Updated Feb 27, 2018

UN's Syria ceasefire already hobbled by flaws

Smoke rising from Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, following fresh air strikes and rocket fire on Feb. 27, 2018. Photo: Stringer / AFP / Getty Images

On Saturday the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a ceasefire in Syria, amid an escalation of attacks by pro-Assad forces on Eastern Ghouta that has left at least 520 dead and 2,500 injured in the past five days. The resolution provides for a 30-day nationwide ceasefire, weekly UN aid convoys and medical evacuations, but has several glaring weak points.

The problems:

  • The ceasefire does not apply to ISIS or al-Qaeda, which raises fears that Russia and Assad will invoke the limited presence of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate, to continue the campaign against Eastern Ghouta.
  • No enforcement mechanisms are spelled out, even though the Syrian government has violated past ceasefires and Russia is an unreliable guarantor.
  • The violence in Eastern Ghouta is already a direct violation of existing de-escalation agreements backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Astana framework.

What’s next: These weaknesses are arguably already undercutting the ceasefire. The Syrian government continues to pound Eastern Ghouta, with monitors reporting at least 30 killed since the resolution passed. The Syrian American Medical Society, a humanitarian organization, just verified another use of chemical weapons that affected 16 civilians, including six children. And Russia's announcement on Monday of a "humanitarian corridor," ostensibly to offer safe exit for civilians, is likely to be another loosely disguised means of forced displacement.

The bottom line: It’s the need for Russian buy-in that causes ceasefires to pass with these dangerous carve-outs and weak enforcement mechanisms, to further a strategic narrative that it is helping Damascus combat terrorism. The UN, and chiefly the United States, must capitalize on growing global awareness of the carnage in Ghouta to put firm measures in place that will protect civilian lives and create space for a peaceful resolution to the seven-year-old conflict.

Adham Sahloul has been a researcher at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an advocacy officer at the Gaziantep, Turkey, office of SAMS.

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