The Syrian agreement announced on Friday is far from a comprehensive breakthrough, but it’s a significant step, particularly if we look at what’s required to successfully negotiate peace, writes Jeni Whalan.
Amid the brutality of Syria’s five-year civil war, it’s easy to be cynical about the latest peace deal. Critics have already labelled it “a sham“, merely “political cover” for Russia and the US, and – more colourfully – “as shot full of holes as an Aleppo apartment building“.
To many observers, it is just diplomatic hot air.
Certainly, the agreement announced on Friday is far from a comprehensive breakthrough. It won’t end the fighting nor ensure that sustained humanitarian relief reaches all those in need. But it is significant step, particularly if we take a long view of what’s required to successfully negotiate peace.
1. It’s not a ceasefire
Technically, the agreement is for a cessation of hostilities to begin within a week, and for the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to seven priority areas as “a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country“.
A “cessation of hostilities” is generally understood to be less ambitious than a ceasefire, particularly as it was agreed not by the Syrian parties themselves but by a group of 17 countries with a stake in the war – chief among them, the US and Russia.
The agreement excludes two main parties to the conflict: Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria’s east, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. These two groups will continue to be legitimate targets for parties within and beyond Syria, but their exclusion also means they can continue their attacks throughout the country. Expect both to play spoiler to any tentative cooperation between the Assad government and opposition groups.
2. Forging an international deal first may help a Syrian deal to follow
Peace agreements, particularly in the most difficult conflicts, often begin as deals among international players who then persuade, pressure and even coerce their local allies to comply. This internationally led model was used in the peace deal that ended the Bosnian war in 1995; as Christopher Hill, one of its negotiators, recalled:
First, an international “contact group” agreed on a framework for peace. Then, the parties directly involved in the conflict were brought in to reach agreement within the framework. That may sound patronising, but it worked.
This approach has merit in a civil war as internationalised as Syria’s. While lasting peace must ultimately be Syrian-led, getting these international parties to agree the basic parameters of a deal is an essential first step.
3. Russia can now get (more of) what it wants
Recent Russian airstrikes have decisively tipped the battlefield in favour of the Assad government. As in Ukraine, Russia’s military action makes it better able to get its way on what it sees as core security interests – in this case, continuing rule by the Assad regime.
Much now depends on Russia’s own compliance with the cessation of hostilities. Despite claiming to target Islamic State, the overwhelming majority of Russian bombs have instead pummelled the Syrian opposition, killing over 1000 civilians. If Russia continues to target the moderate opposition groups under claim that they are terrorists, Friday’s agreement will be dead in the water. More likely is that, satisfied with recent advances and cautious about the costs of an expanded military campaign, Russia will be content for now to see its newly acquired advantage play out in the negotiating room.
4. The deal won’t hold, but peace talks must continue
As I have argued previously, the road to a peace deal is always paved with failed negotiations. Ceasefires require continued renegotiation and violations are commonplace, even once a comprehensive settlement is reached.
So what should we expect of this agreement? Hostilities, if they do cease, will resume. Aid delivery, if it does begin, will again be obstructed. Violence will probably flare as all sides seek the most advantageous position before the cessation of hostilities effectively freezes them in place.
But even if the agreement does little more than allow a temporary period of humanitarian relief for people in Syria’s besieged cities, it will have been worthwhile. While Russian airdrops are far from the ideal means of aid delivery, even a brief alleviation of human suffering is surely a positive outcome. More significantly, the deal provides a foundation from which further humanitarian access can be negotiated.
Finally, the agreement should be judged not on whether fighting ceases but whether it allows UN talks to resume, as planned, at the end of the month. It is not a coincidence that its key features address the Syrian opposition’s preconditions for talks. But as John Kerry put it on Friday, much more will be required than simply words on paper.