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Syria's ceasefire: Many players, many obstacles

Matthias von Hein / ccFebruary 27, 2016

The ceasefire has its weaknesses - but it's the best hope yet of progress in Syria. Where the civil war goes from here will be decided, above all, in Aleppo.

Syrien Aleppo Ruinen
Image: picture alliance/abaca

It's already hard enough to mediate a ceasefire between two enemies. The civil war in Syria is a war with many players, both at home and abroad. Around 100 rebel and armed opposition groups had signed up to the ceasefire by midday on Friday. The ceasefire itself was agreed a week ago, on February 22, by the United States and Russia, as the co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). On the Syrian government's side, in addition to the Syrian armed forces, the Russian air force and Iranian groups, as well as Shia militias from Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon must all stick to the agreement.

Ceasefire with exceptions

The biggest problem with the ceasefire: Two important players are explicitly excluded, with good reason. The group calling itself "Islamic State" and the al-Qaida offshoot al-Nusra Front are considered terrorist groups and can still be attacked. "Islamic State" made their scorn for the ceasefire cruelly apparent: They responded with bomb attacks in Homs and outside Damascus on 21 February in which almost 200 people died. Meanwhile, shortly before the start of the ceasefire the head of the al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, called on Syrian rebels to intensify their fight against the head of state, Bashar al-Assad, and his allies. If they now continue to attack al-Nusra, as the agreement allows them to do, it will be problematic, especially in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

Syrien Soldat Symbolbild Waffenstillstand Syrische Armee und Hisbollah
The fragile ceasefire came into effect early on February 27.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ria Novosti

The patchwork of Aleppo

There are said to be around 40,000 armed opposition fighters in the city, divided up into around 50 different groups. Al-Nusra is one of the strongest, controlling important infrastructure facilities such as the water and electricity supply. In the patchwork city of Aleppo, al-Nusra's positions and those of other opposition groups are all close together. It will be extremely difficult to distinguish between them and locate on a map which areas can be attacked and which can't.

Furthermore, moderate groups also keep entering into tactical alliances with the extremists. According to Daniel Müller of the Hesse Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (HSFK), after five years of civil war, none of the former opposition groups is "clean." However, in an interview with DW, Müller explained that the Syrian government had also allied itself with extremists such as al-Nusra or IS: "This is, quite simply, because these extremists are attacking all parties in the civil war - both the opposition and the Syrian regime. And so both sides - the regime and the parties to the civil war - are making pacts with the extremists."

Until now, alliances between some opposition groups and the al-Nusra Front have allowed the regime to legitimize large-scale attacks. If this continues, bombs may keep falling on groups that have signed up to the peace process, and that would quickly put an end to the ceasefire. This is why Müller argues in favor of a very restrictive definition of the term "terrorist organization."

"For groups that have, on occasion, made a pact with al-Nusra or IS we should implement a sort of amnesty, and say: We'll try to talk to them and reach a settlement with them."

Müller divides the opposition groups, the number of which is hard to assess, into two main groups: The first - Syrian opposition forces, such as the Free Syrian Army and regional defense militias. The other - Islamist and jihadist groups with their own agendas, such the establishment of an Islamic state, which have flooded in from outside. IS and al-Nusra belong to this group. Kurdish groups are also important players; they are principally fighting for autonomy.

Radicalization of the opposition

The Syrian opposition was not particularly religious in its orientation in the beginning, says Müller, but over the years there has been a radicalization. Gulf States have played an important role, because they have given more support to religiously-orientated groups. A study by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War published in mid-February looked at the armed opposition in Aleppo. The five most influential groups are all on the Islamist spectrum. One - Ahrar al Sham, which is supported by Turkey and several Gulf states - was categorized as Salafist-jihadist. Three of the other four groups also receive support from the United States.

The region around Aleppo has been inhabited for around 8,000 years. Almost 700 years ago, the Arab traveler Ibn Batuta praised the beauty of the city. Almost 250 years ago, the British official William Eton concurred, writing that Aleppo was "the best built city in the Turkish dominions, and the people are reputed the most polite." Now Syria's former economic center, with its ethnic and cultural diversity, lies in ruins. It's also the place where the future of the ceasefire, and of Syria itself, will be decided.