Hard truths about reaching a ceasefire in Syria

#1:  Most ceasefires and power-sharing deals fail

Common sense would seem to dictate that a power-sharing arrangement guaranteeing both sides a share of the political pie would be the obvious place to start the peace process in Syria.  However, most arrangements designed to stop the fighting tend to fall apart.  This is not because of the issues driving the conflicts themselves, such as indivisible holy places or mineral wealth.  Instead, it is due to what is known as a commitment problem: neither side trusts the other to live up to its end of the bargain.

According to Barbara Walter of the University of California, San Diego, between 1940 and 1990, only 20 percent of civil wars were resolved through negotiations.  Many peace settlements designed to end civil wars require that one of the sides disarm.  In some cases, these forces are absorbed into a larger national army.  While many tend to see militaries as the cornerstones of nation-building because they help to forge a common civic identity and reduce tensions between ethnic groups, the prospect of disarmament exacerbates the commitment problem. 

When one of the parties to a civil war disarms, it places its survival in the hands of its erstwhile enemies.  If the stronger party should decide to cheat or renege on its end of a bargain, the weaker side not only cannot do anything about it, but may be vulnerable to further predations in the form of reprisals or, even, genocide. 

Both sides- but, in particular, the ethnic minorities that support the Assad regime- worry about the other side’s propensity for violence if it wins.  Many are reportedly concerned that a Sunni victory will result in both the repression and mass murder of the Alawite and Christian communities. 

#2:  For peace to succeed in Syria, America will have to get more involved

Despite having drawn a red line last summer over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration’s disinclination to get involved in the conflict in Syria has been on display since the chemical weapons attack on August 21.  Yet, third party guarantees have proven to be critical to the success of of ceasefires.  Going back to Walter’s data on civil wars, only 5 out of 14 “long” civil wars, 3 out of 5 stalemates or ties, and 5 out of 18 “brutal” civil conflicts were successfully settled.  By contrast, every settlement that had a third party guarantor has been a success. 

What does this mean?  The settlement to the civil war in Angola was guaranteed by a 12,000 strong peacekeeping force from the United Nations (U.N.).  However, it is likely that the  U.S. will have to take the lead in enforcing any peace settlement that emerges between Assad’s backers and the disparate opposition.  Whether the Obama Administration contributes actual troops to monitoring potential infractions and protecting the losing side in the conflict, or if it provides logistical and financial support to a larger multinational peacekeeping force under the aegis of the U.N. is an open question.  However, if the U.S. is serious about ending the fighting, then it will have to prepared to invest more time, money, and military manpower in Syria than it has to date.

Wolf is a researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he is completing a project on authoritarian political survival and peacemaking in the Middle East.  He has been published in International Security, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Houston Chronicle, Survival, and World Policy Journal, among other publications.

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