Contrary to popular belief, and on perhaps a much smaller scale than is noticeable, the United Nations is actually doing some pretty solid work in Syria. They negotiate mini-deals all over the place — the latest in outer Damascus — to freeze fighting temporarily and pull back the combatants from direct clashes. The deals establish Army-held perimeter checkpoints (satisfies the government even if they temporarily cede ground within the perimeter), hand interim governing authority to the FSA within the perimeter without giving up their guns (satisfies the rebels), and allow the UN to send in food and medical supplies (helps the civilians inside).
Here’s an account of the success in September by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson in The New York Review of Books:
The most realistic short-term policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict, with the aim of both containing extremist violence and significantly reducing the number of non-combatant deaths. This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere. In particular, clusters of cease-fires around Hama, Homs, and Damascus, and possibly Aleppo, could help end the conflict in a larger region along Syria’s principal north-south axis, bringing a degree of normality to daily life in a vital sector of the country.
The regime has recently made efforts to negotiate truces with opposition forces in a number of these areas, and has had some success. In a probing report released in June, the London-based consulting company Integrity Research and Consultancy identified twenty-six truces [implemented or in talks] in 2013 and 2014 […] in the Damascus suburbs, parts of Homs, and elsewhere. These deals have involved Islamist as well as relatively secular opposition groups, though not ISIS.
When an area is no longer viable to resist Army (or pro-Army paramilitary) advances, fighting stops and the FSA fighters evacuate on buses with their weapons and any civilians who want to leave, and then the Army marches in to re-take control. This scenario has played out in places like Homs (the now-fallen middle hub of the western rebellion, centrally located between the capital and Aleppo) and repeatedly in metro Damascus.
The report by Integrity Research & Consultancy, cited in the NY Books article quoted above, found 15 successful local truces had been reached and implemented in Syria by June 2014, while a further 9 proposed or rumored deals were pending. In fact, Integrity’s report found only 2 broken or failed localized truce agreements. Of the 15 successes, 13 were in western Syria (mostly metro Damascus neighborhoods or suburbs) and 2 were with the Syrian Kurds in the Rojava (which may be fueling the questionable allegation that Syria’s Kurds are “collaborating” with the Assad regime).
And it sounds like it might be about to happen in some neighborhoods of Aleppo, in a target area the UN envoy has identified as a potential “building block” for a more extensive peace. Although an Free Syrian Army commander in Aleppo on Friday appeared to reject a UN ceasefire plan), the Syrian government was reportedly favorable to the proposal.
The trend in UN-brokered deals and evacuations definitely speaks to the FSA’s lengthening string of defeats this year — irreversible without a direct western intervention — as well as the growing threat of ISIS to the east. And it’s arguably more self-serving than altruistic for the regime, according to Simon and Stevenson:
Quite apart from the new threat posed by ISIS, military gains by rebel groups in recent weeks [August and September 2014] have sapped the Assad regime’s military momentum. Regime fatalities increased steeply to 1,100 in the month of July. Government insiders, recognizing that the longer the war is prolonged, the more the government’s institutional capacity and material resources will be eroded, have taken to calling the local truces “reconciliations.”
So there is that reason. But I think it should also raise some questions about exactly how severe or unrestrained the Syrian armed forces actually are (since at least after the August 2013 chemical attack anyway) relative to claims of opponents and the West.
The fact that the government forces are willing to accept and abide by these deals is certainly due in part to having the upper hand and a clear sense of impending total victory, while needing to restrain the costs for achieving victory. But, costly or no, the government is winning gradually (and more easily after the US relieved some of the pressure from ISIS). And that means the regime could just keep steamrolling ahead at great cost in lives and money — which would certainly reduce the Sunni opposition population relative to the ruling Alawite and Shia minority populations — but instead is choosing a somewhat more humanitarian option. Not a high bar of conduct to clear, but many wartime governments in history have done worse.
To be sure, regime forces are still massively pummeling and bombing FSA-controlled civilian areas when these truces are not in effect (so did the Allies in World War II), but Assad’s government is also demonstrating a willingness to accept the surrender of specific districts to end the fighting early there. I’d argue, if forced to choose between the two, that it’s a lot better to fight dirty and brutally until a surrender agreement than to fight dirty and brutally to the last man.
Additionally, so far anyway, I haven’t heard of large-scale, non-battlefield atrocities in recaptured cities and towns over the past ten months after the FSA has withdrawn “protection” from a given district, in sharp contrast with cities and towns in Syria and Iraq that have fallen to ISIS control. I do believe that such atrocities at the hands of pro-government forces were indeed a feature of the first half of the war — when field commanders were regularly exceeding their authority, and rogue Shia and Alawite paramilitary leaders were conducting reciprocal slaughters of Sunni civilians and captured fighters out of fear, anger, and desperation — but I think that activity has diminished sharply as Assad has re-asserted his authority over his own supporters and over much of western Syria, while trying to avoid provoking a direct attack by Western military powers.
(Indeed, the unscientific but still informative Wikipedia tally of massacres and mass civilian death incidents in Syria over the course of the war shows just 4 incidents in the tracked first 8 months of 2014, 2 of which were committed by ISIS in numbers approaching 1,000 deaths, whereas 13 incidents from all sides are listed for 2012, along with 21 incidents in 2013. Barrel-bombing is continuing over contested civilian urban centers and more recently a refugee camp, but we haven’t had lots of reports of fallen cities being massacred, as was widely anticipated.)
Assad has proven very savvy, and part of that is knowing that you don’t massacre the inhabitants of a recaptured city after a ceasefire without sharply raising the chances of annihilation by US missiles. Chemical weapons use in August 2013 tested that “red line” and found it at least plausible enough for the regime to want to avoid. The intervention against massacre-happy ISIS a year later probably confirmed to Assad the rationality of playing it cool and preventing massacres.
Plus, there’s not a whole lot of point in defeating a rebellion and forcibly reuniting a country if you spend all your money to win and then kill all the people who live in it after peace has been achieved. Assad has always maintained, fairly convincingly, that he genuinely viewed himself as suppressing a terrorist-supported insurrection against the integrity of the country more than a bid to remain in power. Perhaps that’s baloney, but if he believes that’s true (or at least wants to persuade everyone it’s a real belief), he has a strong incentive — yes to fight massively toward peace, but then — to ensure the peace is preserved once won.
Where do we go from here? Simon and Stevenson argue it’s probably a wider UN-brokered deal to swap out Turkish and Gulf State military assistance to Sunni Arab rebels in favor of economic development assistance for war-ravaged Sunni Arab zones in western Syria — a stick-and-carrot approach to stop the proxy war and positively incentivize local resistance to give up quietly and quickly. (Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah would withdraw advisers and ground forces, respectively, on the other side.) One wonders, however, whether all the world’s avowed enemies of the Assad regime are going to be willing to suck it up and help out his government, economically and diplomatically, to bring an acceptable ending to the massive violence. I don’t think he’s going anywhere as part of any deal.
Moreover, at the moment, the United States hasn’t even applauded the existing diplomatic progress, remaining hung up on unrealistic regime change objectives instead of seeking to stop the killing. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki blasted the truce proposals on Monday, saying “Unfortunately, many local truces achieved thus far have more closely resembled surrender arrangements,” without acknowledging that halting the fighting and withdrawing doomed rebel forces is translating into hundreds (probably thousands) of civilian lives being saved. This short-sighted obsession was echoed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in a widely circulated op-ed last week: “Abandoning Aleppo would mean condemning 300,000 men, women and children to a terrible fate,” which, once again, seems hard to prove or credibly predict. Their daily life at the moment seems fairly terrible, too.
In the meantime, however it’s down to ending the violence locally through mini-truces. Region by region, city by city, block by block, building by building, the Syrian Armed Forces keep slowly hammering away at the rebel holdout positions via heavy artillery, aircraft, tanks, and infantry. But when the United Nations wants to phone someone up with a proposal for a localized ceasefire and an orderly rebel retreat, Bashar al-Assad takes the call and makes it happen.