How we can end conflict in Syria and beyond

Track 2 diplomacy holds the key to lasting peace in the 21st century

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Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, the foundational treaty of the United Nations. It passed uneventfully, in part due to the world's preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic, but also because the UN is not the robust, muscular organisation it was intended to become following its formation in 1945.

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) will not convene in New York in September, as it does every year. In which case, the pandemic will have had a major impact on how global decision making will be carried out in the future.

One of the UNGA's mandates is conflict resolution, which sadly remains a challenge in many parts of the world.

The conflict in Syria, for instance, has dragged on endlessly. Even as an estimated 700,000 people have lost their lives, respected statesmen from Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to the current envoy Geir Pedersen have failed in their roles as UN-appointed negotiators to bring lasting peace to the country.

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, gestures during a news conference on meeting of the Syria constitutional committee on October 28, 2019 at the United Nations Offices in Geneva.  / AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI
UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen is among many high-profile figures trying to bring peace to the country. AFP

It isn't their fault, of course. The blame for Syria's predicament lies mostly at a very divided UN Security Council's door. Unfortunately for the UN, its reputation as a peacemaker has been in tatters since the 1990s, when on its own it failed to resolve conflict and end bloodshed in countries such as Bosnia and Rwanda.

So the answer to the question of how to achieve peace in today's increasingly complex world perhaps lies in changing how humankind negotiates with one another.

The traditional negotiating process, known as Track One diplomacy, involves the UN, national governments and elite-level politicians. But it excludes non-state actors such as NGOs, civil society groups and private citizens, who may be key to the process given their access to power at crucial levels. There are limitations to this process as a consequence of key constituents being left out of negotiations.

With many conflicts in the world yet to be resolved, Track Two diplomacy, a term coined by the American diplomat Joseph Montville as far back as 1981, could be the future of peacemaking.

The UN has been involved in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa and, of course, Syria. Yet the most substantive work towards this end is being done by so-called conflict resolution centres. Key among them are organisations such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, the Berghof Foundation in Berlin and the European Institute of Peace in Brussels. Interestingly, they are all headed by former UN officials who have witnessed the failures of the system from close quarters.

Other examples include the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, headed by the former US president Jimmy Carter, and Crisis Management Initiative, a group founded by the former Finland president Martti Ahtisaari in Helsinki.

A crucial aspect of Track Two diplomacy is that it offers an opportunity for people who genuinely matter to make decisions that will affect their own countries or regions. Unfortunately, it is a much less preferred and pursued method given that it is time-consuming and requires more dialogue and mediation than traditional peacemaking does.

Sep. 1, 2018. Atlanta, GA. Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Washington vs. Auburn at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The former US president Jimmy Carter continues to be involved in diplomacy. The Carter Centre

“It’s never a quick fix. These processes can take years and years,” says Andrew Gilmour, executive director at the Berghof Foundation and formerly the assistant secretary general for human rights at the UN. “It requires tremendous patience, but also ego-lessness has to be a key factor."

Conflict resolution centres also need to play the role of a referee in any given mediation process. "You can’t boast that, 'I was the mediator'," Mr Gilmour says. "You need local ownership, as the parties to conflict need to really know that the violence ended as a result of their will, their actions, their sacrifices, their skills.”

At these levels, who you talk to also assumes importance.

A decade ago, for instance, it would have been unthinkable to include the Taliban into negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, bringing Farc in from the cold for the sake of peace in Colombia.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 14, 2019.  
 Beirut Institute Summit at The St. Regis Abu Dhabi - Corniche. --     

Dealing with Conflicts: the Importance of the Human Infrastructure:

--Ambassador Robert Ford ,​ Professor at Yale University

 Victor Besa / The National
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Reporter:  Dan Sanderson
Former US ambassador to Syria Robert S Ford has called for some armed groups to be included in negotiations. Victor Besa / The National

Likewise in Syria, there is a case to be made for inviting armed groups to the negotiating table, as Robert S Ford, the former US Ambassador to Syria, has recommended. UN officials could not be seen talking to these groups. But others could.

“We will always need the UN because of the universality and legitimacy it brings,” says Mr Gilmour. “But there will be increasing co-operation with foundations like Berghof.”

Much like Covid-19 is forcing us to be creative in all aspects of life and work, we should also be thinking out of the box when it comes to diplomacy in the 21st century. The advantage of Track 2 is that it allows for more agility, which lumbering international organisations lack. Perhaps, then, Track 2 can achieve conflict resolution and lasting peace where the likes of the UN has failed.

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs