The Skeptics

Coming Soon to Syria: Peace?

Is Syria finally on the brink of a nationwide peace agreement?

Judging from the optimistic comments from the United Nations, the Russians, the Iranians, and the Turks, it certainly sounds like a real cessation of hostilities—one that holds longer than a couple of days—is in the offing. Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara are packaging their de-escalation agreement reached in Astana as the very beginnings of an historic breakthrough, one that could terminate the most savage war that the Middle East has seen this century.  

The major issue with the de-escalation accord, however, is that implementation will prove to be enormously complex. And this assumes that the guarantors of the agreement and the parties to the conflict are even serious about implementing it in the first place.

On paper, the Russia-Turkey-Iran deal looks comprehensive and reasonable. Four de-escalation or “no-go” zones will be created (all of Idlib province, parts of Homs, eastern Ghouta, and some parts of Southern Syria) where the fighting and the bombing will stop. The zones are drawn up to serve as areas where refugees and displaced civilians can live in peace without being killed or seriously injured, and medical aid and humanitarian assistance will be permitted to enter all four of the de-escalation zones without obstruction from any of the warring sides. Observation posts will also be established to keep the government and the opposition groups from shooting at one another.

The main objective of the accord is straightforward: freeze the conflict and provide relief to the Syrian people who have been subjected to horrific violence over the past seven years. In theory, reduced violence will also provide some grist to the mill on the separate diplomatic process in Geneva, where the international community has had no success whatsoever in nudging the Assad regime and the opposition any closer towards a transitional agreement.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres was cautiously optimistic that the accord could work, as was the U.N.’s special envoy to the conflict, who told reporters, “I think we have been able to witness an important promising positive step in the right direction.”  Even the State Department released a statement indicating that the agreement, if fully implemented, would at least diminish the violence and cool down the conflict.

Such optimism, while understandable, is premature. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and there are so many details still to be worked out that it’s difficult to believe that this agreement that can implemented by next month. For example:

1.  Will the Syrian opposition participate?:  

Representatives of the moderate opposition were not especially pleased that Iran, a nation that has backstopped the Assad regime’s barbarity throughout the entire war, was considered a guarantor. In fact, the opposition delegation was so angry about the arrangement that they walked out just as the agreement was being signed, proof that at least some rebel factions will be reticent to submit to guidelines that have been dictated by two countries—Russia and Iran—that have pummeled their positions and killed so many civilians. If what’s left of the moderates aren’t willing to silence their guns, then de-escalation zones are dead-on-arrival.

2.  What happens if the Syrian regime violates the accord?:  

Under the agreement, the Syrian air force is prohibited from operating within these four de-escalation zones. Yet, if there is anything that can be predicted in this very unpredictable conflict, it’s that there will come a time when the Assad regime breaks its word. Bashar al-Assad has signed up to several ceasefires in the past, only to violate them within a few days under the pretext of fighting terrorism. We have no idea whatsoever if Moscow will hold the regime accountable in the event that a ceasefire violation occurs. Do they even have the power to enforce the agreement?

3.  How to fight terrorism in the zones?:   

The terms of the deal with respect to counterterrorism are cut and dry.  “The guarantors shall...take all necessary measures to continue the fight against DAESH/ISIL, the Nusra Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL…within and outside the de-escalation areas.” Terrorist organizations designed by the U.N. Security Council, therefore, are still fair game.