The trouble with ceasefires

The 2016 nationwide ceasefire in Syria had unexpected consequences in the southern governorate of Dara’a that ranged from the development of rebel governance to humanitarian access

Marika Sosnowski, University of Melbourne

Marika Sosnowski

Published 3 May 2018

Many of us assume that the primary purpose of a ceasefire is to freeze a conflict – allowing a much-needed humanitarian pause amid the ongoing violence of war.

Although the aspiration is a noble one, a ceasefire brokered at an international level can have unintended, and potentially destabilising effects on the ground. This was the case in the February 2016 cessation of hostilities brokered between the United States and Russia alongside the southern Syria region of Dara’a.

A general view taken on August 21, 2017, shows damaged and destroyed buildings in Syria’s southern city of Dara’a. Picture: Getty Images

While there was an official break in violence at the national level, the effects at the local level were nuanced requiring a more fine-grained understanding of how national and local conflict dynamics interrelate.

Although it wasn’t the sole factor, the 2016 ceasefire provided a juncture that changed the trajectory of the development of local governance institutions in Dara’a. Rather than being benevolent, the 2016 ceasefire changed the roles and relationships between local actors – tribes, local councils, the main court (the Dar al-Adl), armed groups and humanitarian providers.

Destabilisation on the ground

While the ceasefire offered some diplomatic kudos to the US and Russia, on the ground, the vaguely worded nature of the agreement meant that the Syrian government could also use the ceasefire for its own military ends.

Instead of focusing on fighting on multiple fronts simultaneously, the ceasefire allowed the government to reallocate troops and resources away from the south and begin to strategically target rebel-held areas that it had so far, been unable to recapture.

These included communities around Damascus and eventually Aleppo.

But in Dara’a during the ceasefire, the Syrian government specifically targeted local leaders involved with governance efforts, rather than indiscriminate aerial bombardment or large ground assaults. These assassinations were carried out by small sleeper cells usually using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which had little impact on the government’s resources.

At the time, a safety and security officer for a cross-border organisation said that: “The targeting became so frequent during the ceasefire that many members of armed groups took to driving around in civilian vehicles rather than their usual, more noticeable and common four-wheel drives. This allowed them to travel with more obscurity”.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, help an injured man in Dara’a. Picture: Getty Images

Additionally, other armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) in the south – primarily the Army of Jihad, the al-Muthanna Movement and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (these groups merged to form the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army shortly after the February 2016 ceasefire) – also targeted the same governance actors during the ceasefire.

In June and July 2016, high-ranking opposition military leaders were assassinated by Khalid ibn al-Walid. Local civil leaders, including council members and the head of the Syrian Civil Defense (known as the White Helmets) Abdullah Sarhan, were assassinated, while other civilian, judicial and military authorities were also targeted.

Co-existence and co-dependence

These incidents point to the fact that even if the Syrian government and IS affiliates were not explicitly collaborating, their overall goal of destabilising governance efforts in the south by killing local leaders was the same.

The official halt in violence at the national level also changed the trajectory of the development of local governance institutions in Dara’a. As assassination attempts on key opposition figures by the Syrian government and IS increased, tribal leaders took on an increasingly prominent role in managing governance institutions.

A Shura council, a type of traditional Arabic consultative council, had been in existence since before the uprising. But after the ceasefire, tribal leaders formalised the functioning of the Shura as a way to provide justice and mediate a variety of disputes both between armed groups, as well as grievances between civilians.

Together with the Shura council, the main opposition-controlled court, the armed groups and the local councils exist in a web of co-existence and co-dependence in providing governance to the people of Dara’a brought about, in no small part, by the February 2016 ceasefire.

This kind of relationship is perhaps unique in Syria because the large families that exist in Dara’a are indigenous to that area and have wielded a certain influence even before the uprising.

The official halt in violence at the national level changed the trajectory of the development of local governance institutions in Dara’a. Picture: Getty Images

Who people go to for justice or security still depends on the nature of their problem and where they are located within the province, but there is some level of governance cohesion across the institutions because of their inter-dependent makeup.

Getting aid in

Finally, the provision of humanitarian assistance to Dara’a was also affected by the 2016 ceasefire.

The ceasefire caused a shift from the Dar al-Adl to the local councils as the primary conduit for the provision of humanitarian assistance. Because of this, the tribal leaders increased their involvement in local councils by nominating and vetting many local council members.

Additionally, humanitarian organisations were often unable to bypass tribal networks even if they may have wanted to.

For example, a field coordinator at a cross-border humanitarian organisation says that “one of our donors supplied a person with material who is from the same family as the guy selecting the vendors for the material. This family makes up about half of Dara’a, around 15 000 or 20 000 people. I can’t say what exactly the benefit is that they derive from the arrangement but they are from the same family”.

While some of this realignment may have been happening before the February 2016 ceasefire, as a result of the uptick in targeted killings during the ceasefire, it hastened the pace of organisation and depth of tribal involvement in these governance institutions.

The provision of humanitarian assistance to Dara’a was also affected by the 2016 ceasefire. Picture: Getty Images

Dara’a may be a ‘micro-climate’ within the greater Syrian civil war, however, taking a more fine-grained look at how ceasefires affect rebel governance development and humanitarian access has ramifications; not only for future negotiated halts in violence in Syria – such as the current de-escalation zones or reconciliation agreements – but also in other civil wars around the world.

This article is based on interviews with civilians, civil society leaders and lawyers from the region in addition to humanitarian and development actors working in Dara’a. For a more detailed version of this paper please see the full article, “Violence and Order: the February 2016 ceasefire and the development of rebel governance institutions in southern Syria’ in Volume 20, 2018 of Civil Wars.

Banner: An opposition fighter walks in a field of poppies in a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Dara’a/Getty Images

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