In June 2017, Daraa governorate in southern Syria witnessed some of the most intense shelling, aerial bombardment, and clashes of the six-year conflict. Daraa city had it worst of all. Al-Bunyan al-Marsous, a temporary coalition of several of the largest armed groups in the south, was attempting to gain control of the government-held half of the city, Daraa al Mahatta. They advanced one block at a time in the neighborhoods of Manshiyeh and Sajneh, slowly gaining ground at great cost. Drone footage from the time showed a city that was being utterly flattened by continuous aerial bombardment by Syrian government forces and their allies and shelling by both pro-regime forces and opposition groups.
Then, in early July, it all suddenly stopped. A ceasefire brokered by the United States, Russia, and Jordan froze combat on frontlines throughout southern Syria, and Daraa finally experienced a reprieve from airstrikes and clashes. Armed opposition groups converted their fighting operations into police programs and anti-drug trafficking forces. Thousands of refugees in Jordan returned to Daraa as the ceasefire continued to hold. Optimists hailed the break in fighting as proof that a diplomatic solution could be reached for Syria as a whole, while skeptics cited to the many broken cease-fires of the past as proof this new arrangement would not last.
Ultimately, the skeptics won out—although it took much longer than many had predicted. Despite a few minor ceasefire violations each month, Daraa remained in a state of relative calm from July to December 2017. On December 10, however, activists and analysts observed a convoy of government troops moving from Deir ez-Zor, a governorate south of Raqqa and Hasakeh situated on the Iraqi border, towards Daraa. The next day, al-Bunyan al-Marsous shared on its Twitter account that pro-government forces had shelled Daraa al-Balad, the opposition-held half of the city, for the first time since July.
In the following days, clashes broke out in Daraa city and eventually spread across the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra. While the fighting has not returned to pre-ceasefire levels, the frontlines have remained the same, with fighting centered around Manshiyeh, Sajna, and Tariq al-Sad—neighborhoods that suffered under significant pre-ceasefire violence. While an end to the ceasefire has yet to be formally declared, recent “violations” signify an end to the relative calm that prevailed in Daraa in recent months.
By moving on Daraa, the regime has revealed its hand. It did not use the pause in fighting to work out a diplomatic solution or negotiate reconciliation agreements with opposition groups, nor did it intend to. Instead, it used the ceasefire to freeze clashes in Daraa while it pivoted east, focusing its energies on the territories of Badia and, eventually, Deir ez-Zor. With these fronts now subdued, the regime decided to return its attention to Daraa.
This ceasefire tactic has been a successful one for the regime. It allows it to concentrate its troops on certain fronts while pausing combat in other areas until it is ready to devote more time, money, and manpower. Ultimately, however, the tactic, and failure of the southern ceasefire more particularly, hurts civilians in the south, as well as the prospects for peace in Syria.
Local and International Consequences
The unravelling of the southern ceasefire has several significant implications, both internationally and locally. Successful ceasefires allow international actors involved in the Syrian peace process to tout their diplomatic accomplishments. With the parallel and almost competing peace processes of Geneva and Astana prioritizing different regional and international actors’ aims, the southern ceasefire was a rare moment of collaboration in which everyone appeared to win.
Russia was able to protect the Syrian regime’s influence in Daraa, and the United States was able to do the same for its opposition allies. Meanwhile, Jordan (a close regional ally to the United States) was able to take advantage of the newfound stability on its border to resume trade and encourage refugees to return to Syria. With the Geneva process becoming increasingly ineffective, the presence of these three actors at the same negotiating table was a win in and of itself, and it seemed that the peace process might not be entirely beyond reach.
By breaking the ceasefire in such an abrupt way, however, the regime tipped the scales in its favor. The actors involved in the Geneva process, including regional players like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as international actors such as the United States and the European Union, have a vested interest in implementing truces and ceasefires. Russia and the regime, however, have no such preference. Instead, they have played on the desires of the international community by entering into ceasefire agreements when it suits them and unilaterally terminating them when they are no longer beneficial to their interests. This has allowed the regime to regain territory, thereby increasing its upper hand in peace negotiations – and, indeed, making it less likely to even participate in such exercises.
In addition to its impact on the international level, the unilateral end to the southern ceasefire could have a local impact on future truces. Opposition groups have a variety of reasons for agreeing to ceasefires with the regime. These include pressure from international backers, a desire to protect civilians, a need to take a break from unsustainable losses, and an interest in appearing to participate in political solutions. While all this puts tremendous pressure on opposition groups to agree to ceasefires, at least two of these factors rest on the assumption that the regime will adhere to the truce.
First, groups especially connected to the area in which they operate have a de facto, quasi-governmental responsibility for the wellbeing of civilians in their territory. For this reason, southern opposition groups have often acted as service providers, from al-Bunyan al-Marsous cracking down on drug trafficking in Daraa to Jaysh Ahrar al-Asha’ir forming a police force in the Houran region. If these groups place a high value on the safety of civilians under their jurisdiction, they may favor participation in truces in order to protect citizens and cement their service provision role. But if the regime is untrustworthy, then opposition groups are unlikely to agree to these ceasefires. These groups may even point to this betrayal as reason to decline their international allies’ requests that they negotiate with the regime.
Second, if an armed group is suffering heavy losses and is unlikely to successfully advance or hold its ground, a ceasefire is an attractive way to regroup without retreating. But, again, if the government lacks credibility, then these groups are unlikely to enter into a truce with it.
It is unclear whether these risks outweigh the other pressures to negotiate, but it is certainly possible that the southern ceasefire, once hailed as proof that diplomacy could work, will ultimately have the reverse effect by driving the opposition away from talks.
In addition to these political ramifications, the ceasefire’s unraveling raises the humanitarian stakes in southern Syria. As the ceasefire progressed and Daraa appeared stable, more and more refugees crossed the border from Jordan, voluntarily giving up their refugee status to return home. Yet, with fighting resuming again , more displacement is sure to follow. This time, however, there are far fewer available escape routes for fleeing civilians.
Those Syrians who had refugee status in Jordan lost that standing and the concomitant right to reside in the kingdom. Even if they tried to return, Jordan currently accepts far fewer refugees than previously. It is highly unlikely Jordan will re-open its borders to refugees, even if high rates of displacement return to southern Syria.
As a result, those affected by fighting in southern Syria will probably only find refuge in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, such as the Rukban camp on the Jordanian border. Having recently absorbed an influx of IDPs from the nearby Hadalat camp, the humanitarian situation in Rukban is increasingly dire. Aid shipments are rare, and local armed groups have imposed gang-like rule on the camp, making it a generally desolate and lawless place.
Long-term Consequences of the Southern Ceasefire’s Failure
While the Daraa ceasefire was once considered an example of how de-escalation might lead to a diplomatic solution for the whole of Syria, the recent string of egregious violations suggest that the era of relative calm in Daraa has ended. Near-daily shelling, since the ceasefire was violated on December 11, means violence will likely continue for some time.
The collapse of the ceasefire has ramifications at every level of the Syrian conflict. It destroys the most successful example of U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria in recent memory. It also demonstrates the regime and Russia’s lack of adherence to negotiated agreements, which does not bode well for the already faltering Geneva and Astana peace processes. This could make it more difficult to bring opposition groups to the table for future negotiations, threatening the viability of diplomatic solutions to the conflict. Finally, renewed fighting in Daraa will cause the displacement of more civilians, who have few places to seek refuge. Shattering the peace in Daraa will add more suffering to a conflict that has already seen an inordinate amount of human loss and misery. Regardless of who wins the fight for Daraa, the process will be slow and brutal, and the civilians of Daraa and the international peace process in Syria are both guaranteed to lose.