An internally displaced Syrian boy from Raqqa city carries a bag of goods inside a camp in Ain Issa, Raqqa Governorate, Syria, on May 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Rodi Said
An internally displaced Syrian boy from Raqqa city carries a bag of goods inside a camp in Ain Issa, Raqqa Governorate, Syria, on May 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Rodi Said

The latest Syrian ceasefire agreement, signed off by Moscow, Tehran and Ankara in Astana last week, went into effect at midnight on Friday. The boundaries of the territory that it is intended to encompass must be clearly established by the first week of June but for now the agreement applies to four territories only.

The first is the city of Idlib in the Syrian northwest, held by a coalition of Islamic forces since mid-2015. Then there are the orchards of al-Ghouta, east of Damascus, an area controlled by the Saudi-backed Islamic Army since 2012, and the northern countryside of Homs, where the Free Syrian Army prevails. Then there is the city of Daraa in the Syrian south. If expanded, the agreement might encompass the suburbs of the coastal city of Latakia and those of Aleppo in the Syrian north.

On paper this deal seems like many similar ones reached in previous years – deals which either collapsed hours after they went into effect, or never got past the drawing board. A closer look, however, shows that despite its flaws, this agreement is actually different and might – just might – be the first real step toward ending the bloody Syrian conflict, which has lasted longer than World War II and claimed over 500,000 lives whilst reshaping the entire Middle East.

The Syrian opposition is visibly unhappy with the agreement, objecting to the status it gives Iran as one of three “guarantors” tasked with implementing and monitoring the ceasefire. The Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee has said it “lacks the basic minimum” of sovereignty for the Syrian nation: it says the deal, conceived by Russian President Vladimir Putin, legitimizes foreign troop deployment in Syria, perhaps for generations to come, and in fact bolsters the Syrian regime, treating it as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It says the deal also fails to explicitly mention the right of return of Syrian refugees, and says nothing about the fate of political prisoners in Syrian jails.

If the ceasefire holds and is later transformed into a UN Security Council Resolution, however, millions of Syrians scattered across the world will in fact be able to return home to their war-torn villages and towns. The agreement specifically states that these four districts have to be fully de-militarized, meaning no more Russian or Syrian warplanes flying over. They are to be administered by a civil police authority – which means no tanks, heavy artillery, or soldiers.

If not empowered with a new constitution, the ceasefire agreement would remain fragile and indeed be likely collapse like all others

The rebels of these four districts would get to keep their light arms and join forces with Syrian police in manning checkpoints and running day-to-day affairs. Ultimately, the two sides would become partners in the war on terror, working side-by-side to fight Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and Islamic State (ISIS). The men who have carried arms against the regime since 2011 would be pardoned and allowed to return to their normal lives, rather than being shipped off to faraway cities and towns, as all the previous reconciliation agreements would have required. Damascus would undertake to restore basic services such as electricity and water to these four territories, and to open government schools and police stations that cater to all residents, regardless of their political views.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20km north of Raqqa on February 8, 2017. Photo: AFP / Delil Souleiman

To make sure that all of this happens, the agreement calls for the deployment of international and Arab peacekeeping troops, similar to the ones sent to Lebanon during its civil war, or monitoring the Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli borders. This is a clause that Damascus strictly refused in the past but seems to have accepted today at the urging of the Russians. For now the idea is to bring in peacekeeping forces from “non-controversial” countries such as Algeria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, or from the BRIC countries.

The agreement does not say who will pay for these peacekeeping forces and what their exact duties would be. It also fails to mention mechanisms for responding to any violations of the ceasefire. There is nothing in the text agreed upon in Astana about whether the residents of the four “de-conflict” zones – whether currently living there or likely to return from abroad – have to remain confined within their geographical borders or will enjoy freedom of movement throughout Syria.

If the ceasefire holds for six months – at a bare minimum – this would trigger a successful “phased ceasefire” plan for Syria, something originally put forward by the Chinese five years ago. There are no political clauses in the Astana conference –
those will be handled at the forthcoming session of UN-mandated talks in Switzerland, better known as Geneva VI, which are due to start on 15 May. One high priority on that agenda will be the Russian-authored constitution, put on the table earlier this year. Despite strong reservations from Damascus, the Russians want it to come into effect before the end of this year. The document provides a legal framework to legitimize the “de-conflict” zones, giving each of the four territories – and others – the right to elect their own governors, get a share of their region’s wealth, and set up a lower house of parliament, with full legislative powers. If not empowered with a new constitution, the ceasefire agreement would remain fragile and indeed be likely collapse like all others.