Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to get realistic on mediation in Syria

An increasingly heavy conflict has been developing in Syria for more than one and a half year now. In the course of time several outside parties have tried to mediate the conflict and until now all have failed. The reason: an unrealistic view on the situation and how to mediate it.

The first to mediate was the Turkish government. Still basking its perceived glorious role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it hoped to bring around a similar regime change here too. When that didn’t work out immediately the Turkish government turned against Assad and started supporting and arming the rebels. It was a rather strange vision on mediation

Next was Annan. He demanded for Assad’s departure and for foreign pressure on the Syrian government. He didn’t make similar demands from the rebels. Doing so he violated the most basic principle of mediation: neutrality.

An alternative vision could recently been seen in the new “National Initiative Council” that is promoted by the US and the Gulf States as the new foreign representative of the Syrian rebels. I think Clinton is deluding herself with this initiative. Millions of Syrians prefer Assad above the rebels and that won’t change with this initiative. Neither will it stop the ongoing radicalization of the rebel fighters that is increasingly driving neutral Syrians to prefer Assad. There is no real alternative to accepting Assad as a full partner in the discussions about the future of Syria.

Clinton seems to see Syria as part of an international power game and to see removing Assad is a step in her conflict with Iran. It is not hard to see the immoral side of this attitude. But from the political point of view it is a risky move too. The core support groups of the rebels in Syria are the same of the those of the Mujaheddin and Taliban in Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution: religious fanatics, social conservatives and people hurt by economic modernization. It is unlikely that a win of those groups will be in the long term interest of the US.

Brahimi has preserved a neutral position. Unfortunately he made the mistake of organizing an armistice without first organizing talks between the parties. Predictably both sides saw the armistice as something that they needed to do as a public relations gesture towards the West. But they didn’t see it as a first step towards peace and only saw it as a short break in a battle that has to fought till the bitter end. So their commitment was low.

I found both Annan and Brahimi unfortunate choices for a mediator. Real mediation is a rather humble profession. The mediator functions as the sound of reason and the source of solutions. But he has no power over the sides and has to watch powerlessly when parties change their mind. For such a job Annan and Brahimi have a much too high status. A lower ranking diplomat would have been a better choice.

That the they have been chosen anyway has to do with a rather strange vision on diplomacy in which “mediating” diplomats more or less dictate solutions. As they miss military power and rely on diplomatic pressure they need a truce to operate in: that is also the reason that both Annan and Brahimi started with organizing a truce.

Such solutions often work well between a few big parties where the main issue is power distribution. However, when things get ugly with discrimination and expulsion and rebuilding trust between the parties is important they tend to be dysfunctional. A good example was the Kosovo mediation of Ahtisaari that ended with the unilateral Ahtisaari Plan. It was a good excuse to declare Kosovo independent but it did nothing to improve the relations between the ethnic groups in Kosovo or to bring the many remaining refugees back. It rather froze the bad relations. Unfortunately the West’s role in those solutions mean that the status of our diplomats gets connected with those solutions: when later on Serbian and Kosovar politicians seemed on their way to reach a real agreement that included border changes – something Ahtisaari had refused – American diplomats were sent in to block this.

Syria’s primary problem is a total lack of trust between segments of the population. The Alawites remember being treated as pariahs before World War I and they have seen how some rebel propagandists are trying to push them back in the same corner. The Christians see among the rebel fighters the same people who were instrumental in the expulsion of half of Iraq’s Christians. Westernized Sunni see the rebels as revengeful fanatics who waged a murder campaign around 1980 that has poisoned the political climate since then and who nowadays murder people for the faintest association with Assad. They see also rising cultural intolerance including pressure on women to wear head scarves. On the other hand many rebel fighters fear that if they loose the battle they will have to spend the rest of their lives as exiles.

You can’t solve such problems by imposing a solution. Such a “solution” would only raise the fears of one – if not both – parties. What is needed is a dialogue that re-establishes Syria as a place were both sides can live together in peace. Such a dialogue has by definition to take place in the open. Only the light of publicity can expose and marginalize extremists who don’t want to respect other people. Only the light of publicity can point the way to consensus.

Such a dialogue will be intensive and take a considerable time. Representatives have to be chosen, trust has to be built and the participants will need regular contact with their support base.

Efforts to start such a dialogue should have begun long ago. Unfortunately the UN was too preoccupied with its visions of grand diplomacy while the US and Turkey were too occupied with their visions of regime change. Both saw negotiations between the Syrian factions as just a final gathering that should – under heavy diplomatic pressure – rubberstamp the decisions they have made.

Unfortunately you can’t solve a situation like Syria’s that way. Syria needs a real dialogue.

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