Syria truce: No monitors on the ground to ensure compliance

Printed from:

( – A “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, announced Monday and due to take effect on Saturday, will not be formally monitored on the ground – despite the fact that the U.S. and Russia have been at odds for months over exactly who Russian airstrikes are targeting in Syria.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that there would no monitoring force on the ground to ensure compliance, although he said “modalities” for monitoring the truce were still being worked out.

Asked during a briefing whether there would be monitors on the ground, he said, “Not on the ground. No, of course not.”

“How in heaven’s name do you expect to monitor this if there’s no observation force on the ground?” a reporter asked.

“I think the work in front of the task force over the next several days is to work out kind of standard operating procedures and working methods for the task force to implement the ceasefire,” Toner said.

In a recent confidential memo, the U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura conceded that U.N. peacekeepers would not be able to monitor or enforce any kind of truce in Syria, according to a Foreign Policy report.

“The current international and national political context and the current operational environment strongly suggest that a U.N. peacekeeping response relying on international troops or military observers would be an unsuitable modality for ceasefire monitoring,” he wrote.

As for the notion of U.S. forces carrying out the task, Toner said Monday, “we don’t want to have boots on the ground in Syria,” he said.

Instead, the U.S. and Russia will co-chair a “ceasefire task force” comprising members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), and coordinating with de Mistura’s office in Geneva which will serve as a secretariat for the process. The U.S. and Russia will also set up a “communication hotline.”

“All the members of this task force will need to be in constant touch through email, through video conferencing, through exchanging information in real time,” Toner explained.

He added that ISSG members will be expected to influence the various forces on the ground.

The “cessation” – which the ISSG is at pains not to call a ceasefire – will apply to the Assad regime and those supporting it, and to anti-Assad opposition groups. Each side must indicate to the U.N. by Friday whether they accept the terms.

It will not apply to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, or any “other terrorist organizations designated by the U.N. Security Council.”

As such, military operations by the regime, Russian air forces and the U.S.-led coalition will continue against those excluded groups.

But without monitoring on the ground, Russia may simply continue bombing anti-regime forces under the cover of targeting ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, as the U.S. has been accusing it of doing since it began its intervention last fall.

“That’s gone on for months and months now,” a reporter noted. “So I don’t see how it is that you hope to be able to prevent the Russians from doing what you say they’ve been doing for the last five months with this agreement, because all they have to do is claim that they’re not doing it.”

Toner said it would be up to the U.N. to come up with “some kind of objective arbitration mechanism,” perhaps looking at input from non-governmental organizations or journalists on the ground in Syria.

Another potential loophole in the agreement, pointed out during the briefing, is a clause permitting both the regime and rebel sides “proportionate use of force (i.e., no greater than required to address an immediate threat) if and when responding in self-defense.”

A reporter said that “sounds to me like as long as you claim that what you’re doing is self-defense, you’re allowed to violate the cessation of hostilities.”

Toner repeated that there will have to be some kind of monitoring mechanism in place.

The administration acknowledges that the truce – agreed upon after a phone call between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin – will be difficult to implement.

“We are all aware of the significant challenges ahead,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “This is a moment of promise, but the fulfillment of that promise depends on actions.”

— Written by Patrick Goodenough