On Saturday the first widespread negotiated ‘cessation of hostilities’ started in Syria, and a day later it is still in place despite some violations – already a small victory. The deal has been brokered and supported by the US and Russia, two of the most powerful backers on each side of the conflict, and the UN has also backed it with a resolution. So what are the chances this ceasefire will succeed?
One reason the ceasefire could succeed is that in some parts of the country the situation resembles a ‘mutually hurting stalemate‘. This is a situation in which neither side can win – and they realise that – but are also being seriously hurt by the continuing fighting. This is often seen as a highly important, or even necessary condition for a ceasefire and following negotiations succeeding. In many places across Syria you could argue that this situation exists, and has for years now.
Unfortunately though, the timing for this may actually be a bit late. Since the decisive intervention by Russia last November, the government has been gaining territory and some ‘mental momentum’, giving hope to Damascus. President Assad even said last month that he intends to retake the whole country. Of course, this could have the effect of convincing the rebels that the moment to negotiate with Assad is now, but it could also lead to a willingness on the government’s part to see the ceasefire end.
On the side of the rebels, it’s a complicated picture. The ‘frontline’ in Syria is fragmented into hundreds or thousands of small battles or sieges fought by different rebels. While many different rebel groups have signed up to the deal, there is great potential for incidents that flare up into wider fighting. What’s more, the al-Nusra Front and Islamic State aren’t considered to be part of the ceasefire. This is especially tricky when it comes to al-Nusra, which is often integrated with other rebel groups. It would be all too easy for the government – or Russia – to attack other rebels alongside or instead of al-Nusra.
Another question is what role outside powers will play in supporting the ceasefire. The United States is a strong supporter, as they just want the war to be over so they can get rid of IS. For the Russians this deal also sort of works, as Assad still controls most parts of Syria they’re interested in. Turkey could make things difficult though. They’re extremely concerned by moves by the Kurds and the government to close a crucial supply route from the border to the rebel-held city of Aleppo. It’s a ridiculously complicated situation, but it means that if Turkey sees their enemies make any further advances just south of their border, they could get involved in a much more serious manner.
There are suggestions that the ceasefire could hold, and there are good reasons it may not. However, the most serious issue is that there is still no agreement what so ever on what a future Syria would look like. Just look again at the list of belligerents above – all of those groups have to either be entirely defeated or come to an agreement on what Syria should look like. In addition, their outside supporters have to be happy with it. This ceasefire is supposed to lead to negotiations, but the prospect that they will succeed is as bleak as ever.