Conventional peacemaking has been, for too long, the reserve of gentlemen cutting deals in world capitals. Syria is a good example of this - but it did not have to be this way. By Martin Griffiths.

Public involvement in peacemaking is essential, because it ensures legitimacy and viability. The public is best placed to judge on what will work and what will fail, as they are the people who will decide upon it. Syria is a case where the people are not central, not at least to the efforts to find a settlement. This may be understandable but it is not laudable. When we look at the key events of the Syrian conflict, it is surprising how absent Syrians are from discussions about their future. By “Syrians” I mean the general population as well as the recognised parties to the conflict.The unstated international assumption has been that Syrian presence would just 'complicate' things

When Kofi Annan convened key states in Geneva in 2012 to produce the Geneva Communiqué as the internationally recognised roadmap to peace, not one Syrian was in sight. And when twenty months later, the US and Russia, under UN auspices, brought two Syrian parties together at the so-called Geneva 2 meeting, it was dubbed as ‘a meeting of two unrepresentative Syrian groups to discuss a paper neither of them had drafted’. ‎Another 18 months passed and the powers convened (twice) in Vienna to sort out Syria. Again no Syrian was in the room. Their turn would come, they were told. But even when it did – this year in Geneva where we are now in the second round of stalled talks - hope for success in deciding on the issues that divide Syrians is pinned on US Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. They brought the parties to the table and, it is thought that they will produce a solution to which the parties will abide.

Three circles for peace

Kofi Annan famously spoke about the three concentric circles in Syria: the outer circle was the UN Security Council; then comes the circle with regional powers; and finally the inner circle is composed of Syrian parties. He suggested that only when all three circles were in harmony would peace be possible in Syria. A high bar for peace.

All Syrian envoys struggled to bring all circles in harmony. In 2012 the focus was on the first circle – the Security Council - with little success. After Geneva 2 we saw a shift to the middle circle culminating in the so-called ‘Zarif Four Point Plan’. The inner circle however has never been adequately addressed.

A chance for mediation?

However, this emphasis on diplomacy over mediation is not new to Syria but it is striking. And it is also disappointing. Until the arrival of the current UN envoy Staffan De Mistura there had been little to no international effort to mediate between the parties. I accept that conditions for mediation were not always conducive, the opposition was fractured and Damascus was often dismissive. Nevertheless, I believe more could have been done.  

For example, direct contact between UN envoys and Assad was minimal. While visits to Istanbul to see the official Syrian opposition were more frequent, there was no purposeful attempt through shuttle diplomacy or back channel negotiations, throughout this entire period, to produce the outlines of a settlement. This is normally standard practice but barely occurred in the case of Syria.

International dimension

International involvement in Syria has also been remarkable in other ways, none in the interests of the Syrian people.  

Firstly, there has been little to no restraint made by States sponsoring the armies or militia of either side. The usual decencies of sovereignty have held no sway whatsoever.

Secondly, foreign governments have done little to conceal the direct ways in which they allow their own views (and possibly their interests) to prevail. The competition, for example, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the positions and policies of the Syrian Opposition Coalition did Syria no favors. Allies of Assad have been equally demanding.  

Thirdly, Syria has been the target of a stream of external political judgments better left to Syrians.  Every Syrian recalls, now with some bitterness, President Obama's statement four years ago that Assad had exceeded his sell-by date. And on occasion, this tendency to manage Syria's future has descended into farce, as when one western politician decided that Assad should have six weeks before departing. Why not eight weeks? Or a year? These statements raised expectations cruelly as well as being completely not in conformity with western democratic principles.  

This sort of external meddling has had an enormous impact on the Syrian conflict. Of course Syria has the misfortune of being a place where many international interests collide: from the Iran links via Damascus to Hezbollah, to the need for an effective instrument against ISIS, to Mr Putin's need to demonstrate his leadership skills (and keep a Mediterranean port). These interests are important but this international dimension has limited the contribution that Syrians can and must make t‎o resolve their own differences. 

How to involve Syrians?

The Cessation of Hostilities is a good achievement. My worry is that we will not succeed if we do not finally bring the Syrian people into the fray and involve them in peacemaking. There are two ways now in which the Syrian people can rescue their country from war and from the necessary but not sufficient efforts of foreigners.

We need to invite the Syrian people to join the talks in Geneva; something we should have done from the beginning. But it is not too late. We need to work for a genuine inclusion of all Syrians in the negotiations about their future. The good news is: This is now technically possible. Syria has three advantages in this respect: it has a highly literate and activist population; it has a very high level of Internet connectedness even in war zones, including via mobile phone technology; and it has (sadly) a large refugee population. It is perfectly possible to poll and otherwise consult the great majority of these people. Not the whole, as the regime would certainly not cooperate in providing access to those in Government-held areas. But a whole lot more than are now included in Geneva. This can be done through a combination of polling and virtual conversations as well as face-to-face interviews and focus groups (it was done in Aleppo even in the height of the war). Access to refugees is of course even easier.

This technology-driven approach would give us a chance to deal with the deal-breaker issues. Syrians can tell us what they think about Assad. This information, reliably obtained and officially welcomed, can be a direct input into the talks in Geneva.  The people of Syria can join the national conversation and may provide some of the parties with an alibi for a solution which diplomacy can support.