In the five and a half years since the start of the Syrian conflict, over 280,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million have been displaced from their homes. Despite efforts earlier this year to broker a peaceful resolution of the conflict, nearly 600,000 people remain besieged across the country, approximately half of whom are in Aleppo. Throughout the conflict mass atrocities, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, have been committed by both government and opposition forces.
After weeks of negotiations the United States and Russia reached a deal on 9 September to restore a cessation of hostilities and provide improved humanitarian access. According to the United States, the agreement states that following seven continuous days of reduced violence, the two countries will establish a Joint Implementation Center through which military strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will take place.
The current cessation of hostilities provides the first tentative sign of hope for populations who have experienced relentless airstrikes and intense fighting since the February 2016 ceasefire effectively collapsed during April. Since the new cessation came into effect at 7 pm local time on 12 September, there has been a significant decrease in violence. While some fighting has been reported, particularly around Harasta, the UN has confirmed that Aleppo, Damascus and central Syria have remained largely calm, and no civilian casualties were reported on Tuesday, 13 September.
Despite these positive signs, the UN is still unable to provide humanitarian assistance. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura told journalists that while 24 trucks are ready to deliver desperately needed aid to east Aleppo, the Syrian government has yet to grant authorization. Throughout the civil war, the government has used starvation and access to essential food supplies as a weapon of war.
The international community must capitalize on the political opportunity provided by the current cessation. The United States and Russia must ensure that the Syrian government, its allies and all opposition groups that are party to the agreement fully respect the cessation of hostilities. If the cessation holds for the initial seven-day period, a permanent ceasefire should be negotiated. In the meantime, Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians and give the UN and its humanitarian partners assurances regarding their security.
The United States, Russia and the international community must take steps to bring the Syrian government and armed opposition groups back to negotiations in order to find a lasting political solution to the conflict, as called for in the ISSG Road Map and endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2254. Accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes must be an essential part of that process. After five and a half years of atrocities, it is time for the international community and the UN Security Council to finally uphold their responsibility to protect the long-suffering people of Syria.