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In the world in which my story takes place, a large country is contested by two factions which both claim to be the legitimate government. There was armed conflict in the past, but both sides signed a ceasefire agreement which has lasted for around 20 years, although this state of affairs is not expected to continue indefinitely.

Within that country there is a city which is not part of the recognized territory of either faction, and about which the ceasefire agreement was ambiguous. As a result, no state government is really in charge. This makes it attractive to fugitives, as well as unlicensed and illegal enterprises. However it is not completely anarchic because an informal municipal government exists, which carries out basic functions.

This state of affairs continues, because the two factions tolerate it. Either side could easily seize the quasi-independent city. It is in their interests not to do so.

What plausible political reasons could they have for allowing it to continue to exist?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi @Batperson. Please note that the help center states, "When asking questions keep in mind that the goal of the site is to help you build your world, not to tell your story." One of the reasons for that limitation is that story-based question have too many possible answers, all of which are legitimate, meaning that all answers have equal value, which is prohibited in the help center. Worldbuilding is independent of your story, and inventing a history is simply inventing a story. In short, please be aware that questions like this are verboten. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 15 at 3:31
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    $\begingroup$ Understood. I'll update my question. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 15 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ Switzerland.... $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence Arguably, you could say they "forgot" because it was an awkward situation that they weren't prepared to address. Like, the place was too important for either side to concede it to the other, but both were hatching plans for how they'd take it in the future so they weren't willing to declare it an open city. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 15 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps it could be some sort of ambiguity in the ceasefire agreement that nobody was aware of at the time, and since this city is basically hicksville, completely unimportant, it wasn't worth the political effort and risk of renegotiating. Or as @Jay suggests it actually does have some importance, neither side wants to concede but they also don't want to get into a diplomatic stalemate over it. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 15 at 8:17

18 Answers 18

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In the beginning, there was The Mistake, and from that The Snowball ...

The Mistake

When the original ceasefire was negotiated 20 years prior, this piece of land where this city (or town) was located was accidentally not portioned out to either side. As it was, at the time, of low significance and value it was not something that either side thought about or sought to claim. Because nobody claimed this land in the ceasefire, it ended up in a sort of limbo -- part of the country, but at the same time, not under the control of either government.

At the time, it was deemed a minor mistake, and not one worth bringing up in the event that it would jeopardize the entire ceasefire treaty. In effect, the politicians that noticed the error in the treaty decided to sacrifice these people to ensure that the treaty was finalized and adopted.

The Rolling Snowball

Much like a little snowball that gets bigger as one rolls it along the ground, what was a small issue grew over the years.

The now neutral area gained value specifically because it was not under either governments control by the very treaties that made them legitimate, but at the same time they are still part of the country. Businessman and criminal alike flock to the area to take advantage of the neutral turf for their on reasons.

A municipal government that was once desperately trying to hold their city together after the war plagued by an influx of people and increased need for supplies. While there was some shorter term strife, now 20 years later this municipal government is stronger and able to hold their own -- even if for a short time

As the unclaimed city started to thrive, it opened up a new opportunity for both sides to have a neutral place to trade and to communicate without encroaching on each other's territory. This meant that previously unavailable or hard to get goods suddenly had a place that they could be acquired. As they saw value in a neutral territory, both sides invested into it to make sure that it remained out of the other's hands.

Inertia

Now as to the question of "What plausible political reasons could they have for allowing it to continue to exist?", there are a couple of answers.

The first is above -- both sides now have a use for a neutral city. And so long as is is more valuable as neutral ground then their ground it will remain neutral. At some point inertia sets in, in that this city has been neutral for a generation so it should stay that way.

The second reason is more political and simpler to explain. A mistake was made in the treaty and after this long, nobody wants to admit that one was made. To admit that they were wrong would bring peril to their political position for reasons, which could possibly inconveniently weaken their position in such a delicate time.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems the most plausible explanation in my world. Originally the piece of land had no value or significance. Perhaps it was just a village. But its neutral and ungoverned status made it attractive, both to fugitives and legitimate businesses. No taxes or regulatory oversight! So a city grew there. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 16 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ You could make this place an island near the coast or in a river delta, which could make it easy to "forget" in the treaty. $\endgroup$
    – hitchhiker
    Mar 16 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ Making it an island would solve the problem of water supplies for them, I'll have to think about. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 17 at 3:31
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Historical parallels:

Sweden in WWII. You still need to talk to each other occasionally. I'm sure that cuban cigars were smuggled into Germany, and Schnaps smuggled out.

Switzerland. Germany ignored it because Yugoslavia taught them that partisans in mountain/forested terrain is very difficult to hold.

Markets

The city supplies several products that both sides need, and also has the means to stop all production completely.

The city has some natural defense. E.g. Consider taking a city even in a moderately large desert. And the city has good enough defenses to withstand a reasonably long seige. How do you supply a beseiging army with water?

Or the city is on an island, so to take it you have to make an amphibious landing, and neither side is going to let the other do that.

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    $\begingroup$ Add Spain to the list during WW2. Germany wanted Spain to enter the war on the side of the Axis powers following the invasion of France. Franco was initially interested but demurred. Britain on the other hand was desperate to keep control of Gibraltar and avoid Spain's entry into the war on Germany's side so did as little as possible to antagonize him. Meanwhile Spain relied heavily on imports from a third power i.e. the US that was friendly to Britain. Result? Franco does a careful political calculus and decides the best option for Spain (and him) is to 'sit this one out'. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Mar 15 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ you can add a buffer state. War is expensive but looking weak can be fatal. If you have a neutral nation in the middle, you can use the excuse that you are NOT AT WAR with them to justify not trampling over to attack the ones on the other side. And if one side pushes too much, the buffer state can ally with the enemy and then you're fighting two. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon Considering his government lasted until the late 70s, that was smart on his part. I doubt he'd have survived 1945 otherwise - as a polity or for his actual lifespan $\endgroup$ Mar 17 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ According to my dad, who was born in Switzerland in the 1930's, the general expectation was that "Germany would sweep Switzerland on it's way back from Russia", and he remembers being very nervous about that. Swiss generals had made preparations to destroy bridges etc, strategically retreat to the mountains and cede the low-land regions to Germany. Zurich was an important city where communication and diplomatic activites could take place. Switzerland also obeyed the order/directive to turn off all lights at night to make flight navigation more difficult for the allies. $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 18:17
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In northeastern Africa, there's an odd little region called Bir Tawil. It sits on the border between Egypt and Sudan, and neither country will claim ownership of it.

Map showing Bir Tawil and surrounding region

source: NordNordWest via Wikimedia

Why would nobody want free land? Well, Egypt and Sudan disagree on where their border lies. The two versions of the border criss-cross in a bowtie shape such that each country controls only one end of the bowtie. In this particular case, the other end of the bowtie (called the Hala'ib Triangle) contains a very important Red Sea port. Egypt claims the straight-line border, which gives it Hala'ib and puts Bir Tawil in Sudan. Sudan claims the squiggly-line border, which does the opposite. Claiming Bir Tawil means agreeing to the other side's border and thus giving up your claim to the much-more-important port city, which is a trade neither side is willing to make.

An arrangement like this could easily suit your world. You mentioned that the ceasefire agreement was ambiguous. An ambiguous border definition could result in a similar arrangement where claims to two territories are effectively mutually exclusive. Neither side claims the city in question because that would force them to abandon their claim on the other parcel which is even more desirable.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a great idea. However, your example includes a third party, the United Kingdom, which drew the two versions of the border in the past. The OP does not mention such a third party. $\endgroup$
    – hitchhiker
    Mar 16 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ This wouldn't work. If it once Bir Tawil became a strategic point it would be overrun. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Mar 17 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Joshua Overrunning it would be fairly easy, but the OP asked for political reasons. In this case, claiming the desirable portion means recognizing the border drawn by the enemy. Maybe the city's "no-man's-land" status was set down between the two sides in a treaty that's part of a much bigger arms treaty, and the small act of claiming the city would give the opposite faction the right to literally go nuclear $\endgroup$ Mar 17 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @hitchhiker There is a similar situation with Liberland, originating from a similar border dispute between Croatia and Serbia, which arose due to the river Danube meandering, along with the chaos of ex-Yugoslavia. $\endgroup$
    – Colombo
    Mar 18 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ @hitchhiker The third party here is the ceasefire agreement. Instead of drawing two separate borders, it drew a single border in a poorly-worded way that can be interpreted two different ways. Each of the two sides signed the agreement not realizing that the other side had a different interpretation. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Mar 22 at 19:34
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Obvious reason: They're strong enough militarily that attacking them wouldn't be worth the cost. I see you said in a comment, "my city is not technically independent and has no armed forces". But if they're not part of either faction, they ARE independent. You have described them as being independent for all practical purposes, regardless of what formal international agreements might exist. As to not having armed forces ... why not? This is a work of fiction, right? Just declare that they have an army. Is there some reason why your story wouldn't work if they have an army?

Obvious reason number two: They remain independent because neither of the two factions is willing to let the other conquer them. Like, they control some militarily important place, or some vital natural resource. Both of the factions would like to control this. But it is so important that neither can just stand by and let the other take it, so if one tried, the other would have to do everything in their power to stop them.

Reason three: As a neutral, they serve a useful diplomatic purpose. Both sides see them as "safe territory" for negotiations, etc.

An advantage of fiction over real life is that you can modify the world to suit your story! Like in real life, if a country wanted to remain neutral during a war between two neighbors, they might have to scramble to find a way to make it work. But in a fiction story, you can just say that the conditions exist to make it work.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea that they can serve as some sort of neutral ground. There has to be a reason why both sides leave them alone (it can be one they don't want to officially admit to), but not a military one. They definitely don't have armed forces and don't have any strategic or economic value. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 15 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ The city must have some form of value or no one would've built a city there $\endgroup$
    – Kyyshak
    Mar 15 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ @kyyshak Some value: fair enough. But enough value for two big nations to fight over it is a different question. Like, a city could be in the middle of acres of farmland and grew up as a place for farmers to bring their crops to market. But would two nations fight a war over such a town? Probably not. Someone could just build another market town elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 16 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Batperson "... don't have armed forces etc." Why not? Perhaps there's some reason why this city can't have these things in your story, and you'd have to explain the whole story for us to understand. But if such a thing would make the neutrality of the city work and NOT break the story in other ways, why not just say they do? Is there some good reason why the story won't work if, say, they control a vital natural resource? Or did you just decide that for no particular reason and now you're stuck trying to solve problems created by this arbitrary decision? $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 16 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ BTW "strategic value" doesn't necessarily mean they have a strong military. They might control the only bridge across a major river that divides the two factions, or the only pass through a mountain range, for example. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 16 at 12:11
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Scenarios like this are pretty common in real-life civil wars. For example, here is a map of territorial control in the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. Civil wars are often messy, complicated affairs. When the contry is destabilized and the government's control over the territory of the country breaks down, all kinds of minor factions and militias often emerge to control small pockets of territory.

With a 20-year ceasefire it's less likely but still possible. Maybe the ceasefire is tenuous, barely holding together. The fighting has exhausted both sides' resources but minor armed clashes between the government and the rebels are still common, so both sides have to keep their forces guarding the major settlements they do control and in the most strategically important areas. Either side could invade and take control of the city, but holding it would take so many troops that it could weaken their position in other areas and give the other side an opportunity to attack.

Or perhaps the city staying neutral is actually a condition of the ceasefire agreement. Neither side was strong enough to demand that the city be handed over to them, but both felt that allowing the other side to control it would give the other side too big of an advantage, so the compromise was to keep it neutral.

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TL;DR: carrot and stick. There's some potentially benefit to maintaining the status quo in the city, but there are serious consequences to invasion that go beyond loss of that benefit that could threaten the invader's position.


The city has significant religious value. Consider something like Vatican City... if Italy wanted to annex it for whatever reason, the Swiss Guards probably aren't going to keep them out. There would be significant repercussions for marching in there and seizing control, however. Either side in your conflict could just drive the tanks or cavalry or giant mecha or whatever in, but might not actually be willing to risk the possibility of going to the local equivalent of hell for all eternity, or risking triggering a holy war which might bring in foreign powers to aid the opposing side, etc.

Various fictional settings have had powerful mystical forces who are otherwise uninterested in secular goings-on... maybe there's a magical college there, and you don't antagonize the wizards unless you want to find out what the business end of a lightning bolt feels like. Maybe its where the oracles work, and their advice (perhaps only on non-conflict related things) is too valuable to threaten.

Merely academic organizations, and churches who probably won't actually be able to send everyone to hell or curse you until the nth generation or bring about a holy war are unlikely to keep the troops out unless there is some other dire threat to invaders that is otherwise unlikely to help tip the balance of the war in either direction. Terrible curses, sleeping eldritch horrors. The three inviolate concents in Anathem

were built on long-term nuclear waste stores

and the Vatican City in the Fall Revolution series

had a Swiss Guard armed with a small number of nuclear weapons

Such things are best left undisturbed.

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They have conquered the city and it results in catastrophic wars.

The city is positioned at a meeting point of the two cities and someone who rules the city is easily able to raid into the other side and do devastating damage. As such, neither side could agree what to do with the city because owning it would allow devastating raids into their rival.

In the past when one side seized that territory the end result was massively destructive wars which caused massive damage.

As such, now they are reluctant to conquer such a region, and will discourage any eager lords who try to do so.

The local government and crime lords act as a trading hub.

Both sides have extremely valuable goods that the other side is very interested in, but avoid any direct trade because they both see themselves as the rulers of the world.

The city, due to its neutrality, is a trade hub that brings in massive wealth. This fuels the criminal activity, but acts as an attractive bonus to local rulers near the area. They can make a massive profit so long as the area is neutral. As such, they discourage anyone trying to take the city for themselves.

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The war is going on on the whole country, neither side really got a hold on the city before the ceasefire, and the resources for which the city could matter are not critical enough to try to take them by force, especially since the autonomous city is willing to trade with both.

So there's no big pressure to take the city for yourself (the resource is not critical enough that depriving the other side from it would be worth the loss of lives and resources to take the city itself), trading with it is good enough to guarantee access, and trying to attack would just put pressure on the other to go back to war.

Combined with the city being used as a neutral ground for all kind of diplomatic and trade matters, the cost of attacking would not be worth it

To further this value of independence, the city could also have become a diplomatic hub between both sides, so losing this hub would make both side lose more than whatever resources are controlled by the city.


An example is New Vegas in Fallout, stuck in the middle of a war between the way bigger NCR and Legion, neither side got hold of it before the Battle of Hoover Dam, and while both sides are consolidating have their overextended supply lines and preparing for a do over, New Vegas is left alone and used both by both sides as trading and information hub, even though the small automaton army would not protect New Vegas for long if one side really wanted to take it.

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Carefully constructed deterrence, via a spy network. Both sides seem to leak that they go all out if the city looses neutrality - and the place is more valuable neutral, for spy ex-changes, pow-exchanges, etc.

Also in a war, the loosing side usually saves post-war future assets to neutral countries. German companies did transfer a ton of engineering prowess to sweden and switzerland in the final moments of WW2, to avoid the industrial future getting paper-clipped or put into a museum in moscow.

The whole neutral societies being more robust, not subject to empire decay ("why work hard or invent things when you got slaves/ outside border people") theme could be explored as a rational to avoid a society getting gobbled up.

Physical Deterrence, have the city sit on something volatile that could blow up, costing both sides the prize of the war - by for example redirecting a river or igniting permanently a oil field..

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  • $\begingroup$ Sort of like the Ukraine being stuck in the middle as a productive buffer where the proxy war benefits only BlackRock, politicians, armaments industries and similar parasites and neither side wants this as opposed to how things get done on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Mar 18 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @KalleMP Ukraine was invaded, for brutal old "paint red on map imperialism", the russian armament industry suffers from that - and the american complex suffers from that too, as it is loosing its biggest propped up boogy man to justify expensive stuff with. And ukraine just tried to shake off the puppet players- you dont revolt and your whole government flees to moscow for fun.. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Mar 18 at 12:30
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This city controls a vital resource.

As such it is dangerous to go to war over it. You might damage your ability to get the resource. You might reduce the supply. You would definitely incite war because your opponent knows it would a disaster to let you monopolize it. (Helps if it's impossible to try to take it without its being noticeable.) And you would risk its falling into your opponents' hands.

As a consequence, it's safe just to let it slide.

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Rich people suck

In general, wars are started, promoted and profited from by one very small group of people: the rich. Warriors who fight, and civilians who get massacred are not generally getting any tangible benefit from the war continuing above perhaps a paycheck.

There are typically four "parties" in any war. The rich warmongers and their enforcers on side A and B; and the populations on side A and B.

Only the rich sides get to decide where gets attacked. Only the poor do any significant fighting and dying, at least until the endgame.

So, why would it be a big advantage for rich people not to attack some place? Well, because if they do so, they might not be rich any more.

So, for example, say there's a city called "Switzerland". And say the powerful people on both sides have dumped a bunch of cash there, so if they lose, they and their families can still access the cash and still remain rich.

Perhaps when they plunder places they attack, they also send a chunk of the loot to Switzerland's banks, to be stashed away in banks there.

Either side COULD attempt to invade Switzerland to grab all the loot for themselves. But they would know that as soon as they even twitched in that direction, "coming to the aid of Switzerland" would instantly become the other side's #1 priority, since neither side wants the other to have access to their own vaults.

And any country that successfully invaded would likely find the contents of its own vaults incinerated, and all other vaults emptied and the bankers fled. It's simply not worth the risk.

And it's not just the tiny ruling class that has invested heavily there, but much of the larger upper class that keeps them in power. If they trash Switzerland, they will destroy the investments of their own upper classes, and will then be without a power base in their own lands.

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    $\begingroup$ Goering frankly expressed a similar view before he went to the gallows, to the effect that the best thing likely to happen to ordinary people was that they came back with all their body parts intact. But one thing I would like to leave the reader with is that all ideologies suck, in various ways and to various degrees. So I will want to subvert expectations a bit. Which pretty much rules out having a "villain class". $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 17 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ Your headline is thought-provoking, I'm thinking of a novel that explicitly takes this idea and turns it inside out. The rich asset-owning classes will be overthrown and the downtrodden will be empowered. In the same way that poor people who win the lottery sometimes end up losing it all because their experiences have not prepared them for managing large amounts of money, the new ruling class will turn out to be singularly unprepared for handling power, with tragic results. This won't be the story I'm currently thinking about though. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Mar 17 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Batperson I'm sure there've been historical exceptions, but even the poorest of downtrodden overthrowers needs funds and political power. We can't create an army if we lack the wherewithal to feed it, arm it, etc. All we get if we just inspire people by talking, is an unruly mob. Charismatic speakers could win over military generals and such, I guess, and get their resources and manpower for "free", but even getting access to turn those generals takes status and political clout. $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 2:11
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The city remains in an exclusion zone from the last war.

A cataclysmic, multi-year battle was fought around the city. While the city itself was half ruined, the region (now wasteland) surrounding around it saw the worst: chemical, biological, tactical nuclear. Today millions of land mines remain, along with countless tons of corroding unexploded ordnance.

The battle is still a firsthand living memory. Any mention of sending forces there for any reason is a complete non-starter for both sides. Today it's considered a poison no-man's land and not worth fighting for.

Portions of the city remained intact and accessible enough for the hardy and crazy to now eke out an, shall we say unconventional living. A measurable part of the illegal enterprise is battlefield salvage: a lot of material was abandoned in the wasteland, and both sides are happy to pay off-the-record to have it back.

So militarily, a surprise attack probably could take the city. But politically it's not happening today, and if you would capture this poison mess then what? Although the wasteland is getting picked up one piece at a time, and those who saw the last war firsthand won't be setting policy forever...

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Because the controllers of both sides really like that city as it is and live there in harmony with each other (secretly).

Maybe even the rulers of each of the two sides are actually friends and family of each other and secretly live in that city, plotting wars against each other in agreements beforehand with the goal of controlling their own sub warlords. As the sub warlords gain in power they are removed via a skirmish here a battle there.

Maybe that city is where the actual one family that owns both of the supposedly "warring" parties' lands lives and and - you can take it from there.

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Maybe the independent city contains strategical microprocessors factory and the potential war would adversely affect the both countries.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point. I have heard that various factions are trying to replicate such factories in more stable locations in preparation for a takeover or a contested takeover of the independent region in the near future. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Mar 18 at 12:33
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Neutral zones are valuable in all kinds of ways. They serve as tax shelters for the wealthy, hubs for the underground economy and/or sources of tolerated contraband goods, religious sanctuaries, and social escape valves.

Another source of effective neutrality is third party claims of sovereignty. For example, the Iroquois claim sovereignty over an area that spans the US and Canada, and tribal ID documents are accepted at both US and Canadian checkpoints

There are also examples of areas that are left behind as incorporated areas grow because they are undesirable or difficult to govern. The Kurds and the Basque might serve as examples of how a neutral zone might be accepted by both sides of a conflict. The Kowloon Walled City ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City ) was also an effectively neutral zone; any enclave of a failed state might evolve in a similar way.

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It wasn't unclaimed, it was claimed by both sides

No one can work on behalf of side A in side B's territory, and vice versa. But due to a miscommunication about the actual borders of their respective territories, the area your city is in ended up in the claimed territory of both. Now if either side wants to enforce its laws in the city, they would be invading part of the other side's territory.

This was discovered while tensions were still high, so the 'temporary' situation was to allow anarchy in the region, without intervention from either side. Over time this just grew to be the way things were.

It has been suggested that certain other nations benefit from this lawless city. They may not be willing to defend the city with a formal alliance, but they might control crucial weaponry which might end up getting sold to only one side of the civil war if anything... untoward were to happen.

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It makes a convenient back channel.

The city does not much value; it's in the middle of nowhere, there isn't much valuable industry or infrastructure there, and natural barriers make it a pain to attack. The two sides might normally consider going after it for the strategic value of such a well-defended place; however, it's out of the way.

Since it isn't a high priority to attack, both sides have come to an unwritten agreement to use it as a neutral ground where they can negotiate, smuggle goods back and forth, and so on.

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Claiming (and taking) the city would immediately end the cease fire.

It should be obvious to either side that taking this city would not be tolerated by the other, with the likely result that open hostilities would quickly resume.

While the ceasefire isn't expected to last forever, the situation currently seems at least somewhat stable, and therefore at least somewhat in the interest of both sides. As long as this remains true, they'll leave the city more or less alone.

You might even have a situation where the city has come to naturally favor (and wish to join) one side or the other, but is prevented from doing so because it would break the tenuous peace.

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