Syrian Army Declares Brief Truce Ahead of Peace Talks

The army plans to suspend its combat operations in the nation’s southern provinces through Thursday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspects the Russian Hmeimim air base in Latakia, Syria on June 27, 2017.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspects the Russian Hmeimim air base in Latakia, Syria on June 27, 2017.  (Government-produced handout / AP)

The Syrian army, led by President Bashar al-Assad, temporarily halted its combat operations in the nation’s southern provinces ahead of a series of peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana, the army announced Monday. In a statement on state television, the army said the ceasefire commenced at midday on Sunday and would continue until midnight on Thursday. The latest round of Russian-sponsored peace talks between the Syrian army and local rebel groups are scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

For more than six years, Syria has been embroiled in a massive civil war, resulting in a global refugee crisis and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. At the heart of the war is an ongoing battle between the Syrian army, its supporters, and various rebel groups who oppose the Assad regime. Both sides are also conducting a separate fight against ISIS, which declared a “caliphate” in the region in 2014. Al Jazeera reports that the latest ceasefire does not apply to battles against ISIS.

For the first time in the war’s history, the latest ceasefire will take place across all of southern Syria—which includes the provinces of Deraa, Quneitra, and Sweid—with the goal of “support[ing] the peace process and national reconciliation.” Still, many question whether the Syrian army fully intends to suspend violence in the region. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Assad regime has violated numerous ceasefire agreements—sometimes within hours of the agreement taking effect. On Monday, a spokesman for the Southern Front, a coalition of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups, told Reuters that the FSA remains “very distrustful of the regime’s intentions,” arguing that the latest ceasefire “will be like the previous one.”

In May, Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to a partial ceasefire in the form of four safe zones across north, central, and southern Syria. (Russia and Iran are allied with Assad, while Turkey is allied with certain opposition forces.) Although the new safe zones signaled a major advancement in the civil war, rebel groups have since criticized the strategy for enabling Syrian army forces to conduct battles elsewhere. By June, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, had documented 75 violations in the first month of the agreement—the majority of which were carried out by Syrian regime and allied forces.

Indeed, recent peace talks have done little to curb the violence in Syria. In addition to six rounds of UN-sponsored peace talks, the Syrian army and rebel groups have participated in four rounds of peace talks in Kazakhstan since January. At a March meeting in Geneva, the head Syrian opposition negotiator called for President Trump to crack down on the Assad regime, arguing that the Syrian people “paid a high price because of the catastrophic mistakes made by the Obama administration.” For most of the war’s history, the U.S. has refrained from military intervention, with the Obama administration opting instead to arm moderate rebel groups and work with Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile.

In recent months, the Trump administration has intensified U.S. military action, most notably by launching an April missile strike on a Syrian air base. The strike directly targeted the site of a chemical weapons attack likely orchestrated by the Assad regime. While Russia referred to the strike as a “provocation” that could damage U.S.-Russian ties, both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have since expressed interest in reaching a mutual ceasefire agreement in Syria. In a phone call in early May, Putin reportedly told Trump that U.S. participation was critical to achieving lasting peace in the region. At the same time, Russian analysts have expressed concern over an alliance with Trump, whose decisions they regard as impulsive and lacking a clear objective.