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It's About Time!

Conflict Resolution in Syria

by RICHARD E. RUBENSTEIN

During a tour of some of the neighborhoods in Homs, Syria’s third largest city after Aleppo and Damascus, with a pre-conflict population of approximately 800,000 (nearly half Homs residents have fled over the past two years) located maybe about 22 miles NE of the current hot-spot of al-Qusayr, this observer engaged is a few interesting conversations. More accurately labeled diatribes–with some long bearded Sunni fundamentalists who claimed they came from Jabhat al Nusra, aka Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahl ash-Shām, “Front of Defense for the People of Greater Syria”), and were preparing to return to al Qusayr to fight “the deniers of Allah”!

By sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a conference to end the civil war in Syria, President Obama has taken a step that he should have taken two years ago.  Instead of taking sides in that conflict in order to oust Bashar Assad and to weaken Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, Obama should have listened to the Russians, who have advocated peace talks from the very beginning.  Kerry’s trip to Moscow implicitly admits that they were right all along to insist that arming the rebels, as the Saudis and Gulf States did with U.S. support, would do nothing but prolong the war, killing tens of thousands of Syrians unnecessarily, sending millions more into exile, and strengthening the most militant Islamist elements of the Opposition.

Speaking as a teacher of conflict resolution, I have to say that one of the most mysterious and off-putting developments of this two-year hiatus has been the silence of many of those in my own field about the need to resolve the main conflict: the civil war between the Assad regime and its opponents.  Virtually no challenge was offered to the official narrative promoted in Washington, the E.U., and the Sunni nations portraying the war as an uprising of the Syrian masses against the dictator – A Syrian version of the Tunisian and Egyptian “Arab Spring” revolts.  As some of us pointed out at the time, this was nonsense.  Since for a variety of reasons the Assad regime had the support of a substantial sector of the Syrian population (not only Alawites), the struggle there was a genuine civil war.  Backing one party against the others rather than attempting to make peace would inevitably wreck the nation and strengthen the extremists on both sides.  (The reduction ad absurdum of the official U.S. position was the program sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace to negotiate disputes among selected elements of the Syrian Opposition, and to call this exercise in partisanship “conflict resolution.”)

At last, the Obamaites may have come to their senses, although perhaps not for the right reasons.  The rise in power of the al-Nusra Front, the Opposition’s most extreme Islamists as well as its best soldiers, together with the Syrian regime’s recent military successes, seem to have motivated them more strongly than the “mere” loss of Syrian lives.  Motives are less important, however, than the question of how the administration understands the meaning of peace conferences and conflict resolution, and what sort of negotiations it proposes to attempt.

For the past three decades, leading peace theorists and practitioners have hammered home the differences between traditional power-based negotiations and problem-solving conflict resolution.  If war is “the continuation of politics by other means,” as Clausewitz said, conventional negotiation is frequently the continuation of war by other means, and just as unlikely to produce a sustainable peace.  Genuine conflict resolution means assisting the parties to identify the deep causes of the struggle and to imagine and implement effective ways of dealing with them.  Analysis and imagination, not “negotiating from strength,” are the keys to a successful peace process.

Furthermore, experience suggests that peace conferences convened and dominated by Great Power outsiders seldom lay the groundwork for sustainable conflict resolution.  Remember the multilateral Geneva Agreement of 1954 that was supposed guarantee peace in Indochina after the French pulled out?  By contrast, what permitted George Mitchell to be so effective in Northern Ireland was his insistence that the British, southern Irish, Americans, and other interested outsiders pull back long enough to let the immediate parties work out their differences without outside interference and with the help of his independent facilitation.

Clearly, any dialogue between the warring parties in Syria is better than continuing to destroy and dismember that nation.  But the most promising process would involve talks presided over by a team of independent facilitators accepted by both the regime and its opponents – confidential dialogues that would help them explore the systemic causes of the war and fashion a plan for a new Syria.  The role of Russia, the U.S., the Saudis, Iranians, and other outsiders?  They should agree to stay out of the way while the talks continued and to stand ready to guarantee any agreement reached by the parties.

These talks should take place as soon as possible, without any preconditions.  As they proceed, the parties could decide to negotiate a cease-fire, encourage Bashar Assad to step down, seek international reconstruction aid, or adopt other agreed-upon measures, but the parties themselves must be granted the right to make their own decisions.  And when I say “the parties,” I include representatives of all major forces fighting in that country.  The al-Nusra Front would be invited to participate just as the IRA and its offshoots were invited to take part in the Northern Irish talks.  They would probably refuse at first, as the IRA did before George Mitchell came to town, but silencing their voices in advance is no way to promote the cause of peace.

There is no guarantee, of course, that these efforts will succeed.  But unless they are tried, no one can rightfully declare the struggle irresolvable by peaceful means.  Politicians who beat the drum for further U.S. military involvement in the Syrian war are those who, having failed to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.  But even figures like John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, who hope for a peaceful settlement, may come home empty-handed if they confuse conflict resolution with traditional negotiation, and if they attempt to maintain control over the peace process.  The first rule of effective peacemaking is to empower the suffering parties to refashion their own system in accordance with their own basic needs.

Conflict resolution in Syria is long, long overdue.

Richard E. Rubenstein is a professor Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.