Jimmy Carter: A First Step for Syria? Stop the Killing | The New York Times


Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter op-ed, published by The New York Times

The announcement this month of a new cease-fire agreement in Syria is good news. But a lack of trust among the Syrian belligerents and their foreign supporters means this agreement, like the one that came before it, is vulnerable to collapse.

It is already showing severe signs of strain. Over the weekend, the United States accidentally bombed Syrian government troops. On Monday, the Syrian military declared it would no longer respect the deal, resumed airstrikes on Aleppo, and even a humanitarian aid convoy was bombed.

Still, there is reason for hope. If Russia and the United States were willing to come far enough in their negotiations to reach this deal, these setbacks can be overcome. The targeting of the humanitarian convoy, a war crime, should serve as an added impetus for the United States and Russia to recommit to the cease-fire. The two parties were well aware of the difficulties as they spent a month negotiating the cease-fire’s terms.

The agreement can be salvaged if all sides unite, for now, around a simple and undeniably important goal: Stop the killing. It may be more likely than it sounds.

Reliable sources estimate the number of Syrians killed to date at almost half a million, with some two million more people wounded. Well over half of the country’s 22 million prewar population has been displaced. These shocking numbers alone should convince all concerned that war itself is the greatest violation of human rights and the ultimate enemy of Syria.

If this cease-fire is to last, the United States and Russia must find ways to work beyond the lack of trust that undermined the previous cease-fire, in February. The countrywide cessation of hostilities that began then started to crumble within two months, with battles in much of the countryside around Damascus, central and northern Syria, and Aleppo. The resumption of the conflict led in April to the suspension of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

However, a strong effort was made earlier in the year when the United States and Russia pressed their respective allies to pause the fighting and give the negotiations a chance. But the American and Russian expectation that they reach an agreement on issues of transitional governance by Aug. 1 was unrealistic. After five years of killing, and before any semblance of trust could be established, pushing the Syrian parties and their supporters to agree on power-sharing was seen as too threatening by some and too inadequate by others. Unsurprisingly, they reverted to violence.

When talks resume in Geneva later this month, the primary focus should be stopping the killing. Discussions about the core questions of governance — when President Bashar al-Assad should step down, or what mechanisms might be used to replace him, for example — should be deferred.

The new effort could temporarily freeze the existing territorial control — without the government, the opposition or the Kurds giving up their arms. Additionally, measures could be agreed upon to stabilize conditions in territories controlled by these belligerents, with guarantees of unrestricted access to humanitarian aid, a particiulalry important demand given the strike on an aid convoy near Aleppo.

This approach is not without significant challenges. Foreign players, less concerned about the destruction of Syria than about their own interests, will not necessarily be happy to see the front lines stay where they are. Russia is interested in a Mediterranean port; Iran wants a linkage with Hezbollah in Lebanon; Turkey’s primary goal is undermining Kurdish ambitions; and Saudi Arabia cares most about preventing another Iranian foothold in the Arab world. These interests are already threatening the tenuous cease-fire.

Still, stopping the killing and freezing the status quo changes the game from win-lose to no-lose. The belligerents would not have to concede their vital interests, nor would they be rushed into collaboration and compromise at a time when their confidence in one another and in the international community is low.

Under current conditions, the Syrian government and the rebels both would perceive any concession or compromise as a sellout. However, not losing and stopping the killing may be an attractive proposition. At the least, it would certainly be harder to reject.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top