As the Syrian ceasefire tentatively holds, what’s next for the conflict?

As the Syrian ceasefire tentatively holds, what’s next for the conflict?

An unlikely Syrian ceasefire looks set to beat the odds and hold together until its end next week. Though that would raise hopes that a political solution can be reached, certain obstacles remain.

Having held together for over a week, the Syrian ceasefire has outlasted the expectations of many and buoyed hopes that a long-term political solution could soon be on the cards. The two-week truce, brokered on 27 February between the US, which supports opposition forces, and Russia, which backs President Assad, aims to reduce hostilities, facilitate international aid, and halt the worsening refugee crisis in the region.

Results on these fronts have been mixed; while violence has fallen, vital aid is still not reaching those in need. Meanwhile, any effect on the worsening refugee crisis is unlikely to be felt until a sustained lull in fighting is realized. 

Still, the ceasefire is a positive development. Provided it holds, there is every chance the two sides will agree to extend it. The success of the ceasefire would also provide an encouraging platform for the upcoming UN-brokered talks which start in Geneva on March 9. 

The ceasefire so far

While the ceasefire has produced mixed results, it has reduced the level of violence. Heading into the agreement, few were optimistic. Moscow was intensifying efforts to assist the Syrian forces recapture Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey were considering mounting their own military interventions in reply. The mood was belligerent.

Against the odds, however, the fighting has stopped and the armistice has broadly held. Late last week, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights declared that fighting has declined by more than 90% overall. Reuters similarly claimed only 125 people had been killed last week, not including clashes with ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, both of whom remain outside the truce. 

It is a remarkable achievement considering the war has continued largely unabated for nearly five years, killing some 370,000 people and uprooting millions.

Yet even so, the agreement has failed to achieve its humanitarian objectives. As well as reducing hostilities, the pact aims to facilitate the free flow of emergency supplies in hard-to-reach areas. But the UN, which is overseeing the deliveries, says aid is not reaching those in need because of logistical difficulties and problems gaining government approval. Of particular concern is the fate of hundreds of thousands of Syrians at risk of starvation, with sieges, mostly carried out by the government, denying them access to food and medicine. 

The task currently confronting aid groups is huge. The UN estimates 500,000 people continue to live under siege, while a further 4.6 million people live in hard-to-reach areas posing logistical snags. Finally, it remains to be seen whether Assad will heed the agreement by lifting the sieges and putting an end to those measures currently obstructing aid. 

The path forward

Much rides on the week ahead. Indeed, regardless of whether the ceasefire holds, peace talks are set to resume in Geneva on 9 March, having been called off last month due to an increase in Russian airstrikes.

The talks will see participants discuss ways of implementing Security Council Resolution 2254. Passed late last year, the resolution is central to President Obama’s policy on Syria and calls for a long-term ceasefire, humanitarian access, elections, and a new constitution as a roadmap for ending the war. Importantly, it makes no mention of Assad’s political future, though Washington is hoping Moscow can convince Assad to step down eventually.

This means the success of the ceasefire will prove key; if a longer break in fighting and humanitarian access look like achievable goals, then participants will agree to extend the truce. It would also allow the parties to focus on political objectives, including elections and a new constitution.

In predictable fashion, spoilers are fast emerging. On Saturday, UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura said the Syrian opposition had raised doubts about whether they would attend the talks; the opposition is reportedly furious at Russian advances and the passivity of the US. For its part, Saudi Arabia, a major backer of opposition forces, maintains that Assad must step down before any progress can be made.

Added to that are reports that violations are now occurring regularly. It is easy to see how the ceasefire and subsequent Geneva talks could soon come unstuck. For now, however, the ceasefire remains intact.

Prospects for future talks 

Whether or not it survives, there are some positive signs to take away from the ceasefire. For starters, it demonstrates that the majority of players on the ground are willing to adhere to the demands of their underwriters and international power brokers, the US and Russia.

The Russian-led bloc, including Assad and Iran, have largely stuck to the deal, despite violations near Aleppo. So too have anti-government forces, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey throwing their cautious support behind the ceasefire for now. With so many groups involved, this will prove key in the future.

The ceasefire also shows exactly what is possible. A fortnight ago, few observers would have bet that dozens of warring parties would agree to stop fighting. Thus, unlike the failed political talks last month, this should give the Geneva participants fresh impetus this week.

Yet it is too early to rejoice. A ceasefire and humanitarian access are often the first steps in any political solution – and full humanitarian access has still not been achieved.

Moreover, major sticking points, many of them conflicting, continue to loom over the peace process. These include Russia’s imminent plans to retake Aleppo, growing Russian-Turkish tensions, clashes between Turkey and Kurdish fighters, a wider proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Assad’s political future. None of these are predetermined. All have the potential to derail the peace process and pull the Syrian conflict in a new direction.

Then, of course, there is the issue of ISIS and the al-Nusra front, both of whom will remain outside any political solution. Will Russia and the US cooperate in a bid to eliminate ISIS? How will Turkey respond if and when the Kurds stop fighting ISIS and focus on their independence claims? The questions go on.

While the ceasefire is a positive move, it is a first step in the long and uncertain road towards an elusive political solution.

About Author

Andrew Manners

Mr Manners currently resides in the United Kingdom, where he works in a number of research roles in property, global politics, and international law. He has previously worked as a Research Analyst at Future Directions International, a Perth-based think-tank in Australia, where he focused on issues relating to East Africa and Indonesia. His commentary and and analysis has been featured on ABC News, ABC Radio National and Sky News, while his security studies articles have been cited in academic journals. More recently, he completed a Master's degree in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from Durham University. His recent research projects include a conflict studies trip to Lebanon, where he interviewed senior members of Hezbollah, and a policy initiative for Durham Law school focusing on the role of legal norms in international conflict negotiations.