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Syria - can 'jaw-jaw' trump 'war-war'?

'Yes, there will be a price to be paid for military action - and we don't know what it is - but we can’t sit on the sidelines and do nothing.'

How often did we hear that during the Parliamentary debate on Syria, and from the commentators in the UK media who support a military strike against the Syrian government? And how often was that statement reinforced by the contention that ‘diplomacy has failed’?

But the alternative to military intervention is not ‘doing nothing’. It is taking action based on established methods of conflict resolution and peace-building. And while past diplomatic initiatives might have failed, others might be more successful. Here are some suggestions for action now and in the future.

  1. 'Contain the fire'
    Ryan Crocker
    , a highly experienced US diplomat and former ambassdor to Syria, has likened the violence there to the huge fire currently burning its way through Yosemite National Park in California. It's so big that nothing can be done to put it out, so the strategy is to contain it until the fuel it's feeding on is exhausted. 

    Similarly, says Crocker, unless or until the parties in Syria decide to stop fighting, no outside intervention will make any significant difference - and a military strike would just add fuel to the fire.

    So the strategy must be to contain the violence as much as possible through measures focused on the surrounding countries - Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Israel - and the allies of those fighting i.e. Russia, China and Iran supporting Assad, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supporting the rebels. At the same time, through intermediaries, work on initiatives to persuade those fighting to stop, even if temporarily i.e. a ceasefire. Once the violence stops, the space is opened for mediation.

  2. Diplomacy is not mediation
    A diplomat, it was once cynically observed, 'is an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country.' Whether or not that's accurate, what's certainly true is that a diplomat's function is represent the interests of his or her state - diplomats are not neutral mediators. 

    And what passes for mediation in foreign affairs is anyway far from what professionals in the field would recognise. Even high level ‘mediators’ have little (if any) training in the necessary skills and methods and simply rely on their experience as (usually retired) politicians and diplomats. 

    On the other hand, there is a growing pool of highly skilled mediators around the world – working every day in commercial, community and family conflicts – who have vast experience of settling complex disputes.

    So why not use them in the political arena? They could be employed directly, or advise the small band of international mediators who are currently called on whenever a hugely difficult conflict erupts; or both.

    The UK government could lead the way on this, not least because a former Foreign Secretary (and former diplomat) - Lord Hurd - is a champion of the idea, as he told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues back in 2007

  3. Look at the bigger picture, too
    The greatest cause for peace in the Middle East that the US administration could make today is to normalise its relations with Iran. The US did this with its former Communist enemies, the USSR and China, so why not Iran, which poses a much lesser threat?

    President Obama is a Nobel Peace laureate and a visionary orator. Sadly, to his critics he is becoming increasingly known by a disparaging nick-name – Barack O’Bomber. A bold peace move towards Iran and its new, moderate president would be proof that he truly deserves his Nobel Prize.

    The UK government could support and encourage such a rapprochement, which would positively alter the dynamics throughout the entire region.

  4. And look to the future...
    Beyond this, the UK government could do more to develop itself as a key global peace-maker. It could leverage its deep traditions of democratic governance and human rights through its huge network of international relationships – the UN, the EU, the Commonwealth, NATO and the WTO (to name but five) – to act increasingly as an effective and truly impartial mediator in international conflicts.

    Unknown to most of the public, it already acts in this role in a limited way through the Conflict Pool – a sum of money dedicated to peace-building and conflict management overseas. And there are other initiatives, mainly managed by the Department for International Development. Far from ‘doing nothing’, its work in this field is widely admired internationally.

    So why not build on this and other ‘soft power’ strategies (e.g. the British Council, the BBC, arts and sport) that enhance our reputation around the world?

These are just a few suggestions. I am sure there are many others, because through my work for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues I have encountered many inspiring individuals, organisations and ideas in the field of peace-building and conflict management that, I believe, could have a significant impact on how we approach conflict today.

It is time for the mainstream to sit up and take notice.

Reader Comments (1)

Ref. 'Containing the Fire' (Crocker)

In what way is it suggested that the surrounding countries might ‘contain the violence?’ It has been raging in one way or another for the best part of two years. Were they able to ‘contain the violence’ it is likely that they would have done so in some measure already. That they have not suggests that this is not possible.

"- and the allies of those fighting i.e. Russia, China and Iran supporting Assad, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supporting the rebels."

There is little or no incentive for Russia to put pressure on Assad to stop the fighting. Russia supplies weaponry to the Assad regime and so violence is very much a plus consideration for them. Assad is a useful ally to Russia thanks to Syria’s geopolitical situation eg. access to the Med. via Syria.

China and Iran don’t want to see Assad fall as a those opposed to him might well be more sympathetic to the west than Assad - so why would they pressure him to ease up on his opponents - whom they wish to see destroyed?

"At the same time, through intermediaries, work on initiatives to persuade those fighting to stop, even if temporarily i.e. a ceasefire. Once the violence stops, the space is opened for mediation."

As I have tried to show above - this ain’t gonna happen. (The closest Russia got to this was to urging the Assad regime to allow weapons inspectors in to the area which suffered the chemical attack. But this was five days after the attack when the evidence would have been far less concentrated than striaght away when they requested access. If, as they assert, it was not the Assad regime who was responsible why did they not grant access?

2 I do not believe there is a will from either side for mediation. Their aim is to annihilate each other. The stakes are too high for compromise. This will fall on deaf ears (sadly.)

3. Yes, this suggestion carries some weight. However, the mindset of those in power in Iran is so anti US that any positive outcome is uncertain. It’s early days for the new president. Is he going to be a Gorbachev style character and engender Iranian ‘glasnost’ or keep the status quo pretty much as was? I haven’t looked into this in any depth (I am a mere voiceover artist after all.) Plus there’s the whole Sunni - Sheite (Allowite Spelling?) mess which I am really not on top of. Note to self - work out which branch of Islam is killing whom and why in this part of the middle east.

4. I think Russia and China would look with a huge degree of suspicion on the motives of the UK as an honest peace broker in this part of the world - after all we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan remember. Plus I am not sue it is in their interests to do so - they have a far more cavalier and cynical view of mass murder of a troublesome sector of their populations - look at the repression in Chechnya and Tibet. Why would they worry about a few 100,000 Syrians murdered and the best part of a million displaced.

September 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Bowles
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