Syria is one of those awful, bloody wars where the “international community” has more or less given up. One sign of this is the lack of prominent media attention – governments are not doing much, so the “only” news is the continual drumbeat of bloodshed (and this too is under-reported thanks to the immense danger to journalists inside Syria). Another sign of international indifference is that the issue has been more or less dumped on the UN to deal with. There are no serious initiatives to find peace by the major powers, so it’s left to a UN Special Envoy to carry the water. Janine di Giovanni has written this excellent profile of the man charged with this dismal mandate. Read it for yourself to decide what you think. It is an ambiguous picture (I can be more frank in private; this is diplomacy after all, and Independent Diplomat is involved).
I won’t dwell on the power politics behind the conflict, the multiple wars combined in one (Sunni/Shia, Iran/Saudi, US/Russia, Turkey/Kurds etc), or ISIS. But the story brings up two serious and overlooked systemic issues in the way the world deals with, and looks at, conflict. These are not really being discussed, and bravo to Janine to bringing them into the light.
Firstly, no one has a coherent theory of how to resolve multi-party conflicts. The primary obstacle to peace in Syria is that the Assad regime refuses to talk. Unless that happens, the war will continue, c’est ça. But another huge challenge is that there are so many different parties. The UN envoy is setting up four “thematic” working groups to discuss different aspects of peace. I don’t really understand the theory here, although I’m sure there is one. My question is how you bring all the warring parties, who are many (to put it conservatively) barring the most extreme and totalitarian (guess who), to the table. There is little discussion of this problem, and the press also tends to reiterate the simplistic model of the heroic mediator shuttling between warring factions. Bringing peace has multiple components, not least the fact (which Independent Diplomat tries to address) that many parties are grossly ill-equipped properly to represent their interests in often very formalized processes, where those countries with experienced diplomats, extensive diplomatic networks, historical archives and negotiation skills are at a huge advantage (think the Israelis vs the Palestinians, or Serbs vs Kosovars). This does not make for a fair negotiation but nor for just and therefore durable outcomes, where all interests are properly accounted for.
The second issue is the discourse of mediation and the habits of the “mediation industrial complex” as former UN envoy, whom I shall not name, disdainfully describes the galaxy of NGOs and quasi-governmental agencies that engage in “mediation”, including former spooks, self-regarding former politicians and, in a few cases, specialized professionals. I have argued many times that the typical model of a “statesman” or well-meaning outsider bringing the parties together for a mediated discussion is a very, very narrow way of thinking about conflict resolution (with a tinge of neo-colonialism too: let’s parachute in and bang the natives’ heads together). And although there are dozens if not hundreds of NGOs and others engaged in “mediation”, too often absent – with some honourable exceptions – are high professional standards and well-directed resources. Virtually every conflict you can think of now enjoys the attentions of multiple NGOs and international institutions, but there is never any serious assessment of their effectiveness – or the very real danger that they might in fact make things worse.
It would distress the reader to hear how many UN Special Envoys I’ve met, charged with notorious conflicts to “solve”, who have no formal training in negotiation, very little relevant experience (for instance, in the countries they are dealing with) and pitifully few support resources, including staff. Janine’s article alludes to this problem, and the truth is stark. On the Western Sahara, the current Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General speaks good Arabic, the language of the relevant parties. In a conflict that has tragically endured for forty years, not one of his predecessors had this qualification. Moreover, he has only one junior desk officer to support him, who frequently changes. Other envoys tell me that they have no reliable means to send secure messages to their offices in situ (because they know that their communications are monitored). This is not only the UN’s fault, it is also the fault of indifferent member states, who happily spend billions on weapons of war, but pitifully little on the means to stop those wars.
Janine’s article mentions de Mistura’s team and it has been clearly problematic at times (and Janine’s depiction is restrained, from what I know of the situation), but why are there not whole ministries devoted to peacemaking? Why doesn’t the UN have twenty people devoted full time to working on every war, not one or two as is often the case? Sometimes, when I have been with the Saharawis of the Western Sahara or the Kosovars before they were independent, I don’t want to tell them that the “international community’s” efforts to bring their war to an end, or secure their liberation, amount to a few junior diplomats and one or two senior officials, both of whom are currently on holiday (and only one of whom is actually competent).
I wonder too what a Syrian refugee would make of the so-far ineffectual peacemaking operation so pointedly described by Janine.