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Liddite Event: The Fog of Syria

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4 March 2014

As the war in Syria concludes its third devastating year and tensions in Ukraine continue to mount, the need for more creative approaches to conflict resolution becomes ever more apparent. It is in this spirit that Oxford Research Group convened its most recent Liddite Conversation, held under the Chatham House Rule, on 3 March 2014.

The conversation was partially a celebration of the publication of The Fog of Peace and partially an exploration of the scope for a more creative approach to conflict resolution in the contemporary geopolitical context. Presenters and several respondents concluded that the binary approach often employed in conflict resolution – military intervention or nothing – is proving ineffective in preventing and managing conflict. In result, “we are winning the wars, but losing the peace”, according to one panel member.

The illusion of the existence of an 'absolute truth' and 'good guys versus bad guys' in any conflict was explored. The actors in a conflict have complex narratives and cultures that need to be acknowledged as a base for constructive mediation or negotiation. There was discussion about evolution of effective diplomacy and the evolution of multilateralism away from institutions like the UN and towards bilateral and ad hoc coalitions. Gianni Picco referred to this phenomenon as 'minilateralism' and argued that this is more practical and realistic in the post-Cold War era, due to the presence of many more political variables. The US-Iran P5+1 was cited as a recent successful example of this.

There was exploration of the role of the international mediator in conflict resolution and how the narrative, subjectivity and personal relationships of the mediator affect negotiations. It was noted that negotiations and mediations on the ground are brokered by individuals, and that advanced theory and analysis of international relations is not useful in such situations. Thus, negotiations must often acknowledge the personal narratives of the mediator, as well as the parties in the conflict.

One panel member presented four comments on the current ‘Fog of Syria', which he said was all the more discouraging given the US-Russian falling out over Ukraine.

  • The statistics of over 100,000 deaths in Syria are vast and abstract. Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city, with a population over 2 million, used to have 5,000 doctors. Now it has 36. The professional middle classes have left Syria, leaving just the poorest behind.
  • Geneva II gave little hope. It was an exchange of blame. The Assad government’s idea was to reframe the debate around terrorism. It made no mention of the solutions identified in Geneva I. The SNC was only interested in Assad’s departure. The reward for its failure to take negotiations seriously will likely be securing arms to close the battlefield gap between the opposition and Assad. The Russians balked at getting the unarmed opposition to the table and the US balked at bringing in civil society. Talks are now suspended and may never restart.
  • In the ongoing war, the government is making gains in West Damascus, along the Lebanon border and advancing in parts of Aleppo. But overall it remains a stalemate. With perhaps 1,500 armed opposition groups the situation on the ground is not far from warlordism. The US seems prepared to support the Islamic Front because it is not al-Qaida. But what is it? The big change that advantages the opposition is that the US-Saudi rift has been patched up through the eclipsing of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar. The new US strategy is to build up a credible opposition army on the Jordan front. UK special forces are presumably also there. Turkey is trying to close its border to Jihadists so that the conflict is likely to shift to the southern front in 2014.
  • What next? The US is bent on a military solution despite its rhetorical commitment to a political solution. More positively, the first UN Security Council Resolution for about two years has just been passed, on humanitarian access across frontlines and borders. But there is no mechanism for enforcing compliance or making the government responsible. Russia made sure of no trigger for ‘further action’. There is no change in the Russian and Iranian support. At least Geneva got everyone in the same room and reopened channels between Assad and the US that should never have been closed off – when the US thought Assad was on his way out. There is some vague talk of a Contact Group of four neighbours – Iran, Saudi, Qatar, Turkey. At least there is now some talk of setting frameworks for conflict settlement.

There was discussion of the British government’s position on Syria and how it was uncompromisingly anti-Assad, black and white, good versus evil. It was suggested there was no mention of the role of Saudi or Iran in fanning the conflict. If it had not rejected Assad at the outset, could the UK have worked more constructively with Russia at the outset of the Syrian crisis? Did this position deprive diplomats of options to promote power-sharing over regime change via civil war?  

Some in the group argued that Assad’s status should not be a pre-condition for talks. This issue has paralysed US and Russian positions. It was suggested that moral clarity about the degenerative behaviour of the Assad government has not saved lives.

There was lively debate on the usefulness of getting into the mind of ‘the enemy’ and the role of competing narratives in conflict resolution, with many excellent points referencing Syria, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the US made.
 

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