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.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 28, 2015
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?
John Halle
On Berniebots and Hillary Hacks, Dean Screams, Swiftboating and Smears
Stephen Lendman
Cleveland Police Attack Black Activists
Patrick Cockburn
Only Iraq’s Clerics Can Defeat ISIS
Ralph Nader
Sending a ‘Citizens Summons’ to Members of Congress
Clancy Sigal
Scratch That Itch: Hillary and The Donald
Colin Todhunter
Working Class War Fodder
Gareth Porter
Obama’s Version of Iran Nuke Deal: a Second False Narrative
Joshua Sperber
What is a President? The CEO of Capitalism
Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Politics of Coercion in Greece
Vacy Vlanza
Without BDS, Palestine is Alone
Laura Finley
Adjunct Professors and Worker’s Rights
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode Three, Where We Thrill Everyone by Playing Like “Utter Bloody Garbage”
Weekend Edition
July 24-26, 2015
Mike Whitney
Picked Out a Coffin Yet? Take Ibuprofen and Die
Henry Giroux
America’s New Brutalism: the Death of Sandra Bland
Rob Urie
Capitalism, Engineered Dependencies and the Eurozone
Michael Lanigan
Lynn’s Story: an Irish Woman in Search of an Abortion
Paul Street
Deleting Crimes at the New York Times: Airbrushing History at the Paper of Record
ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH
Making Sense of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Geopolitical Implications
Andrew Levine
After the Iran Deal: Israel is Down But Far From Out
Uri Avnery
Sheldon’s Stooges: Netanyahu and the King of Vegas
David Swanson
George Clooney Paid by War Profiteers
ANDRE VLTCHEK
They Say Paraguay is in Africa: Mosaic of Horror
Horace G. Campbell
Obama in Kenya: Will He Cater to the Barons or the People?
Michael Welton
Surviving Together: Canadian Public Tradition Under Threat
Rev. William Alberts
American Imperialism’s Military Chaplains
Yorgos Mitralias
Black Days: August 4th,1914 Germany and July 13th, 2015 Greece
Jeffrey R. Wilson
“It Started Like a Guilty Thing”: the Beginning of Hamlet and the Beginning of Modern Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Star Whores: John McCain, the Apache and the Battle to Save Mt. Graham
Pepe Escobar
The Eurasian Big Bang: How China and Russia Are Running Rings Around Washington
Charles Larson
The USA as a Failed State: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Robert Fantina
Israel and “Self-Defense”
John W. Whitehead
The American Nightmare: the Tyranny of the Criminal Justice System
Leonidas Vatikiotis
Rupture With the EU: a Return to the Cave Age or a New Golden Age for Greece?
Murray Dobbin
Harper is Finally Right: the Canadian Election is About Security Versus Risk
Brian Cloughley
Meet General Joseph Dunford: a Real Threat to World Peace
Manuel García, Jr.
The Trump Surge and the American Psyche