By most accounts, the Syrian civil war seems to be winding down, with the exception of the Kurdish stronghold in the north. Rebel fighters have been almost entirely backed into a final stronghold in Idlib province, without a feasible strategy to fight back against the regime.

In the post-Cold War era, this situation would typically be accompanied by a renewal of diplomatic efforts to end the war. But peace talks appear to have stalled alongside the conflict. Instead, the war seems to be ending via a slow surrender by a fractured insurgency.

A slow surrender in Syria

The changing nature of the more than 80 cease-fire agreements that have sprinkled the conflict show the slow process of rebel surrender. The first cease-fire in 2011 was between the regime and Syria’s nascent rebel movement. Under pressure from the Arab League, the regime agreed to end its crackdown on protesters and opposition forces. The government, however, ultimately reneged on the agreement.

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This kind of cease-fire is distinct from a one-sided troop withdrawal, such as the August 2014 cease-fire between the separatist Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the rebels of Ahrar Geweran. That agreement facilitated the transfer of prisoners and the withdrawal of YPG forces from the opposite side of the neighborhood because of its high number of civilians. But even this kind of cease-fire is not a “surrender” cease-fire.

In December 2016, however, there was a surrender cease-fire in Aleppo. After months of fighting and a government siege, rebel groups signed a deal to end all fighting in the city and to allow for the evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians.

Surrender cease-fires have increased markedly since February 2014, when the rebels began to see serious military defeats. Rebel forces surrendered to government forces to mitigate a humanitarian nightmare brewing under government siege, an emerging regime strategy that inflicted starvation on rebels and civilians alike.

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Three months later, rebel forces were routed from Homs, their first total surrender of a major city. Since then, surrenders to the government have comprised an increasing percentage of cease-fires.

Differences between surrenders and cease-fires

The number of surrender agreements has increased from just two in June 2015 to five in June 2016 and then 13 in June 2017. Nearly all surrender cease-fires involving the government have favored the government (with one possible exception). Surrenders that do not involve the government mostly involve total withdrawal of rebels from Kurdish territory.

Although media and foreign policy outlets often characterize surrenders as local cease-fires aiming for de-escalation, there are tangible differences between surrenders and other cease-fires. In contrast to other types of cease-fires, surrender agreements by definition limit the scope and potency of insurgent activity with a view toward reasserting government control over the country.

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Surrender cease-fires have a markedly different impact on combat than do other cease-fires. Other types of agreements — like confidence-building measures or nonaggression pacts — halt combat only temporarily. And successful humanitarian cease-fires have little effect on the pace or scope of battle.

By contrast, while they may vary in terms of whether fighters and/or civilians are evacuated, rebel weapons are destroyed and humanitarian aid workers are allowed into the areas, surrender cease-fires remove rebel territory from rebel military control and directly narrow the scope of opposition.

Looking forward

While not impossible, a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war is deeply improbable today, given a profound lack of trust on all sides. The regime has backed itself into a corner by characterizing its engagement with rebel groups as a war against terrorism. Rebels have little reason to trust the Assad government, given its history of reneging on localized surrender agreements. And the United Nations Security Council made clear in the wake of its failed attempt to monitor the Arab League cease-fire that it would only reengage with a peacekeeping mission if combatants would cease the use of heavy weaponry.

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Although the remaining rebels in Syria have done so under threat from the regime, the government itself persists in using such weapons. While the United Nations has recently expressed interest in a negotiated settlement, gridlock on the security council restricts the organization from actively pursuing a strategy for peace. Any negotiated settlement would require the confluence of multiple unlikely scenarios.

The slow surrender of Syria’s rebels may be typical of civil wars, which generally end with government victory. But it is atypical of civil wars since the end of the Cold War, where frequent international mediation has seen a rise in peace treaties to conclude civil wars. While the trend of surrenders does not fit nicely into a model of international mediation, it does align with the Assad regime’s military strategy.

With a clear military upper hand and indefinite backing from Moscow, the Syrian military has little incentive to seek a broader peace agreement. By engaging in negotiations with insurgents at the local level, the regime can avoid granting apparent legitimacy to national insurgent organizations while militarily and politically fracturing resistance.

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A hollow victory — at best

In some respects, President Bashar al-Assad has nearly claimed victory. The end of the war will be a relief for some. The conflict has engulfed almost all of Syria. It has reduced the nation’s largest cities of Aleppo, Raqqa, Homs and Damascus to dust and rubble. It has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 Syrians, including more than 110,000 civilians. And it has created more than 5 million international refugees and 6 million internally displaced people.

The slow rebel surrender, however, will probably amount to at best a hollow victory for the regime. The Assad regime’s history of repression and violation of international humanitarian law means that rebel retreat will by no means automatically convert into effective government control. When the war ends, the toll of “peace” is likely to be quite high for Syria, and for Syrians.

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Benjamin Allard is a senior studying political science and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota and a 2019-2020 Boren Scholar studying Hindi in India.

Tanisha M. Fazal is associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and the author, most recently, of “Wars of Law: Unintended Consequences in the Regulation of Armed Conflict” (Cornell University Press, 2018).

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