by Rich Rubenstein on May 20, 2013 · 5 comments

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

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 beginning. Kerry’s trip to Moscow implicitly admits that they were right all along to insist that arming the rebels, as the Saudis and others 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 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 some Sunni nations portraying the war as an uprising of the Syrian masses against the dictator – A Syrian version of the “Arab Spring” revolts. As some of us pointed out at the time, this was nonsense. For a variety of reasons, the Assad regime had the support of a substantial sector of the Syrian population (not only Alawites), which made the struggle 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 reductio ad absurdum of the 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 “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 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. Talk, by all means! 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 Americans, Europeans, and neighboring states should agree to stay out of the way while the talks continue and to stand ready to guarantee any agreement reached by the parties.

These talks should take place as soon as possible, without preconditions. As they proceed, the parties might 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, even the al-Nusra Front. Al-Nusra should 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 doomed to repeat the history they have failed to learn. But even those 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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Terri May 20, 2013 at 10:00 pm

How can it be that political leaders don’t ask — indeed, demand — that you participate in solving problems? Long-range, let us hope that the world will change paradigms from making war to negotiating to genuinely “getting to yes” by solving causes of conflict. Short-range, people like you are needed now! Any chance this could be published nationally?


Rich Rubenstein May 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Thanks for the vote of confidence! Trying to spread the word.


Saba Kidane May 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm

The challenge is how those of us in the Conflict Analysis and Resolution field present the relevance of what the field has to offer for conflicts that are on-going in the world. I think there is an urgent need for politicians to look for help in the field of conflict resolution where practical applications can be tried. What better place to start than S-CAR where we have people who are scholar-practitioners who can contribute positively in encouraging the parties in the Syrian conflict to start dialogue. We might have to offer the resources at the School by actively looking for ways to be actively involved in helping the parties in Syria to start talks (dialogue)


Rich Rubenstein May 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I agree — totally!


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: