Syria's Delicate Truce Underpinned By Mistrust

Briefing Note

Syria's Delicate Truce Underpinned By Mistrust

04 Mar 2016

The two-week partial ceasefire in Syria is largely holding since it took effect on 27 February, but who will benefit if it lasts?

Just hours before the partial truce in Syria came into effect on 27 February, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, issued an audio statement. In it, he described the agreement as a "trick" to drive the Syrian people back into the clutches of the Assad regime.

In his plea, Jolani warned that the agreement to cease hostilities in the five-year conflict is a ploy by the US, its allies, and the 'Nusayri' and 'Rafidhi' powers (pejorative terms for Alawis and Shias) to wrest control of the country from ordinary Syrians. Jolani urged Syrians to resist calls to put down arms. In fact, he called for an intensification of rebel attacks.

Syria and Russia stand to gain the most from the truce.

But Jabhat al-Nusra, which along with ISIS is excluded by the truce terms, is not the only party wary of the deal. Aleppo residents reportedly feel similarly that the truce is a ruse by Assad. Since the ceasefire began, accusations of truce violations have come from a number of directions. Kurdish YPG forces in the northwestern Aleppo countryside reported coming under fire from Ahrar al-Sham, which has worked with Jabhat al-Nusra in the past. The High Negotiations Committee wrote to the UN Security Council to report on 26 raids by Russian jets. Meanwhile, the Russian military said it recorded nine violations. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 183 people were killed near Raqqa, including 89 ISIS fighters, on Saturday alone.

Throughout the week, there has been widespread reporting, and even acknowledgement from US government officials, about violations by Russian and Syrian regime forces. The powerful Islamist rebel group Jaish al-Islam alleged that it had been attacked by pro-Assad forces across the country, and that maintaining a ceasefire was not possible when "militias and states kill our people."

But despite the early infractions, the cessation in hostilities has largely held up. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there has been a "huge drop" in the number of civilians killed during the ceasefire compared to the Friday before it came into effect, when 63 civilians lost their lives. In fact, only 24 civilians had been killed five days into the temporary truce. The mood in the US camp has been one of optimism, albeit cautious, as the temporary truce has gone on. 

Jabhat al-Nusra fears the truce will impact its operations.

The Assad regime, backed by Russia, can continue to act against 'terrorist' groups under the terms of the truce. Among these are rebel groups who have been backed by the US and its allies. The comments from Jolani and Jabhat al-Nusra's broader messaging suggest it is fearful of the impact the truce may have on its own operations. With Russia and the Syrian regime continuing to act against those they deem 'terrorist' groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies will suffer.

When the Higher Negotiations Committee announced on Friday that nearly 100 rebel factions would adhere to the agreement, they did not release a list of the groups. But given that there is much cross-pollination among Syrian rebel factions, the 97 groups who support the truce may well include ones who have cooperated with Jabhat al-Nusra to achieve short-term objectives out of battlefield pragmatism. Unlike ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra conducts joint operations with other rebel groups.

The message Jolani released on 27 February coincides with a series of videos released by Jabhat al-Nusra. These echoed his sentiments that the Russian-US agreement is a ploy against the Muslims of Syria, orchestrated by their opponents.

The balance of power

Getting humanitarian aid to besieged parts of Syria was a priority of the 'cessation of hostilities.' The UN is aiming to deliver aid to almost two million Syrians by the end of March. The goal suggests the UN believes the truce will provide a relatively sustained opportunity for getting supplies to those who need them. In the broader sense, however, the side that most stands to gain under the current situation is the Syrian government and its chief backer, Russia. As the agreement does not include all actors, it leaves foreign powers like Russia and Iran able to continue their efforts against rebel groups. The open-ended designation of 'terrorist groups' provides free reign for Assad and his allies to pursue those operating against it. It hamstrings and marginalises rebel groups.

Should the dynamics of the agreement remain beyond the initial two-week period, the balance of power will lie firmly in the hands of the Syrian regime.

This briefing was originally published on 29 February


Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.