19 September 2016

The Surprising Science of Cease-Fires: Even Failures Can Help Peace


Even if this week’s cease-fire in Syria quickly collapses — as most analysts expect it to — it could have a lasting impact on the conflict.

Political science research shows that cease-fires change more than just conditions on the ground: They alter how a war’s participants weigh the benefits of fighting versus talking.

Cease-fires can create something like a virtuous cycle, studies have found, making future pauses more likely. Each one has a better chance of lasting longer, discouraging violations, isolating bad actors and building trust among adversaries.

This cycle is not always as visible or politically urgent as the question of who is dropping bombs where on a particular day. But, over time, it can shift the participants’ calculus in ways that build conditions for peace.

Page Fortna, a Columbia University professor and leading scholar on peace negotiations, says that “piecemeal” deals, though modest and rarely successful, can eventually align the incentives of groups whose demands at the moment are unreconcilable.

But there is a flip side. Sometimes cease-fires can create a vicious cycle instead of a virtuous one. Distrust can deepen, the parties can move further apart, and incentives can shift to make peace even less attractive.

Whether the diplomats who arranged the current seven-day pause in Syria know it or not, they are making a high-risk, high-reward gamble.

Life During the Cease-fire

We are chronicling the experiences and observations of Syrians around the country during the partial truce. 

The Virtuous Cycle

Two Notre Dame political scientists, Madhav Joshi and J. Michael Quinn, last year published a study examining 196 cease-fires and peace deals from 1975 to 2011.

They found something surprising: One of the best predictors of a peace agreement’s success is simply whether the parties had prior agreements, even if those earlier cease-fires failed. Not even a war’s duration or its intensity can so reliably predict a peace deal’s outcome. Neither does the poverty or ethnic diversity of the combatants.

“Failures pave the way for better agreements down the road,” Professor Quinn said.

Over time, participants see cease-fires as less risky. If all sides come out feeling that they at least broke even, they grow more willing to make another deal. In Syria, with the status quo so terrible, breaking even doesn’t require much.

“These items could be as simple as a request that Assad refrain from calling opposition members terrorists in the press,” Professors Joshi and Quinn wrote in a Foreign Affairs article summarizing their research. “As soon as one party reciprocates, a peace process is underway. And with each successful round, just enough trust and good will may be generated to move on to the next item.”

This is trust not in the colloquial sense of proving personal integrity, but in the political science sense: Negotiators believe they understand one another’s incentives and can predict their behavior. Each side becomes more willing to make concessions, believing the other side will deliver on its end.

Take, for example, Yugoslavia, where there were 91 mediated truces or cease-fires from 1989 to 2000. Of those, 35 percent lasted less than a week and 13 percent lasted exactly a week.

Though each appeared to be a catastrophic failure, they culminated in the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war that was a subset of the larger conflict, as well as later deals.

We are already seeing possible hints of this in Syria. The tempo of cease-fires is increasing, with the terms expanding and the outside actors investing more political capital. Those gains are slight and the process of building trust is still fragile, so it remains unclear whether the cycle will catch.

Stephen B. Long, a professor at the University of Richmond, found in a2014 paper looking at hundreds of cases from 1948 to 1998, that if cease-fire violations are consistently punished with some form of retaliation — strong enough to hurt, but not to escalate — then everyone learns he is better off complying.

Eventually all sides have less reason to fear they’ll be betrayed, and grow more confident entering otherwise risky cease-fires or peace talks.

The Voices of Syria 

A partial cease-fire began in Syria on Sept. 12, coinciding with Eid al-Adha. We spoke to several people in rebel- and government-held areas about life in their cities.

By YARA BISHARA and MEGAN SPECIA on Publish DateSeptember 15, 2016. Photo by Mohammed Badra/European Pressphoto Agency. Watch in Times Video »

This is among the reasons that the Korean Peninsula, though still in a formal state of war, has not had full-on fighting in decades. Each side has proved, in countless tit-for-tat exchanges, that it will punish any transgression by the other side, freezing a conflict that had killed a million people.

The virtuous cycle takes hold when, after enough rounds, each side concludes that its adversaries will probably follow the terms of any agreement. Everyone profits if the terms of the cease-fire are carried out, so everyone acts to enforce it.

This was often how multiparty wars like Syria’s broke from the cycle of self-perpetuating conflict, Professor Fortna said.

This can take years. One paper suggested that the cycle does not truly take hold until a cease-fire lasts for eight weeks; that is a bar that Syria has yet to clear. But research papers that describe the dynamic are peppered with examples — Burundi, Nepal, the Philippines, Northern Ireland — that seemed unsolvable until they were suddenly solved.
The Vicious Cycle

If the great hope is that Syria’s warriors can learn to trust and cooperate, then the great danger is that they will instead learn to distrust and reject.

If cease-fire violations are punished inconsistently, combatants perceive cheating as less risky. So while every transgression does not need to be punished, it’s important that all sides be held to a similar standard for what will provoke retaliation, and how severe.

If groups believe that everyone else is likely to cheat, they have a strong incentive to cheat as well. By the same token, if groups come to see the other side as unreliable or unpredictable, they have little reason to enter into any deal.

Over successive rounds, each side could bring less to the table or be less willing to follow through on its promises — further convincing one another that talks are not worthwhile.

This happened in Angola, where a civil war killed half a million people from 1976 to 2002. The United States and the Soviet Union saw it as a Cold War battleground, and both intervened. They pushed their Angolan proxies to keep fighting, which destroyed trust on the ground — a worrying lesson as Washington and Moscow now find themselves on opposite sides in Syria.
The Superpower Problem

Whether Syria slips into a virtuous cycle or vicious one, Professor Fortna said, depends in large part on the United States and Russia.

Civil wars are much likelier to end in peace if they have a mediator, often a powerful outside country, according to research by the political scientist Donald Rothchild. That mediator can impose stopgaps, such as temporary cease-fires, that open up space for negotiation. And the mediator makes both sides more willing to take risks for peace, because they trust that the other side will be punished if it fails to keep its word.

The 30-year state of war between Israel and Egypt, for example, ended only when the United States brokered the 1978 Camp David accords. President Jimmy Carter offered billions in aid to both countries, altering their strategic calculus to make peace more attractive — and implicitly threatening Washington disapproval if either party backed out.

Mediation can take subtler forms, such as Norway’s role in hosting the 1990s Israeli-Palestinian talks: The neutral setting reduced the political costs.

Syria has no such mediator because the only two viable candidates — the United States and Russia — are engaged in the war. Nor is either likely to allow another party, such as the United Nations, to get in the middle.

Professor Fortna argued that interim United States-Russia agreements like this week’s could eventually move them into a sort of joint-mediator role. Though this is politically distasteful in Washington for appearing to put Moscow on equal strategic and moral footings, it is probably necessary.

But this would require both powers to demonstrate something they have yet been unable to: the ability to extract concessions from their allies on the ground in Syria. Only then could the United States and Russia trust each other’s ability to follow through on their most important promises.

That would surely take multiple rounds to accomplish, and would be only a step toward peace. This can look like failure because it is so incremental. And the success stories often take a decade or more.

“There’s not a lot of incentive to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, which is why wars are hard to end,” Professor Fortna said.

“But they do end,” she added.

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