When Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy charged with the difficult task of negotiating an end to the bloody conflict in Syria, announced a brief holiday ceasefire yesterday, even the prospect of that small step toward peace was met with widespread doubt.
On the heels of a trip to Damascus, Brahimi said Wednesday that the Syrian government had agreed to a four-day respite from the violence for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which starts Friday—a plan, Brahimi said, that most armed opposition groups had agreed to “on principle.”
But the international press quickly filled with accounts from senior rebels predicting that even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a ceasefire, he would never keep his word. As Mustafa Sheikh, the general who heads the military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army, told The Daily Beast: “The regime is lying. They do this all the time. They’ll start bombing innocent people, the rebels will retaliate, and then they’ll say: ‘See—the rebels don’t keep their promises.’”
Both sides have been here before. In April, Brahimi’s predecessor—former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan—had brokered a tentative ceasefire with promises from Assad to pull his military back from the country’s urban areas. But shortly after the ceasefire officially began, the government assaults on the opposition resumed, and Annan later resigned his post in frustration.
Now, facing the task of trying to stem a conflict that seems to grow more vicious by the day, Annan’s replacement is aiming to start small, using a holiday break in the fighting as a chance to build trust for future talks.
As Wednesday wore on, however, even that modest plan seemed to be falling apart. Aside from the rebel concerns, the Syrian government itself appeared to be walking back from Brahimi’s announcement. The spokesman for Syria’s foreign ministry said the idea of a ceasefire was still “being studied” by the military and that the government would come to a decision on Thursday—a notable departure from Brahimi’s assurance that the regime had already agreed to a ceasefire. Then, in what some analysts saw as a worrisome omen for the efforts, Brahimi’s spokesman reportedly resigned. “It’s a bad sign when the flak who is supposed to be selling the ceasefire quits before the ceasefire even takes hold,” says Michael Weiss, the research director of the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank in London.
Inside Syria, the non-warring parties seemed to have long ago decided that no international efforts could save them, either in the form of intervention, or with a brokered peace deal. “We don’t trust that anything will come from the outside world,” says one leading democracy activist in Damascus. “We just need to be able to cope and survive on our own.”
“The government can afford to do this for a very short period just to gain some political points.”
Aside from the distrust between the two sides, some analysts say that the intensity of the fight may mean that both the rebels and the government will be reluctant to relent, even for a matter of days. In a brutal war, in which more than 30,000 people have died, according to activist groups, both the government and rebel forces may feel like they have no room to let up.
“Both sides feel like they have a lot to gain by engaging in unrelenting force,” says Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London.
So far, the regime’s strategy has relied heavily on pounding suspected rebel positions with aerial bombs and long-range shells, in order to keep the opposition from consolidating its gains in cities like Aleppo, once considered a government stronghold but now the scene of fierce fighting. Both rebel and government forces are encamped in the city in a chaotic patchwork of control. Joshi points out that it’s unlikely the government would be willing to let up their assault for long.
“I think the government can afford to do this for a very short period just to gain some political points,” he says. “But I don’t think they can sustain that for longer than a couple of days. They simply have too much to lose. They would be ceding too much ground to the rebels.”
For their part, Joshi adds, the rebels have also been keen to apply constant pressure on the government—challenging the military’s positions and cutting off supply routes. They, too, might see little benefit to stopping their offensive.
Many rebels seem to feel that momentum is on their side. As one opposition spokesman told journalist Zaid Benjamin today in an interview translated by the Guardian, “if the truce happens, it won’t mean lifting the siege on areas where the regime’s forces are surrounded, or risking the lives of the Syrian people—and we won’t allow the regime to catch its breath and commit more massacres after the truce.”
Some analysts, in fact, think the battered Syrian forces might stand to gain from a short break in the fighting, however unlikely it is to occur. Assad’s troops could reinforce key positions—for example, in places such as the province of Idlib—that are in danger of falling to the rebels, says Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C. “It gives the military a margin to regroup and resupply, then collapse the ceasefire and go back at it from a position of strength,” he says.
Badran adds that the irregular militias loyal to the government—known as shabiha—could still inflict damage on rebel areas during any official break in the fighting.
Some say Assad has already benefited from the mere talk of a ceasefire, even if the peace never comes to pass. “Every time something like this is agreed to, he knows that the story ceases to be the bombardment of Aleppo, the humanitarian catastrophe. Suddenly you hear the word ‘ceasefire,’ or ‘truce,’ or ‘lull in violence,’ and those become the buzzwords,” says Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society. “It’s all about buying time.”