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Ceasefire in Syria

Civilians evacuated from East Aleppo arrive at a refugee camp in Rashedeen, near Idlib, Syria, 15 December 2016. Photo Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd

2016 has marked the Syrian war with great brutality, particularly when pro-government forces placed the eastern rebel-held districts of Aleppo under siege in the last months of the year. They stepped up their campaign to retake the city by pursuing a relentless policy of aerial bombardment that also deployed incendiary weapons such as bunker buster bombs and phosphorus.After months of infighting, the last chapter of the battle for East Aleppo was concluded when the evacuation of over 40,000 civilians and around 4,000 rebel fighters from the now regime-held side of the city was completed on December 22, 2016. In an official statement published by the state-run SANA news agency, the Syrian army said it had “liberated” Aleppo entirely and brought “security and stability” back to the city.

The evacuation of the civilians and the fighters was only made possible by a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey on December 13, 2016, although it was challenged several times in the days that followed, by both the regime and its allied sectarian militias from one side, and rebel factions from the other. However, in an attempt to avoid further suffering inside Aleppo, France and Russia conducted closed consultations at the United Nations Security Council and agreed on December 18 on a UN resolution to deploy around 100 international personel to eastern Aleppo to ensure safe evacuations and the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid.

The loss of eastern Aleppo, the rebels’ main urban stronghold since 2012, marked a strategic defeat for what is now a weakened opposition. Although it still holds the neighboring Idlib province and vast areas in the south of the country, the rebels’ defeat in eastern Aleppo has strengthened the regime’s stance and its ability to hold on to power until at least the negotiations of a political process are concluded.

After the operation to capture eastern Aleppo was over, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared during a meeting with an Iranian delegation that the battlefield successes were a “basic step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syrian territory and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war”. However, the United Nations, alongside other western countries, feared that the evacuees, who mostly opted to be transferred to the nearby Idlib province (which is under the rule of Islamist rebels), could face a similar situation of deprivation: without food, with little electricity and water, in freezing winter conditions. It is expected to be Assad’s next target in his campaign to recapture the territory he has lost.

On December 23, 2016 the UN Special Envoy in Syria, Staffan de Mistura, highlighted the necessity for the cessation of hostilities across Syria in order to avoid another bloody fight similar to the battle for Aleppo. De Mistura talked in Geneva about the evacuees and said that “many of them have gone to Idlib, which could be in theory the next Aleppo.”

In a rather quick turn of events, on Thursday, December 29, 2016 Russian president Vladimir Putin announced, in a televised meeting with the Russian foreign and defense ministers, that an agreement had been reached that would put an end to the fighting between the Syrian regime forces and the rebels. According to the Russian state media TASS, Putin said the two sides had also agreed to enter peace talks, to be held in Kazakhstan to end the conflict that has been raging for nearly six years. Speaking before the truce began, Putin defined the ceasefire as fragile and said it would “require a lot of attention”. Three documents were signed: a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition; a list of control measures to ensure the ceasefire would work; and a statement of intention to begin negotiations on the political end to the conflict.

As a result, the ceasefire deal – a third attempt for truce this year – came into force at midnight (10pm GMT) on Thursday, December 29, 2016. Syria was experiencing its first day of a nationwide ceasefire. On Friday 30 December, 2016, the state-run news agency SANA reported that the Syrian army had halted its operations except against IS and other terror groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was formerly the al-Qaida wing in Syria, before it publicly severed ties with the global terrorist network last year.

After several hours of negotiations in Ankara, Islamic rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham Islamist movement and the mostly Damascus-based Jaysh al-Islam, signed up to the deal. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in London, reported a couple of violations by both sides in the provinces of Hama and Idlib, but calm prevailed the next day in the territories included in the agreement. Later, however, both sides reported further violations.

There is some confusion over which rebel groups did sign up for the truce, but both sides who brokered the deal hope the pact will hold in until the peace talks planned to take place in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. The date of the peace talks, hoped for mid-January, has not been announced yet.

Ibrahim Kalin, the Press Secretary for the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressed his hope for the ceasefire to play an important role in providing “non-stop humanitarian reach” in Syria and “a revival of the political process” to see the end of the Syrian conflict. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu added that both the Russians and the Turks fully support the deal, as its guarantors. The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also said that groups considered as terrorist organisations by the UN Security Council, such as IS, are excluded from the agreement.

The Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu added that any armed groups present in Syria that did not observe the truce would be regarded as “terrorists.”

Finally, the Kremlin put out a statement stating that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad discussed the agreement by telephone. The statement precised that Assad agreed to comply with the agreement as he saw it as a vital step for a final solution of the crisis.

However, the most notable diplomatic absence from brokering of the deal was that of the United States. Due to president Obama’s foreign policy, which is less involved in the Syrian turmoil, the US seems to have sidelined itself in recent months, especially as it saw Moscow increase its military and diplomatic involvement in Syria. Iran and Saudi Arabia were also missing; but Iran will be involved in the peace talks in Kazakhstan, with Saudi Arabia possibly joining at a later stage.

On Saturday, December 31, 2016, the United Nations Security Council unanimously endorsed the ceasefire in effect in Syria, as well as the plan for peace talks to be held in the Kazakh capital. The UNSC resolution 2336 called for the “rapid, safe and unhindered” delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the country. The UN special envoy for Syria has said he intends to bring together representatives of the conflict’s rival parties for talks in Geneva after the peace talks, on February 8, 2017.

On January 2nd, 2017, a group of 13 Syrian civil society organisations put out a statement on the ceasefire agreement and the UNSC Resolution 2336. It welcomed “any serious and credible ceasefire agreements as that will spare further blood, killing and destruction of the people of Syria.” However, with the details of the Turko-Russian agreement still vague and secretive, the civil society groups demanded the publication of more details, as well as “a clear description of the role of the deal’s guarantors, theRussian Federation and Turkey, and the means to verify and sanction any violation.”