Peace-making is the art of the almost-impossible, the art of the very-unlikely. It requires of the mediator - at vital moments - the willing suspension of belief. The mediator must also allow another element to govern his judgment: to leave to fate and chance the possible consequences of present acts. By Martin Griffiths
In other words, at those vital moments of a peace process, the mediator must step back from rational planning and allow events to guide the parties. This odd requirement of the mediator has been on my mind as I watch the Syrian process and its mediation by the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Pause for a moment here for me to record two facts: I have known Staffan for a very long time indeed; and secondly, he is my boss as President of the European Institute of Peace. These associations need not restrain truth however.
The case of Syria
Staffan's efforts in Geneva have all been about producing agreements where all the evidence cries out that there is no basis; where all the evidence tells us (and him) that he must be credulous, or worse. The central disagreement in Geneva is the same that has divided Syrians these past five years: should President Assad stay or go? This simple yes-or-no question has kept the country at war, and cost the lives of more than a generation. So far as I can see Staffan's efforts have not dented the divisions over this. His own accounts of the talks record common grounds on all the issues except for the ones that drive the conflict. Of course Syrians want transition from this nightmare, but whose hand will be on that tiller? Of course Syrians want a democratic tolerant state, but do they all agree that the 18 security agencies which prop up Assad should abide by the rule of law?
Staffan knows this all much better than we do. For him, like for Syrians, and unlike for us, the conflict is up close and personal. So why does he keep on claiming progress where there is so little?
Every parent knows the positive value of a certain suspension of belief. Every parent knows the power of what we used to call positive thinking; and of the simple human value of encouragement against the odds. In that respect mediators are like parents. They have to stay positive and go against the odds.
Staffan represents all of us who want peace in Syria. He carries our hopes on his shoulders. We depend on his judgments and skills. We want his forty years of experience to produce the rabbit out of the hat; to help Syrians do what must seem unthinkable and irrational, to settle with their enemies. For mediators this requires to suspend own belief in rational behaviour and to put his faith in hope, and in human possibility. And maybe in a little help from Mr Putin and Mr Obama. And there is some supporting evidence. Until very recently when the hideous assault of the regime on Aleppo crushed hopes, Syria had seen a little miracle: a ceasefire that worked; one that worked for one overwhelming reason: Syrians have had their fill of war and its indiscriminate cruelties. Staffan (and all of us) need some luck, some hope and yes, some suspension of belief.
We need to hope that time and events will deliver the unexpected. And that this will happen because finally humanity trumps logic. Staffan's job is to give us the time for this to happen.