Responding to a deteriorating humanitarian situation in multiple regions of Syria, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2401 on February 25, 2018, demanding an immediate 30-day ceasefire.
There is little chance this U.N. resolution will stem the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. Its dominant flaw is an over-simplification of the Syrian conflict—attempting to divide cleanly between a civil war and a counter-terrorism operation—when the reality is much more complicated. And its failure will provide another important opportunity to recognize the scope of the challenge that U.S. policy on Syria faces and consider again the question of whether greater U.S. military or diplomatic pressure can help ease the humanitarian crisis.
What is Happening in Syria?
Syria’s civil war has gradually become an interconnected set of separate conflicts pitting a variety of local and foreign actors against each other in sometimes complex configurations.
- The Assad regime, with the support of Iranian ground forces and Russian air power, continues to fight rebels across the country, with the most intense fronts currently in Idlib, to the northwest, and in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
- Having now captured the region from ISIS, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces in Der-ez-Zor are facing off against regime forces across the Euphrates river. U.S. special forces are operating in this region, where they recently helped repel an assault by Russian military contractors. U.S.-backed operations against the final remnants of ISIS are also taking place in this region.
- The Turkish army, along with its Syrian rebel allies, are fighting Kurdish forces—the same ones helping the United States fight ISIS elsewhere in Syria—in the northwestern territory of Afrin and have threatened to expand the operation east to regions in which U.S. forces are located. Iran and the Syrian regime have recently come to the defense of the Kurdish forces in Afrin, which in this instance puts them somewhat on same side as the U.S.
What Is Resolution 2401?
In response to this proliferation of conflicts, Resolution 2401, adopted unanimously by the U.N. Security Council on February 25, establishes a ceasefire between all parties currently involved in fighting in Syria.
The resolution calls for a 30-day ceasefire throughout the country. It urges parties to then allow humanitarian access to multiple parts of Syria, in particular the war-ravaged Eastern Ghouta and Yarmouk suburbs of Damascus, as well as Al-Fu’ah and Kafriya in the Idlib governorate. It also urges relevant parties to work towards implementing the more substantive and wide-ranging ceasefire proposed in Resolution 2268 passed in February 2016, and to allow the evacuation of civilians wishing to leave.
What Groups are Covered by the Ceasefire?
Every single organization engaging in combat in Syria is required by the resolution to implement the ceasefire. This includes pro-Assad rebel groups, Assad’s government forces, Kurdish rebel groups and government forces, like those of Turkey and Russia, currently engaged in conflict within Syria.
What is not covered by the ceasefire is combat operations against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and any affiliated group as designated by the U.N. Security Council. Therefore, theoretically, no group or country is obligated to stop combat operations against these specific groups.
What Does This Mean for Eastern Ghouta and Idlib?
Although the resolution covers all of Syria, it makes specific references to Idlib, al-Fu’ah, Kafriya, Eastern Ghouta and Yarmouk, where the cessation of hostilities is urgent due to the particularly poor humanitarian situation in those regions.
Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held area outside of the Syrian regime stronghold in Damascus, has been under siege by the Syrian regime for years, but a recent increase in bombardment by Syrian regime forces—killing an estimated 561 civilians in just 9 days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—spurred a more urgent international response.
Despite a de-escalation deal between Turkey, Russia, and Iran to reduce fighting in Syria’s Idlib province and surrounding areas, Idlib has been subjected to intensified shelling by the Syrian regime, as well as fighting between various rebel groups.
However, Idlib province is largely under the control of al-Nusra, while eastern Damascus (of which Yarmouk and Ghouta are suburbs) is under the control of various rebel groups, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda. While the scope of devastation in these areas was the driving force behind Resolution 2401, it is unclear how the ceasefire, with its exceptions for military operations against terrorist groups dominant in these areas, will create a cessation of hostilities necessary for humanitarian aid.
What Does This Mean For Afrin?
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on January 19, 2018, with the stated goal of clearing hundreds of kilometers of territory near the Turkish border in Northern Syrian of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Since January, Turkish forces have, according to Turkish government sources, “neutralized” over 2,000 YPG militants.
With the Turkish government announcing a “new phase” of the Afrin operation, focused on urban warfare within the city center of Afrin, the Turkish government has attempted to interpret Resolution 2401 as not applying to Operation Olive Branch.
However, while the YPG has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey—as an affiliate group of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—neither the YPG nor the PKK have been designated by the U.N. or the U.N. Security Council, meaning the ceasefire covers operations against them.
Although Resolution 2401 does not explicitly mention Afrin, it does mention the earlier Resolution 2268 which explicitly calls for humanitarian aid and U.N. access to Afrin among other places.
Therefore, to be in compliance with the UNSC resolution, Turkey will have to cease combat operations in Afrin, though it will be permitted to continue its operations in Idlib, which target al-Nusra. For its part, the YPG stated that it “supports the ceasefire, but reserves the right to defend itself if necessary.”
Will the Ceasefire Hold?
The most immediate risk to the ceasefire is the exception for military operations against U.N.-designated terrorist groups. While that exception may have been necessary to prevent Russia from blocking the resolution in the Security Council, it also hands the Assad regime an excuse to continue the atrocities the resolution was intended to halt. The Assad regime has already stated that it is only targeting militants among the 400,000 residents of Ghouta, but that the militants are using civilians as human shields.
Despite the resolution calling for a ceasefire “without delay,” Syrian regime forces continued to bombard Ghouta. While Russia attempted to use its influence over its Syrian client to put in place a five-hour “pause,” fighting during that time meant that humanitarian convoys were not able to access Ghouta, and medical evacuees were not able to leave.
Absent the application of greater external pressure, the situation is unlikely to improve until Assad wins a decisive victory in Ghouta and much of Idlib. In the meantime, Der-ez-Zor and Afrin will also remain flashpoints for escalating conflict between the external powers that have turned Syria’s civil war into their own. In short, so long as Washington continues to support U.N. ceasefires while expecting Assad to comply in good faith and refusing to criticize violations by allies, Syria’s civil war will go on at great cost to both civilians and U.S. interests.