Instead of trumpeting each new ceasefire as a step toward peace, the international community needs to understand how integral they are to the Syrian regime’s military strategy.
On 5 March, United Nations aid trucks entered a starving district outside of Damascus in a test for a recent UN Security Council ceasefire resolution. Resolution 2401 demanded full aid access to eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital that has been under siege by the Assad regime for almost five years, and which has seen over 1,000 deaths in the past few weeks due to a blistering assault from the regime and Russian forces.
Before the convoy arrived, regime militiamen had stripped it of medical supplies. Once the convoy was inside, the regime increased bombardments to kill some 90 civilians. And after the convoy left, the regime launched yet another chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta.
Russia struck civilian targets during the delivery, including a cluster bombing near the UN distributors that some locals say forced the convoy’s departure. Russia also continued its scorched-earth campaign elsewhere in Ghouta, enabling advances from regime forces and Iranian militias which sent thousands fleeing. Behaviour like this prompted US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert two days later to declare, ‘So much for Russia’s commitment to ceasefire…[the] Astana [process] has failed.’
The ongoing Astana peace process, which calls for multiple so-called de-escalation zones, including one in Ghouta, has been the focal point of diplomatic efforts on Syria for over a year. Nauert’s declaration could signal a momentous realization from the White House that such zones are not working.
But, by itself, that is not enough. Instead of trumpeting each new ceasefire as a first step toward peace – when their basic terms are the same as those of previous failed ceasefires – bogus ceasefires need to be seen as integral to Assad’s military strategy. They are part of Assad’s military solution to the conflict in Syria, and they demand a response firmer than more ceasefires.
As the last residents of the old city of Homs were being forcibly displaced in a 2014 ‘local ceasefire’, UN aid coordinator John Ging glowingly praised what many Syrians saw as sectarian cleansing as ‘evidence of what can be done’. Various academics and think tank analysts soon began touting local ceasefires in areas where locals have since been forcibly displaced as ‘a win-win’ and ‘a workable modus vivendi’.
In 2015, UN Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura upped the ante by making Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the centre of his local ‘freeze zones’ proposal – a proposal that, when enacted in 2016, saw Russia bomb the first UN convoy into Aleppo and launch a final assault that turned Aleppo into a killing field.
Despite the Aleppo carnage and a new US president, regional powers then doubled down by adopting the Astana process, which called for a series of disconnected ‘de-escalation zones’ in the four main opposition pockets. President Donald Trump was apparently sold on the plan, proclaiming in July, ‘All of the sudden you are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria. And that would be a wonderful thing.’ But this has not been the case. The horrifying reality of the Ghouta ‘de-escalation zone’ is now making headlines similar to those on the Aleppo ‘freeze zone’ in 2016.
What do local ceasefires, however ineffective, have to do with the killing in Aleppo or Ghouta? The two are intimately related. Assad and his allies have used local ceasefires, de-escalation zones and freeze zones to increase civilian suffering, perpetrate demographic re-engineering and advance militarily.
First, local ceasefires allow regime forces to cope with a fundamental weakness that has plagued them since the first pro-democracy protests: Assad’s forces are badly outnumbered as a regime fighting a popular revolution. Local ceasefires solve this dilemma for Assad by freezing fighting only in specific areas, without impacting others. This allows Assad to redeploy his overstretched forces from ceasefire areas, expanding them in other areas and launching fierce attacks.
The de-escalation zones have been especially damaging because they are a series of nationwide but disconnected local ceasefires, allowing the regime to redeploy fighters from across the country onto a specific site. One reason the regime’s Ghouta assault is so devastating is that it includes elite regime Tiger Force militias from northern Syria, pro-regime tribal fighters from eastern Syria and regime Fourth Division units who were in southern Syria when the de-escalation zones began.
Second, local ceasefires often have a ratcheting effect that locks in sieges and reduces opposition abilities to repel future assaults. This applies to most local ceasefires agreed on before the fall of Aleppo in late 2016. Ceasefires before this time were generally seized upon by regime-besieged opposition centres in order to reduce the severity of the siege. But ceasefires agreed to on such terms granted besieged populations virtually no leverage, allowing the regime to ratchet up demands pending a final assault.
For instance, the Moadamiya suburb of Damascus signed one of the first local ceasefires, after residents were reduced to eating grass to survive. The regime initially demanded only that Moadamiya fly the regime flag, but gradually ratcheted up requirements until rebels had been coerced into leaving urban centres entirely and relinquishing heavy weapons. In this way, the Moadamiya ceasefire gradually weakened the opposition over time, enabling the regime to reinstate its siege in 2015, before launching a final assault that subdued the town.
Most areas where the regime reneged on ceasefires to displace local populations were subject to these dynamics of siege and ratcheting, including the Barzeh area of Damascus, the Waer neighbourhood of Homs, and Zabadani town and the Barada Valley near Lebanon. Sometimes this even affected neighbouring areas. For instance, the regime’s ceasefire and assault on Zabadani led directly to the horrific siege of neighbouring Madaya. The ceasefire and assault on Moadamiya similarly made possible the eventual displacement of neighbouring Daraya.
Third, local ceasefires paralyse the global community by introducing an illusion of progress into what are actually full-on assaults against civilians. The regime successfully exploited de Mistura’s ‘freeze zones’ proposal for Aleppo in 2016 by accepting the proposal but insisting that the UN deliver aid only through a regime-held road, even though an opposition road had recently been opened. The UN’s acquiescence to this demand in exchange for a ceasefire allowed the regime to cement its siege, thereby turning the Aleppo freeze zone into a UN-sponsored version of the unequal local ceasefires discussed above. Like other local ceasefires, the Aleppo freeze zone did not relieve the siege or stop the violence; instead, it paved the way for the regime’s especially bloody final blitzkrieg.
The Assad regime has shown time and again that it views ceasefires as military tools to subjugate civilians, not as a step toward peace. Humanitarian airdrops can break Assad’s sieges, so that he cannot simply run out the clock on starving populations until they are forced to depart. But the international community must deter the regime from the military option in the first place.
A future ceasefire without this is mind is nothing more than an invitation for civilian populations to capitulate, and will only spur Assad, Russia and Iran to continue their brutal strategy.