A Fragile Ceasefire in Syria
Feb. 29, 2016
Almost 5 years have passed since the conflict started in Syria. A ceasefire took effect early Saturday, but fighting has reportedly continued in some areas.
The United States and Russia set up new UN monitoring posts and are maintaining a round-the-clock watch at these locations.
"Russia and the United States will define where the parties that agreed to the ceasefire are, and will not attack these parties," said Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The temporary ceasefire was brokered by the US and Russia. The agreement calls for a halt to attacks, including air strikes, to allow humanitarian aid activities to be carried out safely.
Representatives from the Assad government and 97 opposition factions have agreed to suspend hostilities. Islamic State militants and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are excluded from the deal.
On Friday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the ceasefire.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he plans to restart peace talks between the Assad government and the opposition soon.
"Assuming therefore this cessation of hostilities largely holds, I intend to reconvene inter-Syrian talks on Monday the 7th of March," de Mistura said.
However, both sides of the conflict say there have been breaches of the agreement. Anti-government forces posted video online, which they said showed continued attacks by government forces.
The opposition says government forces backed by Russia conducted airstrikes and shelling in the northern city of Aleppo, as well as the central regions of Homs and Hama. They hit at least 15 opposition-held areas on Saturday.
The Syrian National Coalition has called for a response from the UN. But some are pointing to Russia as the key player.
"Everything depends on the Russians behavior today, tomorrow, the next couple of days, and we'll be watching very closely to see whether they are in fact prepared to put a break on their activity in order to get this ceasefire off the ground," said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
Russian military officials are blaming the opposition. They claim deadly shelling in residential areas of the capital on Saturday came from opposition-controlled territory. They insist Syrian government forces did not strike back.
More than 270,000 people have been killed and nearly 5 million have fled the country during the bloody civil war. But the reported attacks during the ceasefire are raising concerns over the resumption of peace talks.
Twin bombings tore through northeastern Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 70 people injuring 100 more.
The Islamic State group says it carried out the attacks.
The blasts occurred on Sunday in the mainly Shia district of Sadr City. Local authorities say the first bomb ripped through a market. Then, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd that had gathered.
The Islamic State group said in an online statement that the bombings targeted Shia residents.
The militants also attacked a security force facility near Baghdad. Both sides reportedly suffered heavy casualties.
Iraqi security forces have been conducting operations nationwide in an effort to eradicate the militants. Last December, they regained control of the key city of Ramadi in the western Anbar province.
Professor Kazuo Takahashi, an expert in Middle East affairs at the Open University of Japan, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.
Beppu: We've been watching carefully, not only us but the whole world has been watching carefully the situation in Syria over the weekend. How do you observe the situation there so far?
Takahashi: No one seriously expected that peace would break out in Syria out of the blue last Saturday. So there are sporadic reports of fighting here or there, but overall I think the fighting seems to be calming down.
Beppu: Now talking about the deal, the agreement that is asking the parties to refrain from fighting, some say it comes at a time when the Assad government, backed by Russia, is gaining, is advancing, and the purpose is to freeze this achievement. What's your take on this?
Takahashi: I agree with that, that supported by intense bombing by the Russian air force, the Iranian military advisors and the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters on the ground, I think that Syrian government forces regained the initiative, recaptured some territory, and consolidated their hold on the territories they govern.
Beppu: Now behind this deal, do you think there's a change in the position of the United States? We all know that the United States was one of the countries asking for the departure of President Assad.
Takahashi: Well, the US doesn't say clearly so, but definitely they change, because at the very beginning the US said 'Assad must go, period.' But now it's a case of saying 'Assad must go eventually, after the transitional period.' So definitely there is a shift on the part of the United States. I think the Americans are becoming a little bit more realistic. They now understand that Assad will not go fora while at least.
Beppu: You were explaining that you prepared a map of the situation. I hope that it comes up here. What can you tell us, professor, about the change in the power balance of the country?
Takahashi: Last autumn, many predicted that Assad's forces might fall because of a shortage of manpower. They have suffered many casualties and they are under heavy pressure, particularly in the north, in this area. And Russian bombing was concentrated on this area and Assad's forces regained some territory. So now no one expects Assad's forces to collapse. So Russian intervention since last September changed the tie on the battlefields and Russian bombing has proved to be much more effective and intense than the bombing by the US and its coalition partners, partly because they have an air base in Syria so they can carry more payload, and partly because apparently Russia doesn't seem to be paying much attention to avoiding collateral damage of civilians. Therefore, unfortunately or fortunately, Russian bombing proved to be much more effective in helping Assad's forces to regain the initiative.
Beppu: And talking about how the country will move from now on, well the UN Security Council does have a resolution. Let's see what the resolution says. It says that within six months from the adoption of the resolution, that they will draft a new constitution. Eighteen months after that they will have free and fair elections under the supervision of the UN. Do you think this timetable, this schedule, is too optimistic?
Takahashi: Yes, I tend to be an optimist but this seems to be a very tall order. Drafting a new constitution and having elections based on that new constitution, that seems a very tall, tall order to me. I think they're lucky to have this fragile ceasefire stick, and the constitution is a bit too ambitious. And Assad has already announced he's holding his own election in April. Of course, the election will only take place in the area he controls, and his supporters will win, but by doing so Assad wants to demonstrate how strong his grip is on the area he controls.
Beppu: Seeing the current situation, do you think the major international players for this conflict, well no one might be perfectly 100 percent content with how things are going on, but do you think that more or less people are sort of satisfied about the status quo?
Takahashi: I think the Russians are quite happy. They got what they wanted. That is the survival of the Assad regime, their only ally in the area. And the United States, after giving up ousting Assad, is more or less satisfied because this will pave the way or a ceasefire between the Assad government and its opponents. And the European governments are of course hoping that this cessation of hostilities will stop the outpouring, or will at least reduce the outpouring of Syrian refugees to its neighbors, and eventually to Europe itself. But the unhappy player is Turkey. Turkey is still calling for the ousting of Mr. Assad. And Turkey is unhappy about seeing the growing strength of Kurdish forces in Syria. So Turkey is unhappy.
Beppu: How about the Islamic State militant group or other extremist groups?
Takahashi: Well I think they must be worrying because, now that Russia has stopped bombing Assad's opposition, Russian airplanes are available to attack other targets. That might well be the Islamic State and other Islamic militants. So it depends on Mr. Putin.
Beppu: Do you think what you mentioned about the worry on the part of the extremists could explain what happened in Sadr City in Baghdad over the weekend? Once they have a problem in Syria, they can come back and they can be more active in Iraq, which is their main base anyway, and they can go back to Syria whenever things calm down there. Do you think that they can play this game?
Takahashi: I think that's a logical assumption but I think it's unlikely for three reasons. One, Islamic State in Iraq is under heavy pressure in the north by Kurdish militias. Second, it's under heavy bombing the US Air Force and its coalition partners. And thirdly, it's beginning to feel pressure from the south by the forces the Iraq central government. Finally, slowly but steadily, the armed forces of the Iraq central government is growing. For those reasons, I think it's possible, but probably not probable.