Can A ‘Freeze’ Work in Syria?

What’s the difference between a “freeze” and a “ceasefire”? Some might say it’s just semantics, but UN negotiators in Syria are hoping to create space in parts of Aleppo to, in effect, “freeze” the hostilities. Past ceasefires have failed, but there have been a few local ones that have held, albeit in less prized parts of the country. So what explains the optimism now, and why the push for “freezes” over ceasefires, not just in Syria but also in Ukraine, where officials on both sides have likened the situation to the “frozen conflicts” in the region? Is it because Geneva and Minsk have made a mockery of the term ceasefire? Is a freeze, however limited in scope, a sustainable solution? Or does it merely provide cover for the stronger party to carry out more violence?

Critics, including France’s ambassador to the United Nations, say the “freeze” provides a fig leaf of peace, and instead prefer a comprehensive solution to end the war permanently. Others, most famously Edward Luttwak, have decried past ceasefires as actually dragging out conflicts longer than they should because they create strategic pause which allows both sides to rearm and regroup to fight another day – the war in the Balkans  providing a case in point.

Even if the regime halts its barrel bombs, how does the UN prevent other third-party spoilers from violating the freeze?

But UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura is hopeful that a local freeze, whereby the conflict-free zone is flooded with humanitarian aid, can incentivize fighters on both sides to lay down their arms. The aim is for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, to avoid the same fate as Homs, whose old city was razed to the ground. It’s a tough gambit, to be sure. First, Aleppo is the crown jewel and largest city of Syria, so some might argue that it’s better to try such a hail-mary-pass-like “freeze” in a less contestable city. Second, the city is messily controlled not just by regime and rebel factions, but also by al-Nusra Front, which has made significant inroads while the rest of the world and region fixate on ISIS in the northeast. Even if the regime halts its barrel bombs, how does the UN prevent other third-party spoilers from violating the freeze? Finally, a freeze in essence makes the facts on the ground stick, so any territory won or lost gets frozen in place as it were. That inevitably creates sore losers, as well as winners salivating for more gains. It remains far from clear that the UN or any other third-party peacekeeper can provide enough credible commitments to make such agreements stick.

Moreover, the evidence on such ceasefires holding, regardless of what they are called, is not good. According to conflict data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) (the data spans from1946 thru 2010, n=578), less than 15% of conflicts end in ceasefires. Over a quarter end in military victories (of which the government is more than twice as likely to win), while the majority either just drag on indefinitely or peter out. Worst, where there is evidence of a rebel group enjoying “extensive” extraterritorial shelter – typically sanctuaries across borders, as is the case with the Syrian opposition and ISIS – there are only three examples of ceasefires succeeding (out of well over 500 conflicts). Given the oppositions “strategic depth” – safe zones that fighters can retreat to beyond Syria’s borders – we can expect a protracted conflict with the potential to drag on indefinitely. When we think of civil wars ending with a military victory, there must be some way to contain the opposition to a finite area to either force a surrender or literally wipe them out. Assad cannot force IS into a corner because Syria, in effect, has no corners.

Indeed, the best we can hope for in these scenarios is what Paul Staniland describes as a kind of “ugly stability,” where the heaviest of fighting has stopped, even though the situation on the ground is still a mess and could easily flare up again (see Sri Lanka, Colombia or Mindanao in the southern Philippines).

Architects like to call their creative designs “frozen music.” Diplomats are similarly bedazzled by their ability to suspend reality. Yet a frozen conflict is just that – war suspended indefinitely, a finger’s snap away from reigniting. Localized ceasefires may work as a means to an end, which should be the termination of the conflict. They may realign incentives of local actors. They may let the warring parties vent. And they may expand, much like how the oil spot analogy of counterinsurgency and spreading security works. But this may be wishful thinking. And a “freeze” shouldn’t be an end in and of itself. That would be a surefire way to, as Luttwak inelegantly put it, “give war a chance.”


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