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The Syrian Ceasefire Is Held Together by an Unlikely Group of Frenemies — and WhatsApp

Syria's ceasefire is shaky, but, for the most part, holding, thanks to an international effort that has been more successful than anyone ever thought possible.
A child rests in a cradle along a street in the rebel-held Tishreen neighborhood of Damascus, Syria March 14, 2016. (Assam Khabieh/Reuters)

Syria has endured five years of brutal civil war, with little hope for peace — until last month.

That's when the dizzying array of combatants involved in the conflict — from rebel militias and Lebanon's Hezbollah to the Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and American governments — agreed to a ceasefire.

The ceasefire is shaky — scattered fighting and attacks have occurred in different parts of the country — but for the most part, violence across the country is down significantly, allowing many Syrians to safely go to the market or take their children to playgrounds for the first time in years. And on that front, the international effort has been more successful than anyone ever thought possible.


"This is a dramatic reduction in the number of people killed, and there is a remarkable reduction in the amount of hostilities by all sides, especially air raids and heavy bombardment," said Wael Aleji, the spokesperson for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The ceasefire is also extremely opaque — little is known about how it is being enforced, but details are trickling out from the US government, the United Nations, and from actors on the ground.

The "cessation of hostilities" that went into effect the night of February 26 has been jointly monitored by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura's office and by the ceasefire's international sponsors, known formally as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Russia and the United States co-chair the ISSG's Ceasefire Task Force, which, along with the de Mistura's office, receives and circulates reports of violations.

"Any party to the cessation of hostilities can pass on information on alleged violations to either of the co-chairs, directly or through the Office of the Special Envoy (OSE)/UN," said Jessy Chahine, spokesperson for Special Envoy de Mistura, in an e-mail. "The OSE/UN records the information received and then passes [it] on to the co-chairs for their consideration and follow-up action on incidents that constitute non-compliance."

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Chahine said there are separate hotlines for the State Department, for the Russians in Moscow and at their Khmeimim airbase near the Syrian city of Latakia, and for the UN-run Operations Centre in Geneva.


"Parties to the cessation of hostilities can also call directly the lines of their established contacts within [the Office of the Special Envoy] (either in Damascus or Geneva)," Chahine said.

Colonel Ahmed Uthman, a military commander in the Aleppo brigade Firqat al-Sultan Mourad, said his brigade typically notified the United Nations of violations.

"Like other factions, we've contacted the relevant parties and they've been informed of ceasefire violations," he said.

SNHR's Aleji said his organization published regular reports on the state of the ceasefire on its website, as well as notifying the United Nations and Syrian opposition bodies of any violations.

The bulk of violations reported to the United States have come by e-mail and WhatsApp, according to a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reports tend to be a grab-bag of firsthand and secondhand accounts of varying reliability, some backed up with YouTube videos, he said.

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"The most valuable information we could get is from somebody who's actually in the field," he said. "Maybe one of these [armed] groups or from a town that's been affected, and can provide an actual firsthand report of what's going on."

American and Russian diplomats been holding both regular and ad hoc calls, the diplomat said, and both sides have lines of communications that range from membership in the Geneva-based Ceasefire Task Force to direct channels between the State Department and Russian diplomats and military officials directing operations in Syria.


"What we don't want is a situation where even though the general level of violence is down in a palpable way, something happens in a critical or strategic location and it kind of shakes the confidence or the willingness of some of the armed groups to continue to participate in the cessation of hostilities," the official said. "Typically if there's something that rises to a critical level, we would call anybody and everybody that we could use to get word through," he said.

Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement, Russia is responsible for reining in the Syrian regime and its militia allies, and the United States is likewise responsible for pressuring opposition groups if Russia presents a serious violation.

The Russian Ministry of Defense did not return requests for comment.

"On the regime side, it is obvious that the Russians have the upper hand," said the Syrian Network for Human Rights's Aleji. "And on the rebel side, it seems that the Americans maintain effective channels of communication with different armed groups."

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The State Department official said that the United States has leaned heavily on rebel and civilian contacts on the ground to build cases for de-escalation.

"We can go back credibly to the Russians and say, 'We talked to these people ourselves, we know these people, we know who's operating there and who's not operating there,'" the official said. "It makes for a more credible case than just going back and saying we got some messages from this group."


The US diplomat described a process that is mostly improvised, as officials scramble to get a picture of conditions on the ground and avoid a major escalation. On the US side, he said the process typically entails sorting through various reports and local accounts, assuring the Russians that local rebels aren't from the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, and convincing local rebels not to escalate while the US is communicating with the Russians. The Nusra Front and the self-proclaimed Islamic State are not covered by the ceasefire.

This hasn't always worked. Wrangling all the major and minor opposition factions on key front lines has been an ongoing challenge for the US, and Russia has told its US interlocutors it can't always restrain the Syrian regime.

"There's cases where they've told us they've urged the Syrian regime to do something and they've had less than fully satisfactory results on that," said the US diplomat.

But in other instances, diplomatic legwork has yielded apparent results. In one example, Colonel Uthman told VICE News that the UN and the United States intervened last week to halt clashes between rebels and Kurdish forces in Aleppo city.

They "intervened on [the neighborhood of] al-Sheikh Maqsoud and called on both sides to adhere [to the ceasefire]," he said.

Another instance seems to be the southern Hama town of Harbnafsah. The town figured prominently in a report by news site Syria Direct on the State Department's violations reporting hotline. Syria Direct's reporters called the number and discovered some of its operators spoke wobbly Arabic, or none at all. One operator, apparently struggling to keep pace with the reporter's Arabic, at one point called the town "Harb Bebsi" – Arabic for "Pepsi War" — instead of Harbnafsah.


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But even as the operator garbled Harbnafsah's name, the US official said efforts to halt fighting in the town were underway. And Syrians in Harbnafsah and surrounding areas who spoke to VICE News over various messaging apps said that between Wednesday, March 2, and Thursday, March 3, fighting was basically turned off overnight.

"Wednesday was the bloodiest day of the 45 days that had come before. Warplanes were constantly in the air over this disaster-stricken village, while at the same time the regime was making an intense push to advance and seize a northwestern point," activist Muhannad al-Bakkour said from Harbnafsah.

"But Thursday was suspiciously quiet, to the point it put the revolutionaries on edge," continued al-Bakkour. "There was only one violation, an artillery shell that hit the town at 9 AM." He said that the situation had remained calm since then, interrupted only occasionally by scattered small-arms fire.

According to the US official, the State Department saw the area as a potential flashpoint, given its strategic location and the involvement of key rebel factions like Ahrar al-Sham.

"That seemed to be another example where the Syrian opposition came to us and said, credibly, this is really important," he said. "This is not any routine violation, this would be something that all of the other opposition groups would be watching and if it unraveled there, it could unravel elsewhere."


Others were less impressed by the quiet in Harbnafsah. Faris Abu Abdo, head of Ahrar al-Sham's Homs media office, said that Ahrar's political office had reported violations including Harbnafsah to the UN and the response had been "positive." But he was unwilling to celebrate a cessation in fighting that came after days of attacks that left the town largely destroyed.

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Abu Abdo said the halt in fighting ought to be credited to rebels who had defended the town, both before and after the ceasefire. "What forced the regime – and behind it, the Russians – to stop was the bravery of these fighters and their defense of their land to the very end."

The Syrian government did not respond to requests for comment. Official wire service SANA had claimed earlier in the week that Nusra Front fighters had attacked from Harbnafsah. Syrians living in the area denied Nusra was present in the town.

But on other critical fronts, battles have continued uninterrupted. According to the regime and opposition press and Syrians on the ground, Syrian rebels and the regime and its allies have continued to fight on some of the country's most strategically important fronts, including in coastal Lattakia, western Hama, and an agricultural area east of the capital Damascus.

And even as some battles have been paused, it remains to be seen whether the overall number of violations is trending down or if diplomats have to to play fireman indefinitely, putting out one flare-up only to see a new one ignite elsewhere. Any lasting de-escalation likely hinges on a broader political settlement, which still seems distant.

In the meantime, the lack of daylight on the ceasefire reporting process and US-Russian deliberations have meant the process has remained mostly opaque and, for many, suspicious.

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"We haven't aired too many complaints, because what we're trying to do is resolve things. And we haven't really gone public trying to claim victory because we understand it's a fragile situation and it's an evolving situation," said the State Department official. The spokesperson for Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura's spokesperson Jessy Chahine declined to discuss specific violations that had been reported or addressed.

Syrians themselves have had little visibility on how the ceasefire is being implemented and policed. Syrians in and around Harbnafsah were mostly unaware of the international back-and-forth that seems to have halted violence around the town, although they said it would make sense that the truce was responsible for the relative calm.

"If this quiet continues like this in every areas, then [this truce] is about 80 percent successful," al-Bakkour said from Harbnafsah. "But if it stops battles in one area but not another, then [I say] no to the truce."