False Hopes: Using Ceasefires To Prepare For The War
In line with priorities that shifted toward a reduction in violence, ceasefires have been an increasingly large part of international diplomacy around Syria. The country saw four in 2016: a cessation of hostilities in February, a brief ceasefire around the festival of Eid in July, a ceasefire negotiated by the US and Russia in September, and the final Aleppo ceasefire in December, which paved the way for a nationwide ceasefire in January.
Most of these pauses were used by the warring parties to jostle for position and credibility, both on the ground and along the shifting global diplomatic sands. While the reduction in violence during each ceasefire temporarily alleviated suffering across the country, in most cases the ceasefires were used by the government and its allies to gain ground or position themselves for future operations. Tracking the ceasefires in Aleppo throughout 2016 provides useful context and an insight into the way ceasefires played into the warring parties’ broader strategic aims.
February Cessation of Hostilities
The US and Russia reached agreement on February 22, 2016, for a nationwide Cessation of Hostilities to begin on February 27. The agreement did not apply to either ISIS or the Nusra Front, but applied to the opposition and government alike. The agreement also stipulated that there must be unimpeded humanitarian aid access to all areas.
The ceasefire represented the greatest reduction in violence seen in Syria in 2016, but it was never wholly successful. As early as the morning of February 27, airstrikes and clashes were reported. While overall violence was initially reduced, there were constant reports of violations and these increased in number from day to day. Within weeks, observers monitoring the cessation of hostilities declared it all but over. Diplomats continued to insist on the importance of the ceasefire, and to reaffirm its existence, but the reality on the ground was that it had lost all meaning by the end of April.
In Aleppo, government strikes continued throughout the period of the ceasefire. Ostensibly aimed at the Nusra Front, these in fact struck a wide range of targets, including civilians and opposition groups, in what has been termed a “relentless” series of violations. By late April, the government was striking the opposition-held half of the city with heavy bombing, including on hospitals.
For the religious observance of Eid, a “regime of calm” was “implemented across all territory of the Syrian Arab Republic for a period of 72 hours from 1 a.m. on July 6 until 2400 on July 8, 2016.”
The regime of calm never lived up to its name. The government and its supporters (Hezbollah, Russia, and Iranian militias) used the three-day window to attack the approach road to Aleppo and work toward bringing about the siege of the city. On the morning of July 6, within hours of the beginning of the ceasefire, there were reports of attacks on the area around the Castello Road. Throughout the ceasefire, fierce fighting was reported in and around the same area, the north of the city.
The result of the period of calm was to further loosen the opposition forces’ hold on the lifeline road linking east Aleppo with the outside world. As soon as the Eid pause ended, the offensive resumed, with one objective: besieging the city. Just three weeks after the beginning of the ceasefire, the Castello Road was cut, and east Aleppo was under siege.
In September 2016, Russia and the United States agreed on another ceasefire; they agreed that if it held for a week, the two countries would cooperate on military activities against ISIS and the Nusra Front.
The ceasefire began at sundown on September 12, and was intended to hold for forty-eight hours initially, with a forty-eight-hour extension if peace was maintained. While the ceasefire was nationwide, the agreement text was heavily oriented toward east Aleppo. It did not include the area around the Ramousah Road, which had been retaken by government forces not long before. Each side clearly feared that the other would use the ceasefire to advance their military position; given the way in which the Eid ceasefire had been abused, this was unsurprising.
The ceasefire included humanitarian aid access across the country, and set out in detail how the aid was to be allowed into east Aleppo. Sealed trucks were to leave Turkey via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, carrying boxes packed under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UN observers. Trucks were to enter Aleppo under Russian military supervision via Castello Road.
The Syrian government, which had been extensively briefed on the plan before the ceasefire was agreed, repeatedly refused to give permission for the aid convoy to leave the Turkish border, despite multiple UNSC resolutions. Fighting groups and the Local Council inside Aleppo also disputed the route of the aid convoy, arguing that it legitimized the siege for the trucks to be allowed in via the Castello Road under Russian military supervision.
Carefully planned movements were negotiated to ensure both sides withdrew from their positions near the Castello Road to allow the aid access, but trust in each other and the process was lacking, and the implementation of the withdrawal from the Castello Road positions was slow and painful. After several days, the food items in the trucks perished, undelivered.
On September 17, the US struck SAA positions near Deir Ezzour during an airstrike the American military said was aimed at ISIS fighters in the area (strikes on ISIS were in accordance with the ceasefire exemption). The US had never struck SAA positions before and claimed the strike was accidental; despite a swift US apology, Assad accused the Americans of deliberately targeting his forces, and Kremlin media outlet RT expanded on the accusation. The diplomatic tension worsened at a fiery UN Security Council meeting in which the US and Russian representatives accused one another of hypocrisy, cynicism, and unprecedented heavy-handedness.
The final blow to the ceasefire came on September 19, when a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy of humanitarian aid, approved by the Syrian government and Russia, left government-held west Aleppo for an area in the opposition-held west Aleppo countryside, crossing the front lines to gain access. At 19:30 local time, the convoy was struck by heavy fire. Twenty people were killed and eighteen trucks destroyed. Despite denials by the Syrian government and Russian Ministry of Defense, multiple investigations into the event leave little room for doubt that Russia or the Syrian air force were responsible for the bombing. The Russian and Syrian governments denied even the suggestion that they might have been involved and hurled accusations at the other parties to the conflict. The bombing marked the end of an already crumbling ceasefire.
Immediately prior to the ceasefire, government troops had taken territories in southern Aleppo. Just three days after the strike on the aid convoy, the Syrian government announced the launch of its final operation to retake east Aleppo. Given the amount of time necessary to prepare such a large-scale assault, it seems clear that the government used the ceasefire to build up its forces, while simultaneously preventing aid from reaching east Aleppo.
Aleppo’s final ceasefire was announced on December 14. After weeks of heavy military pressure, less than 5 percent of the east Aleppo enclave remained in opposition hands. At the request of opposition forces, a ceasefire was reached as part of an evacuation deal on December 14, 2016, bringing an end to the hostilities in the area once and for all.
The ceasefires of 2016 brought some respite to the people of Aleppo. In certain areas, and for limited periods of time, they led to a reduction in violence. But as measures to build trust and pave the way for a larger settlement, they failed.
While the February ceasefire had a significant impact in reducing the levels of violence across Syria, the Eid period of calm appears to have been little more than a strategic deception by the Assad government, used as part of a deliberate military operation to close the ring around Aleppo. The September ceasefire never came close to overcoming the warring parties’ mutual mistrust, and crumbled after the US strike on Syrian forces, and the Syrian / Russian strike on the SARC convoy. Only the final ceasefire held, and that because one side had so clearly won the battle.