Syria’s ceasefire and the challenges of war termination


The current ceasefire in Syria is under significant pressure and claims of local violations continue to grow. It has, at least, succeeded in reducing the scale of the fighting, which is welcome. The war has, since 2011, led to the deaths of over 300,000 people and displaced internally, or made refugees of, more than 10 million. But US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that the ceasefire is the ‘last chance’ for Syria is problematic. The ceasefire’s likely failure will not constitute an irrevocable watershed that will condemn Syria to perpetual violence. Instead, the problems with Syria’s ceasefire reflect the difficult realities associated with terminating civil wars. Even if the present ceasefire collapses, peace may still be possible. But past evidence suggests there are likely to be many similar failures along the way.

Terminating wars is rarely easy. The challenges of war termination do not necessarily reflect poor strategy or a lack of will but often reflect instead pervasive structural difficulties that defy easy solutions: the difficulties, for example, in creating a point at which all of the key belligerents believe that continuing the war will not benefit them; or in getting key domestic constituencies to accept that peace is necessary. But civil wars, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria, tend to last longer than inter-state conflicts because they exhibit particular war termination difficulties. In consequence, civil wars are more likely to end through military means than political negotiation. Whereas two thirds of inter-state conflicts end through negotiation and one third through military victory, in civil wars these proportions are reversed. The particular problems in ending civil wars include, amongst others, three key factors: their zero-sum character; the multiplicity of actors; and the influence of external players.

Civil wars often take on the characteristics of total wars – they often become zero-sum conflicts in which each side finds it difficult to conceive of legitimate political solutions that do not exclude the other. One reason for this is that in civil wars the key political actors share the same geographical and political space – they occupy the same state. Belligerents, therefore, usually are highly motivated because it appears in a civil war that there can only be one winner: as in Syria, the insurgent forces generally wish for regime change, whereas the regime will wish to extinguish the rebel forces. The consequence is that both sides are likely to have a high tolerance for the costs of war; agreements based on the status quo ante, a ‘white peace’, or political solutions based on limited concessions are unlikely to be acceptable. Thus Assad has stated that he is ‘determined to recover every area’ from the rebels; the rebels that they will ‘fight to the last bullet.’ This motivation is intensified over time by the polarisation that typically occurs between belligerents, with each side developing deeply held ‘enemy images ‘ of one another often along communal, ethnic and religious lines. Cycles of atrocity and counter-atrocity elicit feelings of fear, hatred and a desire for revenge. These events and negative feelings often are exaggerated, or sometimes manufactured, by ‘political entrepreneurs’: leaders that seek deliberately to make their constituencies fearful of others as a way of strengthening their cohesion and commitment, and as a mechanism to mobilise support behind the leadership. In Syria, for example, the Assad regime’s propaganda has been notable in painting in apocalyptic terms for his Alawite support base the consequences of defeat. In such circumstances, actors may not beleive that any legitimate political settlement can be reached with the opponent; or, even if they can, they often will not trust the other side not to cheat on its implementation. How, then, does one create a single political framework with actors that hate, fear, and distrust one another? Where limited agreements do occur, as with the current ceasefire in Syria, often agreement is reached only for limited tactical reasons – to mollify external sponsors, for example; to curry international favour; or to obtain time to regroup and re-arm.

A second general difficulty exhibited in Syria is the proliferation of political actors. This is not simply a two-sided war. Opposition groups, for example, have fluctuated in form over time, with organisations such as the Free Syrian Army or Ahrar al-Sham comprising of often fluid coalitions between disparate sub-factions united by only the most general aspiration of resistance to the Assad regime. One precondition for an end to a conflict is that the key actors agree on what the likely outcome will be of continuing to fight, whether that is victory for one side, or a fruitless stalemate. But the proliferation of armed groups in such conflicts in Syria makes for a multiplicity of different objectives and a multiplicity of different cost-benefit calculations regarding the options for peace or war. For example, the current ceasefire explicitly excludes such radical Islamist groups as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the al-Busra Front as was), giving them every incentive to try to undermine its implementation. At the same time, the loose control exerted over many of the sub-factions by their notional leaders can make it difficult to enforce compliance anyway.

A third, and related, issue is that civil wars also typically draw in multiple external actors. In theory, such actors can play a powerful role in bringing about peace: as the inception of the current ceasefire illustrates, Russia and the US have the ability to strengthen mediation efforts and to encourage or coerce clients to participate in a political process. External actors often are key in ending civil wars because (a) changes in the level of support of local belligerents from external actors can have a profound effect on their military capabilities, as evidenced by the impact of Russian support in turning around the situation for Assad; and (b) because external actors can mitigate distrust between warring factions by guaranteeing a political settlement through such mechanisms as security guarantees, economic incentives, peace support operations and so on. Often, however, external actors contribute to the prolongation of civil wars. As in Syria, it can be difficult to find common ground between regional or international players because they bear only part of the costs of the conflict and their involvement in a civil war can be only one dimension of important wider foreign policy objectives. Syria is a proxy conflict in which Iran, Hezbollah, and the Gulf States continue to struggle for influence; in which Russia struggles with the US to sustain its wider prestige; in which the US tries to continue its fight against radical Islamism; and Turkey continues the process of trying to defeat Kurdish separatism. For this reason, any solution to the war may depend as much upon changes in policy by external actors contingent on such things as changes in government, further prolongation of the fighting, and/or sudden unforeseen events that transform political calculations as it does the actions of local warring factions.

In conclusion, the current ceasefire is unlikely to last. But it is not the ‘last chance’ for peace in Syria. The difficulties with the current ceasefire are a reflection of the recurring problems of terminating civil wars. Further initiatives will occur; some of these also will fail. If a political settlement is arrived at, it is likely to emerge only in the longer term and only, sadly, after continued prolongation of the war.

Image: A Syrian soldier manning a checkpoint near Damascus during the April-May 2012 ceasefire, via wikimedia commons

One thought on “Syria’s ceasefire and the challenges of war termination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s