The Syrian cease-fire
The Syrian cease-fire -- or “cessation of hostilities,” as it is officially called by the parties that negotiated it -- began at the end of last week.
The first question is whether it will remain in place.
The risks of its possible collapse are mainly due to the multitude of opposition factions. First, small combat groups that are fighting in a remote village may not feel obliged to obey the instructions of the larger combat groups under whose umbrella they may be fighting. The instructions given by the umbrella group may not be relevant to the situation in the field where the small combat group is operating. Or the small combat group may disagree with the umbrella group's instructions. The breach of the cease-fire by such small groups should not be perceived as a collapse of the cease-fire. This might happen especially if the warring sides are looking for an excuse to resume clashes. It will be a pity if the major players allow this to happen.
Second, the allegiances of smaller combat groups are not black and white; they include the entire spectrum of grey tones. Some of them may be close to Ahrar al-Sham but may also be close to Jaish al-Islam. They may change their allegiance on a daily basis. If a breach of the cease-fire caused by such small combat groups is attributed to a larger umbrella group, it may again lead to renewed confrontations. These are the risks of a collapse of the cease-fire.
The reason for the cease-fire is also valid because the human tragedy that the Syrian war has caused exceeded all initial predictions. Around 270,000 Syrians have been killed. Some 7 million people have become refugees in various countries while around 5 million have become internally displaced. The country's physical infrastructure has been destroyed beyond description. Both the regime and the opposition have come to the conclusion that an outright victory is neither in sight nor possible. The continuation of hostilities will drain the remainder of both sides' resources. There is an urgent need to put an end to this plight which cannot be achieved without a cease-fire and a negotiated solution.
Despite the risks caused by the fragility of the situation in Syria, the cease-fire agreed to by the US and Russia is the best option under the present circumstances. Therefore all other stakeholders have to contribute to its success.
The cease-fire is linked to the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted in December of 2015. The international Syria Support Group met in Munich and agreed on a deal composed of three major components: a negotiated cease-fire, humanitarian access to the besieged civilian population and a political transition.
An important provision of the agreement is that it does not cover attacks to be carried out against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al-Nusra Front and other Salafi terrorist organizations. There is an agreement between the US and Russia to coordinate in order to ensure that there are no attacks by Russia on the moderate opposition factions supported by the US.
Turkey has announced that it supports the cease-fire, but said it will continue its artillery fire from Turkish territory against Kurdish targets in Syria. This artillery fire is aimed at preventing the People's Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the biggest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), from linking the Kurdish-controlled cantons of Kobani and Afrin. If these two cantons are linked, Turkey will be surrounded from the south by a Kurdish belt and it does not want this to happen. Turkey says the shelling is in retaliation for attacks by YPG forces but Syria still considers the shelling a violation of its sovereignty.
Turkey's artillery fire is not likely to have a major impact on the military balance in the Syrian crisis it has only a limited range. It is unclear what Turkey will do if the 92-kilometer-long belt between Kobani and Afrin is occupied by first the Syrian regime forces and later handed over to the YPG within the framework of the final settlement of the Syrian crisis.