Most wars end without military victory for either side, and whatever arrangements move a conflict toward resolution, they generally begin with a cease-fire. Recently several of the world’s serious armed conflicts took steps in the direction of cease-fires — certainly a welcome development in the period of backsliding from peace over the last five years.
The world’s worst war at present, in Syria, saw a baby step toward political resolution today as four major outside powers met in Vienna to discuss it — Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia (Russia supports the Syrian regime; the others oppose it). The talks hardly justify or vindicate Russia’s violent military intervention in Syria, but it’s still better to have backers of different sides talking. Whether it’s better than nothing, or is actually nothing, remains to be seen.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, a real cease-fire has taken hold, probably because of Russia’s preoccupation in the Middle East now. Previously the Minsk Agreement was honored in part but fighting continued in places. Now the front line is quiet, which is a step forward.
Yemen also shows tiny steps forward. The Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels who control the capital have finally agreed today to meet. The UN envoy charged with making it happen has not yet set the date or agenda. Perhaps it will happen before the Yemenis all starve.
In Mali, where Tuareg rebels signed a cease-fire with the government in February, two feuding Tuareg tribes who had been fighting each other have now reached agreement as well.
Myanmar (Burma) has just reached a peace deal with some, but not all, of its rebellious ethnic groups. Possibly the others will come on board in the future. Myanmar is preparing for its first elections since the military loosened its grip on the country somewhat.
South Sudan had been sliding over a precipice and facing widespread starvation after persistent and brutal fighting between the two largest ethnic groups in the world’s newest country (which had spent decades in a brutal civil war before splitting from Sudan). Recently the leaders in South Sudan also signed a political agreement and cease-fire, which has been holding imperfectly and may not last but nonetheless represents a ray of hope.
October 24 is “UN Day” and this year it’s the organization’s 70th birthday. In Mali, South Sudan, and Yemen, all largely removed from great-power interests, the UN has been a key broker in negotiations. In the conflicts directly involving Russia — Ukraine and Syria — the great powers make their own deals without the UN. In Myanmar outside mediators seem to have played little role, and in the recent peace deal in Colombia, the mediator was Cuba.
This diversity of approaches to making cease-fire deals underscores an important point — there is no one set route to end wars and broker agreements. Sometimes it’s governments, sometimes the UN, sometimes NGOs or individuals, but if a war is to end someone has to go in and help the sides get to an agreement. And that agreement almost always begins with a cease-fire. The first step in ending a war is to stop the shooting.