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.