Not Dead but Sleeping: Toward a Broader Understanding of Ceasefires


| Jul 6, 2023

Ceasefires Sosnowski

The concept of a ceasefire as offering a temporary pause during armed conflict dates back at least one thousand years and has religious provenance – ceasefires were originally known as a “truce of God.” The founding father of the laws of armed conflict Hugo Grotius assumed a ceasefire to be a temporary state of affairs that did not alter the legal state of war. He wrote that if hostilities resumed after a ceasefire is declared there is no need for a new declaration of war to be made since the legal state of war is “not dead but sleeping.” Even today, the majority view is that ceasefires are generally a relatively fleeting interregnum on the road between war and “peace,” or perhaps more war. This means that at best, ceasefires are seen as humanitarian and positive, or at worst, benign.

Redefining Ceasefires

My new book, however, presents a broader view. While the official legal state of war may be “sleeping,” Grotius’s metaphor perhaps does not imply that nothing happens. Even during sleep, much can and does occur that we are temporarily unaware of. So far, ceasefires have been seen as something that happens while we are busy thinking about peace. Over the past few decades, the conflict resolution field has moved toward more encompassing and nuanced theories about how violence is resolved and transformed and the dynamics surrounding peace agreements. With only a handful of exceptions, ceasefires continue to be largely considered in relation to how to better bring warring parties to the negotiating table, hostilities to a halt and/or their influence on peace processes.

My book argues that ceasefires in fact rarely only “cease fire.” Rather, ceasefires do more than only affect violence. They create particular types of wartime order that can have diverse consequences for other contested areas of control that have state-building potential. Ceasefires codify a particular political and military state of affairs that interjects into the complex and fragile architecture between a variety of actors jostling for authority in civil wars. This could involve using the relative order that a notional pause in violence creates to rearm and maneuver troops to militarily defeat a rival, but it may also include developing local systems of governance and economic schemes (such as taxation programs or control over smuggling routes), managing or consolidating access to humanitarian networks, asserting rights to land and property and triaging citizens into those considered loyal or traitors. Patrick Meehan, when discussing how a ceasefire in Myanmar affected dynamics between the central State and militias operating in its margins, suggests that ceasefires, “do not simply operate within evolving power structures, but play a role in constructing these structures.” Likewise, Åshild Kolås gets to the heart of the matter when she discusses a series of ceasefires between the Indian government and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim. She argues that “ceasefires should be understood as part of the dynamics of conflict.” Ceasefires (may) create a lull in violence and within this lull are possibilities and opportunities.

This book uses rare primary documents and first-hand interviews with over 80 Syrians and subject matter experts to gather evidence from one of the most critical conflicts of our times, the Syrian civil war, to better interrogate what ceasefires are and how they affect the dynamics of conflict. It examines ceasefires in Syria over a 10-year period – from the beginning of the uprising in March 2011 through to the Spring of 2021. For example, the February 2016 Cessation of Hostilities in Syria influenced the development of rebel governance institutions in Syria’s southern Daraa province. While the nationwide ceasefire did alter the use of violence for a period of time, the notional break in conflict the ceasefire created enabled many local actors to recalibrate their involvement in complex systems of layered governance. These included not just armed actors but also local councils, courts, and tribal leaders, as well as economic systems linked to smuggling and humanitarian access.

Other examples of local ceasefire agreements from the Syrian communities of Old Homs, Daraya, and towns in the southern de-escalation zone show how these types of ceasefires were used strategically by the Syrian regime not only as a way to halt violence but also to violently reassert control over property and triage the population into those that can be subsumed back into the State from those exiled from it. The de-escalation zones, established as part of the Russian-led Astana peace process, not only affected the use of violence but recalibrated relations of areas normally considered the sole purview of the sovereign State such as diplomacy, security, and territory.

Taking Off the Blinkers

Around mid-2020, a military official working with NATO in Afghanistan contacted me. He wanted advice about ceasefires that might prove helpful for the Afghan government negotiators who were at that time in Doha trying to come to some sort of ceasefire agreement with the Taliban. When I told him about the main argument contained in my new book – that ceasefires affect more than just violence – he agreed wholeheartedly, citing numerous anecdotes from years of first-hand experience in Afghanistan where different ceasefires had been used in different ways by the Taliban, local leaders or the government to consolidate their own authority.

In many ways, the findings of this book will already be known to many Articles of War readers who are researching, thinking, or working on/in war. In some ways too, they are common sense, working to affirm what many astute colleagues already know – that so far we have focused too squarely on how ceasefires affect or reduce violence and this has effectively blinkered what we are looking at. The blinkers have so far stopped us from comprehending the broad range of effects ceasefires can have in practice both on violence but also on the complex systems of State-building and relationships that exist between official and less official actors in civil wars. This book is an attempt to take these blinkers off to see ceasefires more clearly and to better understand their ramifications, not just in terms of how they may assist in stopping violence or resolving civil wars more broadly, but also for potentially helping to make more practical and realistic decisions about ceasefires and their implications at international, national and local levels during wartime.


Marika Sosnowski is an Australian-qualified lawyer and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Melbourne Law School affiliated with the Peter McMullin Centre for Statelessness..


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