It might not seem like the most important of Syria’s many problems, but linguistic accuracy has its merits. In diplomacy, it can be quite crucial.
On February 27, a five-day old Russian- and American-backed agreement silenced the guns in much of Syria. Continuing Syrian regime and Russian attacks on rebel-held positions in the north brought forth allegations of violations almost immediately. But in any event, what should we call the new arrangement? Most reporting has spoken of a ceasefire, which is a well-known and easily understandable term. A nationwide ceasefire in Syria is also a goal of the so-called Geneva III peace talks, which are currently on hold but planned to relaunch on March 9.
Ceasefire is not the term, however, used in the Russian-American agreement on February 22,which referred rather to a cessation of hostilities. This sounds very similar and many people—this author included—have used those terms interchangeably. Even for legal experts and in peace agreements, the terminology can be very fluid, but there are subtle differences and particular political circumstances that may lead parties to prefer one term to the other. Let’s have a look at the terminology of peacemaking and how it relates to the Syrian war.
A truce is the most basic arrangement for two opposing forces to say that they are temporarily going to hold their fire. This could be a very simple and entirely local affair. For example, one commander might raise a white flag in order to be able to walk over to the other side safely and have a chat with his enemy, whether it is about exchanging prisoners, sorting out unintended humanitarian problems, arranging for more comprehensive ceasefire talks in the future, or something else.
In an excellent glossary of international legal terms that has been put online by the International Committees of the Red Cross (ICRC), a truce is defined as an agreement “to interrupt for a stated period the use of means of warfare in a specific locality or sector.” It should, according to the ICRC, “enable work to be done that is unrelated to the general conduct of war (e.g. removal of the wounded, burial of the dead, exchange of prisoners) or give military commanders time to ask for instructions regarding negotiations.” Unless otherwise agreed, “there must be no change in the positions of the opposing forces” during the truce period.
In other words, a truce is typically a simple and practical deal that applies only for a limited time and often only in a certain area. Though the making or breaking of truces may greatly affect the politics of a conflict, they are not political deals in and of themselves. There have been many local truces during the Syrian war among all kinds of actors.
Cessation of Hostilities
Often viewed as being one step above the truce, but difficult to distinguish from it in legal or political terms, a cessation of hostilities refers to a temporary stoppage of violence. It might be something a little more long-lasting or far-ranging, perhaps a nationwide sort of truce. Like a truce, it is not typically associated with any political content, but it may be part of, or the start of, a more serious bid at peacemaking. This was the term chosen in the February 22 agreement between Russia and the United States; more on that below.
The word ceasefire is in more common usage than cessation of hostilities, partly as it is shorter and less clumsy. It is typically used to mean a more comprehensive arrangement than a basic white-flag truce. It might be a laboriously-negotiated and formally-signed agreement and could, for example, involve a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front, the creation of demilitarized zones, the demarcation of lines of control, and the establishment of rules for how to maintain contact between the opposing sides.
Usage of the term dates back to the Second World War, but the ICRC notes that it was “adopted mainly by the press and politicians” because it was “more vivid” than the various legalistic-sounding alternatives. Its entering into everyday use has “caused some confusion,” as it did not originally refer to a legal state of affairs, but rather to the desired effect of a truce or an armistice—namely, that the firing of weapons will cease. Even so, it is very often used in peacemaking nowadays and the old distinctions are at this point rather blurred.
In Syria, the word ceasefire was cited as a goal in the November 2015 Vienna Communiqué that was issued after the first meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a coalition of governments involved in the Syrian war. That document has been the basis of the current peace process ever since. It envisioned the Geneva III talks as a negotiation on political and military affairs that would lead up to a “nationwide ceasefire” by summer 2017 and culminate in free, fair, and UN-supervised elections the following year. Though it is tall order to say the least, this remains the stated goal of UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Armistices and Peace Treaties
On the higher rungs of the peacemaking ladder there is the armistice. That is when armed hostilities formally stop, either permanently or for a fixed time. Once an armistice enters into force, hostilities should not resume before the deadline expires—if there is a deadline in the deal—or the opposing side has been formally notified in accordance with agreed-upon rules of your decision to terminate the agreement.
Ideally, the armistice will be accompanied by negotiations for a peace treaty to end the state of war and move to normal relations, however cold and strained they may be. But in some cases, that never happens. The armistice agreement dividing North and South Korea has held without major fighting since 1953, but there is no peace treaty in sight. Tensions between the two countries remain very severe and their relationship continues to be regulated by the terms of this 63-year old armistice.
Similar arrangements were in place in the Middle East for decades following the 1948-1949 war that led to Israel’s independence after a war with the Arab states. In 1979, Egypt moved to a full peace treaty with Israel and Jordan followed in 1994.
Since then, Syria and Lebanon are the only two neighboring countries that remain technically at war with the Jewish state (though Israel’s occupation of Palestine remains an open sore). Both countries signed armistices with Israel in 1949: on March 23 for Lebanon and July 20 for Syria. There have been several new conflicts since then—such as the Six Day War of 1967, the October War of 1973, and Israel’s various invasions of Lebanon—causing the 1949 armistices to be overwritten in whole or in part by new ceasefire arrangements. For example, Syrian-Israeli relations along the most recent lines of control in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are regulated by a May 31, 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement brokered by former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Despite several rounds of Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations from 1991 onwards—most recently in 2010—there has never been a full peace treaty and Syria still has not formally announced its recognition of Israel’s independence. For political reasons (chief among them Syria’s and Iran’s influence in Beirut), Lebanon has long declined to move ahead with its own peace negotiations, preferring instead to wait for final peace between Damascus and Jerusalem to materialize. Unfortunately, neither a Syrian-Israeli nor a Lebanese-Israeli peace is feasible in the absence of Syrian-Syrian peace.
The Russian-American Deal
As mentioned above, the February 22 agreement between the United States and Russia does not speak of a ceasefire, even though that was the term used earlier in the Geneva peace process. Instead, it refers only to a cessation of hostilities. But for what reason?
According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on February 12, “a ceasefire has a great many legal prerogatives and requirements.” He stressed that “the objective is to achieve a durable, long-term ceasefire at some point in time,” as per the Vienna Communiqué, but argued for another term at the current time:
A ceasefire in the minds of many of the participants in this particular moment connotes something far more permanent and far more reflective of sort of an end of conflict, if you will. And it is distinctly not that. This is a pause that is dependent on the process going forward, and therefore cessation of hostilities is a much more appropriate, apt term.
By “participants” he means the Syrian opposition and to understand the reason for their concern, one must return to the Vienna Communiqué of November 2015. Although it did not directly address the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it spoke of a “close linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process.” Such language was very important for the opposition and its backers.
The dominant factions of the anti-Assad movement have always insisted that any negotiations must have that politics-for-peace linkage, or they will not come to the table. Syria’s dissidents expect no concessions whatsoever from Bashar al-Assad once pressure on his government subsides. It is hard to fault them for that conclusion, given that more reforms were declared in the first month of the 2011 uprising than in the preceding four decades of Assad family rule.
No less important is the fact that the opposition delegation to the Geneva III talks represents a great many groups and factions. Its supervisory body, known as the High Negotiations Committee, was created as a result of the Riyadh Conference in December 2015. In order to establish common ground among the participants, the conference declared that a ceasefire could only happen “once transitional governance institutions are formed,” on the understanding that this should lead to the early removal of Bashar al-Assad from the presidency. For many of the factions present in Riyadh, it was as far as they were willing to go; losing that explicit linkage between a ceasefire and a political transition would be a dealbreaker. In other words, for the United States and Russia to try to impose a ceasefire without the accompanying political process would almost certainly have led to the disintegration of the opposition bloc—and consequently the ceasefire itself.
Hence, when a pause in the fighting became seen as an urgent necessity due to the collapse of the Geneva III talks and the tense situation in the region, the American-Russian negotiators deliberately steered away from the term ceasefire. To mollify the opposition, they opted for a term with less baggage: cessation of hostilities.
However, both sides must have mixed feelings about this arrangement. The Syrian government was making splendid progress when the signal sounded to cease hostilities. If the deal now holds without major interruption, pro-government commanders may feel cheated of their battlefield advantage. But the opposition must also be asking itself how different this cessation of hostilities really is from simply having a ceasefire without the political track. Perhaps the Geneva III talks will, if and when they resume, provide us with an answer to that question.
In an added twist, the United States government has recently started using the Arabic word hudna in place of cessation of hostilities, including in some of its English-language statements. It can be translated as truce or ceasefire, and many other things, but it is clearly associated with a limited and non-permanent kind of calm. In this, it differs slightly from waqf itlaq al-nar, which is a literal translation of “ceasing fire.” That was the term used in Arabic versions of the Vienna Communiqué and American officials now want to avoid it.
“We say hudna to be clear that this is a truce, a temporary cessation of violence to create a better environment of negotiations, and of course to save lives,” a U.S. diplomat told Syria in Crisis. “It is not the end of the conflict, nor does it signal that the opposition has forfeited any of its demands for a free and pluralistic Syria. To us, hudna is synonymous with cessation of hostilities, so rather than 'ceasefire,' we generally say 'hudna' in Arabic and 'cessation of hostilities' in English.”
Fair enough. Western policymakers have long had a tiresome habit of peppering their statements on the Middle East with Arabic words that they can barely pronounce—Lex Daesh—but this is a case where one is tempted to allow it. No Syrian dissident would be at risk of mistakenly conflating a hudna with a final peace agreement or a capitulation. In addition, the word has positive connotations for many Muslims, due to its association with peacemaking in the early years of Islam. The downside is, of course, that we will now have to listen to Western pundits going on about the whoodna between the Soonies and the Sheeas in Syria for months on end. But maybe that is worth it, if it helps deliver a little bit of salaam—or as the laymen say, peace.
For background on Syria’s peace process, see:
- Syria’s Cessation of Hostilities: How Does It Work and How are Factions Reacting?
- A Ceasefire in Syria?
- The Road to Geneva: the Who, When, and How of Syria’s Peace Talks
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