about a situation, for instance, like in South Africa, where the regime is totally unsustainable and has to give in to majority rule ... The Assad regime is nowhere near that. They believe they can win, that they have the upper hand.
But let’s remember – if the opposition faces real defeats and its outside supporters do not come to its aid, the rebel groups will at some point realize that it's lost and cut their losses and get out of the country and stop having tens of thousands of their people killed. It remains to be seen which of these options will happen.
The critical element unfortunately remains as it has been for the last three years, the sentiments and actions of the external players – essentially Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. Those five players essentially will determine what happens in the Syria conflict.
Syria Deeply: Do you have any faith that negotiations will resume on March 7? And if so, what are the chances for success?
Rami Khouri: I don’t think there is any imminent breakthrough ahead for the negotiations, but the fascinating thing is that people still want a ceasefire. They still want to talk about negotiations. More than five years after the uprising started, everybody realizes that Syria is being completely destroyed, physically, demographically and politically. The idea of a unified Syria is slowly receding from history. That’s not something that most Syrians are happy with.
I think there’s a will among Syrian people on all sides to try and maintain the unity of Syria, with probably big doses of decentralized autonomy for various groups, but you’re going to get that all over the Middle East. You’re going to get it in Iraq, in Libya, in Yemen, ultimately in Bahrain, probably in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon … all of these countries that have problems internally with ethnic, sectarian national identity issues and demographic political problems will find that decentralization is probably the best way to address them, and I think that’s what’s going to happen in Syria as well.
There are about 95 different Track 2 negotiations taking place right now, which expresses the desire by people on all sides to try and find a solution.