The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
Recent images of starved civilians in Madaya, a Syrian city that has felt the brunt of Damascus’ cynical attempts to destroy a rebel-held area by surrounding, shelling, and bombing campaigns, have come to symbolize the current stalemate in the Syrian Civil War. Even when, facing such desperation, armed rebel groups have accepted a ceasefire in Madaya and elsewhere, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad has often broken the agreements when it has suited him. As a result, efforts to broker a ceasefire in Syria have failed time and time again, and the rebels, now distrusting of any regime-brokered peace, do not believe that Assad will commit in earnest.
But a new model of ceasefires, brokered and guaranteed by the regime’s backers in Tehran and Moscow, may break this pattern. In November, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with the major regional supporters of Assad and rebel groups, pledged to support Syrian peace negotiations and a ceasefire that would steer the country toward a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Now, as Syria’s warring sides prepare for a new round of peace talks set to begin this Friday, according to the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura, the idea of credible ceasefires will top the agenda. For the United Nations, keeping these agreements intact will shape much of its agenda in the nation for the year to come.
With Syrian peace talks begining on January 29th, there are several problems that may undermine their probability of success, primarily a pervasive feeling among the opposition that the United States is not bolstering their position against the pro-regime front supported by Russia and Iran. The opposition, for example, insists that as the parties agreed on in the Vienna communique and UNSC Resolution 2254, Washington must pressure the regime to release prisoners, lift sieges, and stop bombing civilian areas. U.S. officials say they are exerting enough pressure, but that the opposition has to set realistic expectations and not spoil the momentum for peace talks.
Over the past few weeks, interviews with the most powerful anti-Assad factions in Syria revealed that, in principle, most groups support a ceasefire with the regime and the creation of de facto buffer zones between the two sides to allow humanitarian access. Nevertheless, rebel groups still harbor deep suspicious regarding the regime’s intentions. Many leaders pointed out that, so far, ceasefires with the regime have only worked when they were brokered and supported by third-party nations, such as Iran or Russia, or when Assad was temporarily forced to accept them because of military constraints or due to the rebels’ ability to strike against the regime’s key interests near those areas, among other reasons specific to each town. Iran and Russia, according to the rebels, are pivotal brokers for honest deals as the regime typically expects surrender, or does not stick to the terms of the agreements.
Most groups also stressed the need for political dialogue with the Assad regime and a fair settlement, rather than mere ceasefires because they believe that ceasefires are a temporary solution, which are utilized by the regime to re-deploy forces to other fronts or seize the areas (under ceasefire) when the time is right. A representative of the rebel group Jaish al-Islam, for example, revealed that Damascus had made around 30 proposals for a ceasefire in the Eastern Ghouta region, the group’s base on the outskirts of Damascus. Jaish al-Islam and other factions operating in the area rejected the proposals because because the terms, which essentially stipulate surrender, disarmament, and the cessation of hostilities under humanitarian conditions imposed by the regime, were unacceptable to the armed groups capable of fighting and seizing areas from Assad’s forces. The group later accepted a ceasefire that would be supervised and guaranteed by Russia because Moscow sent a high-level military delegation to mediate a deal, a move that had signaled to the rebels a serious commitment on the part of the Russians. The agreement stipulated that the Assad regime would not re-deploy the 15,000 troops stationed near Ghouta to other areas of the nation, and would allow medical and food access to the region. The deal, brokered by a prominent religious cleric from Damascus and supported by the local population, failed to materialize.
Another representative of the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham explained that some rebel factions frown upon long-term ceasefires, especially if they are not part of a wider settlement, without which, rank and file members of rebel factions would slowly desert the fight altogether, thinning the ranks of the opposition. Rebel groups that lack a day-to-day rationale for fighting may abandon their posts altogether. This, in turn could allow the regime to use ceasefires as recruitment and training opportunities for new conscripts, instead of requiring the usual rushed training courses that fail to adequately qualify soldiers for fighting. The leader said, “A ceasefire would help Russia and Iran to bolster their [military] position, and will break it in the absence of a broader settlement and guarantees. Either a comprehensive political solution, [or nothing].”
These sentiments were echoed by leaders of the Southern Front rebel group as well as by fighting factions in the coastal region in western Syria. A representative of Jabhat al-Izz, a group backed by the United States in the coastal region, said that the group has not been part of any ceasefires discussed with the regime, although channels of communication do exist with pro-government local militia leaders. The only way that ceasefires could be marketed to ordinary fighters, these leaders said, is when they are included in “a solution that meets the demands of the revolution.”
The Free Syrian Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff Brigadier General Ahmed Barri has said that the opposition is hedging its bets until peace talks begin, and that rebel groups are especially interested in how negotiations deal with Assad’s future tenure in power, his military institutions, and the nation’s broader political architecture. “For most of the fighting factions, ceasefires are rejected for now. [The groups] are tired of false promises,” he said.
At least 30 towns have made ceasefire agreements with Assad’s regime throughout the country. Some of these deals have been long-lasting, notably in the Damascus suburbs of Babila, Barza, Beit Saham, and Yalda, where they have been in effect since February 2014. Ceasefires in those towns are open-ended, and typically allow local armed groups to run the town in exchange for the regime seizing heavy weaponry and establishing checkpoints at each town’s outskirts. In other places, such as Qaboun and Tishrin near Damascus, ceasefires have continued to hold despite occasional violations by the government forces. Many Alawite families that live in these towns have their own schools, hospitals, and communities, a factor that often compels the regime to accept the cessation of hostilities in these regions.
The rebels’ ability to challenge the regime’s military tactics in its geographic core is the key to lasting ceasefires.One of the most successful ceasefires between Assad’s regime and rebel groups occurred in the town of Qalat al Madiq, where local forces from both sides agreed to end hostilities. Yet it appears that even the best ceasefire arrangement with the Assad regime is subject to swift and unannounced termination—seen time and again throughout rebel-held cities throughout the country’s flashpoints of violence. For example, in the town of Moadhamiyyah, which enjoyed a peace agreement in late 2013, has now seen a protocol of constant bombing from the regime—including reports of chemical weapon attacks—despite gestures of goodwill by the rebels, such as the raising of the official Syrian flag in the middle of the city in in 2013 in an attempt to end a year-long siege. Kafr Nabudah saw similar violence when the regime attempted to control the village’s supply lines for rebels fighting in Idlib, disrupting a peace agreement that had lasted for over a year. The town’s population had increased exponentially during the ceasefire agreement, but now, it has become a battlefield from which most residents have fled.
Meanwhile, the city of Homs was emptied of its residents during a relentless campaign against rebel forces operating in the Old City and Waar neighborhood in May 2014. A deal in those areas stipulated that all fighters leave with their families.
In the context of peace talks, however, the most remarkable peace deal to date was the one struck between Jaish al-Fateh, the rebel group which is linked to the al Qaeda-affiliated group al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, and the regime. The deal, brokered three months ago, covered 14 towns in southern and northern Syria. This agreement came about after Hezbollah failed to defeat Assad’s coalition in Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, and was negotiated by Iran on behalf of the Assad regime. The agreement included a demographic swap in the southern Sunni town and Foua and Kafraya, Shia towns in the north. Despite delays, the two parties implemented some of the terms of the deal in early January. Interestingly, despite opposition from Hezbollah and the regime, Iran oversaw the implementation of the deal with Jaish al-Fateh, including breaking the siege.
The deal in Zabadani marks a turning point in the ability of rebel groups to successfully force the regime to make concessions by striking the regime in several areas at once, including core regime strongholds that directly target the regime’s popular base. What’s more, it exemplified how deals mediated by foreign powers could exert leverage against Assad’s regime.
In short, the rebels’ ability to challenge the regime’s military tactics in its geographic core is the key to lasting ceasefires. In towns where the rebels negotiated in good faith, ceasefires have collapsed when the regime has found it convenient to renege. Where rebels have been able to inflict damage to the regime’s forces in loyal neighborhoods and towns, ceasefires have been upheld as Assad has lost the power to crush his opposition.
Iran and Russia’s involvement in Syria leads the rebels to believe that they are in a better position than ever to strike serious deals. Russia has made little military progress in battling Syrian rebel groups, and Iran’s involvement as a peace broker has forced Assad’s allies to negotiate when their military might has proven insufficient. There is a clear appetite for ceasefires within rebel ranks, and both Moscow and Tehran seem more willing and capable of brokering deals than Assad himself. Any subsequent talks should build upon this momentum, rather than sabotaging it. If Assad himself is not a fair actor, it appears that his allies are at least willing to do what he himself is not.