Local truces might send a message that Syrians no longer wish to destroy their lives for the agenda of others, finds Filippo Grandi, Commissioner General of UNRWA

In late February, Filippo Grandi, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, the United Nations agency tasked with the welfare of the Palestinians, visited Yarmouk, a neighbourhood in Damascus, Syria. When he entered Yarmouk, the people came to greet him and to collect much-needed supplies. They emerged, he said, “like ghosts from the depths of Yarmouk, as if from a medieval siege.” For months, the residents of this neighbourhood had eaten animal feed and burnt furniture to survive. The “stark greyness of the people” reminded Mr. Grandi, who has worked at UNRWA for a decade, of “black and white archival pictures of the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians from their land.”

Mr. Grandi and his team visited Yarmouk days after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2139, a detailed text that lays out specific measures that the Syrian government and the rebels need to take to ensure “unhindered humanitarian access” to the Syrian people. It is the first major unanimous resolution from a Council divided about Syria. The resolution was not passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would have allowed military action if the parties failed to uphold its recommendations. It mentions particular areas that have languished under siege, such as the Old city of Homs and Yarmouk, and “underscores the need for the parties to agree on humanitarian pauses, days of tranquility, localised ceasefires and truces.” It is such a localised truce that allowed Mr. Grandi and the UNRWA team to enter Yarmouk.

The war toll

The Syrian civil war is like a massive tidal wave which swept across the country leaving behind widespread devastation. Buildings bear the physical marks of the damage. More than half of the Syrian population now live in poverty, says a study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, with the unemployment rate now near fifty per cent. Half of Syria’s children have dropped out of school, with many Syrians unable to access health care. In the second quarter of 2013, Syria lost 174 per cent of the equivalent gross domestic product of 2010. Six and a half million Syrians out of 21 million are internally displaced; two and a half million are refugees (UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told the Council that Syrians will soon overtake Afghans as the largest refugee population). When Mr. Grandi says that the people of Yarmouk seemed to appear from a “medieval siege,” he is not exaggerating. Many people now say that Syria has precipitously – in a thousand days – slid backwards centuries.

It is this situation that pushed the UN Security Council to finally act. UN Security Council chair Raimonda Murmokaite (Lithuania) said this resolution — albeit overdue — provided a “moment of hope” for the people of Syria. The war in Syria is messy, with no clear battlefield or frontline. It is, as Mr. Grandi put it, “a mosaic of areas, the control of which is fluctuating.” o expect a UN resolution to have an impact in such a chaotic battlefield is idealistic. Nonetheless, it has sent a clear message to Damascus and to the Syrian opposition that humanitarianism must be a key consideration; whether this will have any impact on the local commanders is another matter. Whether this will even be a consideration for the radical Islamists is an even greater concern.

Short-lived ceasefires

Over the past few months, there have been almost 50 significant local ceasefires that have lasted from a month to a week. These ceasefires emerged for a variety of reasons, notably the sheer exhaustion of the parties to the conflict and the rapid ascendancy of one side over the other. While these ceasefires have been essential for delivery of humanitarian aid and for the evacuation of trapped Syrians, they have not been forged on the basis of a commitment to peace. Warfare remains the dynamic in Syria. These local ceasefires are useful, Mr. Grandi notes, because they “create a pattern, a frame of mind that promotes trust amongst the people.” He says that the Yarmouk ceasefire came about as civilians thrust themselves forward against the combatants. But this has been a volatile ceasefire, with the civilians in a subordinate position to the logic of war and its adherents.

In Rif (rural) Damascus, local ceasefires have held for several months, largely because both sides seem to have come to see the warfare as futile. Ziad Haydar of As-Safir reported (on February 24) that the fighters “were exhausted. A total incapacity has struck the armed men at the front.” Despair that the stalemate will not shift and concern at the infiltration of the armed radicals has led to a situation where “yesterday’s enemies will turn into tomorrow’s allies,” reports Haydar. Others are not so optimistic. Some sense that the overall war in Syria might go on for a decade, much like the war in Algeria in the 1990s. In the interstices of the war, these small ceasefires will allow people to survive. It is a morbid thought. It suggests that the logic of war continues to dominate in Syria. The leadership of all sides believe that they can either win or can inflict further grievous harm on their enemies. It is at the local level that such confidence has begun to falter. That is why local truces have been relatively easier to establish than country-wide ceasefires.

Importance of small gestures

UN resolution 2139 recognises that the only way forward is a political solution. Everything else — local ceasefires,. humanitarian access, humanitarian distribution points — are the triage necessary to stop the bleeding. They will not heal the situation. Local ceasefires, however, are a valuable mechanism to help reinsert non-combatant civilians into the political process, people who had been sidelined by the fighting. These small gestures are capable of building the confidence of people who have otherwise lost the will to believe in a Syrian future. The UN resolution by itself will of course not do any of this, Mr. Grandi says, but its importance will “filter down” to the local level combatants. And the local truces in some parts of the country might send a message to the leadership of all sides and their foreign backers that Syrians no longer wish to destroy their lives for the agenda of others. Syria is, to paraphrase the poet Agha Shahid Ali, a shadow chased by searchlights in search of its body. The UN resolution and the local ceasefires are torches to light its way.

(Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut.)

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