x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

One step at a time to enforce Syria ceasefire

The Syrian ceasefire may not accomplish its stated goal of ending the violence, but it makes it more likely that the Assads will be held accountable for failing to do so.

The death toll in Syria's unrest has declined since the start on Thursday of a shaky ceasefire brokered by the United Nations and the Arab League. This is progress of a sort, but it should not be confused with the actual success of the ceasefire plan. The "full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties", as sought by the UN, seems like an improbable outcome in the foreseeable future.

The first five unarmed international military observers were expected to arrive in Damascus yesterday, following Saturday's Security Council resolution dispatching up to 30 such observers as an advance team for a larger supervision mission.

Reported violations of the ceasefire yesterday included government artillery barrages in Homs, a rebel attack on a police station in Aleppo province and more. One NGO reported a total of 32 deaths from the beginning of the ceasefire up to yesterday morning.

There is a sense of déjà-vu in all this. Arab League observers abandoned their task in January; there was no peace to observe as the regime of President Bashar Al Assad continued to pound non-combatant civilians and resistance fighters alike.

What is different this time is that the Security Council resolution includes Russia and China, states that have previously used their UN veto power to protect the Assad regime. If the Syrian government shows bad faith again, violating terms of the resolution by continued bloodshed or by hindering the observers, Moscow and Beijing will find it more awkward to continue backing the regime.

Ultimately, Mr Al Assad and his entourage have so much blood on their hands that they have forfeited legitimacy; they will have to go. How to achieve this without a protracted civil war remains the question.

The ceasefire serves a purpose, not necessarily as an end in itself, although it should be given every chance to succeed. Even a temporary lull might allow some conditions to be met, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid and increased media access.

Moscow and Beijing have objected to "foreign interference" in Syria's internal affairs, but the UN resolution commits them to a set of demonstrable benchmarks. If, as seems likely, the Assads continue the violence, or abrogate other terms of the deal, they are failing not just the Arab League or their neighbours, but their allies in Moscow as well.

Perhaps the improbable will happen, and the Assads can still negotiate an exit. The steps outlined in the ceasefire plan may lay the groundwork either way.