For nearly six years, the crisis in Syria has dominated international diplomacy. Throughout this period, a range of international institutions and their appointed special envoys have stepped up to broker a peace agreement. While some managed to achieve initial success, none created sustainable peace. This past year, U.S. and Russian diplomats took the lead in attempting to broker a nationwide ceasefire in Syria. While these efforts are admirable, the success of such agreements rests with Syrians and Syrians alone, and thus far armed groups in Syria on all sides have proven significantly uninterested in the ceasefire terms outlined by the United States and Russia.
U.S.-Russian efforts at collaboration began in late October 2015 when all the international powers involved in the conflict convened in Vienna to reach an agreement regarding the Syrian conflict. Russia’s overt military intervention into Syria had put the UN-backed peace process on hold, and the Syrian crisis risked escalating from a proxy war into a full-blown international conflict. There was a recognition that international actors involved in the conflict needed to be united if a Syrian peace process was going to be successful.
The purpose of the discussions in Vienna was to craft a framework for international engagement with the Syrian conflict. Even prior to the Russian military intervention, the conflict had become internationalized as Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran provided troops and military assistance to the Syrian government and Western powers—along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—offered weapons and training to opposition groups. These military assistance programs continued alongside peace processes sponsored by the UN, calling into question both the viability of dialogue efforts and the commitment of international powers to a political solution in Syria.
The Vienna talks set the stage for a follow-up agreement in November that outlined the role international powers would play in supporting a peaceful solution in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the international community reiterated its support for a political solution to the Syrian crisis and its commitment to the political process outlined in the Geneva communique. Countries also indicated they would “support and work to implement a nationwide ceasefire in Syria.”
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC)—Russia, the United States, Britain, France, and China—agreed to support a UNSC resolution that would empower the UN to implement such a ceasefire, and all the parties to the agreement indicated they would work to pressure any armed groups operating in Syria that they provided assistance to abide by such a ceasefire. The Vienna agreement, however, also imposed constraints, stating that the ceasefire would not apply to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or, ISIS), the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, or “any other group the [International Syria Support Group] agrees to deem terrorist.”
SYRIA TALKS…WITHOUT SYRIANS?
The structure of the Vienna agreement foreshadowed problems the subsequent ceasefire agreements would face. From the start, this approach has been an effort by the United States and Russia to impose peace on a decidedly Syrian conflict. The Vienna discussions that laid out a framework for international engagement with the peace process did not include any Syrian participants. Syrian opposition officials said they were not invited to the talks in Vienna, and the government did not attend. While diplomats around the negotiating table were no doubt knowledgeable about what Syrians thought, Syrians themselves did not get a say in the actual outcome of the agreement.
The decision to exclude Syrians from these talks was no doubt made with the best intentions. In October and November 2015, neither side was ready for a genuine discussion of peace. Russia’s military intervention had stopped opposition advances in their tracks and boosted the legitimacy of Assad’s government, leaving the government with little incentive to engage in negotiations. The opposition, on the other hand, was still reeling from the Russian intervention, and had little reason to trust any dialogue that gave authority to Russian or Iranian decision-makers.
These factors likely led international diplomats to try and make the best of a bad situation: better to have dialogue without Syrians than include Syrian groups and risk derailing discussions. Excluding Syrians, however, reinforced the notion that Syrians had no control over their fate. While this feeling of powerlessness had persisted and grown as the conflict became increasingly internationalized, it had never before been so perfectly crystallized. The sight of international powers meeting in Vienna to decide the fate of a non-European country harkened back to the colonialism of earlier eras, where European powers carved up the world and decided the fates of other peoples and societies. To Syrians—whether they were pro-government, pro-opposition, or one of the millions of Syrians somewhere in the middle—other countries deciding their fate was undoubtedly humiliating.
Reinforcing this notion of powerlessness is problematic because it obscures the very real control Syrian actors have over the direction of the conflict. Though international powers have played a significant role in the conflict, the primary belligerents of this conflict are Syrian, and the various armed groups in Syria have the final say over when this conflict ends. Indeed, the failed peace efforts by Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Staffan de Mistura are a testament to the fact that Syrians have de facto veto power over any peace initiative.
THE FAILURE OF IMPOSED PEACE
This Syrian veto surfaced during the two ceasefire agreements orchestrated by the United States and Russia. The first of these ceasefire agreements came about in February 2016 when U.S. and Russian diplomats managed to convince the Syrian government and armed groups to accept a cessation of hostilities agreement, which was supposed to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria, including into cities under government or opposition siege. U.S. and Russian diplomats would also identify areas covered by the ceasefire and areas where fighting could continue based on whether groups in the area had committed to the ceasefire agreement or whether ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other terrorist groups were operating in the area.
The ceasefire ultimately collapsed after a month and a half, but U.S., Russian, and (most importantly) Syrian mediators and officials should be credited with the noticeable decrease in violence that occurred immediately after it went into effect. While fighting still continued in large parts of the country, the agreement brought a respite to many civilian populations that had been living under artillery and aerial bombardment. The decrease in fighting also created a space for nonviolent Syrian reform movements to reemerge, in some cases challenging the hardline, conservative elements of the Syrian opposition such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
There were also a number of implementation problems with the ceasefire. The zones of control and the areas where fighting was technically allowed were known only by diplomats and officials. Because fighting did continue in parts of the country, the secrecy created confusion about which battles did or did not violate the ceasefire. The U.S. hotline in place to record violations also experienced problems because of a lack of Arabic skills by U.S. diplomatic staff. In the weeks following the agreement, the political will to maintain the ceasefire eroded, and by mid-April Syrian groups on all sides of the conflict had resumed fighting.
The United States and Russia attempted to broker a ceasefire again in September to secure humanitarian access for civilian populations. This ceasefire did not last as long as the first. Shortly after the ceasefire went into effect, U.S. airstrikes hit Syrian government troops fighting ISIS in Deir ez-Zor, significantly undermining confidence in the ceasefire. While the Syrian government said that the ceasefire was effectively over following the attack, both the United States and Russia were prepared to maintain it. The agreement, however, collapsed after a humanitarian convoy in northern Aleppo was bombed by either Russian or Syrian government forces.
From the outset, there was only a modicum of Syrian political will to implement and maintain the ceasefires because they primarily reflected U.S. and Russian interests. The clearest example of this lies in the exclusion of the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, from the agreements. Nusra publicly split with al-Qaeda over the summer and rebranded as Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham, but U.S. and Russian policymakers to this day remain skeptical and do not want to put in place or enforce an agreement that gives cover to the al-Qaeda affiliate.
This exclusion, however, created significant problems for opposition groups, whose primary enemy is the Syrian government. In the eyes of many opposition groups, it was not Nusra that bombed markets and neighborhoods or placed towns under siege; that was the Syrian government. In fact, Nusra soldiers are some of the best trained and best equipped in the fight against the government, and they have played pivotal roles in major campaigns to capture towns and villages. Excluding Nusra from a ceasefire agreement while including the Syrian government is viewed by the opposition as more than hypocritical—it allows the government to continue attacking the most effective opposition force while preventing the rest of the opposition from fighting back.
The interests of the Syrian government also diverge significantly with those of U.S. and Russian policymakers over the ceasefire. Damascus holds significant concerns about how the humanitarian assistance measures intersect with the oft-undiscussed war economy that has grown and thrived amid the Syrian crisis. Damascus has contended that opposition fighters take control of food aid packages and sell them on the black market. What’s more, the government argues that opposition groups inflate the numbers of people residing in Aleppo to get access to more aid packages and increase their revenue streams.
Whether these claims are true is an important question for humanitarian groups and those studying the war economy. But for those trying to broker an agreement between the government and opposition, the claims themselves reveal a deep-seated government interest in politicizing the question of humanitarian aid. According to Kheder Khaddour, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Syrian government is focused on maintaining Damascus as the central provider of government services. The government continues to fulfill the obligations of a government as best it can, providing administrative documents such as marriage licenses and salaries to people and government employees, regardless of where they live. This is an important element of its broader strategy to prevent a second Syrian state from emerging and challenging the legitimacy of the central government in Damascus. While the first part of this strategy is relatively benign, the second half involves making life incredibly difficult in the territories controlled by the opposition, through bombing of opposition government structures and civilian centers, and restricting the provision of humanitarian assistance to these areas. Allowing another stream of humanitarian assistance to enter Syria undermines the legitimacy and credibility of Damascus’ claims that it is the legitimate government of the Syrian people.
Despite both the government and armed opposition groups’ disinterest in many of the terms of these agreements, the United States and Russia managed to get many groups on board with the initial ceasefire. Both agreements, however, remained exceedingly fragile since they spoke primarily to U.S. and Russian interests. As implementation problems proliferated and undermined confidence, reasons for Syrian government and armed opposition forces to stick with the agreement dwindled and fighting inevitably resumed.
Syrians have understandably grown skeptical of these agreements. With each successive failure, constituencies on all sides increasingly see opposing sides as untrustworthy. Even the Russian and Syrian governments’ unilateral ceasefire in Aleppo this month did little to generate goodwill or build confidence among the opposition. In a conflict where good faith negotiations and trust are in increasingly short supply, the collapse of each agreement further poisons the well and makes the next agreement that much more difficult to attain.
This is not to say that U.S. and Russian diplomats were wrong to pursue these agreements, or that the ceasefires have made the conflict worse. It is imperative, however, that U.S. and Russian diplomats remember that this is first and foremost a Syrian conflict, and agreements have to speak to Syrian interests and concerns if they are to be sustainable. That means recognizing the limitations of U.S. and Russian diplomatic power and acknowledging that the international community cannot impose peace without the participation and approval of Syrians themselves.
The international community can do more to facilitate peace, and it can do much more to limit the destruction and violence. But ultimately, it is up to Syrians to bring this conflict to an end.
Image: Civilians flee from fighting after Syrian army tanks entered the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria (Creative Commons, February 2012)
Jacob Uzman is a Middle East analyst and peacebuilding practitioner with a focus on the Levant. He spent the past four years working on conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives related to the conflict in Syria, where he heard perspectives and stories from Syrians on virtually all sides of the conflict. His research interests also include WMD proliferation and environmental security. Jacob holds a B.A. in philosophy and political science from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.