Barrel bombs continue to wreak havoc on the ground in Syria



Tue, 15 Aug 2017 - 04:11 GMT


Tue, 15 Aug 2017 - 04:11 GMT

Barrel Bombs – Courtesy of Oman Establishment for Press, Publication and Advertising (OEPPA)

Barrel Bombs – Courtesy of Oman Establishment for Press, Publication and Advertising (OEPPA)

CAIRO – 15 August 2017: As the war in Syria continues to rage fiercely on the ground, the disturbing loss of life and humanitarian concerns mean attempts for immediate peace are imperative. Memories of the 15-year long civil war in neighboring Lebanon still resonate throughout the region, leaving the majority of regional actors acutely aware of the need for stability in the Middle East. Establishing de-escalation zones and ceasefires are possibly the only ways to establish immediate, sustainable peace, yet questions over their effectiveness have come to light.

Although several ceasefires have imploded in the past, there have been some partial successes. The ceasefire founded in Astana through Russian-Turkish-Iranian cooperation arguably still holds, as does the U.S.-Russian-Jordanian sponsored ceasefire.

The deal signed in Astana on May 4 established 4 de-escalation zones. Although there is an absence of stringent borders, these de-escalation zones include: Idlib province and the surrounding areas (parts of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia governorates), northern Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and the southern Syrian-Jordanian border.
However, there has been major opposition to Iran’s role as a guarantor.

"We are against the division of Syria. As for the agreements, we are not a party to that agreement and of course we will never be in favor (of it) as long as Iran is called a guarantor state,” Syrian armed opposition delegate Osama Abu Zaid said, according to a report by Reuters published on May 4.

"Russia was not able to or does not want to implement the pledges it makes, and this is a fundamental problem," Abu Zaid said, expressing hesitation towards Russia’s role also. In the latest attempt of a series of ceasefire proposals, President Trump’s first bid at peacemaking concluded in a joint U.S.-Russian-Jordanian deal, signed on July 9, with the southern provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda in southern Syria formally added to the zones of de-escalation.

Significantly, such ceasefires include a terrorist loophole, which has allowed for a continuation of hostilities towards groups such as al-Nusra who form the backbone of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham alliance, and the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. However, the Syrian government considers all rebel groups ‘terrorists,’ which the government has used as a justification for combat missions against them.

Although many sources heralded this as a diplomatic achievement for Trump in his first meeting with Putin, was this simply a political maneuver to present the illusion of a close relationship between the two?

“I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria, and as a result of that we had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas," U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told reporters on July 7 in Hamburg, Germany.

Yet without a doubt, the introduction of the de-escalation zones – concluded in Astana – have had a profound impact on the hostilities within Syria.

Extensive reports by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) highlight the Syrian government-backed use of barrel-bombs on a monthly basis. Since the U.S.-led coalition is fighting only internationally-recognized terrorist groups, which are omitted from any ceasefire, this is a useful indication of the general levels of conflict. The results indicate a de-escalation of hostilities in the month of the ceasefire agreement – yet the results are not so simple.

Data from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (vertical line indicates month of ceasefire agreement)

From April to May, the Syrian government’s use of barrel-bombs more than halved to 412, the SNHR reported. However, this took an unprecedented rise to 1271 in June. Of these, 97 percent were conducted in Daraa in southern Syria, where Syrian-backed forces launched a military campaign against rebel factions – starkly indicating difficulties with the terminology used in ceasefire agreements.

Yet, this took a sharp decline to 224 barrel-bombs in July and again with the vast majority in Daraa, with the decline arguably being a result of the U.S.-Russian-Jordanian ceasefire.

However, the necessity of ceasefires and their ability to establish long-lasting peace is often overinflated. If such ceasefires are actually effective and expand across the country, this could create further destabilization and consequently halt the progress of a peaceful reconciliation. An all-encompassing ceasefire would lead to a factionalized Syria with 3 major power holders: the Assed government, oppositional Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds in the north.

Such a situation would be highly unstable.

In the most likely situation, endless peace talks would ensue and eventually lose the support of the actors on the ground. The northern Syrian Kurds would continue to slowly expand the territory under their command, and calls for autonomy and possible independence would strengthen. A struggle would then develop between Assad-backed forces as they continue to encroach on the territory held by the opposition forces, mostly under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the Syrian Kurds.

Not only would this lead to renewed, violent tensions, but would also lead to continued resentment among the Sunni-Arab community, which facilitated the expansion of al-Qaeda affiliated groups and the Islamic State throughout Syria.

A clear definition of a ‘terrorist’ is necessary to keep all actors on the same page, and maintain the necessary harmony during a ceasefire.

But this touches upon deep-seated divisions between actors party to the conflict, where there is a stark contrast between those who are insisting on Assad’s long-lasting survival and those who demand his removal at some point during a transition process.

Although ceasefires have many benefits, alone they will do little to prevent continued factionalism and discontent within Syria. To be effective in creating long-lasting peace, they must be a small part of a larger reconciliation package.



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