Big-Power Meddling Casts Shadow Over Cease-Fire in Syria
The cease-fire announced on Monday could fall prey to a familiar problem: Who's a terrorist in Syria, and who's not?
The United States and Russia have finally agreed on a Syrian cease-fire plan, but a new report by the United Nations underscored just how hard it will be to implement the agreement while major powers expand their military role in Syria — and continue to hold vastly different views about which groups are terrorists and which represent the legitimate Syrian opposition.
State Department officials said the cease-fire agreement reached Monday does not cover the Islamic State, the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, or any other individuals considered terrorists by the U.N. Security Council. Those groups will continue to be fair game for Russian air raids — a fact that could render the cease-fire useless depending on how Moscow interprets the “cessation of hostilities” agreement, the technical term for the cease-fire. In recent weeks, Russian air power has helped forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad push closer to the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, shows no signs of laying down its weapons. The group took responsibility for a deadly spate of bombings in Homs and Damascus Sunday that killed at least 140 people and wounded hundreds more in some of the deadliest attacks since the start of the five-year-old civil war.
The new cease-fire was originally set for last Friday but was pushed back more than a week as a number of parties to the conflict continued fighting, including Turkey and Russia. It’s now set to take effect on Saturday.
It’s against this bloody backdrop that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a Geneva-based body that investigates human rights abuses, released a 31-page report detailing atrocities from July 2015 to January 2016.
The report asserts that all the main Syrian combatants have committed mass human rights abuses, from indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment of heavily populated cities and villages to the torture and execution of detainees and the imposition of sieges, primarily by the government, to starve rival communities into submission and surrender.
But the Russian-backed Syrian offensive has taken the greatest toll, striking hospitals, bakeries, and schools and driving tens of thousands of men, women, and children from their homes. The strikes have deepened the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and altered the course of the war, according to the U.N. commission.
“With the intensification of airstrikes, there are few safe places for civilians,” Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the chair of the commission, said in a statement. “They are exposed more than ever to violence.”
Moscow has insisted that it is targeting terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, but the United States and its European allies have accused the Russian government of primarily targeting rebels working to unseat Assad in an effort to solidify the government’s military position. In the new report, the commission details an array of Russian attacks, including some that appear to have primarily killed civilians, not Islamist fighters or moderate insurgents.
On Oct. 15, Russian and pro-government aircraft bombed the village of Teir Maalah, striking a bakery and killing 12 civilians, as well as a local commander of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. That same day, Russia and Syrian forces loyal to Assad carried out airstrikes against the neighboring village of Al-Ghantu, killing 47 civilians, including 12 children from a single family. On Nov. 8 and 9, meanwhile, pro-government forces conducted aerial assaults on the town of Al-Sawwanah al-Sharquiyah, killing several civilians, including two children. “No deaths of fighters were documented,” said the report.
The report — the most detailed account by the group of human rights violations in Syria since Russia entered the conflict in late September 2015 — also underscores the difficulties in distinguishing between extremists and moderates and deciding which groups can participate in peace talks.
It notes that al-Nusra Front — which the United States and the U.N. have designated a terrorist organization — is integrated into the ranks of the more moderate anti-Assad fighting forces. Al-Nusra Front controls large parts of Idlib, a key anti-Assad stronghold, and exercises considerable influence in rebel-held areas in Daraa, Homs, and the countryside surrounding Damascus, according to the report.
“In spite of divergences over political and governance matters, Jabhat al-Nusra and anti-government armed groups have continued to coordinate most of their military operations when facing the other belligerents,” wrote the commission, using the Arabic name for al-Nusra Front. The group has been hit particularly hard by pro-Assad warplanes in Idlib and Latakia.
Even as it absorbs casualties from the Russian strikes, however, al-Nusra Front and its allies have also been engaging in horrific atrocities.
Last September, al-Nusra Front and other unnamed armed groups executed seven men in Homs on charges of homosexuality. The same month, the groups seized Abu al-Duhur air base in Idlib from the Syrian air force and executed more than 70 government soldiers. “A video of the executions that surfaced in November shows a cleric affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra warning Sunni soldiers to defect or to face a similar fate,” the report stated.
In another disturbing anecdote, the report said that Jaysh al-Islam — a Islamist faction of fighters backed by Saudi Arabia — forced Syrians from Assad’s Alawite sect into metal cages and paraded them down the streets of eastern Ghutah in response to a Syrian government airstrike in Duma that killed 50 civilians. Pro-government soldiers and civilians were also used as human shields to deter future attacks.
Monday’s cease-fire announcement followed a phone call that same day between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. According to the White House, Obama “emphasized that the priority now was to ensure positive responses by the Syrian regime and armed opposition as well as faithful implementation by all parties in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, galvanize UN-led political process, and focus on defeating ISIL.”
The Islamic State, for its part, is continuing to shift its battlefield tactics from more conventional warfare to a greater reliance on asymmetric terrorist attacks.
Photo credit: Alexander Shcherbak/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch