Ceasefires in Syria: A Post-Mortem

On 14 December 2016 the rebels in Aleppo agreed to a ceasefire with the government. The ceasefire largely succeeded, in the sense that it allowed the rebels to surrender or retreat to rebel-held Idlib province, and also resulted in the regime taking full control of Aleppo. Both of these outcomes were the intended effects of the ceasefire when it was established––by all parties fighting in Aleppo.

On its face, this ceasefire provides some support to the voices of Syrians, members of the international community, and even some academics that view ceasefires as a positive step towards a diplomatic solution to the civil war.

The United Nations Security Council votes to approve a resolution endorsing the planned halt in fighting in Syria at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, February 26, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

For instance, a survey of about 1,000 Syrians conducted in 2014 found that 88.5 percent support ceasefires––seeing them as a positive step toward peace.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and, Secretary of State John Kerry, right, listen as UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, October 30, 2015. (Photo: AP/Brendan Smialowski)

Policymakers and diplomats, such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the U.N.’s Syria mediator Steffan de Mistura, and the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov view ceasefires as a positive step toward peace because they present the conditions under which trust can be engendered between opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. Some academics have even found statistical evidence supporting this claim.

But the outcome of the ceasefire in Aleppo struck on 14 December is an anomaly. Of the 44 ceasefires agreed to throughout Syria since 2012, only five preceded rebels surrendering, and only seven ceasefires in Syria have endured to the present. The remaining 32 ceasefires have failed. The chart below breaks down these outcomes by percentage.

Of those that failed, 29 (or 91 percent) were followed by offensive operations in an average of just 13 days after the ceasefire failed. The general ceasefire established on December 29, 2016--which was meant to lead to peace talks--is just the latest example of this pattern. The Syrian government and the rebels exchanged fire sporadically throughout the ceasefire, but on January 3rd, government forces began mounting a large offensive against the suburbs surrounding Damascus.

Only four offensives took place beyond 13 days from when the ceasefire failed. If these cases are excluded we would find that 78 percent of failed ceasefires were followed by offensives.

The remaining three failed ceasefires were followed by attacks, but at significantly lower levels, causing far less death and destruction––largely consisting of sporadic bombings, and exchanges of mortar and small arms fire.

Indeed, it is not surprising that fighting between combatants always followed a failed ceasefire––the stakes in the Syrian civil war are quite high. However, offensive operations are, by definition, far more complicated than exchanges of small arms fire, or even sporadic aerial bombing. Unlike low-level attacks, offensive operations are characterized by a military moving to disarm its enemy in the latter’s territory.

This means fighting an enemy dug into defensive positions including barricades, booby-traps, and in the case of Syria, the frequent use of civilian shields. Even offensive operations that involve sustained bombing of targets meant to disarm one’s enemy involve significant intelligence operations and planning.

A survey of the failed ceasefires provides three logical pathways from ceasefires to offensives: leverage, buying time, and collapse of cooperation.

The three failed ceasefires that were followed only by low-level attacks can largely be explained by the fact that the rebels in these cases were sufficiently weakened, and thus allocating resources to an offensive was simply not cost-effective for the Syrian government. However, the pattern from ceasefire to offensive calls for a more nuanced explanation.

To be clear, offensives are not carried out simply because they are preceded by a pause in fighting. For this to be true the combatants in the Syrian civil war would always be looking to carry out offensives––an impossibility due to the large amount of resources needed for such operations. Instead, like many patterns of violence in warfare, there are multiple logical pathways from ceasefires to offensives.

A survey of the 29 failed ceasefires provides three logical pathways from ceasefires to offensives: leverage, buying time, and collapse of cooperation. As will be explained in more detail below, these three pathways indicate that ceasefires are a tool intentionally used to bring about a military solution to the conflict.

But first it is important to discuss the ceasefires that did not fail. Do these ceasefires support the idea that ceasefires engender trust between combatants?

An analysis of the seven ceasefires in Syria that have endured to the present, and the five ceasefires that preceded rebels surrendering, indicates that most of these “successes” follow the pattern of the ceasefire struck on 14 December 2016; these ceasefires are not the product of trust, but instead of military might.

The chart below shows the complete number of ceasefires in Syria and their outcomes in particular areas between 2012 and 2016. (Note that the “general” category represents four separate ceasefires that covered most or all of Syria.)


The first, and most common reason explaining why offensives follow failed ceasefires is to gain leverage in future diplomatic negotiations. Over the past five years of war, negotiations between the Syrian government and rebels followed a fairly consistent pattern.

Free Syrian Army rebels take up positions along an embankment on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Maraat al-Numan, Syria. Rebels and Syrian forces fought for months over the vital Aleppo-Damascus highway between Aleppo and Hama where Maraat al-Numan is located. (Photo: AP/Mustafa Karali)

First, the Syrian government offers the rebels a chance to surrender in exchange for safe passage to other rebel-held areas. In other cases some type of local power sharing between the government and rebels is proposed. If these negotiations fail and the ceasefire ends, one or both sides often try to increase their leverage in future negotiations by decreasing the military capabilities of their opponent.

For instance, the most recent failed ceasefire in Aleppo, which was first established on October 20, 2016, was designed to allow safe corridors for rebels to retreat to rebel-held Idlib province. The rebels failed to surrender and by October 23, the ceasefire collapsed.

Five days later the rebels mounted their largest offensive operation to date, with the aim of breaking the Syrian government’s siege of the city. The offensive failed, but had the rebels broken the siege, they would have vastly increased their military strength––and thereby future negotiating position––by opening up roads and bringing in supplies.

Buying Time

The second reason failed ceasefires lead to offensives is fairly simple: each side uses the ceasefire purely as a time to resupply and plan large-scale operations.

Of course, resupply and planning also occurs during ceasefires in the midst of ongoing negotiations. For example, during the October ceasefire in Aleppo, Russia sent a fleet of naval vessels, carrying military supplies and bomber aircraft to Syria. However, ceasefires in the absence of negotiations are important to distinguish because this indicates that combatants are trying to end the war through pure military victory—an often far deadlier scenario than a negotiated solution. 

A child from the Abu Sleiman family has a lunch at his house in the Syrian town of Beit Nayem, in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, January 14, 2016 (Photo: AFP/Amer Almohibany)

In the absence of ongoing negotiations there is usually some type of incentive to abide by the ceasefire. Sometimes one side deceptively offers the ceasefires as a first step before negotiations. Other times, the ceasefire is purportedly for humanitarian purposes.

For instance, in late February 2016, the Syrian government established a humanitarian ceasefire in East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. No significant humanitarian aid reached civilians in the area, and sporadic violations occurred. However, the ceasefire largely held for two days, until the Syrian government mounted its most intense offensive in the suburb.

One rebel spokesman in the area noted, “[t]he freezing of fronts in some areas allowed the regime...to surprise rebels in East Ghouta with huge numbers of forces that it summoned from the cold [i.e., less active] fronts.” Of course, the rebels likely used the time to rearm as well.

Collapse of Cooperation

The third, and final reason failed ceasefires lead to offensives emanates from the collapse of cooperation between combatant groups. That is, two competing combatants sign a ceasefire to cooperate against a common enemy. But once this enemy is defeated the ceasefire often fails and the two sides return to fighting.

It appears such cooperation between the government and rebels has occurred in only two areas of Syria. The rapid conquest of Hasakah province by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the fall of 2014 led the Syrian government and a Kurdish rebel group, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to sign a ceasefire.

Palestinians at the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus queue to receive food from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. Photo: AP

This was not an alliance, however. The ceasefire merely served as a mutual assurance that the government and YPG could fight ISIS without fear of attack from one another. ISIS’s conquest of Yarmouk in 2014 precipitated a similar ceasefire between Palestinian rebels and the government—although the two sides seem to have cooperated more directly against ISIS.

Two years later the ceasefire in Hasakah broke down and the Syrian government subsequently launched an offensive. In Yarmouk the ceasefire continues to this day. These differing outcomes are largely explained by two factors. First, ISIS was pushed out of Hasakah province by the spring of 2016, but remained a threat to Yarmouk. Second, while the YPG is one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria due the aid and training the group receives from the U.S., the Yarmouk rebels are relatively weak and must rely on the Syrian government to fight ISIS.

“Successful” Ceasefires

It is true that ceasefires occasionallyprovide a window of opportunity for civilians to receive humanitarian aid, and even provide brief moments of normalcy. However, as the evidence presented here suggests, these benefits are usually erased by devastating offensives after the ceasefire fails. And although not every ceasefire has collapsed––as evidenced by the Yarmouk case––even these instances are mainly produced and sustained though battlefield dynamics and/or starvation sieges. In contrast to what many policymakers and diplomats claim (at least in public), trust between the rebels and the government has almost no bearing on these outcomes.

As stated above, seven ceasefires in Syria have endured to the present, and five ceasefirespreceded rebels surrendering.

YPG fighters in Hasakah clash with Syrian forces, August 21, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)

Of the seven enduring ceasefires, Yarmouk is the only case of an alliance––again, due to the threat from ISIS. A ceasefire signed in Hasakah in August 2016 seems to have largely held because the Syrian government has decided to allocate resources towards fighting less formidable rebels in areas of Syria with relatively greater strategic importance (e.g., Aleppo and Idlib). .

Al-Qadam, Barzeh, Qaboun, Zabidani, and Yelda, are currently under siege by the Syrian government. These five areas have been under siege for an average of 434 days, according to Siege Watch, an advocacy group that monitors sieges in Syria. It seems that the Syrian government believes it is more cost-effective to starve out their enemies rather than attack—a strategy that has become infamously known as “starve or surrender.” As for the besieged fighters, it seems they are too weak to mount sustained attacks, but not weak enough to surrender.

The rebels in Aleppo, Daraya, the Old City of Homs, Al-Waer, and Mouadamiya surrendered because the government’s offensives and subsequent siege decimated their ability to fight. These four areas were under siege for an average of 780 days before the rebels finally surrendered.

The evidence presented here paints a grim picture of ceasefires in Syria: if ceasefires fail the population will likely be devastated by bombs and bullets. However, even a ceasefire that holds is usually the product of military destruction followed by the starvation of hundreds, if not thousands. Unfortunately, this may mean that policymakers and the public need to accept the fact that the Syrian civil war will end when the rebels––and their supporters––are crushed.

Replication dataset on Syria ceasefires can be found at: https://www.warfareandpoliticalviolence.com/syria-ceasefire-dataset-20122016/

Patrick Burke is a freelance journalist based out of Washington D.C., where he is currently seeking a career as a researcher in a defense/security related field. You can see more of his work and data at Warfare and Political Violence.

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Header Image: Syrian residents leave Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood after pro-government forces captured the area in the eastern part of the war torn city on December 13, 2016 (Photo: Getty)