We must not give up on Syrian peace talks

This piece was originally published by the ABC on 7 February 2016.


It’s easy to be sceptical of political negotiations about Syria, especially when talks have already been suspended. But with patience and a herculean effort, peace is possible, writes Jeni Whalan.

It only took two days. After a faltering start, the United Nation’s chief negotiator has suspended talks aiming to end Syria’s five-year war.

Though UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, has stressed that this is just a ‘temporary pause’, the lack of tangible progress amid escalating fighting will be seen by many as further evidence that a negotiated settlement in Syria is an idealistic pipedream.

But the road to a peace deal is always paved with failed negotiations, particularly when it must traverse terrain as dangerous as the Syrian war.

The inevitable setbacks that will plague mediation efforts must be met by redoubled international efforts to wrest a diplomatic solution from a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, forced more than half the population to flee their homes, and left 13.5 million people in Syria in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

No one expected a breakthrough peace deal this week – not the UN mediator ( operating under the spectre of two previous rounds of failed Geneva talks), not the US, not Russia, nor the regional heavyweights variously aligned with opposing sides of the conflict, not the Assad regime (currently laying siege to 15 Syrian cities and denying a ravaged civilian population urgently needed supplies), and not the fragmented opposition factions (under new pressure from Russian airstrikes and severed supply-lines).

No one even expected the warring parties to sit in the same room, let alone talk directly. Representatives of both the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition had declared their unwillingness to actually negotiate, even via the ‘proximity talks’ model (in which the UN team shuttles between the parties).

While we must never take our eye off the end goal, just getting to the negotiating table – or even to separate rooms in Geneva – is significant.

Simply getting the key Syrian players to agree to turn up at all can rightly be hailed a victory by the negotiating team.

With prospects so bleak, it is easy to be a critic. The three-week pause in negotiations is unlikely to alter the overwhelmingly pessimistic predictions; the talks will come to nothing, they will give the warring parties time and new cause to escalate fighting, and they will strengthen the Islamic State.

Yes, these talks have failed to provide any tangible relief from the scale of human suffering in Syria and a ceasefire deal is a long way off. But that’s how peace talks work: slowly, erratically, and usually thanks only to politically serendipitous conditions that have little to do with the civil war itself.

Take the Bosnian war. There too, negotiators attempted to forge peace amid intense fighting, unspeakable atrocities committed by thugs who would eventually be convicted of war crimes, devastating urban sieges, and a massive outpouring of refugees.

The Bosnian war was eventually settled under the Dayton Peace Agreement, frequently invoked as a model for Syria, but only after the failure of 30 mediation attempts and ten negotiated agreements.

Negotiating peace in Syria is a far more difficult prospect. Not since Cambodia has a civil war attracted such focused diplomacy from outside players with such divergent interests. It took a decade of international attention, 15 distinct mediation attempts, and the end of the Cold War before a comprehensive Cambodian peace deal was finally signed in 1991 – including by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

Lebanon’s second civil war saw 28 mediated ceasefires before a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 1989.

Convincing bitter enemies to lay down their arms and agree the terms of lasting peace is among the most difficult tasks of international affairs.

Sierra Leone’s conflict ended only after mediation attempts by 55 different negotiating teams.

While we must never take our eye off the end goal, just getting to the negotiating table – or even to separate rooms in Geneva – is significant.

Inconclusive mediation now can still lay essential foundations for a concrete settlement later. Talks allow warring parties to gather new information, reconsider their views of the enemy, and identify potential areas of common ground that can’t be gleaned from battlefield tactics.

Negotiations let parties articulate their case to one another, to their constituents, and to the world at large. Talks have already pushed the disparate Syrian opposition groups to formulate a common position, to negotiate among themselves, and maybe even to develop a united front.

Talking about talks is, in other words, a crucial part of any peace process. For mediators, talks increase their familiarity with the warring parties, making more transparent the political dynamics within each faction and possibly identifying moderate blocs more favourable to negotiation.

Convincing bitter enemies to lay down their arms and agree the terms of lasting peace is among the most difficult tasks of international affairs.

In Syria, it will require a herculean effort. A decisive breakthrough will probably be the result of dynamics far from the devastation of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus.

But negotiators – and those committed to eventual peace in Syria – must be ready to seize that window of opportunity when it eventually appears.

Dr Jeni Whalan is a Senior Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, and serves on the board of the Centre for Policy Development.