Foreign Policy

The nail in the coffin for ‘local ceasefires’ in Syria

In October 2014, United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura unveiled an “action plan” for a local ceasefire in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo. I and many other Syrians, while confident of de Mistura’s positive intentions, were skeptical due to the lack of a nationwide transition plan and the Assad dictatorship’s history of violating ceasefires. Late last week, news emerged that de Mistura’s plan was effectively dead — and this Sunday, the Assad regime put the nail in the coffin.  

On Sunday, residents of Moadamiya, a town that lies just outside the Syrian capital, received a draconian ultimatum from Hassan Gandour, a former resident of Moadamiya and the regime’s chief negotiator for the town. The town endured fourteen months of siege, with baby infants starving and residents eating weeds to survive, before succumbing to a “local ceasefire” in December 2013. Moadamiya was among the first towns to sign a local ceasefire, but local residents are still starving to death because Assad has reimposed the siege to increase his demands.

{mosads}This brings us to Gandour’s ultimatum, which has prompted locals to call him “Hasan Gouraud” in reference to French colonial general Henri Gouraud, who issued a similar ultimatum to Syrian nationalists in 1920. Because Moadamiya was among the first to sign a local ceasefire, Gandour’s ultimatum reveals Assad’s endgame for local ceasefires across the country.

The ultimatum demands that Moadamiya be “evacuated of all inhabitants, including civilian residents.” It warns that unless a farcical “ceasefire initiative” circulated by Gandour is enacted within fifteen days, “anyone within the town takes his life into his own hands.” Finally, it levels a chilling threat at Syrian opposition members: “This war is not yet over. By God, I swear over the anguished cries of our women, children, and fellow residents that we will take revenge.”

Multiple foreign policy analysts have supported “local ceasefires” by claiming that they could reduce conflict, restore humanitarian aid, and promote broader reconciliation. Now we see the truth: Moadamiya’s “local ceasefire” has culminated in a renewed siege and regime vows that the “war is not yet over.” Only this time, residents are less able to defend themselves after ceding weapons in the previous ceasefire.

Some analysts argue that “local ceasefires” promote civil society. The terms of Gandour’s “ceasefire initiative” should put this notion to rest. In addition to demanding that rebel fighters surrender, the initiative dictates that all media channels and civil society groups dissolve, including the local council. It requires “unimpeded access” to Moadamiya for “all state organs,” meaning a return to pre-Revolution totalitarianism. Gandour’s initiative also requires Moadamiya to sever all ties with the neighboring town of Daraya, which would tighten Assad’s siege on Daraya and create a self-perpetuating spiral of starvation.

The experience of Moadamiya shows a general pattern: Assad uses “local ceasefires” as diplomatic companions to his military sieges. He surrounds a town, starves its residents, then offers a “local ceasefire” in exchange for food. After residents surrender weapons or other strategic advantages, Assad resumes the siege and locals are less able to defend themselves. Unfortunately, De Mistura’s initiative matches this pattern.

At the outset of his initiative, de Mistura stated that implementing a local ceasefire in Aleppo meant creating “some type of humanitarian improvement.” Because Assad forces then seemed close to besieging Aleppo as they had Moadamiya, the humanitarian situation in Aleppo seemed set to deteriorate. In other words, de Mistura’s local ceasefire to bring “humanitarian improvement” grew more urgent as Assad forces neared their goal of creating a humanitarian crisis.

The high point of each campaign actually came on the same day. On February 17, 2015, de Mistura announced that he had persuaded Assad to stop shelling Aleppo, while Assad-allied forces backed by Iran cut the last large Aleppo supply line. Assad was exploiting the U.N. ceasefires proposal to legitimate his “local ceasefires” strategy. His message to the rebels: accept my “local ceasefire,” which is backed by the U.N. this time, or starve like your compatriots in Moadamiya. Rebels chose a third option. They launched a fierce counterattack, repulsed regime forces, and rejected the deal.

Going forward, the U.N. Secretary-General stated last Friday that de Mistura would now work to implement the Geneva I Communique of 2012. This document — signed by Russia, China and the main states supporting Syria’s opposition — calls for a nationwide transition and true democratic elections. Since Assad would lose fair elections, this document basically calls for Assad’s departure and is an important step in the right direction. But it is not enough.

De Mistura should take lessons from previous U.N. attempts to implement Geneva I. All have failed due to regime intransigence. De Mistura’s predecessor, Lakhar Brahimi, resigned to protest world inaction and stated that at diplomatic talks he organized, the opposition presented a real plan while Assad diplomats were not “even listening to the other side.” Therefore, de Mistura should ensure that his efforts address the root of the problem: Bashar al-Assad and the world’s failure to confront him. His top priority should be increasing world diplomatic pressure on Assad.

On Tuesday, the Moadamiya local council called for U.N. monitors to enter the town and observe Assad’s violations of the ceasefire. De Mistura should work to meet this demand, in Moadamiya and in all towns that have been starved into bogus “local ceasefires.” While this is no substitute for Syria-wide democratic transition talks, it is an important step toward putting diplomatic pressure where it really belongs, on Bashar al-Assad.

Ghanem is a senior political adviser, government relations director, and strategist with the Syrian American Council based in Washington, DC. and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies . @MhdAGhanem


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