Some Syria experts are advocating locally brokered peace talks, saying that small-scale cease-fires “offer hope to civilians and reduce human suffering if properly supported and implemented.”
The U.N.'s envoy to Syria is in Damascus, trying to convince warring sides of the benefits of such pacts. Analysts also warn that cease-fires gone wrong can cause more suffering than they prevent.
We usually think of cease-fires as good things. Fewer people die when there’s no shooting. But that’s not always the case, says Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
“Cease-fires do not have an inherently positive value," said Bonsey. "They can contribute positively or negatively to the conflict depending on the terms. A good cease-fire can save lives. It can maybe even contribute to an eventual political process, with de-escalation of the conflict.”
But a bad cease-fire, he says: “can pave way for more violence, or enable more violence or incentivize more violence and end up costing more lives than it saves."
In the Syrian war, Bonsey says, most cease-fires have gone wrong, turning into an unconditional surrender or being used as a military tactic to divert the fighting somewhere more strategic. The problem arises, he says, because the groups at the bargaining table are not usually equally powerful or equally fearful of the other.
But Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist and founder of Madani, a Britain-based organization that promotes civil society in Syria, argues that small-scale cease-fires across Syria could eventually turn into national peace talks if they are properly brokered and enforced.
Successful peace deals require a common practical need, like a shared power supply or a road, she says. They also require local moderators who are trusted by all sides.
And, she says, to make any peace deal, the fighters must believe they will better survive the peace than the war.
“We should provide protection to first of all the mediators and second the fighters themselves. A year ago, the fighters in Al-Waer were happy to accept a deal if there was any mechanism that protects them," said Turkmani. "They said ‘Okay, we can leave, but where should we go? The moment we leave we are going to be dead.’”
The fighters she speaks of had good reason to believe a peace deal could be put them in danger, adds Nadim Khoury of Human Rights Watch.
“In Homs, most of the young men who did not withdraw with the fighters were actually forced to go back and serve in the Syrian military and they were detained many times," said Khoury. "We are actually in touch with many families who say ‘We have no idea where our sons are.’”
Once a deal is struck, outsiders are also needed to make it stick, says Omar Hallaj a political analyst and former CEO of the Syria Trust for Development. And this is where the international community comes in.
“By itself cease-fires don’t hold. Like Rim indicated they need local peace committees to sustain them. They need monitors," Hallah said adding that
in some cases, they also need peacekeeping soldiers.
He says simply ending the war will not solve the crisis in Syria. The health care system has collapsed and 300,000 people have died from diseases that a regular hospital could have cured, he adds. Roughly 40 percent of Syrian children are not in school.
The war itself has killed 200,000 people and uprooted millions since 2011, in one of the largest displacement crises since World War I.