Syria – The Failure of Three Wise Men

For more than four years now Syria has been one of the the most blazing trouble spots in the world. Especially due to the emergence of ISIL and their high degree of violence, the ongoing mediation initiative of the United Nations seems to have been forgotten by most observers. Therefore, this series deals with Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, three men who have been trying to bring peace through diplomacy in a conflict that transcends most people’s imagination of violence. 

Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi and his Deputy, Nasser Al-Kidwa (left), prior to the meeting of the Action Group for Syria on January 11th 2013

By Felix Troeltzsch

By today, the civil war in Syria has been running for more than four years, claimed more than 200,000 lives and has forced more than 10 million people to flee their homes. When taking a look at the coverage of western media  of the conflict, it is hard to believe that everything started off as peaceful protest after 15 kids wrote graffiti-slogans for more freedom and against high living costs on walls in the south Syrian city of Dara’a. Unlike most other Arab countries that were affected by demands for freedom, democracy and economic perspectives, in Syria these essentially laudable demonstrations turned into a full fetched civil war, a humanitarian catastrophe of long forgotten magnitude and a peerless rise of religious extremism. It is hard to imagine that two years ago any policy-maker would have expected the emergence of an Islamic organization that could dissolve boarders and create state-like structures like laws and social services this quickly.

Diplomacy remains the only tool

In spite of a huge media interest and the constant intensification of the crisis, western countries as well as the international community reacted passively towards the civil war in Syria for almost two years. Only in October 2014, after ISIL started to threaten major cities in Iraq, the US government decided to intervene in Syria with air strikes. A military UN-Peacekeeping mission has, despite many drafts, not been established. However, history has shown that the absence of military solutions might result in a moment to shine for diplomacy. From February 2012 until today three distinguished Special Representatives of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) that entered the scene have been trying to mediate between the conflicting parties in Syria.

The most important thing to know about mediation is that it must always be voluntary and peaceful: before talks can start, all conflicting parties have to agree on the peace process and the mediator. Apart from that, it can assume many different shapes and forms. The UN Charter mentions mediation as a means of settling disputes peacefully (Article 33, Chapter VI) and specifies that the “Security Council may decide [on peaceful measures] to give effect to his decisions” (Article 41, Chapter VII). This means that one way of initiating mediation missions is straight through the UN-Security Council. However, in the long history of conflicts most peace efforts happened independently from the UN Security Council and involved third party mediators of other origin. With regard to their so called Good Offices, many UN Secretary-Generals have mediated themselves or send their special representatives to solve conflicts (Ramcharan 1982: 140; Fröhlich 2002: 51).  Moreover, like the recent example of the Minsk II talks showed again, not only UN officials, but also representatives of states or other institutions of any kind, that have an interest in appeasing the respective conflict, can initiate mediation processes.

In the case of Syria, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began the mediation with his Good Offices, but did so on behalf of the UN General-Assembly and the Arab League. Therefore, on February 23rd, 2012 Kofi Annan was appointed the first Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States. The former UN Secretary-General stepped down on August 2nd 2012 and was succeeded by Lakhdar Brahimi on August 17th, 2012. Besides Annan, Brahimi qualifies as one of the most distinct diplomats worldwide and served for example as SRSG in Haiti, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Brahimi as well failed to resolve the conflict in Syria on May 31st, 2014 and the Swedish-Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura took his place on July 10th, 2014. De Mistura previously worked for the UN World Food Program and as an SRSG in Afghanistan, Iraq and South Lebanon and is still in office today.

No good place to go between

Despite their exceptional experience, diplomatic network and knowledge of the conflict, so far all three mediators failed to make peace in Syria and none of their actions seemed to have any positive long term effects on the peace-process. On the contrary, the civil war has constantly become more violent, more complex and more complicated to solve (Holliday 2012).

Kofi Annan identified three major reasons for the failure of his mediation: Firstly, he claimed that there was no sufficient political will of many important third-party countries for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The UN-Security Council was not on the one hand able to agree on any sort of strong resolution due to the blockade of Russia and China, while on the other hand the USA, Great Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar lost out on the chance of convincing the Syrian opposition of a peaceful political process. Secondly, the special religious and ethnic division of the Syrian people in Alawis, Sunnites, Yazidi and Kurds prevented the protests from spreading throughout the whole society and therefore from developing as much leverage as similar activities in Egypt or Tunisia. Thirdly, according to Annan, the most important reason for the failure of his mediation was the lack of cooperation by Bashar al-Assad and his government. Since then, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura have been facing a very similar set of challenges. Until today, the United Nations has failed to initiate a robust peace operation, the Syrian government still refuses to make concessions towards the Free Syrian Army and the rise of ISIL also demolished the smallest chances for the Syrian people to unite against Assad.

However, after four years of civil war, the situation in Syria has massively increased in complexity and not even intelligence services seem to know what exactly is going on between ISIL, the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s government troops. The only thing that observers can agree on is that violence and the humanitarian situation are becoming worse day by day. People that had the chance to flee did so in the past four years. Most remaining Syrian inhabitants are now either involved in fighting, internally displaced or unable to leave the country due to poverty, weakness or other reasons. Syria has developed into something that western politicians wanted to prevent it from – the biggest humanitarian catastrophe after the Second World War and a nightmare for diplomacy and every mediator.

Analyzing mediation

Usually every external agent tries to shape his or her assigned conflict in order to resolve it. Yet, if it is not possible for the mediator to change the conflict, the conflict is likely to change the mediator until he or she must either adapt to the new situation or lay down office. Due to many different influencing variables, Syria has been a conflict almost impossible to change. Having in mind all casualties and war crimes that happened in past years, it is not hard to figure out why Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi laid down their offices. On the other side it is very interesting to understand HOW Annan, Brahimi and de Mistura tried to resolve an apparently unsolvable conflict and WHICH lessons they learned from their respective predecessors.

Mediation can be analyzed in various different ways and from many different perspectives. Traditional literature alone offers a vast number of propositions for variables that have to be taken in account: Most authors emphasize the timing and context of the mediation (ripeness of the conflict, support from third-countries), the usage of power (leverage) by the mediator and his or her style of mediation as the most important factors for success or failure. Due to reasons of space and complexity here we  shall only concentrate on the mediation styles and investigate the peace missions with regard to the following three dimensions taken from Isak Svensson’s and Peter Wallensteen’s highly acknowledged book “The Go-Between” (Svensson/Wallensteen 2010, 15-24):

  • Scope – inclusive or exclusive mediation?

                Who does the mediator include into his peace efforts? Does he speak with all conflicting parties or does he exclude certain actors for specific reasons?

  • Method – forcing or fostering mediation style?

                How does the mediator try to influence the parties? Forcing methods include pressure, threads and strict deadlines. More fostering mediators would rather use positive dynamics and rewards.

  • Focus – narrow or wide peace?

            Which priorities and demands does the mediator have for his efforts? A wide or sustainable peace does include the end of the fighting and broader societal goals like human rights, democracy, working state institutions or equality before the law. Narrow objectives are solely war related and include ceasefires or fighting restrictions.  

Looking at Syria, one must inevitably wonder why Kofi Annan, Lahkdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura have not been able to pacify the conflicting parties before ISIL could start to spread chaos. Was it the fault of the international community, of the mediators themselves or are there, maybe, simply conflicts that cannot be pacified by diplomatic means? With contemplation to the three dimensions of Svensson and Wallensteen this series will trace the most important steps of the three go-betweens, see which mediation strategies they used, identify possible mistakes and in doing so try to approach  answers to these question.

Author Biography

Felix Troeltzsch is a regular contributor at the Global Pubblic Policy Watch. He recently graduated from the University of Jena with a master’s degree in Political Science, focusing on International Relations and Peace Studies. Before that, he studied International Relations and American Studies at the University of Leipzig and University of Warsaw. Felix is mainly interested in international conflicts, security policy, human rights, the European Union and the Middle East. During several stays abroad he has dealt intensively with the Balkans and the Black Sea region.

Additional Literature:

Fröhlich, Manuel (2011). “Leadership for Peace: The Special Representatives of theSecretary-General” In: UN Peace Operations as Political and Managerial Challenges, Hrsg. Wolfgang Seibel, Julian   Junk, Till Blume und Francesco Mancini. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Holliday, Joseph (2012). Middle Eastern Report 5: Syria’s Maturing Insurgency.Washington DC: Institute for the Study of War.

Ramcharan, Bertrand G. (1982). “The Good Offices of the United Nations Secretary Generalin the Field of Human Rights,” American Journal of International Law (76), 130-141.

Svensson, Isak und Peter Wallensteen (2010). The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Syles of  Mediation. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Picture Credit: United Nations Geneva under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license


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