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University of Basel

Syria: Not without the population.

Text: Samanta Siegfried

For peace to be sustainable, peace talks need to include civil society, says University of Basel political scientist Sara Hellmüller. She was directly involved in an effort to help settle the conflict in Syria.

(Photo: Dana Smillie)
(Photo: Dana Smillie)

How much more suffering will have to be endured before a settlement in the Syrian conflict is reached? The question is becoming more urgent the longer the war persists – and it has already lasted for eight years. More than 5.6 million people have fled the country and 6.7 million have been internally displaced. A total of 500,000 people or more have lost their lives. And no political solution is in sight. This is partly due to the complexity of the conflict: With superpowers like Russia and the USA, regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran, extremist forces and numerous national actors all trying to advance their interests, more is needed than an agreement just between the Syrian government and opposition. In the midst of it all, the local population is often overlooked.

Civil society actors in Geneva

“Civil society actors are vital to any peace process, but are often given too little attention,” says Sara Hellmüller, a researcher at the University of Basel and the Swiss peace research institute, Swisspeace. Recent years have seen a change in thinking, however. As scholars put it, a “local turn” emerged in peacebuilding in the early years of the 21st century, based on the recognition that a peace agreement negotiated exclusively by elites cannot be sustainable.

In 2012, the United Nations accordingly made inclusivity one of its eight guiding principles for effective mediation. Reality tends to differ. Some critics argue that involving local actors will only delay a settlement. “Faced with the difficult choice of putting an end to violence or building sustainable peace, a mediator will often choose the former option,” says Hellmüller. This is a strategy employed, for instance, by Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s first two Special Envoys for Syria.

That the two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive is evidenced by the strategy chosen by the third UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura. In January 2016, he launched the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR). This involved inviting Syrian civil society actors to come to Geneva’s Palais des Nations and share their views with the mediation team in parallel with the formal negotiations.

While some of these actors were present during several rounds of negotiations, there were also new actors every time. This combination of continuity and rotation is intended to allow for the widest possible range of participants and thereby for the mediation team to hear as many voices as possible. To date, nine CSSR meetings have taken place in Geneva implemented by the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution (NOREF) and Swisspeace, co-led by Sara Hellmüller.

Hellmüller stresses that the advantages of the project are manifold: The CSSR helps relate developments in Geneva to those in Syria. Moreover, civil society actors contribute specific background knowledge and provide the mediation team with valuable insight into the local situation, especially regarding humanitarian conditions. For instance, there were several occasions when, between CSSR rounds, participants would relay important information to the mediation team that a situation in a particular place had become dire. “We were able to give a voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise be heard,” says Hellmüller.

Staffan de Mistura was the first UN Special Envoy for Syria to opt for this inclusive approach. Unlike his predecessors, he believed that, rather than delaying the process, civil society presence could exert pressure on the conflict parties to strive for a political settlement. “With the formal negotiations in deadlock, the various civil society actors have a chance to demonstrate that an agreement across conflict lines is achievable,” Hellmüller explains.

The dilemma of legitimacy

In the current context, however, the CSSR leaves many questions unanswered. Civil society participants became increasingly impatient as the negotiations dragged on. “While I’m in Geneva talking about peace, my colleagues at home are dying,” some said. There were complaints that participants were being inadequately informed about the negotiations and that their own concerns were not included in any serious manner. Some people considered withdrawing from the process. “This presented us with a dilemma,” Hellmüller recounts. “If we continued the process with civil society representatives without the negotiations producing any significant results, then its legitimacy would be diminished. If we terminated the process, we would end up partially delegitimizing the negotiations, because a number of key actors would be excluded.”

To overcome this problem, the organizers began meeting civil society actors outside the context of the formal negotiations to discuss developments in Geneva. They also held video conferences with people on the ground. The fundamental problem remained, however: “We were working to include people in a process that did not see any progress,” says Hellmüller.

Much as before

Conflict research has produced various theories on the prerequisites for successful mediation. Applied to Syria, however, all these theories run into the same problem: In reality, the conflict is not ripe for mediation because it fails to meet a fundamental requirement, namely that the conflict parties be willing to negotiate. This has been the case especially since the fall of Aleppo, when signs of a government military victory became apparent. “Against this background, there’s a risk that the Geneva negotiations become a fig leaf by the UN for the conflict parties,” Hellmüller notes, adding that, nonetheless, the UN cannot stand idly by. Since Staffan de Mistura’s resignation in October 2018, Geir Pederson, the UN’s fourth Special Envoy, has been trying to broker a solution for Syria. Hellmüller is convinced that Pederson, too, will encourage civil society inclusion, for which she feels the CSSR project has created a point of no return for future negotiations.

As for the big picture, this peace researcher remains skeptical: “I’m hopeful that things will soon improve for the local population. Yet, I fear that, under cover of an ostensible peace agreement, much will continue as before.” She says that she does not foresee comprehensive peace for the near future and that what she finds most encouraging is Syrian civil society: “I was deeply impressed by the resilience of the local population,” she remarks. “Their strength and solidarity will definitely persist.”


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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