Settling Syria

Why a Negotiated Peace is Possible -- And Likely

A woman and children watch an anti-Assad protest from a balcony in Aleppo. (Muzaffar Salman / Courtesy Reuters)

In a recent piece on ForeignAffairs.com, Bilal Saab and Andrew Tabler resurrected a marginal debate from the 1990s about the dangers of negotiated settlements to civil wars. After making a general case against negotiated settlements, they applied their logic to Syria. The historian Edward Luttwak made the same basic argument 15 years ago. Negotiated agreements, he explained, preserve actors' war-making capacities, which leads to security dilemmas and, inevitably, renewed bloodshed. The policy prescription: Let the two sides fight it out until one wins. Either way, a more durable, longer-lasting peace should follow. The argument was wrong 15 years ago and, as recent data show, continues to be wrong today. 

Saab and Tabler's central claim is that "[n]egotiated settlements have, in fact, proved weak in terms of promoting mutual disarmament, military integration, and political powersharing." That claim runs contrary to existing data. For example, Anna Jarstad and Desirée Nilsson, researchers in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, in Sweden, have found that, between 1989 and 2004, 75 percent of political powersharing provisions were implemented after an accord was reached -- most within a period of seven months. Jarstad and Nilsson also found that 90 percent of military integration provisions were at least partially implemented. Their statistical analysis revealed that, where military integration is implemented, a relapse of armed conflict is very unlikely. Our own research, meanwhile, has shown that disarmament provisions in peace agreements are implemented over 70 percent of the time. 

Saab and Tabler also write that "[l]ess than a quarter of all civil wars since 1945 have ended in a negotiated settlement," leaving the reader with the overall impression that negotiated settlements are scarce. Such a claim conceals perhaps the most significant trend in global conflict in decades: the sudden and dramatic increase in the last 25 years in the proportion of civil conflicts ended by peace agreements. During the Cold War, about 20 percent

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