What Comes After the Bombs Stop Falling in Syria?

Syrian refugees watch news about the Geneva II peace talks from inside a makeshift tent home in an unofficial refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, January 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Representatives from Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Syrian political opposition gather in Montreux, Switzerland, today for second-stage peace talks to end the conflict in Syria and agree on the broad parameters of a political transition. 

Expectations are low for the Geneva II peace conference, and it is in fact off to a rocky start. Although discussions are likely to focus on ending the current conflict, improving the delivery of humanitarian aid, and on whether and how the current regime will participate in political reform, it is not too early to give some thought to what needs to happen in Syria’s social and economic sphere for a peaceful transition to take hold. Lessons from previous Middle East transitions can offer some insights here.

Key Conclusions

  • While some elements of the Syrian regime may need to be dismantled, a robust Syrian state and strong institutions will be needed to promote stability and economic growth in a postconflict Syria.
  • Some will push for rapid privatization in Syria, but this would likely come at the cost of stability and sustainability in the country’s economy and economic institutions.
  • Where other political transitions have institutionalized sectarianism, Syrians should focus on establishing a cohesive national identity.
  • Regional cooperation and action will be essential to supporting Syria’s 2.4 million refugees and critical to long-term security and stability in the Middle East more broadly.


The architects of the Geneva Commuique and what comes after it need not look far for inspiration and important lessons as to how to reconstruct Syria peacefully and sustainably.  There are many recent examples of postconflict transition in the Middle East, and particularly in places of complex socio-religious composition and high international strategic interest: immediate postconflict reconstruction in Iraq (2003–2005), the Taif Agreement in Lebanon (1990), and the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative in Yemen (2011). 

In a recent paper, Planning Ahead: Lessons for a Post-Conflict Syria, I drew lessons from these experiences to inform policymakers’ efforts to support political transition in Syria—particularly when it comes to shoring up the state, revitalizing the economy, rebuilding the lives of those marginalized or displaced, and fostering regional cooperation.  

While Key Players Seek Peace, Some Communities Build It Themselves: Interview with Fleur Just

The Peaceful Change Initiative hosts a meeting in Benghazi, Libya. (David Wood/Peacefulchange.org)

Modern conflicts involve many different fighting parties, yet peace processes often focus only on the key players, leaving communities with unresolved conflict, said Fleur Just, Director of Impact and Learning at the Peaceful Change Initiative.

Ms. Just, who has worked in Libya, Syria, South Caucasus, Liberia, and Sudan, among others, said it takes community-based approaches to really address the multiple conflicts that are occurring.

And community-led processes, she said, can benefit the state at large. For example, Libya is suffering grave security problems, but at the community level, “it is possible to find [human security] solutions on a case-by-case basis.” She said these changes make a big difference in people's everyday lives, and “ultimately [can] actually start shifting the overall security picture within the state, and therefore create more room for addressing the national security issues.”

Ms. Just has seen that all communities want the same thing: an end to the violence, and “some kind of transition to stability, to democracy, to justice, human rights, and so on.”

She said she has often seen communities distrust processes that are led by the international community or a civil society that is external to the setting, causing a sense within the affected community of “we want to do it our own way and on our terms.” 

However, she said, many actors at the community level feel stuck. “They know that they want to reach out; they know that they want to be, for example, in dialogue with the other side. But they don't know how.” She said the international community can play a very useful role in these situations by providing a space for people in conflict to have a conversation with each other. 

Ms. Just said that one of the challenges she has seen—and this has been a personal challenge for her—is that “sometimes people in conflict arrive at solutions that seem very strange,” but “because they make sense at a local level, they are probably more likely to hold and more likely to be respected and implemented than solutions that I could have offered that were textbook.” 

“This is what the processes of reconciliation are and should be. So, it’s about leaving space, I think, for local imagination.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I'm here today with Fleur Just, Director of Impact and Learning at the Peaceful Change Initiative, an NGO that works on change management and peacebuilding in the South Caucasus region as well as in Libya and Syria. Over the past decade, Fleur has worked on reconciliation and peacebuilding in many parts of the world, from Liberia and Sudan to Georgia and Timor-Leste. She is currently mapping community-level “peace resources” in Syria to enhance the participation of communities in Syrian peace processes.  

Fleur, community-based approaches to security and peacebuilding are increasingly recognized as important for stability and sustainable peace. What do local peacebuilding activities bring that may be lacking in national and international processes?  

Fleur Just: I think community-based approaches to peacebuilding enable the peace processes to really respond to the needs of people who have been at the front of the conflict. What we often see in modern conflicts is that it's not just a conflict between a state party and a rebel group or between two rebel groups. Often there are multiple conflicts taking place actually within a conflict. And so if you have a process that just involves the key fighting parties, you might get an agreement between those, but that agreement will not necessarily address all the other conflicts that are actually occurring on the ground. And so you do need community-based approaches to really address the multiple conflicts that are occurring.

2014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena

Francesco Mancini, Senior Director of Research at the International Peace Institute, has compiled a list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014. This list will be published in two installments: (1) the top ten issues to watch in 2014 at the global level (below), and (2) the top issues to watch in each region of the world.

1. Regional spillovers of crises
With no political solution on the horizon, Syria’s almost three-year conflict will likely cause more instability and violence in the region. Terrorist attacks will continue in Lebanon, while the economic and social pressure from refugees in Jordan will further drain that country’s limited resources—the United Nations has estimated that Jordan will need $5.3 billion by the end of 2014 for this humanitarian crisis. Regional extremist groups will continue their cross-border operations, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has taken up arms against Baghdad but also against Damascus. 

Another source of concern is Afghanistan, where the drawdown of coalition forces by the end of 2014 and the presidential elections in the spring threaten to increase the level of violence and exacerbate instability across the border into the FATA region of Pakistan. 

A third region at risk of a spillover crisis is central Africa. The weak Central African Republic (CAR) government has collapsed, triggering a serious humanitarian crisis, with 400,000 displaced and nearly half the population in need of assistance. Horrible violence has been taking place, and some UN officials have described the situation as ripe for genocide. The crisis is more political than religious, but since Christian militia were the ones who organized revenge attacks against the mostly Muslim rebel coalition Seleka as retribution for killings and looting, religious extremism might be further reinforced in the region. Instability has already spilled over the Cameroon border, and CAR’S porous borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a guarantee for continuing flows of weapons in both directions. 

2. Iran-US: BFF?
2014 will tell if Iran’s talk on the nuclear issue can produce tangible results, and it has the potential to redraw the geopolitics of the Middle East. The stakes are high. Some have emphasized the dangers in the Obama administration’s bet, saying a failure in the negotiation could cause a spike in oil prices, or worse: a shift in power toward hardliners in Iran and a consequent acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program, which could lead to a greater threat of Israeli military strike and Saudi’s search for nuclear capability. 

Others, such as Gary Sick of Columbia University, are more optimistic. “Reduced hostility between the United States and Iran could potentially have a constructive influence on virtually every major issue in the region,” wrote Sick. The most obvious is Syria, but other areas of mutual interest include stability in Afghanistan and Iraq; the defeat of al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups; access to new energy sources; and countering drug traffic. 

The more likely scenario will be a “messy middle.” Progress may be made on the nuclear side, but many difficult issues will remain open, such as the Iranian support for Hezbollah and its fierce anti-Israel stance. Opposition to a final deal will come from hardliners in Iran and in the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia, so far the closest allies of the United States in the region, will remain the strongest opponents to any deal that would “rehabilitate” Iran and lift sanctions.

In Zimbabwe, Human Rights in Constitution, But Are They on the Horizon? Interview with Beatrice Mtetwa

In the South African border town of Musina, a billboard encouraged Zimbabweans who left to go back and vote. (Sokwanele/Flickr)

“Do I believe rule of law will be restored? Absolutely, I do,” said Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa about her home country, which in March 2013 passed a referendum on a constitution that includes more human rights, though there is little political will to implement it. 

She said, “if the people of Zimbabwe agitate for respect for that constitution”—94% of whom voted in favor of the referendum—“the rule of law ought to be restored in my lifetime.”

But she also spoke of another obstacle besides political will: money. The constitution, she said, “has all these grand rights where people are entitled to all kinds of economic and social rights, but these are rights that cost money.” And unless Zimbabwe is able to convince multilateral agencies to give them assistance, it would be impossible to give people those rights, “because the money simply isn't there.”

Zimbabwe has long been one of the worst countries for human rights, and Ms. Mtetwa has long been an ardent defender of those rights, often at her own peril. She has been assaulted by police and arrested, which she said is what happens to human rights defenders in Zimbabawe. “Generally, there is harassment—we do get beaten up from time to time, we've faced arrests from time to time, and generally it has been made very, very difficult for us to do our work as freely as we ought to be able to.”  

This year, she stood trial from June to September, before she was acquitted on charges of obstructing justice and being unruly to police officers. She has been locked up in a women’s prison, and described what happens when there is an appalling lack of toilets, clothes, and beds—people are dehumanized.

Ms. Mtetwa said human rights defenders are often lumped in with their client’s causes. “The fact that you may have your own opinions, but believe that the person is entitled to legal representation because what they are doing is allowed by the law, completely escapes those in power,” she said. 

She said the judge who ordered for her to be released “was immediately attacked, he was harassed, he was threatened with an inquiry into his conduct.”

 “So, what it means is that a judge who gets a case like mine will be afraid to do the right thing because they are scared of being attacked themselves. And for that reason, we really now require political will for the judges to be able to do their job the way they're supposed to.” 

“Probably like everywhere else in Africa, when you are a human rights defender, you're generally perceived as an enemy of the state,” she said.

The interview was conducted by Priscilla Nzabanita, research assistant in the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Priscilla Nzabanita: At the Global Observatory today we are pleased to have Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist Beatrice Mtetwa. 

My first question for you is: you've dedicated your life to defending those who speak out against infringements of the rule of law and human rights by those in authority. Can you tell us what challenges you face as a human rights defender in Zimbabwe and in general? 

Beatrice Mtetwa: Well, probably like everywhere else in Africa, when you are a human rights defender, you're generally perceived as an enemy of the state. So, you do face those challenges of being seen to be fighting the state, when in fact all you're doing is to try and ensure that people enjoy basic rights that are usually guaranteed even by the country's own laws. 

The problem that we face in Zimbabwe as human rights defenders is just the space—we do not have the freedom to do our work the way we're supposed to. Generally, human rights defenders, who are lawyers, in particular get identified with the causes of their clients. If you represent certain persons, you're perceived to be approving of whatever they are doing. The fact that you may have your own opinions, but believe that the person is entitled to legal representation because what they are doing is allowed by the law, completely escapes those in power. 

Generally, there is harassment—we do get beaten up from time to time, we've faced arrests from time to time, and generally it has been made very, very difficult for us to do our work as freely as we ought to be able to. 

EU Troops Likely in Central African Republic, But Is it Too Little, Too Late?

The Central African Republic (CAR) is poised to become the next theater of operations of a European Union (EU) military mission.  On January 10, a month after the outbreak of inter-religious atrocities in the chronically unstable African country, EU diplomats granted preliminary approval for the deployment of a joint contingent of up to 1,000 soldiers aimed at restoring security. The decision comes following intense diplomatic pressure from France, which is so far the only European country with boots on the ground.

If endorsed by EU foreign ministers in Brussels on January 20, the proposed deployment will provide some respite to 1,600 French troops and a nearly 4,000-strong African contingent struggling to contain the violence.  However, the EU operation is likely to face a delayed launch and acute strategic and operational constraints once deployed, meaning that it may not necessarily alter the situation on the ground in a decisive fashion.

Key Conclusions

  • The belated launch of an EU mission to the Central African Republic in support of current French-African military endeavors is a necessary but likely insufficient step to contain widespread violence.
  • In general, the size and possible scope of the EU mandate relative to the complexities of protecting civilians and the scale of the crisis indicates that it is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the overall conditions on the ground.
  • EU reinforcements may help to de-escalate fighting in the capital but will likely do little to deter large-scale sectarian mayhem across the country.
  • The EU force could have more relative impact in the medium term if it performs as a stand-by force in the likely event that a UN peacekeeping operation is deployed.


Too late?

The EU contribution to stabilization efforts in CAR is not the equivalent of a rapid reaction force.  Draft proposals envisage that a military operation "would deploy rapidly." However, EU policymakers’ scant appetite for military action so far and the political obstacles likely to stand in its way even once formally approved are not suggestive of swift action. Following the outbreak of systematic atrocities perpetrated by Muslim rebels (the Séléka group now formally disbanded) and self-defence Christian militias in which over 550 people were killed in the country’s capital Bangui in early December 2013, the EU skirted around the idea of sending armed personnel. UN Security Council Resolution 2127 of December 5 authorized a one-year deployment of the African-led Support Mission (MISCA), to protect civilians, to be backed by a French force, but was silent on any possible EU troop deployment.  The military dimension of the EU’s response was essentially limited to the provision of up to €50 million for MISCA and a pledge to “examine the use of relevant instruments to contribute towards the efforts under way.”

Exploratory talks aimed at fulfilling this commitment started last week with a draft concept presented by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.  The approval in principle of force deployment is a positive step. However, grounding personnel in areas of active fighting would be significantly more complex and riskier than performing military training and policing (as is the case of the EU military missions in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia and the Horn of Africa).  The real prospect of confrontations in CAR makes it difficult to generate political will. The withdrawal of the 850-strong Chadian contingent (MISCA’s largest) from the capital on January 14 after they allegedly fired on demonstrators has reminded EU politicians of just how daunting involvement would be.

But with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noting that “without serious intervention, further attacks—including massive violations such as those that took place on December 5—may well reoccur,” the pressure is on. Foreign ministers will conduct an initial review of the proposal for a joint force on January 20 and are likely to consent in response to this international pressure and the promise to consider possible (military) engagement in mid-December.

Egypt Revolution Stumbles, but the ''Genie is Out of the Bottle'': Interview with Khaled Fahmy

Egyptians took to the ballot box today in a two-day referendum on the new constitution, which experts say strengthens the role of the military, the police, and the judiciary, and contains some provisions for the rights for women. Many Egyptians are seeking stability since widespread protests in January 2011 ended a 30-year dictatorship and threw this large country into near-constant upheaval. 

But Dr. Khaled Fahmy, a historian and professor at the American University in Cairo, said the revolution in Egypt “has just started.” 

“The challenges are huge because the old regime has not collapsed—if anything, it has managed to position itself—but I think the genie is out of the bottle. I don't think it is possible to revert back to the situation before January 2011.”

Dr. Fahmy said that when a revolution is directed at the security forces, such as the one in Egypt, large segments of the middle class become deeply anxious about their personal livelihoods and about the lack of security in the street. “They were enamored by this [protesting] youth and their creativity and so on, but they were anxious because of the instability,” he said. 

“The scale and the depth of this revolution is phenomenal,” Dr. Fahmy said, adding that, though there are similarities to the widespread revolutions in Europe in 1848, “the number of people who participated in one way or another—in terms of percentage to the population at large—is unprecedented. And the number of issues that have been tackled by this revolution is also unprecedented.”

“In terms of what this revolution is against… there are very deep, historical roots of it that go as deep as the very nature of this modern Egyptian state—this aloof, patriarchal, remote state that claims to deliver goods and services for the people, but is not held accountable to them,” he said. “And I think what Egyptians are revolting against is exactly this nature of the state. It is not only police brutality, and it's not only [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak, and it's not only the Muslim Brotherhood. It's something that goes at the very nature of the Egyptian state.”

He said the army controls and estimated 25-40 percent of the Egyptian national economy. “These are not a handful of corrupt generals,” he said. “This is an entire cadre of officers with huge, huge interests both local and international.”

He said the middle class was also very disaffected by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and blamed the revolution for it, and that the coup in July 2013 that ousted President Mohamed Morsi was not only against the Brotherhood, but what the revolution stands for.

“And the question is, I think people are asking... Well, we want a military. We don't want to disband the Egyptian military. We want a strong military, and we want to maintain the conscription policy. But we want this military to serve us rather than to serve itself. And that is very difficult, to affect this change.”

The interview was conducted by José Vericat, Adviser at the International Peace Institute, on December 12, 2013.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Jose Vericat: We're here with Dr. Khaled Fahmy, Egyptian historian, professor at the American University in Cairo to talk about Egypt today in the broader context of the Middle East. Dr. Fahmy, thank you for being here today. I would like to ask you, has the Egyptian revolution failed?

Khaled Fahmy: No, the Egyptian revolution has just started. We've just seen the initial phase, and currently right now we're seeing a serious counterrevolution that seems to be succeeding in the sense that many of the forces of the previous regime and those against whom the revolution erupted in the first place managing to re-gather their strength. 

And what has happened in 2011 onwards is a bursting of energies in the country at large, and among the youth in particular. This is a society that is youthful—more than half of the population is under 25 years of age. And this is a big country; it’s not small. 

The challenges are huge because the old regime has not collapsed—if anything, it has managed to position itself—but I think the genie is out of the bottle. I don't think it is possible to revert back to the situation before January 2011.

Libyan Case a Red Herring in Syria Dilemma

Protestors demand an end to lawlessness in Tripoli, Libya, December 2011. (UN Photo/Iason Foounten)

The international community’s failure to respond in a timely and decisive fashion to the crisis in Syria has been widely described as a failure of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). It is not hard to see why: the UN Security Council has fallen well short of adopting “timely and decisive” measures as approximately 120,000 people have been killed and close to nine million displaced. Syria thus stands as a test for RtoP that most commentators believe it has failed.

One of the principal explanations for this apparent failure is the political fallout from the NATO-led intervention in Libya. 

Key Conclusions

  • The Security Council’s failure to adopt a timely and decisive response to the situation in Syria is often attributed to the political backlash from NATO’s controversial intervention in Libya.
  • Voting patterns and statements offered in the Council’s Syria debates as well as the Council’s wider practice since 2011 provide little evidence of a direct link between the two cases.
  • The Council’s failure on Syria more likely stems from complexities and geopolitics associated with the Syrian case itself.


According to Gareth Evans, one of RtoP’s progenitors, “Consensus [about RtoP] has simply evaporated in a welter of recrimination about how the NATO-led implementation of the Council’s Libya mandate…was actually carried out. We have to frankly recognize that there has been some infection of the whole RtoP concept by the perception, accurate or otherwise, that the civilian protection mandate granted by the Council was manifestly exceeded by that military operation.”

Has the “infection” of RtoP stymied the chances of consensus on Syria? Would the Security Council’s response to Syria have been different without Libya and RtoP? Despite the ubiquity of the association between Libya and Syria in public commentary, evidence of a clear link between the two cases is surprisingly thin. 

First, Russian and Chinese explanations of their own (shifting) positions on Syria have not been consistent in emphasizing the legacy of Libya. In fact, China has yet to raise Libya in its formal comments on Syria addressed to the Security Council. The place of Libya in Russian thinking on Syria has been inconsistent at best. In explaining its first veto on a draft Syria resolution, in October 2011, Russia railed against NATO’s actions in Libya but added a series of other, pragmatic arguments to support its case. Five months later, Russia vetoed a second resolution on Syria but made no reference to Libya in explaining its position. Then, as the previously endorsed Annan-plan unraveled later in 2012, Russia cast a third veto and ramped up the rhetoric on Libya to new heights. 

Human Rights Become Central to Peacekeeping: Interview with Richard Bennett

A UN police officer (right) on a monitoring visit to a police station, Bor, Jonglei State, South Sudan. (credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret)

Stronger and more comprehensive mandates from the Security Council have helped to move human rights into a central position in peacekeeping operations, according to Richard Bennett, former chief of human rights in UN missions in South Sudan and Afghanistan. In an interview with the Global Observatory, Mr. Bennett said that while human rights work used to be the preserve of human rights officers, today “it's expected that everyone in a peacekeeping mission is doing human rights work.”

“It felt like a real battle to get human rights taken seriously at the level of senior management,” Mr. Bennett said of his first mission in Sierra Leone in 2000.  With an increase in resources, expertise, and integration in UN missions, “human rights is now in our DNA,” he said.

As such, human rights officers serve as the “eyes and ears of the mission,” according to Mr. Bennett, making monitoring and reporting the bread and butter of human rights work. “Human rights officers should not be sitting behind their desks most of the time. They need to be out getting reliable information,” he said. 

For example, when more than 1,000 civilians were killed in fighting in Jonglei State in South Sudan in December 2011 and January 2012, Mr. Bennett was able to put together a team to conduct an investigation on the ground and publish a report, he said.

However, for their work to be effective, “it's critical that the reports that human rights officers produce are unimpeachable,” Mr. Bennett said. Any questions or discussions about these reports should not be “about the accuracy of the report, but about what to do about its conclusions.”

Ultimately, sensitivities can arise when human rights reports could affect the peacekeeping mission’s working relationship with the host government. “Many of us advocate that most human rights reports should be made public,” he said, but that can be uncomfortable because “they raise difficult issues for the government and sometimes for nongovernment entities in the countries concerned.” 

He said the new dual reporting structure for human rights components in UN missions—reporting to both the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights—has helped overcome this challenge. The SRSG and the High Commissioner can play different, complementary roles in this regard, according to Mr. Bennett. Since the former “live[s] in the country and deal[s] on an ongoing basis with the senior authorities of that country,” and the latter visits on more temporary bases, there is now greater leeway when it comes to reporting on human rights. “The head of human rights components has the opportunity to manage this to the benefit of all,” he said. 

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript (updated January 13, 2014)

Warren Hoge: I'm in the Global Observatory today with Richard Bennett, who has served with the United Nations in senior human rights posts from 2000 until April, 2013. In particular, he has headed the human rights components of peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. I say “in particular” because I want to ask Richard about human rights functions in peacekeeping missions at a time when they have grown in number and size to the point where human rights components are now central to delivering Security Council mandates. 

Richard, you bring the kind of information that I, as a former journalist, most treasure, and that is information directly from the field. How has this growth I just cited changed things on the ground for you as a human rights official from when you began this in 2000 to when you just finished up doing it in 2013?

Richard Bennett: I think in three ways. Firstly, the mandates for human rights from the Security Council are stronger and more comprehensive, and the mandates themselves, as well as the people on the ground, have helped to move human rights into the central position in peacekeeping operations and, as someone has said, human rights is now in our DNA. 

Second, with those mandates have come more resources. I'm certainly not going to say there are enough resources, but there are significantly more. For example, when I started in Sierra Leone, in one of the, I would say, most serious crises that peacekeeping has experienced, in March-April 2000, I think we had about eight human rights officers. In many missions now, including in the one that I recently left in South Sudan, there can be up to 100 posts; I think in some, even more than 100. So that's a growth. 

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What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in July
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
A list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014, compiled by IPI's Francesco Mancini.