If anyone after the Syrian National Dialogue held in Sochi in Russia last month had entertained that the major and regional powers that have had a stake in Syria during the last seven years could build on the conclusions of this dialogue, I am afraid he would be disappointed.
From 18 February, Russian-backed Syrian forces started a bombing campaign of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus under the control of two rebel groups, Jaish Al-Islam and Failaq Al-Rahman, which have been responsible for the constant shelling of Damascus for the last few years.
The military objective targeting their positions is to prepare the ground for a major assault to drive the two groups out of Ghouta. The bombing campaign had been so intense that the secretary-general of the United Nations described the whole situation in this Damascus suburb as “hell on earth”.
According to press reports in Western media, the human toll became quite alarming. Almost 500 civilians lost their lives, among them many children, from 18 February till 23 February, the day the UN Security Council was scheduled to vote on a ceasefire resolution.
The showdown between the Americans and the Russians reached such a high pitch that the council had to suspend its session to work on last minute amendments proposed by the Russian delegation to a draft resolution submitted by both Kuwait and Sweden.
The council unanimously adopted a ceasefire resolution Saturday, 24 February, that would allow for the immediate delivery of aid, as well as a nationwide truce in Syria. The Swedish ambassador told council members that humanitarian convoys are ready to go in Eastern Ghouta.
The resolution requests that all “parties cease hostilities without delay for at least 30 days throughout Syria for a durable humanitarian pause, to enable the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid and services and medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded”.
However, an exception was made for military operations against the “Islamic State” group, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits. Undoubtedly, both the Syrian and Russian governments consider the two rebel groups operating in Eastern Ghouta to be terrorist groups.
The resolution has not set an hour nor a date for the entry into force of the ceasefire, although it spoke of an immediate one. The Syrians and the Russians want the rebel groups out in a strategy reminiscent of their military operations against rebel groups entrenched in East Aleppo from 2012.
The two rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta said they won’t follow in the steps of other like-minded groups that caved in under relentless assault on East Aleppo one year ago.
The Syrian permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, addressed the Security Council session Saturday, stressing the “sovereign right of self-defence within the national borders” of Syria. His American counterpart, Ambassador Nick Haley, would not take that line of reasoning, and blamed both the Syrian and Russian governments of raining destruction and death on the inhabitants of the besieged enclave.
Russian permanent representative had called for a “concrete agreement” between the warring parties in Syria, and asked the United States to focus more on trying to bring the war in Syria to an end, as well as halting what he termed “dubious intervention efforts”.
He also asked the Americans not to scale up their rhetoric against Moscow. It is worthwhile to note that the Syrian offensive against Eastern Ghouta took place after American forces operating in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria attacked Syrian forces that were targeting rebel forces assisted by the United States. A few days later, the United States deployed F-22 Raptor fighter planes in Syria.
One week later, reports in the Israeli press indicated that Moscow introduced its fifth-generation Sukhoi-35, a stealth fighter. According to unnamed Russian officials, these advanced fighters are meant for deterrence. In an unprecedented move, two American F-22s intercepted two Russian aircraft on several occasions when they crossed the “deconfliction line” that is meant to keep Russian and American planes operating in Syrian airspace apart.
On Sunday, 25 February, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin to urge him to order an immediate ceasefire in Syria. If past precedents would be an indication, the probability of such a nationwide ceasefire is low.
In this particular case, it is difficult to imagine that the Turkish army, which entered Syrian territories 20 January, would cease all fire. Nor would we expect the Americans and the Europeans to exert enough pressure on Ankara to stop its operations in northwestern Syria.
In this respect, there has been an exception. Last July, the United States, Russia and Jordan reached an agreement to set up a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria. It has held ever since.
This agreement reflected joint political will on the part of Moscow and Washington. Whether there is similar political will today to enforce a nationwide ceasefire in Syria remains to be seen.
In commenting on the adoption by the UN Security Council of the Syrian ceasefire resolution, 24 February, Ambassador François Delattre, the French permanent representative, said that our “generation will be judged by whether we manage to put an end to the Syrian tragedy”.
It is an open question in this war without victors.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly