Conflicts are stories. Stories about what is going on, stories about who does what and why. Conflicts always need to be communicated. How can we make sense of the story unfolding in Syria? By Martin Griffiths
In Syria we are faced with a rather complex story: An international diplomatic story about power and geopolitics, a local story about a brutal war and humanitarian needs – and a story about how to make peace. Of course all these stories are related but for some reason we have become accustomed to the idea that the war in Syria is a diplomatic story and we tend to forget to pay attention to the other stories.
Geneva and Munich were the diplomatic theatres earlier this month. The agenda was ambitious, observers expected several months of difficult negotiations in Geneva. But we have not seen a breakthrough – in fact, quite the opposite happened: First, official UN talks in Geneva were suspended. A few days later we witnessed another memorable story in Munich: The announcement of a ceasefire that does not apply all parties involved in the conflict. So, what were the lessons learnt in Geneva and Munich?
A story about Syrian voices
Have you ever noticed that Syrians a missing from the main stories about the conflict in Syria? We see the occasional TV interview with Assad but other Syrian voices are largely absent. Of course there are reasons for this: Years of a brutal war have destroyed local networks and organisational structures. Hundreds of thousands are dead or have fled the country. And there are very few journalists that are inside Syria who are able to tell the stories of life and (local or regional) politics in Syria. Syrian voices are missing – in diplomacy and journalism. But this has consequences. Failing to engage with these human stories makes it almost impossible to think beyond the games of international diplomacy.
The rise and fall of the Syrian opposition is another story we tend to ignore. Four years ago, the assembly of the oddly-named 'Friends of Syria' governments decided that a group of Syrian dissidents and intellectuals would become the ‘Syrian coalition’. They were invited to a series of international meetings and were even given a seat at the Arab League.
But their fall was as swift - and as unfair - as their elevation. They were soon being criticised as being unrepresentative and out of touch with those on front lines in the war zone. The latest reincarnation of this story has been the rise of the “Riyadh group” over the past couple of months – a group of opposition forces including several of the armed groups. They do have a support base inside Syria which explains why they were reluctant to go to Geneva in the first place. They were afraid that they would lose the diplomatic game.
And events in Geneva, Munich and Aleppo showed us the bigger picture. The Syrian government and its supporters wanted to squeeze and destabilise the opposition. In Geneva one got the sense that some wanted to make them quit early or make sure they disappoint their own people. Fortunately this grim tactic failed. The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura's suspension of the talks was a brave and wise decision in the light of these developments. It let the air out of the offensive engagement in Geneva and allowed the opposition to retire with honour. It is another story whether we will ever see them again at the negotiating table…
A story about Russia
A senior diplomat from the region told me a few weeks ago that the diplomatic alliance between the US and Russia was solid and would produce results. However, Geneva and Munich taught us that neither the regime nor its Russian military supporters had the slightest intention to make the talks work.
The military attacks on Aleppo, the disregard for international rules. A ceasefire which is not a ceasefire. Does Russia want peace in Syria or – as many observers suspect – are they only interested in making sure the government stays in power?
Many may still need to realise what’s been happening in Aleppo over the past weeks. For Human Rights Watch the attacks in Northern Syria “likely” constitute “war crimes”. And these events will have an impact on Syria and on any future negotiations.
Again, we have to ask ourselves whether pay attention to the story on the ground. A brutal military campaign that is carried out in parallel to diplomatic negotiations never happens without a reason.
A story about mediation
A friend of mine often quotes Woody Allen's dictum that ‘showing up is half the battle’. In the case of peace negotiations I am not so sure. Any act has consequences, and one that makes no progress takes us backwards.
The story about mediation is indeed a sad one. We risk that ordinary Syrians will lose more faith in the United Nations as a mediator. The record so far is not inspiring (also think about the failed talks 2 years ago) even if the faults are not those of the mediator but of the states that instruct him. Usually this slide backwards can be measured in the increased scepticism of the public in the process. There is only a certain amount of public capital, of public trust available.
To understand the challenge for mediators in such situations we have to understand that diplomacy never reflects the reality on the ground. In fact, the job of mediators is to try and bridge the gap between reality and diplomacy. But when this gap is widening and reality on the ground is not at all reflected in the official talks, it is almost impossible for the mediator to move forward.
We must hope that the story doesn’t end here although recent events seriously diminished chances for a peaceful conflict resolution. The conflict in Syria is now dangerously internationalised. It's going to change towards an asymmetric – and even more brutal - war that will cause more suffering.
We need to make an effort to connect all those stories and draw the right conclusions.