The Syrian civil war might be entering a new phase with the cessation of hostilities. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the conflict and millions displaced internally or became refugees from this conflict. Especially with the recent Russian airstrikes and the Syrian regime’s ground offensives there has been an increasing degree of pessimism among observers of the region. The cease-fire is considered an important turning point in the conflict. However, it is still too early to evaluate its strength and effectiveness in different parts of Syria.
Although observers of the Syrian civil war reported a reduction in clashes and airstrikes, there is still a great amount of skepticism about the potential result of this agreement. Some reported breaches of the agreement and potential further breaches, and violations are one of the significant sources of the suspicion about the cease-fire’s effectiveness. More important than the reported breaches, however, what makes Syrians and the international community more concerned and skeptical about the arrangement is pessimism that the turn of events for the last five years has generated in the public about the conflict. There are an increasing number of questions about the cost of breaking the agreement or resuming hostilities on the part of the regime and Russia.
It is almost clear what will happen if the opposition groups break the truce and launch an attack on regime forces. Both the regime and the Russian air force will respond immediately to such an attack and use their war and propaganda machines to make a case for international support and legitimacy for the counterattack. It is not clear, however, what would happen once the breaker of the truce is either the regime or Russia. Who would levy any sanction or punitive action against them? So far, both the regime and its allies have been immune from any form of punitive action when they violate international laws and conventions. The regime used chemical weapons, and both the regime and its allies committed horrendous war crimes without many consequences. There is also a high risk of cheating among different groups once an agreement is reached. It was reported that despite a statement from the regime about its chemical weapons stockpiles and its commitment not to use them, it did so during the conflict after the previously agreement brokered with the assistance of the U.S. and Russia. So there is a question of enforceability of agreements in Syria. What happens once a party violates the terms of the truce may be clear on paper but will be hard to implement in practice.
Just hours before the agreement was to take effect, U.S. President Barack Obama gave another warning about the crises. There is a credibility deficit for the U.S. administration in this conflict due to several instances of unfulfilled promises and red line. However, there is also a willingness to believe that once the U.S. becomes the guarantor of an agreement or makes a commitment it is more than a simple warning, it is an ultimatum with significant consequences. Maybe because of this the U.S. administration continues to make similar types of statements. I his statement Obama made another warning about the conflict in Syria and said “the world will be watching” the implementation of the agreement. But, as mentioned above, in order for this warning to have meaning it needs to have a certain actionable plan about the possible consequences of the break of some norms.
In order to have a better and more effective truce, the world should not only be watching, it also should be preparing to act when one of the parties attempt to break the cease-fire between the different groups and countries. This will be a major test for the warring parties in the Syrian civil war.
This article was first published in the Daily Sabah on February 29, 2016.