Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Redefining Ceasefires: Wartime Order and Statebuilding in Syria

Marika Sosnowski

This book begins the task – for academics as well as policy-makers and conflict negotiators – of rethinking what ceasefires are and what are their potential ramifications. Over the past few decades, the conflict resolution field has moved towards more encompassing and nuanced theories about how violence is resolved and transformed and the dynamics surrounding peace agreements. However, it is only in the last few years that the literature specifically on ceasefires has begun to flourish. Yet despite the increased attention, 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. The main argument advanced in this book is that ceasefires, in fact, rarely only ‘cease fire’. Rather, ceasefires do more than only affect violence but create particular types of wartime order that can have diverse consequences for other contested areas of control that have statebuilding potential. It is therefore important that we redefine what ceasefires are in order to 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.

This book began to take shape in 2013 when I was involved in an international development project that aimed to support the moderate Syrian opposition in northern Syria to develop local systems of governance like councils, policing services and judiciaries. When I spoke to Syrians about their experience of setting up governance structures in towns like Atareb and Ma’aret al-Numan, they would say that they would be going well… until the war-planes of Bashar al-Assad came and destroyed everything. It got me thinking that if the bombs could be stopped, even for a short period of time, via a ceasefire, for example, how might local governance initiatives develop further. These initial mullings became the basis of the almost decade long investigation, the collection of rare primary documents and first-hand interviews with over eighty Syrians and other experts, that are contained in this book.

My original assumptions were in line with the majority of the existent literature on ceasefires and Zachariah Mampilly’s particular conclusions in relation to how ceasefires could affect rebel governance, that is, that they could reduce violence and therefore help in the establishment of local governance initiatives. However, when I put these questions front and centre, my initial thoughts proved to be over-simplified.

As I spoke to more and more people with firsthand knowledge about how ceasefires had played out in practice in Syria, it quickly became apparent that even when they did reduce violence in one way, other forms of violence were able to emerge. For example, the February 2016 ceasefire reduced overall levels of violence in Syria’s southern Daraa governorate but in the process enabled targeted assassinations. Likewise, it became clear that there were much more complex and fragile architectures in place that linked a range of governance providers and economic networks that could be recalibrated and redrawn by ceasefires. For example, various ceasefires in Syria affected access to smuggling routes, the dynamics around humanitarian assistance and the power alignment between various local actors including both civic and rebel leaders.

When I spoke to people who had directly negotiated local truce and reconciliation agreements with the Syrian regime, it was also clear that these local ceasefires may have stopped violence but were far from positive, humanitarian or beneficial for communities. In fact, the terms of these local ceasefire agreements enforced another type of violence on rebel-held communities by stripping them of property and citizenship rights. An analysis of the de-escalation zone agreement as part of the Russian-led Astana peace process for Syria was also enlightening, showing how ceasefires could be used by external actors (in this case Turkey, Russia and Iran) to assert their own control over the diplomacy, security and territory of another, supposedly, sovereign state.

Around mid-2020 I was contacted by a military official working with NATO in Afghanistan. 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 this 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 are common-sense and work 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 statebuilding and relationships that exist between official and less official actors in civil wars.

Richard Reid, a conflict negotiator who was involved in ceasefire negotiations in Lebanon and South Sudan has said that ‘if people stop shooting at each other for one day, they have broken the habit. Perhaps they might find that it feels pretty good’. I believe it is nice sentiments such as this that have so far dominated the way ceasefires have been studied, negotiated and implemented. This book begins the task of challenging and changing this conventional thinking. As a Syrian ceasefire negotiator told me, ‘If there is a ceasefire, people know the devil is coming’.

Redefining Ceasefires by Marika Sosnowski

About The Author

Marika Sosnowski

Marika Sosnowski is an Australian lawyer, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne Law School and Research Associate with the German Institute for Global and A...

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