A ceasefire has been in effect in Syria since last Saturday, the agreement was reached in Munich last month by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). The ceasefire allows that all parties concerned may continue to conduct military operations against ISIS, and the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, indeed, it is the case that the objective of the peace talks is to establish a peace between government forces and the opposition, and to allow to the delivery of aid to besieged areas, whilst continuing to ensure that, mainly ISIS but other groups also, are not enabled to consolidate the ground that they have acquired in the course of the conflict.
The peace talks, which were originally planned for the 7th of March, were pushed forward to the 9th of March by the UN, in the hopes that breaches of the ceasefire will have reduced. Although violence has decreased dramatically since the implementation of the ceasefire last Saturday, both sides (Assad + Putin, and the Syrian opposition) cite evidence that the other party has broken the ceasefire, and there are no grounds on which to disbelieve claims from either side.
Both the US and Russia have set up hotlines and websites, by which groups on the ground can report breaches of the ceasefire. It has been claimed by various Syrian activists that the hotline operators of the US service had an inadequate Arabic language skills, and were not sufficiently knowledgeable about Syria to effectively fulfil their duty.
There have been numerous reports of breaches of the ceasefire by both Russia, and Assad’s forces. Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive of Mercy Corps, a notable humanitarian agency active in Syria, said at a briefing in New York: “There were five suspected Russian and Syrian airstrikes at the entrance to Aleppo city. Since Monday there has been fighting and shelling in and around Aleppo city, and the main road has been subject to intermittent closure. Yesterday, it was closed completely.”
Last Tuesday, Israel accused Syrian government forces of having used chemical weapons on civilians since the implementation of the ceasefire. “The Syrians used military grade chemical weapons and lately have been using materials, chlorine, against civilians, including in these very days, after the supposed cease-fire, dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians”, said Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon in Tel Aviv. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has denied that there have been any breaches of the ceasefire on the part of his armed forces.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed the Syria ceasefire, but has insisted that the March 9th peace talks must take Israel’s needs into account. He said that any peace agreement must include a halt to “Iranian aggression against Israel from Syrian territory. It is generally understood that by this he means that Israel will not accept any agreement that installs into power a pro-Iranian regime in Syria. Israel has said that it will continue with military activates in spite of the ceasefire if they are deemed necessary to prevent the transfer of arms to Hezbollah.
PM David Cameron, German Chancellor Angele Merkel and French President Francois Hollande conducted a conference call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, in an attempt to urge him to stop his breaches of the ceasefire.
Both Assad and Putin use the term “terrorist” flippantly to refer to differing anti-government rebel groups as a means of legitimising their destructive military campaigns. Although it is true that there are anti-government rebel groups who display Islamist tendencies, it is not the case that vaguely defined “moderate” groups such as the FSA are outnumbered by so called “hardline” groups on the Syrian opposition. Terrorism, properly defined, is the use of violence against civilians as a means of pushing an ideological agenda, political, religious or social, on a group/governing body. Assad’s initial response to the 2011 anti-government protestors, along with Assad and Putin’s ongoing targeting of civilians, satisfies this definition. Assad and Putin’s use of the term “terrorism” is totally dishonest. It is merely an attempt to legitimise their relentlessly destructive and misguided military campaigns, which, up until Saturday, were causing the vast majority of civilian casualties in this conflict, by associating anti-government rebel groups with groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS. It applies, perhaps more accurately, to themselves.
It is true that there have been reports of breaches of the ceasefire by all parties in, and bordering Syria, but in contrast to the Western powers who have stuck to the ceasefire, Russia is the only major world power to have broken the agreement. This, along with Russia’s previous behaviour in the conflict, is not something that should go unnoticed.
Hopefully by the time you are reading this, all sides involved will have reduced their breaches of the ceasefire, and the March 9th peace talks will not have been further delayed.