When is a Ceasefire Not a Ceasefire? In Syria, When Most of the Killing is Allowed

Smoke billows following a regime air strike on the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, late on February 23, 2018. (AMMAR SULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

“Hell on earth” is how United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres characterized the situation in eastern Ghouta this week. UNICEF was at a loss for words. Literally.

2018 was meant to be the year in which Syria’s civil war moved towards its endgame. If that is still the case, it is clear that the endgame will be a bloody one. Amid the confusion caused by a Turkish invasion in the northwest, Israeli airstrikes and Iranian counter-measures, and American clashes with Syrian forces and Russian mercenaries, at least one aspect of that endgame has become obvious: the Syrian government and its allies will move to crush the last remaining pockets of resistance in areas controlled by groups other than the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces.

Reprising the tactics used to recapture Aleppo in 2016, regime forces and their allies recently began pouring bombs and artillery shells indiscriminately into eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. Casualty figures are impossible to verify, but most reports suggest that at least 400 civilians, including nearly 100 children, were killed in the last 10 days alone. The armed forces besieging and indiscriminately targeting the area’s civilians refuse to guarantee them safe passage. These are all violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the various rebel groups inside eastern Ghouta— some of them allied with al-Qaeda and its affiliates—prevent civilians from fleeing. In doing so, they too commit crimes against humanity.

The UN Security Council has adopted more than twenty resolutions in response to the Syrian civil war. Not one of them has come close to being implemented in full. The Council’s failure is nothing short of epic. It is almost four years to the day (February 22, 2014) since the Council demanded that all parties cease all attacks on civilians. In the 1,465 days since, it has not lifted a finger to ensure its demands are met. Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, Council resolutions are casually ignored by everyone with a gun, a mortar, an artillery piece or an aircraft. Academics talk of the end of the “liberal world order.” Some commentators openly wonder whether Syria—and the wider struggle for the Middle East—will be the UN’s ultimate undoing.

So it was in keeping with its past record that the Council took four long days to negotiate a resolution demanding a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta and full and open humanitarian access. US Permanent Representative Nikki Haley was right to note that, as the Council dithered, its previous demands brazenly ignored, civilians were being killed. And, it was in keeping with the past behavior of the Syrian government, its allies, and the armed opposition, that the Council’s demands were completely ignored. As soon as the ink dried on the text of Resolution 2401, the bombs started smashing into eastern Ghouta once more—sending a clear message about just how little anyone with guns in Syria care about what the Council has to say. Within 48 hours, reports began to emerge that the rebels, too, were completely disregarding the Council’s demands and continuing to prevent civilians from fleeing.

What was perhaps unique about Resolution 2401 was that the resolution contained within it the seeds of its own irrelevance. Driven no doubt by laudable motives—something, after all, must be done—the non-permanent members leading the negotiations decided that they would do whatever it took to achieve consensus and avoid the Russian veto. Of course, one of the belligerents in the struggle for eastern Ghouta—Russia—also happens to be a permanent member of the Security Council. What sort of ceasefire would it want? Well, it turned out, it wanted a ceasefire that allowed it and its allies to continue using force against eastern Ghouta. In the past, they’d had to ignore awkward UN Security Council resolutions. Now they wanted one that entitled them to keep bombarding rebel held territories. And that is precisely what they got. In fact, so much of the text was drafted with an eye to what would be acceptable in Moscow that there were whispers in the margins of a possible P3 (France, UK, US) veto. Ultimately, though, consensus was reached.

On the upside, in the first operative paragraph of Resolution 2401, the Council demanded that all parties cease hostilities “without delay”—something it did four years ago, and no one took much notice. But in something of a first for a resolution demanding a ceasefire, it went on to say in the very next paragraph that the ceasefire did not apply to, “military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL also known as Da’esh), al-Qaeda and al-Nusra front (ANF) and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with al-Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups as designated by the Security Council.” Given that Syria, Russia, and Iran insist that everyone with a gun in eastern Ghouta is a terrorist associated with al-Qaeda (some of the better organized groups are indeed linked to al-Qaeda, others less so), Resolution 2401 has the practical effect not of inhibiting government forces and their allies, but encouraging them. In effect, the operation to retake eastern Ghouta now has the Security Council’s stamp of approval.

Everything else the Council demanded in Resolution 2401—humanitarian access, safe passage for civilians, the lifting of sieges etc.—has been demanded many times before. As in Aleppo (and Homs two years before that), these demands will be ignored. Humanitarian access will be granted when, and only when, the government decides it needs humanitarian agencies to help it ship civilians out of the its recently reconquered territories. After eastern Ghouta falls, as it almost inevitably will, the planes will start circling over the last remaining non-SDF holdouts—chiefly Idlib and its surroundings.

No resolution at all is preferable to a bad one. That nobody is surprised that no one has ceased firing into and out of eastern Ghouta since Resolution 2401 speaks volumes. The Security Council’s already tattered credibility won’t survive many more diplomatic successes like this one. What are the alternatives?