Ukraine Symposium – Lessons from Syria’s Ceasefires

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| Jul 12, 2022

Syrian War Daraa
Ceasefires are generally seen by academics, policy makers, and military and political personnel as being humanitarian and positive, or at worst, benign. However, increasing research and first-hand experience shows that, in fact, the consequences of ceasefires are diverse and often not particularly positive. As a Syrian negotiator I interviewed bluntly put it, “If there is a ceasefire, people know the devil is coming.” Likewise, a military official working with NATO in Afghanistan told me numerous anecdotes based on years of first-hand experience that ceasefires had been used by the Taliban, local leaders, and the Afghan government to consolidate their own authority rather than to simply halt fighting.

In this post, I draw from experience with ceasefires in the Syrian civil war to offer three broad considerations for other conflict zones, particularly Ukraine. At the same time, I agree with Lawrence Freedman’s recent point that, “Context is always essential when trying to understand the range of options available to policy-makers and the effectiveness of those chosen.” Conflicts have their own specific dynamics, histories, and relationships. As such, I am conscious to avoid “West-splaining” Ukraine to those with greater knowledge of the intricacies of that particular country and conflict.

The first consideration urges broader thinking about the ramifications of ceasefires beyond only stopping violence for a period of time. This may include how they affect local governance, smuggling networks, citizenship, and property rights as well as military deployments. The second, advocates for greater skepticism concerning terms such as humanitarian/safe corridors, reconciliation, or de-escalation that have often been used, but in the Syrian case particularly, to lull the international community into a false sense of legality, legitimacy, and changes to the nature of violence brought about by such ceasefires. Finally, I discuss conundrums of monitoring mechanisms – now a common feature of ceasefire agreements – worthy of consideration.

Varied Consequences

Ceasefires rarely only “cease fire.” They are part of complex military and political contestations for control of the State. Ceasefires are not only used as military tools to stop violence. They are also political tools that actors in civil wars use for their own ends. These ends are invariably much broader than winning or losing militarily. Because they are not purely military instruments, ceasefires have been used in Syria (and other cases such as Myanmar and Israel/Palestine) to justify the seizure of property, consolidate political power, and to challenge or change rights to citizenship and demographic engineering.

In Syria, ceasefires have given the Assad regime pretexts to enact discriminatory laws, to destroy property documents (such as land titles), and to administer prejudicial reconstruction projects. In the Syrian case, a raft of Presidential decrees has been enacted to permanently reappropriate properties seized under local ceasefires. For example, the Basila City (which ironically means “Peace City” in old Aramaic), Marouta, and Homs Dream development projects (and others like them) prevent the return of residents evacuated under ceasefire deals and formalizes their permanent displacement. These development plans and associated legislation concerning property in areas subjected to local ceasefire agreements such as Old Homs and Daraya deliberately and permanently reconfigure property rights in the regime’s interest. The written terms of the ceasefire agreements provide the conditions for and help establish this reality.

Further, rather than halt violence, ceasefires can merely shift violence to new targets. For example, the consequences of the 2016 Cessation of Hostilities in southern Syria suggest that the type of violence and actors morphed in response to the ceasefire. The temporary halt in large-scale hostilities afforded by the ceasefire relieved the Syrian regime of the burden of fighting on multiple fronts simultaneously. It enabled the regime to reallocate troops and resources away from the south and to strategically target rebel-held areas that it had been unable to recapture. These included communities around Damascus and eventually Aleppo. At the same time, in the south during the ceasefire the Syrian regime shifted from indiscriminate aerial bombardment or large ground assaults to a campaign that specifically targeted local political and rebel group leaders to stunt local governance efforts. These assassinations were carried out by small sleeper cells using IEDs which put minimal pressure on the regime’s limited resources. A safety and security officer working for an organization that ran cross-border programs and deliveries from Jordan into Syria said, “The targeting [of local leaders] became so frequent during the ceasefire that many members of armed groups took to driving around in civilian vehicles rather than their usual, more noticeable and common four-wheel drives. This allowed them to travel with more obscurity.”

Weasel Words

Despite the relative simplicity of the concept of a ceasefire, there has been little agreement, and much confusion, concerning its nomenclature. Historically, the terms truce and armistice were used as synonyms. But in more recent history, new names have been added to the lexicon that essentially describe the same phenomenon, “a temporary cessation of violence that does not settle the larger conflict but is intended as a step in that direction.” These include cessation of hostilities, humanitarian pause, de-escalation, and (more creatively) Days of Tranquility, Safe Zones, Safe Corridors, and Windows of Silence. Despite the convoluted terminology, so far all of the above have featured predominantly in relation to how they affect violence. This approach ipso facto assumes the ramifications of ceasefires to be an inevitable humanitarian good. Consequently, we remain blinkered as to how ceasefires can be used for less positive ends.

For example, the terms of the May 2017 Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation zones in the Syrian Arab Republic created four territorial delimited zones across the country. This ceasefire produced an initial decrease in armed hostilities. But it also enabled Syrian and Russian troops to refocus their attention on one specific zone at a time to besiege, bombard, and eventually force them into signing strangle contracts that they called reconciliation agreements.

These so-called reconciliation agreements were very effective in bifurcating the population along lines of political allegiance, expelling those that could not “reconcile” via the now infamous green buses to Idlib. Because of the deliberate use and positive connotations of weasel words like “de-escalation” and “reconciliation,” immediate relief efforts to communities by organizations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs were not prioritized. The Syrian regime also tailors its own governmental services to citizens in areas that have signed reconciliation agreements along political lines. Predominantly Sunni communities that played an active role in the revolution remain cut off from many services they need while remaining drip-fed necessities by Damascus to keep them dependent.

A number of ceasefires and humanitarian corridors have already been proposed and/or implemented during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, barely one week in to the war in Ukraine, Russia agreed to implement humanitarian corridors to allow people from the besieged city of Mariupol to evacuate. Shortly afterward, however, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of laying landmines within the corridors to thwart civilians’ ability to flee. The Syrian civil war has been a testing ground for Russia, and other States, to see how much they can get away with under the guise of using supposedly humanitarian ceasefires for violent ends.

Perils and Pitfalls of Monitoring Mechanisms

Contemporary ceasefire agreements often establish some sort of mechanism to monitor violations of the ceasefire. These can be made up of a wide variety of actors including UN bodies, the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, the African Union, as well as local groups and organizations. The common premise is that these mechanisms report on the compliance of signatories with the terms of the ceasefire. However, because the monitoring mechanism and framework are often implemented by a third-party to the conflict, agreement concerning who, what, where, when, and why the monitoring mechanism will operate can be elusive. For example, despite the United States and Russia sharing monitoring responsibilities for the 2016 Cessation of Hostilities in Syria, a member of the diplomatic corps in Jordan told me that dialogue between the two States remained cursory. Likewise, a hotline, set up by the U.S. State Department to record reported breaches of the ceasefire, was criticized for lacking native Arabic speakers. Abu Odei al-Homsi, an activist from the Homs countryside, called the hotline but said that, “We don’t think they understood what we were saying.”

Third parties also provide the belligerents political scapegoats for their own shortcomings in agreeing to and/or failing to abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreement and monitoring mechanisms can themselves become part of the dynamics of the conflict. For example, while the United Nations Supervision Mechanism for Syria (UNSMIS) (established by Kofi Annan’s six-point plan) was relatively ineffectual and lasted less than two-months in-country, the head of the mission Norwegian Major General Robert Mood later said that, “The parties we met in Syria seemed to seek support and arguments through our presence and activities, and they sought to confirm the validity of their respective narratives rather than implement Annan’s proposal.” Barely a month after Robert Mood and the UNSMIS monitors left, the Syrian regime began to drop bombs on bread lines. While Kofi Annan’s ceasefire might have created an optical win for its signatories, the illusion of an ongoing peace process and the presence of the UN monitoring mechanism, concealed the fact that violence on the ground was escalating.

Conclusion

In May 2013, the Public International Law and Policy Group published the Ceasefire Drafter’s Handbook. A large portion of this document is reserved for a ceasefire template that offers particular phrasing and clauses that a negotiator can transplant (with relevant changes and additions) into a ceasefire they are negotiating. However, rather than operate from a path dependency that proscribes the inclusion of stock ceasefire terms, negotiators and interveners in conflict zones should be equipped with deep knowledge of the particular conflict arenas and actors they are engaging with in order to understand how the terms of particular ceasefires affect broad conflict dynamics.

My guess is that none of the above considerations will be particularly surprising to those that have direct experience with how ceasefires operate in civil wars. While conflict-specific approaches are touted as best practice, rote approaches to ceasefires are more often than not used. Likewise, despite military personnel and others having direct experience with the practical ramifications of ceasefires and their diverse consequences, the use of weasel words to obfuscate criminal acts and the potential hazards encountered by monitoring mechanisms, many of the world’s conflict negotiators continue to stick to a rather formulaic approach.

Of course, ceasefires always turn on a paradox: their potential for short term relief often comes at the expense of their impact on other, more enduring and complex dynamics. It is for conflict negotiators, policy makers, and military personnel to more astutely navigate this tightrope in every specific context. If Syria’s ceasefires have taught us anything it is that the assumption that ceasefires are inherently positive is naively misguided.

***

Marika Sosnowski is an Australian lawyer and Research Fellow at the GIGA Hamburg under the auspices of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

 

Photo by: Mahmoud Sulaiman

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