BEIRUT — A shaky cease-fire in Syria brokered by Moscow and Washington has survived its first week, outlasting skeptics’ expectations and providing some hope that a diplomatic solution to the five-year-old war might be possible.
With daily incidents of artillery shelling, airstrikes and clashes, it would be easy to dismiss the “cessation of hostilities” as a charade. But the partial truce, which came into effect last Saturday, has dramatically reduced overall violence across the devastated country — a remarkable accomplishment in a war that has killed a quarter million people, displaced half the population and decimated towns and villages. And because the cease-fire excludes areas held by the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, the Nusra Front, some of the continuing violence is not technically a breach.
Much now depends on whether peace talks actually resume next week and make progress — and on the determination of the Russians and Americans to prevent a full-scale resumption of fighting.
The first few hours of the cease-fire saw a dramatic drop in military operations, with residents reporting an eerie quiet not experienced in years. Russia grounded its warplanes and skies were clear of the feared government helicopters that drop barrel bombs on opposition-held areas. But complaints of violations have mounted in the past few days, including reports of Russian and Syrian government strikes that have hit rebel targets well away from areas controlled by IS or Nusra Front. The Russian government reported on Thursday that there were 66 cease-fire violations by opposition forces since the truce went into effect Feb. 27 — either shelling of residential areas or of government positions. The Syrian opposition, in turn, reported more than 170 breaches, all of them in rebel-held areas. The reasons are rarely clear; some cases appear to be local initiatives, or specific battlefield dynamics that could not be centrally controlled.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that closely monitors the conflict using activists on the ground, says the overall violence has decreased by 90 percent. It documented the death of 118 people in areas included in the cease-fire agreement in its first five days — a sharp drop from the daily toll before the truce. On Friday, it reported 12 people had been killed in Syria on Thursday — the lowest daily toll in 13 months. The group’s director, Rami Abdurrahman, says the violations are like “small waves that rock the boat but are not strong enough to capsize it.”