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Beware Syria, Here's Why Ceasefires Fail

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A number of years ago, I was asked to help facilitate a weekend retreat for UN diplomats in upstate New York. Attendees were to discuss the nature and complexity of multilateral negotiation. The green forested hills, trickling streams, and deep fireside armchairs were artfully offered up as nature's muse -- sublime props to purge the mind of grey buildings, cafeteria sandwiches, and thick stacks of unanswered mail. Unbound by diplomatic formalities, the esteemed participants were given license to discuss the travails of the world with specific reference to the challenges of multilateralism.

Despite the calming environment, it did not take long to discern two prominent, albeit somewhat contradictory themes in the discussion. The first was the indisputably strong desire by the diplomats to protect citizens of the world against tyranny and violence. Such enlightened vision was, however, made blurry by the complex variants to which the diplomats actually measured violence and oppression. The Achilles heel of multilateral engagement was therefore not that different countries wished to ignore violence, but that they couldn't agree on how to define it -- let alone handle it. Moreover, not everyone agreed on what endgames should look like. Who are the enemies? Who are the terrorists? What is sustainable peace?

Sharing conversation with diplomats of all stripe -- from junior advisors to Security Council members -- proved highly prognostic in view of the multilateral challenges surrounding Syria.

The recent six-point multilateral agreement on Syria is a breakthrough for those seeking to end the country's horrific yearlong bloodbath. The failure of two previous Security Council resolutions fell largely on the broad shoulders of Russia and China, who vetoed the proposals amidst concern that they would ultimately lead to armed intervention in favour of the, as of yet, largely unknown and unproven grassroots opposition groups.

Despite overwhelming agreement that the killing must stop, a lack of shared opinion on whom or what to support now threatens to dash any hope of a ceasefire taking effect. Easier said than done, the theatre of multilateral ceasefire declarations bears many long shadows that conceal any number of well-known perils. In order for Syria's ceasefire to gain traction it is important to understand and be prepared to tackle these known impediments.

The first and perhaps most common reason ceasefires fail occurs when one or both of the parties feel they can still win. In Syria, the opposition feels it has the momentum, while the Syrian army has sustained little real damage. Alternatively, when parties do agree to a ceasefire, it is most commonly attributed to a shared belief that they can achieve more substantive gains at the negotiating table than they can on the battlefield. In Syria, this is unlikely to be an organic process and may require serious multilateral coordination to entice the parties to put down their weapons.

The second most common thorn in the side of ceasefires is the spoiler group. Typically, spoilers feel that the ceasefire is nothing more than a ruse or position of surrender and that the ultimate aim of their efforts -- for example, in Syria, the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad -- will have been thwarted. Spoilers can also arise from the goal-gradient effect, in which parties believe they have simply sacrificed too much to give up or turn back. Responding to spoilers requires significant multilateral cohesiveness, as spoilers will test the resolve of ceasefire participants. Preventing an escalation of renewed warfare is only realistic when parties to a ceasefire agree to jointly denounce and dissociate spoilers as fringe elements -- external to the intent, core principles, and signatories of the agreement.

A third stumbling point for ceasefires comes in the form of warlords or criminals who benefit from continued violence. Whether profiteering from underground trafficking or basking in new group leadership positions, opportunists of all stripe can be found in the chaos of war. As is often the case, continued support for "the cause" is a routinely advertised slogan for these types of combatants who wish nothing more than to see ceasefires put asunder.

Fourth, the resurgence of simmering hatreds and grievances can quickly undo ceasefires. In Syria, ethnic and religious divides and the power differential between them provides for a tenuous ceasefire foundation. True peace, in this sense, is not simply the temporary cessation of hostilities -- it is an amending of the relationships between the parties through power-sharing agreements, new institutions, and cooperative social initiatives.

A fifth impediment to ceasefires is a failure of international ceasefire proponents to adequately monitor the post-ceasefire reconstruction of the society as well as the host nation's security sector reform. Generally, we are very good at starting wars and delivering crushing military defeats, yet we are very poor at following up with costly post-conflict reconstruction plans. Failure to do this may create deep and lasting grievances as citizens experience a palpable divergence between real and anticipated outcomes. Indeed, where little substantial change has followed a ceasefire, the risk of renewed violence is significant. Multilateral peace-building initiatives need to be at the ready any time ceasefires are proposed.

All of this is to say that a strong collective diplomatic call for a ceasefire is only the first step. In this, participatory nations can agree. From here, signatories will be tasked to collectively prepare for the most common impediments and pitfalls to a ceasefire. Syria, being an exceptional complex case, will offer substantial challenge to concerted multilateral efforts. Yet given what is now known of ceasefires -- their successes and their follies -- the international community should be well advised and prepared to help guide Syria and its people through this most challenging time.