We all know the traditional ingredients of international peace negotiations: diplomats, acronyms of UN frameworks, foreign ministers traveling to Geneva, frantic phone conferences and contradictory press statements. But is this enough to build peace? By Martin Griffiths.

We all know the traditional ingredients of international peace negotiations: diplomats, acronyms of UN frameworks, foreign ministers traveling to Geneva, frantic phone conferences and contradictory press statements. However, it's time for ‎the world to acknowledge that there is also a local road to peace which is far away from these high level political negotiations.

Local peace deals: What’s it all about?

Two years ago, I was sitting in a hotel room in the destroyed central Syrian city ‎of Homs. It was late at night after a long and dramatic day crossing the front lines of that torn and violent city. I had realised a simple truth that day and needed to speak of it to my mentor and boss, Kofi Annan. The situation in Syria was complex but in the middle of the hatreds of war we had the opportunity to build a local peace deal between the armed opposition holding half the city of Homs and the Government‎ which still controlled the other half. We thought it would be possible to persuade these two administrations to work together for the better treatment of those they separately governed. We could have started with garbage: Making sure the city's garbage teams remove the rubbish in the rebel zone just as they did in the Government controlled area. Sometimes, small practical agreements can create much needed trust and pave the way for the next step. The local road to peace is a step-by-step approach to peace.

I called Kofi Annan from the phone in my hotel room to make sure the Syrians listening to my phone could find out about the idea and hear Annan's response. Three months later Kofi Annan came to Damascus and suggested to President Assad that we might build peace in Syria piecemeal, peace by peace, step by step, building local confidence by negotiating small local peace deals. Syria may not be ready for a grand bargain, but it cries out for more practical efforts to save lives and remove a part of the awful suffering of its people. At the time, Assad was taken with this idea but did nothing with it. Today I know - as the rest of the world does - that local or national peace in Syria is not Assad’s ambition. He wants a victory which is very different from peace.

Is high politics all we know?

Traditional high level diplomacy is increasingly limiting our scope of action. It may be loved by diplomats and cherished by analysts who can only see value in national agreements but we also need understand the severe shortcomings of this approach. The problem is not about aims or ambitions. High level negotiations can indeed result in a deal that can potentially create a bright future for a country. Nothing wrong with that. The trouble with this approach is a lot simpler: it's a rare thing to achieve. Today’s conflicts – Syria, Yemen, Libya come to mind - will not be solved with a neat framework based on international negotiations.  

The recent collapse of the talks to resolve the Yemen crisis serves as another reminder of how high level negotiations fail to produce useful outcomes. The week in Geneva began with one side (the Houthis) being prevented from even attending. It ended with shoes and insults hurled across a hotel lobby, the closest the parties came to contact during the whole event. The parties lost no opportunity to remind us of their vanities and their hatreds for each other. Their positions are blatantly irreconcilable. Being in a room together will not narrow the distance between them. It will simply blow the embers into flames. Yemen doesn’t seem ready for such a negotiation framework.

But this does not mean, that we can’t help the Yemeni people in this conflict. The local road to peace is always an option. Instead of grand bargains and national agreements, let’s focus on building trust among people, let’s work on local steps towards reconciliation and negotiate local ceasefires to allow aid and movement of families. If we are serious about building peace we have to look for the local road to peace – especially in times when other roads are blocked.