Syria and Peace Talks Dynamics
Gabriel C Banda
SYRIA provides great lessons about issues affecting armed conflict and its resolution. After slowdown by conditionalities and problems from various involved parties, the January 2014 Geneva II talks are finally here. That it could have been possible to hold the talks earlier and avoid deaths and hardship is saddening.
Still, in Geneva II there is some window to prevent further suffering that can deeply affect generations in Syria, neighbours, and the whole world.
As many of us believed quite early and warned, neither the Bashar al-Assad government nor the rebel forces could through military victory expect to rule for long. Military conquest could only be temporary as significant sections of Syria’s society will not expect and accept to be ruled for long by those they strongly oppose.
The forces for both Assad and the rebels, both groups backed by internal and external support, are so significant that no side can by military conquest hope to rule Syria. As in other places, there can be no military conquest that will hold over Syria. Clearly, eventually, there could only be political settlement.
Sadly, the delay to talks dragged on because fighting parties and backers seem to believe that military gains will provide them strength to have their way in talks. Some rebels said they would only go to talks if they have more weapons to tilt military balance in their favour.
In many conflicts in the world, some only come to talks when they have been put under pressure by opponents. They go to talks because of a military stalemate. Sometimes persons may not want talks to succeed.
Sadly, this is based on the military strength and prowess of the victor and not on what is the best way to settle a conflict.
Yet conflict resolution and agreement should not depend on military victory and the weakening of an opponent. Agreement arrived at through the military strength or weakness of some parties will not last long. Even if it takes generations, military balances of opponents may change and fighting will resume. Violence begets violence
It is important to face the issues in a conflict. As Nelson Mandela’s South Africa showed the world, it is important to have healing, reconciliation, and fairness for all if a society has to work and strengthen towards harmony.
Some delays to Geneva II arose from deciding who comes to the talks. This question affected both government and rebels. The rebels had differences amongst themselves. Some did not want the talks as those rebels’ aim is to remove the Assad administration or take over office to become the rulers. Some do not recognise Assad’s administration as government.
Then there was the problem of which rebels could claim to be representatives of the rebellion. The rebels were many fighting groups that did not necessarily have similar background, vision, and views. There has been much rebel on rebel violence.
And some rebels did not want President Assad to be involved in the talks. Many rebels wanted Geneva to be a surrender meeting for Assad and colleagues. Some rebels did not recognise Assad as ruler. This attitude contributed to prolonged fighting and suffering.
Assad, expected to be under great military pressure, was expected to yield, leave office, and go into the uncertainty that has characterised rulers who have been deposed by armed rebellions that later dominate rule. But, learning from examples of Iraq, Libya, and even Egypt, Assad was more prepared for survival.
On the part of the Assad administration, it did not want to deal with some of the rebels. This was, I believe, an error as agreement should be made by reaching out to all fighting parties and their forces. Thus both the Assad government and rebels prolonged the armed conflict by insisting on who should attend or insisting on working only with those they got on well with.
But reaching agreement to solve a conflict requires that you even deal with those you do not like. What is important is to reach agreement that is fair for the rights and safety of all in a society.
Another problem was which external forces should be involved. Because of their own relationship issues generally unrelated to the internal Syria conflict, the United States and others were opposed to Syria neighbour Iran being involved in the talks. The US has been at Cold War with Iran.
Yet, for conflict to be settled, involved internal and external forces must be engaged. If we seek long term conflict resolution, there is no logical reason why Iran’s government should not be at Geneva II.
Iran, whose situation is more than just about being backers of Syria but also has to consider its own existence if Shiite linked regimes fall in the region, is important for settling Syria’s conflict. So too are Iraq. And others like Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, and all neighbours.
Besides Turkey, rebel backers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are important part of the Syria quiz and its solution. So too are rebel backers like United States, Britain, France, and other offshore rebel supporters. These must be involved, in various roles and ways, in settlement issues at Geneva II.
Other important forces are Russia and China’s governments, who although may, like the western governments, have interests in the region, are also concerned about the spread of religious based armed rebellions to their own countries.
Deciding to include or exclude some internal and external parties has contributed to continuation of the Syria war. Violence begets violence.
We should open up and accept that other persons who may vary from us are also truly citizens and members of society and are entitled to actively participate. Opening up our minds, we should learn to let go of our own narrow, inflexible, and limited inflexible stances and consider the health of all.
From the poor and avoidable examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt it is important that rulers of conflict countries be involved in designing transitions to provide environments of fair and good governance. When current rulers and opponents are involved, their local and external supporters will be more supportive of agreements made and systems designed.
It is important for all parties in a conflict to work together in designing and finding the constitutional, systems, structures, processes, elections, and governance practices that the renewal should have. Syria needs agreement as they go towards Assad’s presidential term end, scheduled to be in 2014.
Egypt’s poor management of the transition from Mubarak contributed to current problems and tension there. A dispute is more likely to be solved if it involves all parties in a dispute. A conflict stands better chance of long term resolution if it covers persons in various situations, such as colour, ethnic link, language, culture, religious and spiritual path, geographical location, origin, political stance, and material and financial status.
The discussion must deal with the situations and interests of these persons and aim at fairly covering them. Talks and mediation must involve inside and outside forces closely related to a conflict.
The results of recent conflict places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt show that exclusion of some members of society has led to building of conflict, some of it armed, and disharmony that is affecting stability of societies. Syria cannot succeed without involvement of key internal and external players involved in the conflict.
Yes, there is significant support for both Bashir al-Assad’s government and rebellion forces. Assad represents much more than himself. This is a conflict which neither the government nor the rebels, with its various formations, can win on the military field and hope to rule over others.
We can only hope fighting parties do not use Geneva II as a window to pause, reorganise, and rearm for further armed action.
Both internal and external forces have contributed to deep problems for Syria. Even when a ceasefire decision arises from Geneva II, there are other rebellion forces, some not even present in Geneva, that will not accept ceasefire but are determined only in military conquest.
Those who are participants or backers should not vet who comes for peace talks. For Syria and Geneva II, the United Nations should be more active and in the forefront. Talks are better facilitated by the United Nations organisation, in league with other organisations, and not controlled by those who have taken sides and are belligerents.
A primary purpose of the United Nations is not only to stop war but to put an end to war. That is, put an end to the practice of war.
Parties to a fight do not have to reach huge arms arsenals in order to be involved in negotiation. Even without weapons, committed persons and parties can reach agreement.
*– GCB, Lusaka, January 2014.
Based in Lusaka, Zambia, the author is involved in writing, social development, and peace issues.