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The right ceasefire for Syria?

Hassan Zanind
December 30, 2016

A ceasefire began late Thursday evening between the Syrian government and some opposition groups. DW spoke with former president of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sieda, to get his view of the truce.

Abdulbaset Sieda
Image: dapd

DW: What's your initial reaction to this ceasefire agreement?

Abdulbaset Sieda: Initially, I consider this agreement to be an acceptable one, as it came to fruition after long talks. But we have to wait and see how it is being applied on the ground, especially since the Syrian regime has often breached or been non-compliant with these agreements. It's notable that the agreement is being supported by the Russians, a backer of the Syrian government. It's also supported by Turkey and the rebel groups backed by the Turkish government. 

From our side, we say that a political solution is required and a ceasefire is the first step towards a political solution, but we have to wait for the outcome of the ceasefire first to get to the next phase.

What has changed in comparison with previous ceasefire attempts and are there any new factors that will ensure the success of this new agreement?

A new factor is that the Russians are trying to end the current deadlock in Syria - a deadlock that they themselves have been involved in. The continuation of hostilities in Syria is a heavy burden on Russia, both economically and morally. It's also a burden on the political side, as it affects Russia's relationship with the US, EU and some countries in the Middle East region.

Turkey has emerged as a major player as it used its influence with various opposition factions to reach a deal with the Russians. The Iranians, in spite of their involvement in what is taking place, are not as enthusiastic about the deal - they are hoping that the Syrian government's success in taking Aleppo will extend to other areas in Syria. The Russians believe that if the Syrian government keeps taking back more areas from the opposition, it will complicate the situation and could in turn cut off the road to a political solution. All players in the deal want to see a political solution, but have their own perspectives of what that should be.

Syrien Krieg - Soldaten in Aleppo
The first day of the ceasefire was marred by sporadic clashes between the government and the opposition.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Let's go back to the Iranian position you referred to, as Iran has not yet signed the agreement. What do you think is behind Iran's stance and do you think an agreement of any kind can succeed without the blessing of Tehran?

This depends on the Russian side, which supports the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime, in turn, is supported by Iran and the Iranian militias. If Iran doesn't comply with the agreement a problem arises between the Iranians and the Russians. We believe that the Iranians play an active role in the Syrian situation. Iran is fully aware that if it makes transgressions towards the Russians it will lose a lot of its power in Syria.

Some of the rebel groups that have signed up for the agreement include Ahrar Al-Sham, Jaysh Al-Islam, the Sham Legion and the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki movement. What ensures that they abide by the agreement?

According to our information, there are negotiations between the opposition groups and opposition leaders, both within the National Coalition (the successor to the Syrian National Council) and outside of it. The factions are fully aware of the current circumstances in Syria, as well as the perspectives of the countries signing on to the agreement. This agreement came after difficult, lengthy and complicated negotiations. Our intel says that these groups would abide by the ceasefire agreement as long as the regime continues to abide by it.

Russland Syrien Assad bei Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning peace talks between the Assad government and rebel groups to take place in Astana, KazakhstanImage: Reuters/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/A. Druzhinin

Is it possible that an agreement like this will succeed without the participation of the United States?

America's position on this matter is important. The US wants a ceasefire in Syria and also a political solution to the crisis. Therefore, what has been reached doesn't conflict with US strategy. But the question is does this preliminary, partial agreement lead to something more comprehensive? This agreement concerns the northern and western regions of Syria but there are still the eastern and northeastern areas to be dealt with. This is a matter that cannot be handled without the role of the United States or the role of the Arab nations. Saudi Arabia is one example of an Arab nation that is driving the Syrian conflict considerably.

Any comprehensive agreement between the different sides of the conflict must come under the auspices of the United Nations and be guided by the statement of the Geneva I conference on Syria.

Turkey has also played a fundamental role in reaching the ceasefire agreement, but it is still insisting on a number of demands. One demand is that all foreign fighters leave Syria, including Lebanon's Hezbollah militia. Another is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps down. How appropriate are these demands in light of the current situation?

The Syrian regime itself is only an intermediary, it's Russia, Turkey and Iran who have headed this agreement. The agreement represents a minimum of consensus points. Turkey declares that Bashar al-Assad is not part of the solution but is a part of the problem. Turkey demands that foreign fighters leave Syria, such as Hezbollah. There are also terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the "Islamic State" or "IS" in the country. These groups practice terrorist acts against the Syrian people and consequentially they should leave the country.

Last question: What role do the Kurds play in this agreement and do they have any interest in it?

The Kurds are a part of Syrian society and their cause has emerged as an issue of national importance that must be addressed. But this cause is sometimes used regionally by Iran to spite Turkey, because Turkey is very sensitive on the Kurdish issue.

The issue here is the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK, not the Kurds as a whole. The Kurds are represented by the Kurdish National Council, which is part of the Syrian opposition within the Syrian National Coalition along with many civil society organizations and other actors. The Kurds must find a way to pursue their cause as a part of a comprehensive solution to the Syrian conflict.

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