Meditation in Syria-MIssion Improbable

1 Mar

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As a professional mediator, I am always encouraged by the use of mediation to resolve international conflicts. However, in the case of Syria, I have little confidence that mediation will bring peace to the conflict. Very few of the essential elements for successful mediation are present in this conflict.

The first consideration in convening any mediation is deciding who the parties at the table will be. In this case, the current Syrian government will certainly be a party. However, there does not appear to be a credible spokesperson for the rebels. One of the reasons that international support has not coalesced in support of the rebels like it did in Libya is because the rebels have not proven themselves capable of creating a coherent political force. Since mediation is about decision-making, we have to ask the question: “Who has the power to make binding decisions for the parties?” Obviously, the Syrian government can make decisions. Who, in the rebel group, can make binding decisions for the people that oppose the al Assad regime?

The Syrian National Council claims authority for the resistance against the al Assad regime. Burhan Galioun, a professor of political sociology at the Universite de Paris III Sorbonne University, was appointed as head of the SNC on August 29, 2011. However, Professor Galioun has made statements that are not universally shared by the various rebel factions. It is unlikely that either he or the Syrian National Council speaks for all factions.

One of the issues that plagues peaceful resolution of internal conflicts and civil wars is decision-making authority. It’s one thing to mediate a dispute in a contested presidential election, when the disputants are easily recognized as political opponents. It’s another thing altogether to mediate the dispute the between a fractious rebel group and an antagonistic government. The al Assad regime can rightfully ask by what authority to the representatives of the rebels come to the table? Any mediator taking on the Syrian problem will spend a considerable amount of time answering that question, and the entire enterprise will collapse if it is not answered thoroughly.

A related issue has to do with legitimizing the antagonists. In the 1970s, the protracted negotiations over the shapes of the tables and who would sit where in the US North Vietnam talks was about legitimizing primary parties at the table. In Syria’s case, the al Assad regime could protest participation of rebel representatives because allowing participation would confer unwanted legitimacy. At the outset, the mediator will have to be prepared to deal with challenges to legitimate participation by primary parties.

The people of Syria have the most at stake in any mediated talks. The mediator will have to consider how to make sure that the legitimate concerns of the people, which will include social and distributive injustices, political inclusion, economic reform, safety from violence and social stability. In this regard, the mediator may consider finding civil society representatives, including women, to participate as direct and primary participants. The mediator will have to secure the consent of the rebel representatives and the government representatives to share decision-making power with civil society representatives who otherwise would not have a voice in the process.

In addition to primary parties, mediation involves secondary parties. In the case of Syria, the secondary parties are numerous. They include Hamas, Iran, Russia and China, the US, Israel, and the EU, the Arab League, the UN, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, and other conservative Islamic groups. All of these parties have vested and conflicting interests in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. All of these parties wish to influence the outcome to benefit their particular interests. They will be seeking direct participation at the table. If they are denied participation of the table, they will seek to influence the process in other ways, including as spoilers. The mediator will have to design a process that provides for secondary party participation and inclusion, but does not permit undue interference in the direct talks between the primary parties.

Assuming that agreements can be reached upon who will participate in the process, the mediator will be confronted with what is to be mediated. The superficial answer will be to mediate a political solution to the violence. However, that is grossly insufficient to bring about a lasting peace. As we have seen in Kenya, the superficial political solution has led to continued gross economic and social injustice, continued tribal conflict, and the essential shutdown of an effective government. The Sentinel Project observes that Kenya is ripe for genocide. ( I believe this is a direct result of the failure of the mediator to force Odinga and Kibaki to address serious structural injustices instead choosing to seek superficial political solutions through an ineffective and unworkable power-sharing arrangement.

The same problem exists in Syria, except that it is worse. Rather than mediating a contested presidential election, the mediator will have to end a civil war and deal with generations of abuse, injustice, and human rights violations. Burhan Ghalioun, the appointed head of the Syrian National Council, is skeptical of dialogue with the al Assad regime. “The regime is not interested in or willing to meet the requirements of a meaningful dialogue,” Ghalioun wrote. The opposition cannot join dialogue with “officials who contributed to or ordered the killing of defenseless children, women, and young people.” He has said that dialogue would be fruitless unless the clear objective was “to dismantle the regime of repression, oppression, and tyranny and replace it with a democratic order in which the people alone have the final say and the government is fully empowered and answerable to elected representatives of the people.”

Ghalioun believes that “dialogue should not mean a deal with the regime. It must not be about broadening the circle of participation” to members of the authorities; rather “it must be about a timetable for a transition to democracy by peaceful means, in the hope of avoiding more human casualties and material losses, and creating the necessary conditions for new institutions to be built and function properly.” To Ghalioun, the government leaders “lost their legitimacy” when they unleashed bloody violence against peaceful protesters.

From these statements, it is clear that if the mediator seeks a superficial political solution through power-sharing, without forcing the parties to confront the centuries old conflicts between the Alawites, the Sunnis, and the Syrian minorities, the mediation will make the situation worse, not better.

Thus, the mediator will be well advised to discuss what is to be mediated and to explore the potential range of outcomes that will be satisfactory to all of the participants. This exploration by itself will be time-consuming and exhausting as it will consist of a negotiation over what is to be negotiated. However, that is the work of the mediator and is to be anticipated and planned for.

Finally, does the mediator have the staying power that the Syrian mediation will require? In the Kenyan election crisis, the mediator abandoned the mediation process after six weeks and turned it over to another mediator who abandoned the process six weeks after that. There was no long-term plan for engagement and no plan for helping the parties resolve ongoing differences and conflicts. Will the mediator in the Syrian conflict be committed to the years it may take to bring peace to Syria? This is not a six week or six-month engagement. The intractability of the dispute and the ongoing violence suggests that a mediated negotiation might last for years. Even then, success will be problematic.

International conflict mediation has not been typified by exemplary mediation practice. Instead, most international conflict mediations have been ad hoc affairs conducted by diplomats and political envoys with little or no experience in decision making theory, conflict theory, neuro social psychology, behavioral economics, and a host of other disciplines that modern mediators study and practice. The Syrian conflict will call upon the deepest skills and reserves of the very best mediator. Even then, a peaceful resolution is improbable. I hope that the mediator considers some of these issues before he starts his work.



Douglas E. Noll is author of the award-winning book Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books 2011). He may reached through the book website,


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