Op-ed by Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Syria 'de-escalation zones' remind that only a political solution can ameliorate all civilian suffering 

When the Commission began its work in 2011, we documented how unarmed protesters were beaten and shot, how civilians were arbitrarily detained and tortured, and how a first wave of refugees fled to neighbouring countries. In short, we told the stories of the ordinary Syrian men, women, and children at the receiving end of violence, paying the price for protesting, many with their lives. Little did we know that we would still be carrying out investigations in 2017. 

Before our eyes, the Syrian conflict has turned into one of the most vicious and complex proxy wars of the 21st century, crushing the dreams of democracy from which it originated. As the years went by and the number of casualties soared, the Commission made findings of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and persistent human rights abuses. We have reported on executions, sexual violence, deliberate destruction of medical facilities, the use of chemical weapons, sieges, and starvation. The list goes on and on. While violence against civilians takes many forms, other repugnant features of this conflict remain unchanged: the warring parties' utter disregard for the laws of war, the targeting of civilian populations and infrastructure for strategic gains, and the total impunity of those most responsible. 

For years, Syrians have stood powerless as warring parties and their allies rejected one opportunity after another to resolve the conflict and put an end to the loss of civilian life their actions manifest. The latest window of opportunity emerged in Astana last month when Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to establish four 'de-escalation zones' in western Syria in the form of areas where the three guarantors of the agreement planned to reduce violence. Such has been the case in the areas around Idlib and western Aleppo governorates. In the zones around Homs and Damascus, however, there is no noticeable change in levels of hostilities. 

The situation is more severe in southern Dara'a, where pro-Government forces have recently intensified airstrikes. De-escalation has also not significantly improved the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid, nor has it bolstered any advancement towards a political settlement to the conflict, both explicit aims of the agreement. All in all, de-escalation has brought some respite to some civilians, yet this humble success is hardly enough for a population which has witnessed unimaginable brutality for six years. 

Outside of the de-escalation zones, in eastern Syria, the picture is much more stark and grim. An on-going offensive on Raqqa city by the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by international coalition airstrikes, against ISIL is resulting in mounting civilian casualties and the internal displacement of thousands of families, compounding the years they suffered under terrorist rule. While it is true offensives in northern and eastern Syria have considerably shrunken territory controlled by the group, such advances are ill-gotten gains when made at the expense of civilians who perish or are forced to flee their homes in search of safety and respite. What is more, as ISIL continues to cede territory, its fighters attempt to prevent civilians from leaving, decreasing the feasibility of carrying out precise strikes against the group's positions without exposing civilians to considerable harm. 

In theory, de-escalation of hostilities and combatting terrorism are much needed in Syria. In practice, however, the former must be sustained, and the latter proportionate to the impact such measures have on the civilian population. Neither aim has thus far brought us any closer to witnessing an end to the Syrian conflict. A clear road map to peace has been laid out by the Security Council in its resolution 2254 and the principles that underlie such a settlement in the Geneva Communique of 2012, but parties to the conflict must adhere to both if such a plan is to materialise. 

More than ever, what Syrians need is the commitment of belligerents to a negotiated political solution. For that, de-escalation is not enough. Only a comprehensive, countrywide ceasefire can bring relief to all Syrians, who have been caught for far too long between the hammer and anvil of warring parties, and pave the way for parties to engage in meaningful political dialogue. It is time to bring this conflict to an end once and for all. 

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic 
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd and Carla del Ponte 

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd and Carla del Ponte