Middle East

Local ‘truces’ in Syria offer hope, generate criticism

File - Residents arrive on foot to inspect their homes in the al-Hamdeya neighborhood, after the cessation of fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Homs city May 9, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

BEIRUT: “Waer neighborhood has been under the Syrian regime’s suffocating siege since Oct. 10, 2013. The Syrian regime is using siege, as a method of warfare, to exhaust the neighborhood residents and impose enforced treaties and agreements. The Syrian regime’s checkpoint bans the entrance of any sort of food, medications, or fuel except on extremely rare occasions through pressure or blackmailing.”The Syrian Network for Human Rights issued this brief statement Tuesday, complaining about the humanitarian situation in the last rebel-held area in Homs, a suburb on the outskirts of the central city.

On the same day, an anti-regime activist in Damascus was busy filming the arrival of a convoy of trucks bearing long-awaited humanitarian aid to the neighborhoods of Qadam and Assali, which earlier this year agreed to one of these “enforced treaties and agreements,” or local truces, after protracted negotiations.

Agreements on local cease-fires or truces have been a part of the Syrian uprising for the last few years and according to a new report appropriately entitled “Hungry for Peace,” such efforts even go back to the autumn of 2011, in Homs.

The topic has garnered even more attention with the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, throwing his weight behind a proposal to “freeze” fighting in the city of Aleppo as a way to ease the suffering of civilians who remain in the former metropolis, which is ravaged by shelling, airstrikes and fighting on a daily basis.

The 54-page report, by the Syrian NGO Madani and the London School of Economics, is based on research on several dozen cases of negotiations over local truces and aid access that have taken place throughout the course of the uprising.

It finds that there is strong – if not overwhelming – local support for such initiatives, and as the report points out, there are tangible benefits to agreeing to such truces, namely a sharp reduction in human suffering and casualties from the conflict, now in its fourth year.

One of the authors of the report, activist Rim Turkmani, said that “top down solutions aren’t working” to solve the Syrian crisis, meaning that the various types of ground-up initiatives should receive the utmost level of support.

She was speaking Tuesday at the Carnegie Center in Beirut, where the report was introduced during a discussion session.

Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, was also on hand for the event, but he highlighted one of the other, negative conclusions of the report.

“Cease-fires don’t have an inherently positive value,” Bonsey said. “Bad cease-fires end up costing more lives” because they are used by the warring sides to prepare for fighting on other fronts.

The report acknowledges this point and Turkmani commented that both external players and some local groups, such as pro-regime paramilitaries, have an interest in blocking such truce agreements because they have an interest in seeing the conflict continue.

The report focuses on four case studies – the northern Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh, the city of Homs, the town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border, and a blockade by rebels and jihadis of government troops stationed at a power plant outside Aleppo, which saw local figures from the city mediate between the warring sides.

The Barzeh agreement, concluded in an area relatively isolated from external factors, is seen as the most successful of the more than 35 examples that were studied by the report’s investigative team.

Unlike Old Homs, where several hundred rebel fighters were allowed to relocate elsewhere in the province in May of this year, the rebel Free Syrian Army fighters were allowed to remain in Barzeh and an uneasy situation of nonaggression remains in effect since the agreement was concluded at the beginning of the year.

The report says the two sides in Barzeh were encouraged to negotiate a truce because of a situation of military stalemate. The rebels were running low on supplies, but didn’t have a large civilian population pressuring them to agree to a truce. The regime, meanwhile, was also unable to make military gains, and wanted the area neutralized so that its forces could use the main road in the area to access the nearby Tishrin Military Hospital.

The rebel Free Syrian Army fighters also benefited from having a “clear structure of command and leadership,” in sharp contrast to other areas of the country where a confusing panorama of rebel and jihadi groups, and external backers, often make negotiation efforts considerably more difficult.

Turkmani alluded to this in discussing the stumbling efforts to improve the humanitarian situation for people in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee area, south of the capital.

“The FSA was very amenable to [truce] talks, but there was bickering among the Palestinian factions [that wield clout in the neighborhood], and in the end the Nusra Front was able to dominate” the area as the truce talks stalled, she said.

As the International Crisis Group’s Bonsey put it, “there aren’t too many Barzehs” in the Syrian war.

And with de Mistura touting a cease-fire proposal for war-ravaged Aleppo, it is difficult to see how the truce efforts can succeed in a much larger and more complicated theater of war, even if President Bashar Assad and other officials have commented that the U.N. envoy’s proposals are “worth study.”

Joseph Bahout, a Lebanese former professor as France’s Science Politique, said there was considerable confusion about three different types of cessations in hostilities.

One is the type of freeze being sought by de Mistura, which Bahout described as largely unfeasible “time out.” The second are the more carefully negotiated local cease-fires, which are long-lasting but have seen considerable defects in implementation. The third is a global truce at the national level, which he said should be strongly linked to a political process of ending the war.

Bahout, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington, said there appeared to be no significant comprehensive peace efforts being made in tandem with de Mistura’s initiative.

“De Mistura is trying to secure an achievement, and mark a difference with his predecessor [Lakhdar] Brahimi, and show he has a grip on the situation,” Bahout told The Daily Star.

He speculated that the regime’s openness to de Mistura’s proposal, after its media sharply criticized the diplomat’s ideas, was a sign that the authorities are interested in achieving one of the pitfalls of local truces highlighted by the report.

“The regime appears to be interested in ‘easing’ pressure on certain fronts, so that it can send its elite forces from one place to another,” he said. “Alleviating the suffering of people is a good thing, but [de Mistura’s proposal] is a ‘time out,’ which the regime needs, before a resumption of hostilities takes place.”

Andrew Tabler, a Senior Fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Daily Star that the results of local truces are “very mixed.”

“They’re not really cease-fires as imagined elsewhere, but instead cessations of hostility following regime siege and starve campaigns, which allow fighters to run away through a corridor” and carry on hostilities elsewhere.

But Tabler indicated that there appears to be external support for de Mistura’s freeze proposal, echoing Bonsey’s view that there is “desperation” in Western policy-making circles in what to do about the Syrian war. Under such conditions, an encouraging response to de Mistura is not surprising.

As the veteran diplomat continues to promote his plan, Bahout alluded to another, ironic “freeze” that might block any meaningful progress on reducing the level of violence in Aleppo or elsewhere, because it involves one of the key players in the conflict.

“The ongoing talks on an Iranian nuclear deal are causing a freeze on the part of regional players” when it comes to modifying their policies on the war in Syria, he said, “which makes me think that we’re in for a long haul.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2014, on page 9.

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