In the five days since it began, there has been no shortage of charges that the Syrian cease-fire is being violated. U.S. and international officials manning 24-hour hotlines and computer banks in Washington, Geneva and Amman, Jordan, have recorded a near-constant flow of accusations ranging from reports of small-arms fire to shelling and airstrikes.
So far, none of the violations have been publicly verified by the U.S.-Russia task force assigned to adjudicate them. It is unclear whether that is because they have been hard to prove or because of the potential high price of declaring the truce a failure.
Unless it holds, political negotiations scheduled to start Wednesday on a permanent end to the civil war are likely to collapse. As a result, U.S. and U.N. officials who are part of the monitoring effort acknowledged a strong desire to avoid making judgments on violations or taking any firm action in response.
“The approach doesn’t seem to be finding a violation — it’s more in trying to dodge them,” said an official involved in the effort, one of several in the United States and abroad who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the closed-door deliberations. “It’s how to keep the mechanism going and not put sticks into the wheel.”
By all accounts, the level of violence is significantly less than it was a week ago. But it has been steadily creeping upward since the guns fell silent early Saturday.
The terms Washington and Moscow set for the truce included no specified system for monitoring it and no punishment for confirmed violations.
When there are reported Russian bombings, another official said, “intelligence hopefully can verify it. Then we talk to the Russians. Did you bomb? They say no. Did the regime” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? “Was it a mistake?”
Smaller-scale allegations are similarly addressed. A Syrian opposition commander who calls the United Natoins in Geneva to report an attack on his forces is asked to provide the location and circumstances, the number of casualties, if any, and who he thinks is responsible. “If it’s serious, which a lot of them aren’t,” the second official said, the information is passed to the task force. Complaints can also be made directly to the Americans or the Russians, who are in direct contact with each other via a hotline.
Russia is responsible for keeping the Syrian government and its allies reined in, while the United States and its partners are responsible for the opposition. If claims against opposition forces are deemed likely to be true, “we call them up and tell them to cut it out,” a U.S. official said.
The Russians, who operate their own “verification center” at Russia’s air base near Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, said Wednesday that they had recorded 21 instances in the past 24 hours in which residential communities had been shelled by unidentified “militants.”
On Tuesday, a group of international journalists flown from Moscow for a guided tour by the Russians came under apparent artillery fire in a Syrian village in Latakia province, less than five miles from the Turkish border. Radio-Canada correspondent Raymond Saint-Pierre, who suffered a superficial injury, said the journalists were told by Russian and Syrian officers that the attack could have come from Turkey — which has shelled Syrian Kurds across the border — or from nearby forces of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State are excluded from the cease-fire.
Also on Tuesday, the opposition High Negotiations Committee reported 20 attacks against opposition forces and civilians, ranging from “provocative leaflets” thrown from Syrian government helicopters to shelling
and Russian airstrikes in civilian areas.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest described on Wednesday an “overall reduction” in airstrikes, compared with the tempo before the cease-fire began. “However, we are concerned about reports that the Syrian regime has engaged in tank and artillery attacks against civilians near places like Latakia,Homs, Hama and around Damascus,” he said.
“If confirmed,” he said, the attacks “would be a flagrant violation” of what is officially called a “cessation of hostilities.”
“It looks to me that we have a pattern of activity with regime forces, sometimes backed by the Russian and Syrian air forces, trying to make gains on the ground” around Damascus and Homs, said Jeffrey White, a retired Defense Intelligence Agency official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“What makes it difficult to say ‘Oh, yes, that was clearly a violation’ is that it’s difficult to rule out that there may be a couple of al-Nusra guys there.” The Russians, he said, “always say they’re attacking extremists.”
“Plus, there’s just a lot of cease-fire nonsense going on, where people just take potshots at another guy, or fire their mortars up,” White said.
Collecting evidence is difficult. On the U.S. side, the CIA and other intelligence agencies — watching from the sky, listening to intercepts and talking to Syrians — are responsible for investigating the reports. The CIA declined to comment on its efforts.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Kuralenko , head of the Russian center in Syria, said Wednesday that “Russian warplanes did not deliver any strikes on armed units” that had informed the United States and Russia of their locations and were supporting the cease-fire.
A statement released by the State Department in English and Arabic via Twitter on Monday explained the “Mechanisms for Monitoring the Truce in Syria.” It provided U.S. contact information for texts and phone calls, WhatsApp and Google Voice, and a State Department email address for reports of violations.
The statement thanked the High Negotiations Committee for its “high quality reports of alleged hudna violations.” Hudna is the Arabic word for truce.
It acknowledged that maps of proposed cease-fire areas exchanged by Russia and the United States had not yet been reconciled. “We understand the urgent need for clarity on areas subject to the hudna and areas that are not . . . for Syrians to understand what constitutes a violation,” it said. The task force was still “in the process of delineating” such areas, and “the various maps in circulation on the Internet are inaccurate.”
Asking for “forbearance” from those on the ground, the statement advised them to continue making reports and noted that “evidence such as photos or videos are particularly useful.”
Compiling accurate maps of what group is where in Syria, White said, is “almost impossible. If you had the best will in the world — which I don’t think we have — it would be hard to do that . . . without putting people on the ground and walking the terrain.”
At the same time, he said, “it’s going to be hard to get the U.S. to declare a violation. It’s exponentially harder to get both the U.S. and Russia to declare one.”
“If regime forces take important tactical ground,” as they reportedly did this week in the East Ghouta area long held by the opposition outside Damascus, White said, “who’s going to tell them they have to get off, and make them do it?”