Geneva II: Two cheers for conflict management

27 Jan

Most observers (including myself) were extremely skeptical of the prospects of the Geneva II talks on Syria. The combatants and their supporters seem locked in a war of attrition. Neither side can deliver a knock-out blow, and they seem convinced that the battlefield (that is, towns, villages, schools) offers opportunities for advancement. Moreover, the Geneva II talks looked set for a bad start after the ‘un-invitation’ of Iran. As the adage says, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, and so it seemed nonsensical to exclude from talks the significant backer of the Assad regime. And finally, the Islamic fundamentalists were not at the talks (not invited but unlikely to accept an invitation if one was offered). Instead, the ‘Syrian opposition’ was represented by a pretty unrepresentative bunch of discontents: acceptable to the US and its allies, but with limited credibility among those at the coalface of opposition to Assad.

So the prospects for the talks were poor. The various sides spent the run up to the talks setting down preconditions that seemed designed to ensure that the talks would fail. But something interesting has happened. While there has been no major breakthrough on the fundamental issue at the heart of the conflict, it does seem as though agreement has been reached to allow safe passage for civilians to escape Homs. There has also been talk of an exchange of prisoners (or more precisely, hostages). Of course, it is wise to be circumspect about this. Reaching an agreement is not the same as respecting it, and we have seen plenty of bad faith on all sides. But the principle that the conflict is to be regulated for the protection of civilians is an important one. If lives are saved and improved then we can say that Geneva II has been a success.

It bears reiterating that any praise for the Geneva II talks must be swathed in caveats. Follow-through is required to turn words into deeds. Yet, it could be that agreement on Homs paves the way for other agreements, perhaps on the types of weapons deployed or safe passage for the injured. It could be that the process of negotiation allows the negotiators to develop working relationships that bear fruit down the line. All of this is highly conditional, but without optimism and the notion that humans can develop a better way of doing things, then it is difficult to see how any conflict can reach a negotiated settlement.

It is common to criticize conflict management as being limited when compared with conflict transformation. And it is limited – aiming to merely manage (and thus accept) conflict rather than challenge and transform it. Conflict transformation is by far a superior approach to conflict. But it may be the case that circumstances only allow for the most limited of changes. The outcome of Geneva II leaves the tyrannical Assad in place. It does not address the structural issues at the heart of the conflict and the wider regional sickness. Maybe we should be thankful for small mercies, while hoping that larger ones will come along in the future.

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