A ceasefire agreement brokered by the United States and Russia between government and rebel factions in the Syrian Civil War went into effect Monday evening, renewing cautious optimism that the five-year- old conflict may finally be drawing to a close. What follows is a breakdown of the terms of the deal and its ramifications on Syria, the Middle East, and the international community as a whole.
The idea of a ceasefire is not new – Russian and American diplomats had previously agreed to a similar deal in February 2016. After hundreds of civilian deaths at the hands of government forces and a renewed rebel military campaign in response, that plan fell apart in a matter of days. Now, the goals of the accord have shifted, focusing on combatting Syrian jihadism and increasing residents’ access to humanitarian resources. The Department of State announced that the agreement entails a seven-day monitoring period, during which almost all government and rebel groups involved are to cease all offensive operations. Crucially, the ceasefire does not protect the Islamic State or the group known until recently as the Nusra Front; in fact, it encourages soldiers to target those groups with the resources they would otherwise have used in the war.
Should the suspension of violence endure, the United States and Russia would commit to a bilateral plan to fight the development of terrorism in Syria. In that case, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced, the American and Russian militaries would coordinate airstrikes through a Joint Implementation Center, and the Russians would use their leverage over Bashar al-Assad to curtail Syrian Air Force strikes against rebel strongholds. These attacks are of particular significance because the Assad regime’s preferred method of delivery for chemical weapons has been through “barrel bombs”: large, improvised and unguided explosives that can be filled with chlorine gas or other dangerous toxins and dropped from high altitudes for maximum devastation.
The agreement has been received with skepticism by many of the involved parties, with good reason. Russia backs Assad’s government, whereas the Obama administration has provided military and communications equipment to the main rebel alliance, the National Coalition. On the ground in Damascus, after nearly 100 people were killed over the weekend, Assad promised with vigor that his force will emerge victorious from the war – language certainly unbecoming of a leader whose government has just become party to a temporary peace treaty. By midnight Monday, Syrian rebels had reported more than 10 violations of the ceasefire by the government, while simultaneously claiming responsibility for the deaths of several government soldiers. With those factors in mind, it is unlikely that this agreement on its own will bring peace to the region.
As Secretary Kerry noted during a joint press conference with Mr. Lavrov, the success of the agreement is contingent on the resolve of the Russians to uphold their end. They will be responsible for keeping the Syrian government forces in check, something they have shown little interest in doing in the past. “No one is basing this on trust,” Kerry declared, according to the New York Times. “We are basing it on oversight and compliance.”
The main strategic goal of the ceasefire is to target military power against the Islamic State’s holdings in Syria in order to reduce its ability to recruit, indoctrinate, train and arm new members. With adequate Russian cooperation and the cessation of current hostilities, all of the major military forces in the region should be able to direct their focus toward reversing the progress of the Caliphate. If everything goes according to plan – the likelihood of which is fairly low – the result would surround the militant group with Russian, American and Syrian forces from the West, Kurdish forces from the North, and Iraqi forces from the Southeast.
As a result of the suspension of the violence, humanitarian workers will be allowed to enter “hot zones” to provide emergency medical attention along with food, water, shelter, clothing and other necessities to civilians. The ceasefire is not expected to impact the outflow of Syrian refugees, as it is designed to be only a temporary preventative measure against the violence that has persisted for half a decade. Syrians have left the country in record numbers, in the process creating the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, and that pattern is expected to continue until the civil war is brought to a permanent end.