Cause for optimism in Syria?

16 Dec

Very rarely does anything approaching good news come from Syria. The stories of suffering seem beyond comprehension. But a few days ago there was an event that might give cause for modest celebration – a ceasefire in one district of the city of Homs.

The ceasefire was between government forces and rebels, and was highly localised. It allowed the rebels (about 300) and their families (about 400 individuals) to be evacuated from the city to another rebel held area. It allows humanitarian aid to reach tens of thousands of people. The evacuation was organised by the UN.

The ceasefire can be criticised on all sorts of grounds. It is limited in geographical area. It effectively hands another chunk of the city over to the Assad regime (under the deal, the police go back in). It allows both the rebels and government to keep their weapons and thus kill each other, and civilians, another day. Fundamentally, it is a ceasefire – a temporary hiatus in a civil war that did not address the wider – and essentially political – problems of who governs Syria and with what source of legitimacy.

But let us put the criticisms to one side and concentrate on the positives. There are so few positives coming from Syria at the moment that we must seize any that come our way. Firstly, the ceasefire displayed a basic humanitarianism. However temporary and fragile the ceasefire and evacuation, it helped save the lives of hundreds of civilians and improve the lives of thousands more through their access to humanitarian aid. It stops fighting in one area of the city and allows some form of very limited normality to take root. It should be stressed that the deal hands a district of Homs over to government thugs and so life for non-government loyalists would be very insecure. Secondly, it shows that the government and the rebels can talk to each other. The ceasefire was negotiated directly between the two sides, with the UN facilitating the actual evacuation. It is unthinkable that the ceasefire negotiations did not go to the top of both organisations and so we do know that they are capable of negotiation, reaching an agreement and sticking to it.

A third positive is that the local peace deal might spur the so-called ‘international community’ to take its duties more seriously in finding diplomatic avenues to lessen the impact of the conflict. To put the point bluntly – foes in a civil war are able to talk and reach a deal, but leading states find it difficult to sit around the same table. The Saudis in particular seem addicted to making a ‘peace’ that excludes the parties they do not like (Iran, Assad). The whole point of peace is that it needs to include your enemies not just your allies.

A fourth positive is that the Homs deal is just one of a series of localised ceasefires that are being discussed in areas where there is a hurting stalemate. Some previous attempts to reach localised deals have faltered – but not all. If the Homs deal holds – and so far it has – then it may encourage imitation by others. We should not think in terms of a ‘Homs model’ – the on-the-ground conditions will differ from area to area. But at least it shows that ceasefires are possible. A series of localised ceasefires is not the same as nationwide peace, but it is a start to impose some rules of war, and offer some respite to civilians.

A key point, and one that is not made nearly often enough, is the need to praise the UN officials on the ground who made this deal happen. While other states bomb Syria from the air, the UN has boots on the ground in the form of civilian personnel who conduct humanitarian assessments, and organise the delivery of humanitarian goods. This requires immense personal and collective bravery by staff who are largely anonymous.


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