Both Annan and Brahimi are high-status mediators who enjoy an aura of authority, experience, and sway due to their relentless efforts to promote peace in various parts of the world. Both are members of “The Elders,” a group of prominent leaders formed in 2007 with the aim of supporting global peace and respect for human rights. From an academic perspective, mediation has been upheld as a promising mechanism to overcome deadlock in civil wars. So why has the joint UN/LAS mediation in Syria so far failed to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict?
Uncovering the Challenges of Mediation in Syria
Scholars debate as intensely as ever the question of whether or not there are general principles governing success in mediation. What are the key factors explaining successful mediation outcomes? Is it context--the characteristics of the mediator, “ripeness” of the situation, the nature of the issues at stake? Or process--mediation strategies and the setting in which the mediation takes place? Although the question remains open for debate, mediation in Syria appears to face three main challenges: the absence of powerful mediators, perceptions of the conflict as zero-sum game, and the need to continue the mediation in an environment where every setback might easily lead to further escalation of violence. Additionally, the heterogeneity of the Syrian opposition in general and the increasing presence of radical Islamist factions in particular further complicate the UN/LAS mediation effort.
The Absence of Powerful Mediators
In a civil war, the disputants cannot maintain independent armed forces once they have agreed on a peace deal. The engagement of a powerful third party willing and able to guarantee the enforcement of a peace agreement and the safety of the parties is thus essential to successful civil war termination. However, the mediation in Syria has so far only involved mediators from the UN and LAS, and the willingness and ability of both organizations to provide the necessary (military) resources to enforce a cease-fire in Syria remains doubtful. Notably, the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) observing the implementation of Annan’s six-point proposal was toothless, consisting only of unarmed military observers whose safety was to be guaranteed by the conflict parties themselves. So far, the UN Security Council has not answered Brahimi’s call for a UN peacekeeping mission to Syria, as persistent disagreement among the five permanent members has prevented the Council from taking any meaningful action.
Instead of using their military and diplomatic assets to back up the mediation process, powerful external actors have effectively undermined the mediation by further intensifying the military rivalry among the parties. Russia presumably provides military support to the Assad government, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar reportedly send arms to opposition groups. Although the United States has been reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition directly, it has expressed support for weapons deliveries by regional states. Taken together, both great powers and regional states seem to have adopted a dual-track policy towards Syria. While officially supporting the joint representative’s activities, none have so far been willing to engage directly in the UN/LAS mediation.
Perception of the Conflict as Zero-Sum Game
Absolute military victory in Syria by either side seems unlikely in the near future and the death toll has risen dramatically. Yet the perceived costs of an eventual defeat still seem to outweigh the benefits of any negotiated solution. Commentators have noted that the conflict in Syria has been constructed as “zero-sum game” from the very start. However, as long as the “all or nothing” logic constructed around the vital issue of regime change prevails among the parties in Syria, and they fail to perceive any overlapping interest, the mission of the joint representative is almost impossible to accomplish.
The challenge of identifying a coherent position of interests among the opposition to control the country during peacetime further complicates the task of negotiating a successful peace arrangement. Despite the recent creation of an umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian opposition remains a mix of different factions and has recently seen infiltration from groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Negotiation with terrorists is widely condemned in policy circles, but the extent to which radical Islamist groups can and should be included in the mediation process is an additional challenge facing the UN/LAS Joint Representative in Syria.
The Importance of Persistence
It is important to keep in mind that settling a civil war through negotiation can be a long and laborious process. The 1977-1992 civil war in Mozambique illustrates this point in extreme form. Seven mediation attempts involving complex arrays of mediators were necessary to bring the conflict to an end. The case of the Norwegian mediation failure in Sri Lanka in 2003 shows how failed mediation can lead to the escalation of a civil war.
The challenge of mediation in Syria consequently lies in continuing efforts toward a peaceful settlement despite serious setbacks, with each failed mediation attempt carrying the risk of further fuelling the violence. It can only be hoped that persistence and perseverance on the part of the mediator will eventually suceed. In the words of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ralph Bunche, “It is only by patient, persistent effort, by trial and error, that peace can be won.”
Andrea Beck is a Master's student in International Peace and Security at King's College London.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June 2013 print edition.