Thursday, December 31, 2015

U.N. Push for Ceasefires in Syria Achieves Results, but Empowers Regime

By: Jennifer Cafarella, Katie Menoche, Genevieve Casagrande, and the ISW Syria Team

A U.N.-led push for localized ceasefires between pro- and anti-regime forces in Syria has achieved notable results, but may not actually make a negotiated settlement in Syria more likely. Local deals in Idlib, Homs, and Damascus provinces have enabled both pro- and anti-regime fighters to withdraw from besieged towns, sometimes in return for the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid. The U.N. seeks to use these local deals to generate momentum toward a nation-wide ceasefire as a confidence building measure before negotiations between regime and opposition forces begin in Geneva on January 25, 2016. The success of these deals has largely been a product of crippling sieges and aerial bombardment of opposition-held areas by pro-regime forces that have forced local opposition fighters and civilian populations to submit to the ceasefire; as such, they may not actually foster opposition confidence at the negotiating table. ISW assesses that pro-regime forces seek to secure such ceasefires in three additional areas in Damascus and one area north of Homs City prior to the January negotiations. The regime frequently targets civilian populations in these areas with barrel bombs, heavy airstrikes, shelling, and allegedly chemical weapons, likely in order to force local surrenders by anti-regime forces and civilian populations. The following maps represent ISW’s assessment of the status of seven areas where ceasefires have been achieved or are being sought in the lead-up to Geneva, as of December 28, 2015. 

There are more areas in Syria already under local ceasefires with the Syrian regime that are not depicted in the maps above, particularly in Damascus.[1]  

The following sections detail relevant events and sets of negotiations in each of the ceasefire areas. This list is not comprehensive and does not include ISW’s mapped data on Russian airstrikes in Syria, which are available at ISW’s research blog, at:

The Damascus-Idlib Ceasefires and Evacuations

The ceasefire and evacuation deal between pro- and anti-regime forces in the besieged enclaves of Fu’ah and Kefraya as well as Zabadani was completed on December 29, 2015, after months of negotiation.

August 22, 2015: Opposition forces in Idlib targeted a regime enclave in retaliation for regime strikes in Damascus. Regime warplanes conducted airstrikes targeting the opposition stronghold of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, killing at least thirty civilians and wounding over 110 others. In response, hardline opposition group Ahrar al-Sham announced the start of operations to target the besieged Shi'a-majority towns of Fu’ahFu’ah and Kefraya northeast of Idlib City with 100 artillery shells per day. (SOHRSOHRAll4SyriaAll4SyriaStatement) [Analyst note: Opposition forces previously utilized pressure on Fu’ah and Kefraya as leverage in the Turkish- and Iranian-brokered negotiations surrounding the besieged opposition within Zabadani northwest of Damascus prior to the breakdown of negotiations between Ahrar al-Sham and Lebanese Hezbollah on August 15. The new linkage of the two towns to airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta may signal that opposition forces intend to apply similar leverage in order to achieve effects in the Syrian capital]

September 20, 2015: Pro- and anti-regime forces reached a temporary ceasefire in Damascus and Idlib Provinces. The Syrian regime, opposition forces, and Lebanese Hezbollah implemented a new ceasefire in the Shi'a-majority towns of Fu’ahFu’ah and Kefraya in Idlib Province as well as Zabadani and the neighboring town of Madaya in Damascus Province following negotiations between an Iranian delegation and hardline opposition group Ahrar al-Sham. The agreement is the third such ceasefire in the four towns over the previous two months, and followed a major opposition offensive against Fu’ah and Kefraya, which began on September 18. An anonymous Lebanese security source stated that the two sides negotiated terms for a six-month-long ceasefire in the besieged enclaves which would include a full evacuation of opposition fighters and any willing civilians from Zabadani to Idlib Province; the evacuation of wounded pro-regime fighters and up to 10,000 civilians from Fu’ah and Kefraya; and the release of five hundred prisoners by the Syrian regime. The agreement was to be overseen by a U.N. working group established to ensure its implementation. (Reuters, SOHR, Hurriyet, Al Jazeera, Daily Star[2], Daily Star[3]) [Analyst Note: Previous ceasefires in the two besieged enclaves broke down after several days amidst opposition concerns over forced population transfers. A long-term truce in Zabadani could enable Hezbollah and regime forces to redeploy to the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus to reverse an ongoing opposition offensive in the area which severed the strategic M5 Highway between Damascus and Homs City]

September 22, 2015: Pro- and anti-regime forces extended temporary ceasefires in Damascus and Idlib. Pro-Hezbollah media sources reported that opposition forces, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime agreed to extend the ceasefire in Fu’ah and Kefraya as well as opposition in Zabadani and Madaya  until the conclusion of a wider six-month-long agreement which would include prisoner swaps and the evacuation of thousands of civilians.  (Reuters, Daily Star[4])

September 24, 2015: Pro- and anti-regime forces formalized ceasefires in Damascus and Idlib Provinces. The Syrian regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, hardline opposition group Ahrar al-Sham, and other opposition forces reportedly reached a final agreement in Fu’ah and Kefraya opposition and Zabadani, following negotiations between an Iranian and Turkish delegation.  (SOHR, Daily Star[5]

October 2, 2015: U.N. announced a halt to humanitarian operations in three ceasefires. The office of UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura stated that the U.N. suspended planned humanitarian operations as part of the ceasefire agreement in Fu’ah and Kefraya as well opposition in Zabadani due to a surge of military activity in surrounding areas. The U.N. called on all parties to “fulfill their responsibilities” to protect civilians and “reach the necessary understandings” to implement the humanitarian aspects of the agreement as soon as possible. (AP, Reuters[6]

October 11, 2015: Regime forces withdrew equipment and personnel from Zabadani. Regime forces reportedly withdrew significant quantities of heavy equipment, artillery, and personnel from Zabadani following the conclusion of the ceasefire agreement. The reinforcements deployed towards the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus as well as Dera'a Province in southern Syria. Although the ceasefires in Zabadani as well as Fu’ah and Kefraya continued to hold, the agreement had been rendered increasingly irrelevant following the start of the Russian air campaign in Syria on September 30. Russian warplanes frequently targeted opposition positions included in the ceasefire. (SNN)

October 18, 2015: Humanitarian aid entered four besieged Syrian towns as part of a U.N.-mediated ceasefire agreement. Trucks carrying humanitarian aid entered the predominantly Shi’ite Fu’ah and Kefraya as well as besieged opposition in Zabadani and Madaya. (ICRC, Daily Star[7])

December 21, 2015: Alleged Russian airstrikes strained ceasefire in Idlib Province. Opposition forces shelled the towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya and began clashing with pro-regime forces in the area after alleged Russian warplanes conducted a series of deadly airstrikes in opposition-held Idlib City, killing at least 46 civilians and opposition fighters while wounding over 170 others. The clashes threatened to interrupt the UN-sponsored evacuation deal for Fu’ah and Kefraya as well as Zabdani and Mayada. (SOHRSOHRSOHRBBCReutersVoA

December 27, 2015: Evacuation of besieged enclaves in Northern Damascus and Idlib Provinces moved forward. The ceasefire and evacuation deal reached between pro- and anti-regime forces in the besieged enclaves of Fu’ah and Kefraya as well as Zabadani moved forward after months of delay. Buses and ambulances transported 300 pro-regime civilians and wounded fighters from Fu’ah and Kefraya into the Turkish City of Hatay, from which they would travel by plane to Beirut. In addition, more than 125 fighters were evacuated from Zabadani and proceeded en route to Beirut, from where they traveled by plane to Turkey. (Reuters)

December 29, 2015: U.N.-negotiated evacuation deal in Damascus and Idlib Provinces was completed. 300 pro-regime civilians and wounded fighters from Fu’ah and Kefraya arrived in Damascus after travelling from Idlib Province through Turkey and Lebanon. In addition, 125 opposition fighters from the opposition town of Zabdani arrived in Hatay, Turkey after travelling through Lebanon. 86 of these fighters crossed the border into Syria and were reportedly received by the Jabhat al-Nusra- and Ahrar al-Sham-led Jaysh al-Fatah Coalition in Idlib City. The remaining fighters were reportedly being treated in hospitals in Turkey. (AFP, SNN, Zaman al-Wasl, All4Syria)


Eastern Ghouta 
Ceasefire failed in mid-November; regime demands surrender on December 25 after military gains and death of rebel commander.

August 15-16, 2015: Retaliatory regime strike on market in Douma, Damascus killed over 100. Damascus-based Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam seized a major regime armored vehicle base near the town of Harasta in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 15 following heavy clashes. Regime airstrikes later struck a public market in the Jaysh al-Islam stronghold of Douma in likely retaliation for the opposition advance, killing over one hundred civilians and wounding over two hundred others. (All4SyriaAll4SyriaJaysh al-IslamAFPAll4SyriaAFP)

August 22, 2015: Regime airstrikes on Douma, Damascus killed 30 opposition forces; opposition retaliated in Idlib. Regime warplanes conducted airstrikes targeting the town of Douma, killing at least 30 civilians and wounding over 110 others. In response, hardline opposition group Ahrar al-Sham announced the start of operations to target the towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya with one hundred artillery shells per day. (SOHRSOHRAll4SyriaAll4SyriaStatement)

October 14, 2015: Regime renewed offensive operations in Damascus with Russian air support. The Syrian regime launched a new offensive with alleged Russian air support against opposition-held areas in the northern outskirts of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The offensive largely targeted opposition positions in the neighborhoods of Jobar and Ayn Tarma in northeastern Damascus City, as well as areas along the strategic M5 Highway connecting Damascus to Homs City that were seized by opposition group Jaysh al-Islam in September 2015. This attack followed reports that the regime withdrew significant quantities of heavy equipment, artillery, and personnel from opposition and deployed the reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta and Dera'a Province on October 11. (SNNAll4Syria

October 30 – November 1, 2015: Regime shells killed over forty in Douma; opposition group retaliated. Regime forces shelled the opposition-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus killing at least 40 people and injuring at least 100 others. Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam subsequently paraded cages containing regime soldiers and their families across Eastern Ghouta, reportedly in an attempt to discourage regime airstrikes and shelling.

November 12 - 13, 2015: Regime forces penetrated opposition stronghold in Damascus. Pro-regime forces penetrated the opposition-held Marj al-Sultan Airbase in the southern outskirts of Eastern Ghouta. This regime advance follows weeks of low-level attacks against Eastern Ghouta's southern flank and threatens core opposition-held terrain in the Syrian capital. (SNNSNNSOHRSNNAll4SyriaSNNSOHRTwitter

November 18, 2015: Opposition forces reportedly agreed to fifteen-day ceasefire in Eastern Damascus suburbs. Syrian opposition factions reportedly agreed to a fifteen-day-long ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta following negotiations with the Syrian regime mediated by Russia. Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam allegedly served as the primary representative of opposition forces in Damascus. (Daily Star[8])

November 19, 2015: Ceasefire in Damascus failed. Clashes, shelling, and regime airstrikes resumed in Eastern Ghouta after a breakdown in Russian-mediated negotiations to establish a fifteen-day-long ceasefire in the region. The breakdown reportedly followed disagreements regarding the amount of aid supplies allowed to enter Eastern Ghouta and the release of all Alawite prisoners held by opposition forces. The Syrian regime also insisted that the ceasefire only covered the towns of Douma and Harasta rather than all of Eastern Ghouta. A spokesperson for Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam nonetheless stated that the group’s leadership council continued to study the proposal. (SOHRReutersSyria DirectAP)

December 14, 2015: Regime forces recaptured airbase in Damascus. Syrian armed forces backed by Hezbollah fighters and Russian air support captured the Marj al-Sultan airbase as well as the neighboring town of Marj al-Sultan. Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other major Islamist, Damascus-based opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta subsequently formed a coordinative operations room in order to facilitate anti-regime operations near Marj al-Sultan. Jaysh al-Islam denied reports that regime forces gained full control of the airbase, and announced that newly-formed operations room regained positions in Marj al-Sultan previously lost to regime forces. (AFP, All4Syria, Zaman al-Wasl)

December 25, 2015: Alleged Russian airstrike killed top Salafist opposition commander in Damascus. An alleged Russian airstrike killed Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush near Marj al-Sultan. The Jaysh al-Islam deputy commander Abu Mahmoud Zeibaq and the Jaysh al-Islam spokesperson Hamza Barqadr were also wounded along with numerous other unidentified Jaysh al-Islam commanders. (SOHRVideoFaylaq al-Sham StatementAll4Syria,  Zaman al-WaslAl-JazeeraWSJLWJ)

December 25, 2015: Syrian regime called for opposition surrender in Eastern Ghouta, Damascus. The regime dropped pamphlets in Eastern Ghouta calling on opposition forces to surrender amidst heavy regime shelling. (All4Syria)

Regime demands surrender of Moadamiya in December after alleged chemical weapons attack.

December 22 - 23, 2015: Syrian regime conducted alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus. Activists accused the regime of firing missiles containing an unidentified “toxic gas” into the opposition-held town of Moadamiyeh in the Western Ghouta suburbs of Damascus amidst an ongoing offensive in the area, killing at least ten individuals and injuring several dozen others. Local hospitals reported that victims suffered from bloody noses, vomiting, and convulsions amidst conflicting reports regarding whether the symptoms had been caused by sarin nerve gas or another unknown chemical agent. Moadamiyeh had previously been one of the targets of the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in Damascus, likely due to its strategic location adjacent to the Mezzeh Military Airport. (APAll4SyriaSNNZaman al-WaslAFPLCCSOHR)

December 26, 2015: Syrian regime demanded surrender of Moadamiya after alleged Sarin gas attack. Pro-regime forces reportedly blocked the only entrance to the town of al-Moadamiya in Western Ghouta and demanded the surrender of opposition forces in the area. Abu al-Khair al-Attar, a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) negotiating committee in the town, reportedly rejected the demand. (Al-Jazeera)

Southern Damascus
A U.N. brokered deal delayed

December 24, 2015: U.N. brokered evacuation deal between regime and jihadists in Southern Damascus. The regime reportedly concluded U.N.-brokered negotiations with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra for the withdrawal of all fighters and their families from three besieged areas in Southern Damascus: the Yarmouk refugee camp and the neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad and al-Qadam. In return, the regime would allow humanitarian aid into the areas. The ISIS fighters and their families reportedly could relocate to Homs Province, ar-Raqqa Province, and/or Bir al-Qasseb in the Southern Damascus countryside. Unconfirmed and conflicting reports indicated the Jabhat al-Nusra members would relocate to Idlib Province or to Mare’a, north of Aleppo City. 18 busses reportedly entered al-Qadam on December 24 to evacuate 2,000 jihadist fighters from the neighborhood. (BBC, SOHRAFP)

December 25, 2015: Damascus evacuation deal delayed following death of Zahran Alloush. The deal for the withdrawal of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra members from Southern Damascus was delayed for “logistical reasons” following the death of Salafist opposition group Jaysh al-Islam’s commander, Zahran Alloush. The busses transporting the fighters needed to pass through terrain controlled by Jaysh al-Islam, according to Hezbollah media. It is unclear which side initiated the delay. (ReutersBBCWSJ)


Rastan & Telbisa
Pro-regime forces sustain pressure on rebel pocket in Rastan and Telbisa, north of Homs City. ISW assesses regime intent to neutralize the pocket, possibly through a ceasefire. 

October 31, 2015: Regime allegedly shelled Northern Homs with toxic gas. Regime forces reportedly attacked the opposition-held town of Telbisa, north of Homs City, with a toxic gas, according to local activists. Russian airstrikes regularly target this area, which is a target for pro-regime clearing operations. Pro-regime forces have thus far failed to advance. (All4SyriaZaman al-WaslSNN)

*Russia conducts airstrikes and rotary wing strikes in support of pro-regime forces on this front line. For more see ISW’s Russian Airstrikes in Syria maps, available at:

Wa’er District
Ongoing evacuation from the last opposition-held area of Homs prompts spectacular attacks by al Qaeda and ISIS.

November 8, 2015: Jabhat al-Nusra Claimed Explosions in Homs City.  Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for detonating 2 VBIEDs and 1 motorcycle-borne IED in the Alawite-majority neighborhoods of Ekrima and Wadi al- Zahab in Homs City, wounding 15. Jabhat al-Nusra also claimed to have detonated a fourth IED on the pro-regime Ba'ath Party Security Committee's Headquarters in Homs City. (SOHRSOHRAll4SyriaSNNTwitter)

December 1, 2015: Opposition forces and regime forces finalized deal to evacuate last opposition-held district in Homs City: The governor of Homs City announced the finalization of a deal negotiating the evacuation of opposition fighters and their families from the besieged  Wa’er District in Northwestern Homs city. The agreement called for a two-month withdrawal of opposition forces from the area beginning on December 5, the submission of heavy and medium weapons to Syrian authorities, and the release of hostages on both sides. In return, the regime would lift the siege on the neighborhood and cease military operations against the area. Regime police would assume control of the Wa'er neighborhood following the withdrawal of opposition forces. (AFPAgenciesSNNAll4Syria) [Analyst note: The Wa'er neighborhood was the last opposition-held section of the city following the evacuation of opposition fighters from the Old City of Homs in May 2014 under terms similar to this deal.]

December 5, 2015: Humanitarian aid deliveries began in last opposition-held district of Homs City: Humanitarian assistance entered the Wa'er District as part of the U.N.-supervised deal to evacuate all remaining opposition fighters from the district. Homs Province governor Talal Barazi stated that up to 2,000 opposition fighters would depart Wa'er District in several stages over the next two months. An initial group of opposition fighters primarily-affiliated with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra would reportedly depart for Idlib and Hama Provinces on December 8 followed by the evacuation of remaining opposition forces to northern Homs Province in batches. Regime officials in turn agreed to release detainees and end the regime-imposed siege of the district. (ReutersSyria DirectSOHRSOHRAll4SyriaAP, AFP[9])

December 9, 2015: Over 700 evacuated from last opposition-held district of Homs City. Approximately 750 individuals evacuated the Wa'er District of Homs City to opposition-held northwestern Syria as part of the U.N.-sponsored local ceasefire. The evacuees included roughly 300 opposition fighters including members of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, along with their family members and other wounded civilians. The remaining opposition fighters would reportedly be allowed to keep their light weapons until the Syrian regime fulfilled other conditions, including the release of over 5,000 detainees from the Homs Central Prison. The spokesperson for U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura stated that the deal demonstrated that a proposed “nationwide ceasefire” in Syria could be viable. (NYTimesReutersSOHRSOHRSNNZaman al-WaslAll4Syria)

December 12, 2015: ISIS conducted VBIED and SVEST attack in Homs City. ISIS Wilayat Homs claimed a dual VBIED and SVEST attack against the Alawite-majority al-Zahraa neighborhood in Homs City, killing at least 16 people and wounding over 50. ISIS claimed the individual responsible for the attack parked the VBIED and detonated it remotely prior to detonating his own SVEST. Residents of the neighborhood reportedly held a mass demonstration following the incident demanding the resignation of the governor of Homs. (All4Syria, Statement, Reuters[10])

December 18, 2015: Jabhat al-Nusra claimed dual IED attack in Homs City.  Jabhat al-Nusra claimed a dual IED attack near the Alawite-majority neighborhood of Nizha in Homs City. JN vowed to conduct future attacks against regime-held areas in a statement claiming the attack. (Twitter, Twitter, Twitter, SOHR, All4Syria, SNN)

December 28, 2015: VBIED and SVEST targeted Alawite neighborhood in Homs City. ISIS claimed responsibility for a dual VBIED and SVEST attack in the Zahra neighborhood in Homs City, killing over 30 and wounding 90. (SOHR, SOHR, AP, SNN)

[1] For more see ISW’s report: Christopher Kozak, “An Army in All Corners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2015.
[2] https://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Sep-20/315935-rivals-agree-to-new-truce-in-zabadani-idlib.ashx
[3] http://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Sep-21/316022-guns-fall-silent-in-zabadani-for-truce-talks.ashx
[4] http://www(.)dailystar(.)
[5] https://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Sep-24/316543-hezbollah-syria-army-reach-deal-with-rebels-on-fate-of-zabadani-idlib-towns-sources.ashx
[6] http://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Oct-02/317424-un-forced-to-halt-planned-humanitarian-work-under-syria-ceasefire-deal.ashx
[7] https://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Oct-19/319333-humanitarian-aid-reaches-zabadani-kufreya-and-al-foua.ashx
[8] http://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Nov-18/323617-local-15-day-truce-between-rebels-govt-forces-near-damascus-expected-to-be-announced-within-hours.ashx
[9] http://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Dec-05/326105-aid-delivered-to-rebel-held-area-of-syrian-city-governor.ashx
[10] http://www(.)dailystar(.)com(.)lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Dec-12/327115-blast-in-syrias-homs-city-kills-8-wounds-dozens.ashx