Do Ceasefires Ever Work?

Why the tenuous Syrian truce could end up being a step back for peace.

Earlier this week, the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army, and other rebel elements agreed to a temporary, four-day ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Even before it went into effect, one opposition group, Jabhat al-Nusra, had publicly disavowed the ceasefire, and on its first morning there were reports of clashes between rebel and government forces in Aleppo and Damascus. A car bomb also exploded in the capital city, resulting in multiple casualties. Still, neither side has formally declared the ceasefire dead as of yet, and early reports suggest that the fighting does seem to be somewhat reduced.

What are the prospects for this temporary ceasefire? And what are the prospects for a more permanent ceasefire in Syria?

Temporary ceasefires bring temporary relief from the day-to-day grind of war -- and for residents of battered cities like Aleppo, even a few days of relief over an important holiday will be welcome. Even an imperfectly respected ceasefire can bring some respite if the level of violence drops significantly.

Beyond that, it's possible that a temporary ceasefire or lull could build a sliver of trust and momentum toward a permanent end to hostilities. If both sides are serious about making a deal, a temporary lull in violence this weekend could provide an opening for negotiations. But that's a big if.

If the ceasefire hasn't already been derailed by Friday morning's clashes, what are the prospects for a more permanent peace deal? Wars end in negotiated deals when the costs of continuing to fight outweigh the prospects for winning. The war has proved costly for both the rebels and the government (and, of course, for the Syrian people -- but unfortunately, it's not up to civilians whether the war continues or not). Bashar al-Assad's government is isolated internationally and has not been able to crush the challenge to its rule. It is unlikely the Syrian Army will be able to quell the rebellion without extreme measures -- measures that even Assad's most stalwart international friends might not be able to stomach. The rebels, too, are a very long and costly slog from any prospect of toppling the regime. Without a peace agreement, both sides must know they face a difficult path toward, at best, uncertain victory.

In such a mutually painful status quo, bargaining theory tells us that negotiation should be preferable to continued violence. But reaching a deal and committing to it credibly is no easy task. Even if both sides are serious about negotiating a peace deal, and see some prospects for overcoming the commitment problem, would a temporary four-day holiday ceasefire help move the process forward? If the current violence subsides and the main parties abide by the ceasefire, it could build trust on both sides. But if the ceasefire fails entirely and full-scale fighting resumes, the opposite holds true.

The temporary ceasefire plan negotiated by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi faces obstacles. All ceasefires are fragile, but temporary ones face a structural problem that makes them more fragile than most. As the end of the ceasefire period nears, there is an incentive to go on the offensive prior to the expiration date in order to gain an advantage over the other side. The other side is aware of this, however, and has an equal incentive to move against its adversaries, who, in turn, know this, and so have an incentive to attack even sooner, and so on and so forth. Not surprisingly, temporary ceasefires with a fixed expiration have a tendency to unravel.

This problem can be mitigated if both sides know that it would be clear who broke the ceasefire first -- provided there are real costs to doing so. In this case, the Syrian government is probably hoping to use the ceasefire, and its willingness to agree to it, to shore up international support, and so it will not want to be blamed for being the first to break the ceasefire. And to the extent that the rebels hope to maintain the sympathy of most of the outside world (and the possibility of intervention on their behalf), they also have an incentive not to be seen as violating the truce first. (Of course, rebel elements like Jabhat al-Nusra have already demonstrated that they aren't swayed by international opinion.) But this is a do-it-yourself ceasefire -- there will be no monitors to observe compliance, since the U.N. withdrew its observer mission over the summer. As a result, if fighting resumes, it will be difficult for outsiders to tell who started what. The military incentives to strike first, coupled with plausible deniability, thus make it less likely that the truce will hold through the holiday weekend.

If fighting starts again with a vengeance before the holiday weekend is over, the failure of the temporary truce may do more harm than good by shattering whatever sliver of trust that reaching the agreement has generated, which might then hamper future negotiations. The more failed attempts at peace in the past, the harder it is to work toward negotiated peace in the future.

But if ceasefires are inherently fragile, that doesn't mean they can't be made more durable. Both the commitment problem that makes ending wars so difficult and the problem of deniability that results from imperfect information can be alleviated by international peacekeeping operations.

Fortunately, the U.N. is reportedly preparing contingency plans for just such a peacekeeping mission, should a more comprehensive deal be reached. Historically, we know that ceasefires are dramatically more likely to stick if peacekeepers are deployed than if belligerents are left to their own devices.

Peacekeeping missions are notoriously dysfunctional -- chronically underfunded and underequipped; they tend to arrive late and are plagued by force interoperability problems. And yet, they are surprisingly effective. Why is this so? Impartial observers make it more costly to violate the terms of a ceasefire (or a more comprehensive peace deal) by providing information to the international community about who is or is not living up to commitments. They also provide the same information to the local population. So to the extent that the parties are vying for both international and domestic legitimacy, their presence makes returning to war more costly and maintaining a ceasefire more likely.

Agreeing to, and cooperating with, an intrusive peacekeeping mission also provides a costly, and therefore credible, signal from each side to the other about intentions for peace. This in itself can help alleviate mistrust between warring parties. And of course, knowing that outsiders will be watching and reporting what the other side is doing makes it easier to trust that one will not be suckered into an agreement and then caught unawares if the other side attacks.

Peacekeeping is not perfect, of course. It does not guarantee that peace will last. But it does a remarkably good job of improving the odds. Empirically, peacekeeping reduces the risk that a ceasefire will fail by 75-85 percent.

Unfortunately, there is no way to get a peacekeeping mission to Syria to observe the fragile Eid al-Adha truce, if indeed one still remains. The minimal U.N. observer mission that was dispatched last year is long gone and the international community is working, first, to get some basic humanitarian aid to Syrians amid the relative calm. Deploying a peacekeeping mission takes much longer than a weekend.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous has said the organization is planning such an operation. A peacekeeping mission would require approval from the Security Council, however, members of which have already vetoed three resolutions on Syria. However, Security Council approval is quite likely if peacekeeping is part of peace deal and is agreed to by both sides of the conflict. The Syrian government will, like most governments, be reluctant to allow peacekeepers in, and bridle at the infringement on Syrian sovereignty that will entail. But this is true of all governments on the receiving end of peacekeeping, many of whom ultimately decide it is worth it to swallow their pride and request peacekeepers as the price for durable peace. The Free Syrian Army will presumably be more amenable to peacekeeping. Depending on the composition of the mission, splinter opposition groups may be less obliging. Many countries, however, might be understandably reluctant to send military personnel to Syria, even in the context of a peace deal. Whether the mission would be mounted by the U.N., by NATO, or by an ad hoc group of interested states remains to be worked out. But a peace deal without such a mission is almost certainly doomed to failure.

The temporary truce this weekend may or may not move Syria closer to a more permanent ceasefire. But if and when one is reached, an international peacekeeping mission will be necessary to secure a durable peace in that country.


National Security

A Short History of World War III

I lost the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuked the world from my couch ... and you can too.

Come closer to the fire, my friend. It will keep the chill of nuclear winter away. Are you hungry? I have some canned food that is not radioactive. I checked it with a Geiger counter myself.

You came here from Washington, D.C.? I have heard rumors of strange creatures living among the ruins. Ground Zero was the White House, and I am told that a peculiar blue light glows from the bottom of the crater.

But people tell many stories. You have traveled a long way, and I will tell you the story you came for. You desire to learn how World War III started? I will teach you with the help of a friend. A board game called Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps you will make better decisions than Kennedy and Khrushchev did.

Help me set up the map. You see the island of Cuba, long and narrow like one of Castro's cigars, and divided into hundreds of hexagons? There are two players, one controlling the Soviets and Cubans, and the other for the Americans. Let us now place the little cardboard pieces. Now you see the prime cause of the war. Lack of information.

Do you notice that like the game of Stratego, the Cuban and Soviet forces set up face down, so that the Americans only see a hundred or so faceless brown pieces across the map? Each piece might be a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) battery. Or a surface-to-air missile (SAM) unit, or a rather inconsequential Cuban Army battalion. The Americans can only scan a sea of anonymous brown until their reconnaissance aircraft overfly a hexagon and flip the pieces to their revealed side. Until then, they can't bomb missiles sites that they can't spot.

How thick the fog of war is, as dense as a mushroom cloud. There are also Soviet convoys that arrive during the course of the game. They have their true nature hidden on the back side unless the American Navy intercepts them. Some carry regular cargo, but others carry intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). And to make the fog truly opaque, the Soviets secretly roll dice to determine when the missiles in Cuba become operational, so the gringos don't even how much time they have to remove the missiles before they can be fired.

Now we set up the Americans. The game begins October 16 -- each turn equals one day -- and the United States only has a few air squadrons in south Florida until mobilization is declared. Unlike the Soviet side, the American pieces are always face-up and known.

Would you like some crackers?  I found them in a fallout shelter. They are dry but nutritious. Where was I? Ah, yes, now comes the heart of the game. Each side has a deck of event cards that it can choose to play, one per turn. Many cards can only be played at higher alert levels, which span Defense Condition 1 to 5 for the United States, and a state of Peace, Crisis, and War for the Soviets. Each card allows certain actions, and adds or subtracts victory points for the United States or the USSR.

At the start of the game, the Americans start at a relaxed Defcon 5 and the Soviets at Peace. Neither side can attack each other, and America can fly only one reconnaissance mission each turn turn. If only things had remained that way...

Keep your hand away from that green blob on the floor. I swear that I have seen it move at night. Now we begin the game:

It is October 16. It was a Tuesday, I think. I was going to surprise my wife with a ... no, best not to think too much of the past. The present is hard enough. But it is the first day of the crisis, and the Americans move first. They change their alert level to Defcon 4, which allows them to play the Increased Reconnaissance card that allows two overflights per day. The reconnaissance aircraft detect some SAM sites, some Mig fighters and Ilyushin bombers, and a medium-range ballistic missile site. The MRBM site is not yet active, but now President Kennedy has proof of Soviet missiles!

The Soviet response is to raise their alert level from Peace to Crisis (as if there wasn't a crisis already?) -- and play a Cuban Mobilization Card to strengthen local forces in case the Americans launch a ground invasion.

October 17. Perhaps some quiet negotiation could have averted tensions at that point. But the Americans order Defcon 3. They play a Low-Level Reconnaissance card to improve the results of their overflights. Another MRBM site is detected, plus more SAMs and a Soviet mechanized regiment.

The Soviets did not play a card that day. Perhaps they thought time was on their side. They would wait out the Americans until the missiles were operational and then be in a much stronger bargaining position.

Have some water. I apologize for the quality. I filter it as best I can, but the black rain gives it the texture of mud.

October 18. Two Soviet cargo ships arrive that day. They were actually carrying food and industrial machinery, but how was Washington to know that? The Americans maintain Defcon 3, but now they play U.S. Army Mobilization. For the next several days, so many troops and aircraft pour into Florida that the state nearly sinks into the ocean. Aircraft are quickly deployed to airbases, and a Marine division is readied to invade Cuba, but it will take several days to prepare Army divisions for an amphibious and airborne assault. One should not be in a hurry to invade another country. These things often don't end well.

Seeing the U.S. mobilize and fearing an American surprise attack, Moscow orders mobilization of the Warsaw Pact.

October 19. That was a Friday, wasn't it? We should have been looking forward to the weekend, not war. While its forces mobilize, Washington intensifies paramilitary operations with the Operation Mongoose card, which disrupts Cuban defenses.

Now Moscow crosses the Rubicon. It plays Air Alert card, which allows air defenses to fire on American aircraft. A U-2 spy plane is shot down that day.

October 20. Infuriated by the loss of the U-2, the Americans go to Defcon 2 and declare a naval quarantine of Cuba. A Soviet convoy is stopped and inspected for missiles, but none are discovered.

The Soviets respond by stationing missile-armed submarines off the East coast.

October 21. Washington declares that its aircraft will attack any SAM site that fires on U.S. planes. Perhaps someone forgot to tell the Soviet air defense crews, because they do fire on a U-2, and are bombed for their pains.

But someone also forgot to tell the Americans that Cuba wasn't the only battleground. Moscow plays the Blockade Berlin card.

Dusk is falling. I have little fuel left for my lantern. We must hurry.

October 22. And so it begins. Four MRBM sites and an IRBM site have been detected so far. The Americans gamble that the nuclear missiles in Cuba will become operational soon. They play the Surgical Strike card, which allows airstrikes against nuclear missile sites. Two MRBM sites and an IRBM location are destroyed by Air Force and Navy aircraft.

But if America can attack their missiles, they can attack ours. The Soviets raise their alert level to War status, and Soviet bombers strike Jupiter missile sites in Turkey.

October 23. There were options, you know. There are always options. Look at the event cards. The Americans could have played gone to the United Nations, pledged not to invade Cuba, agreed not to place any missiles in Turkey. The Soviets could have withdrawn their missiles, or stopped sending convoys. But both sides were drunk on a cocktail of pride and fear. Perhaps the lesson is, don't drink with your finger on the nuclear button.

That day, the United States went to Defcon 1 and invaded Cuba. Marines and paratroopers landed near Havana. Within hours, the Soviets invaded Western Europe. And then there was only one last card to be played: Initiate Nuclear Warfare. Whether it was America or Russia who first played it doesn't matter. The results were the same.

Who won the war? Look around you. Do these ruins look like victory?

Go to sleep. You must rest before your long journey home.

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