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Making local ceasefires work in Syria

Any approach to Syria should be judged by its ability to stop the daily abuses against civilians. Advocates of local ceasefires must strive for a balance between immediate relief from the daily suffering and commitment to basic rights and the aspirations of Syrians.

Al-Hasakah, Syria, October 2014 Al-Hasakah, Syria, October 2014.Alan Ali/Demotix. All rights reservedThe buzzword in Syria policy circles these days is “bottom up.” A flurry of recent activity and discussions have developed around the idea that in the absence of a national or international political deal, energies should focus on local ceasefires, or “freeze zones,” in the words of Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, that would suspend fighting in some areas and allow delivery of humanitarian aid.

The most articulate formulations of such an approach have come from the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue as well as a report by Madani, an organization of Syrians working to promote civil society, and the London School of Economics. Ceasefires could bring much needed relief to particular areas, and could –  supporters of this approach contend  –  sow the seeds for a longer-term resolution to the conflict.

As the advocates note, there are already locally negotiated ceasefires in Syria and more are anticipated. Rather than ignoring them, they say, the international community should support such processes to ensure they are sustainable and feed into a broader national process of conflict resolution. De Mistura would like to test his approach as well as the intentions of the various parties by attempting to “freeze” the conflict in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the country’s most embattled places.

Critics of this approach worry that local ceasefires will only be an opportunity for President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government to pacify certain areas and free up forces to attack other areas— and then later return to attack the “pacified” areas or arbitrarily arrest its residents. Who will hold the Assad government to task, they ask, if the government doesn’t keep its end of the bargain? For each example of successful local negotiations that “freeze” proponents offer, critics can cite cautionary tales of government misbehavior.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about the intentions of the government as well as the various rebel groups in Syria. Two days after Assad said he would consider De Mistura’s proposal, Syrian authorities detained Louay Hussein, a well-known political activist, and charged him with weakening “national sentiment.” If the regime still cannot tolerate a peaceful activist like Hussein, how can it be trusted to deal humanely with rebel fighters? The same could be said about many armed opposition groups that have adopted a sectarian discourse with little space for Syria’s minorities, particularly Alawites.

Despite these well-grounded reasons for skepticism, a number of factors – the increased fragmentation of the opposition, the continued advances of the Islamic State armed group (ISIS), and the absence of any prospect of an international or regional deal in the near future –support trying any idea that may stop daily violations of Syrians’ basic rights.

A key issue for international policymakers is what value international support can add to ensure that these local agreements turn out to be the building blocks of better treatment of Syrians and not just temporary respites until the next round of abuses. Supporters of the “freeze zone” proposal should press for the following conditions:

1. Release of peaceful activists – not just locally but nationally

“All the good people are gone,” a veteran Syrian lawyer told me recently. Large numbers of peaceful activists have been detained, tortured, killed, disappeared, or gone into exile. This is no accident. Syrian authorities have targeted peaceful political activists, aid workers, and civil society leaders since the early days of protests and excluded them from the many subsequent amnesties announced.

Of the dozens of peaceful activists whose cases Human Rights Watch and other groups have been monitoring, only one was released under an amnesty. Rebel groups have also gone after peaceful activists, from a local council leader, Abdullah al-Khalil in Raqqa, to a prominent rights activist, Razan Zeitouneh, in Douma, near Damascus.

Any ceasefire will only be sustainable if it gives space for civil society – in its various forms -- to operate again. This means releasing political, humanitarian and media activists and allowing them to return to areas where ceasefires have been declared if they wish to do so. 

2. Stopping indiscriminate attacks and other abuses

It took the UN Security Council three years to finally agree on language for Resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, calling on warring parties to stop using  barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons in populated areas. Yet there was no proper follow up to ensure compliance.  

The importance of stopping indiscriminate attacks across the country should not be sidelined by the pursuit of a bottom-up approach. Rather, it should be pursued in parallel. An agreement to freeze the conflict in Aleppo that would simply allow the government to shift its helicopters to barrel bomb Raqqa, Daraa, or Idlib would merely move the atrocity from one part of the country to another.

So along with pursuing local agreements, there needs to be an effort to get the parties to commit to fight in line with international laws and norms. Cynics may scoff at such a possibility but international pressure did succeed in forcing the Syrian government to abandon its chemical weapons. Work by human rights groups led some armed groups to commit to stop using child soldiers.

De Mistura should consider a process of “cleaning up” the fight in Syria as an intermediary measure by getting key parties to stop using certain weapons like barrel bombs and cluster munitions, or conducting certain types of attacks, like car bombings in civilian areas. The way to do that is to have the Security Council follow up on its February resolution and impose arms embargos on any party to the conflict that continues to carry out indiscriminate attacks.

Will ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra commit to such a code of conduct? Plainly, no. But both these groups were already sanctioned by the Security Council in resolution 2170, adopted in August. Other parties that commit widespread abuses should be subject to the same treatment.

3. Let humanitarian aid in – unrestricted

One of the tragedies of Syria is the way the government, and some armed opposition groups have used “starve or surrender” tactics as a war strategy. Providing and withholding food and humanitarian aid should not be an accepted negotiation tactic. Under international humanitarian law, warring parties must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need.

Warring parties must grant relief personnel freedom of movement and protect them from attack and arbitrary detention. In short, aid should be depoliticized. It is one thing to negotiate with warring parties to coordinate modalities of delivery and ensure safety of humanitarian staff, but the world community needs to send a strong message that the principle of access to aid is not open to negotiation.

4. What about justice?

A missing element in the “bottom-up” discussion has been any real effort to tackle the issue of justice for the horrendous crimes in Syria during the last three and a half years. This glaring absence is probably due to diplomats’ and government officials’ oft-held view that talking about accountability complicates negotiations and that adopting justice mechanisms before stability has been attained would be counterproductive.

Yet putting the issue of justice on the table now is essential -- not only for the victims, but also to ensure that fighters will be deterred from committing abuses in the future. It may well be that prosecutions and trials of officials or commanders are not attainable today, but we can consider steps short of that to take today that set the ground for future accountability. In addition, it is essential for whoever remains in de facto control of an area to deal with day-to-day crime and justice issues to put an end to an ongoing wave of crimes – ranging from theft to extortion and kidnappings.

Local agreements should attempt to:

  • - Suspend or otherwise sideline abusive members of the security forces or armed groups
  • - Compensate victims, with the amount determined and the compensation disbursed by a committee that has local legitimacy
  • - Grant access to the UN Commission of Inquiry as well as human rights groups to the areas under ceasefires

These steps fall short of the truth-telling process and trials that will be needed to address the grave violations and abuses that occurred in Syria. But at least they would be a start.

5. Independent monitoring and enforcement

One of the key issues is who will monitor and ensure compliance with the terms of these local deals and how monitoring can be done in a way that ensures protection of basic rights. Some cautionary lessons can be learned from the challenges the UN faced in trying to monitor the ceasefire in the Old City of Homs in February. While the UN was able to initially visit a group of men held by the government after they were evacuated from old Homs, it did not have the continuing ability to track them. A number of these men were later forced to serve in the Syrian military, and in a number of cases their families have lost contact with them and fear that the government may have detained or killed them.

Independent monitors for any local deal will be essential. Various ideas should be explored. In addition to the obvious reliance on UN monitors, who should remain in the areas where such deals have been enacted, negotiators could also explore relying on a committee of countries that are key backers of the armed parties and that would act as the guarantors of such local deals.

A monitoring committee was set up for the 1996 April Understanding between Israel and Hezbollah. Under its terms, both sides agreed to end cross-border attacks on civilian targets, as well refrain from using civilian villages to launch attacks. The monitoring committee had representatives from the US, France, Syria, Israel and Lebanon and it convened to monitor and discuss infringements of the understandings by the two sides. One could imagine such a committee composed of representatives of Syrian warring parties as well as Iran, Turkey, US and Russia, as guarantors of the implementation of an agreement for Aleppo.

Ultimately, any approach to Syria should be judged by its ability to stop the daily abuses against civilians while setting the stage for the needed reforms and changes essential to allow Syrians to live in dignity and free of fear and repression. It is this essential balancing act between immediate relief from the daily suffering and commitment to basic rights and aspirations of Syrians that advocates of local ceasefires must now strive for. 

About the author

Nadim Houry is the Director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program at Human Rights Watch, based in Paris.


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