Violence has decreased across Syria and some humanitarian aid has arrived in hard-hit areas five days into an internationally brokered pause in fighting, though claims of violations from both sides dim the agreement’s chances for becoming a full-fledged ceasefire.
Senior Obama administration officials told reporters Wednesday that progress on the “cessation of hostilities” plan that the United States and Russia negotiated under U.N. auspices is “better than expected, not as good as the Syrian people or we would hope.”
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity per White House conditions, said they suspect some violations have occurred “on both sides,” though authorities are still investigating the claims. The officials said it was premature to say whether the fragile truce could hold and stressed the complexities of the conflict, which has raged for nearly five years with a death toll now in excess of 250,000.
“Our expectation is that this is going to be very difficult, and the cessation of hostilities will come under strain,” one U.S. official said. He added: “It’s going to be a bumpy road.”
The officials were more optimistic about the aid deliveries to six areas where sieges had led to deaths by starvation and prolonged suffering from a lack of food and medical supplies. The U.N.’s human rights chief warned earlier this week that “thousands” may have starved to death already.
Since the pause in fighting began last Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has allowed aid trucks to move to previously inaccessible areas – so far, eight convoys have delivered aid to more than 100,000 people, with more trips scheduled in the next few days, the officials said. They acknowledged, however, that it was “modest progress given the scale of the need in Syria.” Some 6.5 million people are displaced inside of Syria, with more than 4 million refugees outside the country.
The cessation of hostilities is just one step of a broader international plan to reduce the violence, increase humanitarian access and then restart talks with the end goal of a negotiated transition of power. But the powers involved in the conflict – the Syrian government and its backers Russia and Iran on one side and the rebels backed by the United States, European allies, Arab powers and Turkey on the other – all have different, competing goals for the outcome of the process.
This stage alone is extraordinarily fraught; it took weeks for the players to agree on even the broad contours for a cease-fire. The Obama administration hasn’t spelled out a Plan B if the “cessation of hostilities” fails and is coy about whether it’s still arming rebel groups during the pause. That leaves it unclear whether the end goal is for the militants to lay down their arms or to build them up for an inevitable resumption of fighting.
“If it survives – big if – and is extended time and again, what’s the difference?” said Aron Lund, nonresident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of Syria in Crisis. “Sure, there are technical agreements you could tack onto it, and you could upgrade it in various ways, but the key thing is obviously whether people are trying to kill each other or not.”
Claims of violation are streaming in, especially from Syrian opposition figures who say Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to continue attacks on rebel positions. Because the jihadist groups the Islamic State and al Qaida’s Nusra Front aren’t party to the agreement, it’s not a violation to strike them. From Russia’s standpoint, however, the U.S.-backed rebel forces are so commingled with the Nusra jihadists that they’re legitimate targets.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the main umbrella group for anti-Assad forces, said in a statement Wednesday that local human rights activists had documented 143 breaches of the truce by the Syrian regime and Russian forces. The alleged violations include military operations as well as continued arrests. At least 73 civilians have been killed in Russian and Syrian government attacks since the truce began Saturday, according to the coalition.
But the U.S. officials did not endorse those claims, saying they needed to be investigated.
In an example of the complexity of such an investigation, the opposition’s breakdown of alleged breaches on day four of the truce included 11 incidents in Idlib province, where the dominant force is the Nusra Front, which as an al Qaida affiliate is a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Nusra fighters are spread throughout the province, making it difficult to refute Russia’s claims that it was only hitting Nusra.
“Since they’re not part of the deal, they’re basically outlaws and can be attacked by anyone. That much is agreed by all sides, whether they like it or not,” Lund said of Nusra Front. “The tricky part is of course defining what is a Nusra territory or a Nusra target, since they’re embedded in rebel territory and work alongside a lot of other groups that, unlike them, are part of the deal.”
The measure of “success” for the cease-fire varies from vantage point, said Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The arrangement certainly doesn’t favor the rebels, who were pressured into signing on without a set mechanism for Assad’s departure and at a time when they’d suffered setbacks on the battlefield. The cease-fire’s continuation could spell the end of their long, bloody struggle for regime change.
“It freezes in place an unfavorable status quo, allows the regime to rest, organize and prepare, and grants it and Russia the ability to go after the powerful insurgent group Jabhat al Nusra,” Itani said, using the Arabic name for the Nusra Front.
He said the terms of the cessation of hostilities, known as COH in foreign-policy shorthand, make it unlikely that it’ll provide the backdrop for a political process in which the opposition triumphs.
“More likely,” Itani said, “the COH will either break down and the insurgency get crushed or the rebels will have to surrender.”