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Terrorism & Security

Airstrikes, car bombs in Syria leave brief cease-fire in tatters

Estimates say at least 110 people were killed on Sunday in fighting between rebels and regime forces, with both sides accusing the other of having broken the UN-brokered cease-fire.

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Page Fortna, a Columbia University political science professor who has authored books on peacekeeping and cease-fires, wrote presciently in Foreign Policy in the early hours of the agreement that "a few days of relief" will be useful and that there was the possibility of an agreement helping to build "a sliver of trust momentum toward a permanent end," but the factors working against that are myriad in a temporary cease-fire.

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Middle East Editor

Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog. 

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All cease-fires 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. 

But this is a do-it-yourself ceasefire – there will be no monitors to observe compliance, since the UN 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.

Professor Fortna warns that the more times mediation attempts fail, the higher the hurdles to peace become each time around. The best way to make a cease-fire durable is to put peacekeepers on the ground to hold accountable whoever breaks the agreement first.

The UN has already set in motion another attempt at a monitoring mission; the last one was called off because the violence became too great for them to work. 

Fortna writes:

Peacekeeping missions are notoriously dysfunctional – chronically underfunded and underequipped; they tend to arrive late and are plagued by force interoperability problems. And yet, they are surprisingly effective. Why is this so? Impartial observers make it more costly to violate the terms of a ceasefire (or a more comprehensive peace deal) by providing information to the international community about who is or is not living up to commitments. They also provide the same information to the local population. So to the extent that the parties are vying for both international and domestic legitimacy, their presence makes returning to war more costly and maintaining a ceasefire more likely.

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