When is a ceasefire not quite a ceasefire? When it is a “cessation of hostilities,” intended to make the deadliest of the big guns go quiet long enough to enable crucial humanitarian relief, even as small-arms fire continues.
And when is a “cessation” not really even that? When it is timed — time-bombed, some would say — to begin not now but one week down the road. One more hellish week, peppered with enough Russian airstrikes to hand Syrian President Bashar Assad a defining victory against regime rebels after five brutal years of bloodshed.
That is the bluff in play since late Thursday, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry teased a truce pledge from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, after marathon talks in Munich.
Is such a deeply flawed ceasefire plan worth the paper it’s written on, even, when the morning after brings worse than the night before? When Syrians awaken not just to more Russian airstrikes, but new pronouncements from an emboldened Assad, vowing to press onward and retake the whole of the country?
It is. Barely, perhaps. But signatures come with expectations — and blame for those that fail to deliver. As one senior French diplomat told Reuters, the Russians now “are taking a political risk because they are … committing to a cessation of hostilities. If in a week there is no change because of their bombing, then they will bear responsibility.”
Syria’s map has tilted profoundly in Assad’s favour since Russia engaged fully four months ago, with the regime now positioned to lay siege to Aleppo — the country’s largest city before the war. The greater goal, Assad has made clear, is to sever rebel supply lines from Turkey, completing a chokehold on the fragmented and demoralized antiregime fighters.
The pace of the offensive in the north and its impact on innocent Syrians has frustrated aid groups that are sounding new alarms and demanding humanitarian access starting now, not next week.
“Waiting one week to act could result in massive civilian casualties and immense numbers of displaced people with no chance of returning home,” CARE International said in a statement Friday.
“International powers and warring parties must make good on these promises. Otherwise, what appears to be a step towards peace could only intensify suffering.”
As the diplomatic stakes spiral higher in the coming days, the 17-member International Syria Support Group, including Russia and Iran, is expecting to map out the mechanics of aid delivery. World Vision, Canada’s largest international aid agency, is calling for emphasis on aid to children and families, “particularly the 400,000 people living in besieged and hard-to-reach communities.”
Some of the assistance is likely to be dropped by air. But ground delivery to remote areas, though subject to enormously delicate negotiation, is in fact possible, as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent demonstrated recently.
Two weeks ago, the ICRC’s Syria chief, Marianne Gasser, was able to write from the war-starved city of Madaya, where “the only light came from the phones we carried; there had not been electricity for months.”
The convoy’s arrival was a triumph — the result of months of “tortuous negotiations” in which Assad’s forces agreed to lift the siege and allow relief as long as opposition groups answered in kind, simultaneously allowing aid into the rebel-besieged northern towns of Foua and Kefraya.
“This system was so strictly followed that when one truck got stuck in the mud in the north, the trucks in the south could not move until it was freed,” Gasser wrote.
“No food could be delivered to one town until it was shown — via photos on WhatsApp — that the same food was being delivered to the other side. Aid by synchronization. This is not the way to run relief operations.”
Nor is the agreement struck in Munich any way to strike ceasefires. But in the absence of anything better, it’s what we have. A half-step.
A week from now, we’ll know what — if anything — it’s worth.