Why Humanitarian Ceasefires Could Be a Viable Option in Syria

PHOTO: Civilians walk towards an evacuation point in the besieged Syrian city of Homs ahead of an evacuation operation led by the UN, on Feb. 9, 2014.
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This week, more than 700 civilians were evacuated from besieged areas of ">Homs city, under the cover of a ceasefire that was the only tangible concession made during the first week of Geneva II peace talks.

Humanitarian organizations have said that ceasefires are the only viable way to provide aid to civilians who need it, with the other major option, safe corridors, facing security concerns over who would police them and whether the police would then become targets themselves, further escalating the violence on the ground.

We asked Ayham Kamel, a London-based Levant analyst at the Eurasia Group, to weigh in.

Syria Deeply: At this point, are ceasefires the best option?

Ayham Kamel: I think it's very clear that grand schemes, in terms of comprehensive diplomatic engagement between the regime and the opposition, are unlikely to lead to settlement of conflict anytime soon. There are serious obstacles on that front. What we have in the meantime, beyond the political dimension, is a humanitarian crisis.

The most viable pathway to resolving those issues is ceasefires, temporary as they may be, is providing facilitated humanitarian access — not only by Syrian organizations, and this is key, but also by international aid agencies. You need to work on developing that umbrella alliance between the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, local NGOs and international organizations — it would be the most effective measure to assist civilians in conflict zones in Syria.

Other proposals will not succeed, in terms of buffer zones. There's no pathway to implement them and [policing them] will lead to military escalation which will be detrimental to the civilian process. If the aim is to alleviate civilian suffering, ceasefires are the most realistic approach and the easiest to implement. Not that it would be a simple process, but compared to the alternatives, it's the only real option here.

SD: How does they fit into the diplomatic process?

AK: Another dimension is that these — call them ceasefires or humanitarian access plans — they are fundamental to improving confidence between both of the warring parties. While the leadership on both sides might be skeptical about the ceasefires' effect on their military strategies, they do stand to improve confidence that military force isn't the only mechanism that can resolve the conflict. Military tactics will remain an essential strategy for the regime, but these alternative routes are becoming more important — they really are core elements if we want to move forward with the process of de-escalation.

Geneva is partly succeeding in creating avenues that lead to de-escalation, and that is where there is a consensus between Russia and the US.

SD: What challenges does the implementation present?

AK: The challenge in this is mostly on the rebel side, because there is a disconnect between the political leadership and groups on the ground. We could see the failure of a lot of these proposals along the way. While the regime has some issues with some of its militias or the National Defense Force, it's less of a problem for them.

SD: What would the implementation process actually look like?

AK: It's not an easy process. partly it'll be what the opposition delegation demands now in Geneva; Homs was put on table by the opposition as the place to start. It wasn't the easiest place to implement a ceasefire, and it was meant to test if the regime can do this in an especially difficult environment. In Homs, the opposition is really in the most dire of environments; rebel groups are very weak there, under siege with few options.

The point was to signal that the regime is willing to not simply go for the military option and force everyone to surrender. If they were willing, then there could even be an open pathway to more politically-oriented ceasefires. This was a test of its willingness to get its forces to comply with ceasefires, and to actually accept real concrete concessions. There were hiccups in implementing the plan in Homs, but it's very clear that most clauses were implemented despite the mortar shelling. We were able to get some civilians out and provide access to much needed food and medical supplies, so it was relatively successful. Expecting it to be implemented without hiccups was unrealistic.

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