Five Lessons for Effective Syrian Peace Talks

UN Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks with journalists after meeting with officials to discuss talks between the Syrian government and opposition. Damascus, Syria, January 9, 2016. (Youssef Badawi/EPA/Corbis)

For the first time in five years, there appears to be a genuine opportunity to break the deadlock in the Syrian conflict. On December 18th last year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a peace plan, the foundations for which were laid a month earlier by the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG). UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is set to meet ambassadors from the Security Council in Geneva today, ahead of planned talks there later this month.

In an arena as complex as Syria, even getting conflict parties and their supporters to the negotiating table is challenging, and remains a fragile endeavor. Nevertheless, the Syrian talks are not the first to be held in an environment characterized by multiple conflict lines and diverse actors with divergent interests. If the latest attempt to revitalize the peace process is to have a chance of success, five lessons derived from past peace negotiations elsewhere should be carefully considered.

1) Connect Negotiations to Realities on the Ground

If there is one key lesson from comparative experience, it is that effective peace negotiations need to reflect realities on the ground. This entails careful thinking about the number and composition of delegations formally representing both armed and non-armed groups at the negotiations.

One element to keep in mind is the importance of veto players, meaning those parties—individuals or coalitions—with the capacity to either derail negotiations (“spoilers”) or negate the outcomes of a negotiated agreement during the implementation phase. In Yemen, for example, the inadequate representation of the Houthis in decision-making over the state’s federal structure resulted in them rejecting the 10-month National Dialogue started in March 2013, and a resumption of armed conflict.

How important is it to have a unified opposition group at the negotiating table? Embattled governments with weak legitimacy may demand a single unified opposition delegation to attempt to gain more bargaining power, or exploit existing divisions between opposition members. Alternatively, these weak governments may lobby for as many opposition delegations as possible, in order to dilute their aggregate power. Experiences actually show that having all opposition groups prepared to participate as part of a single delegation is not in itself a prerequisite for the effectiveness of talks, when well-designed negotiation rules and procedures are able to compensate for diversity. Such concerns should be kept in mind in order to avoid the political discord that contributed to the failure of the 2012 Syria negotiations.

However, representation of armed groups alone is not enough. Comparative research clearly demonstrates that the substantive participation of relevant non-armed political actors, as well as civil society groups, generally increases the likelihood of reaching a peace agreement, and in sustaining its eventual implementation in the long term. Yet mere enlargement of participant numbers and constituencies—without the ability to influence the process—is only window dressing and tends to be exposed when it comes to agreement implementation.

Women’s organizations have often played an instrumental role in pushing conflict parties to sign agreements and in adding substantial issues to the negotiation agenda. Women’s inclusion is most effective when a quota across all negotiation delegations—i.e. women being selected based on their party affiliation—is combined with an independent women-only delegation. In contrast, other civil society groups have little room to act as an independent voice when spread across the main delegations; rather, these groups are most effective in bringing diversity to the agenda—and thus addressing the root causes of conflict—when gathered into a unified independent delegation.

Often, parties—especially governments—refuse to accept independent women and civil society delegations because they deem them to be too close to the “other” side. In the past, mediators have dealt with this challenge in three ways. The first is to set clear procedures of selection and decision-making that establish a balance of power between formal participants. If this does not work, another option is establishing parallel civil society forums that are officially endorsed by the mediation team and the negotiating parties. For example, just ahead of the current Colombian peace negotiations taking place in Cuba, a series of formal civil society consultative forums were organized in Colombia by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Catholic University in Botoga.

If the main parties refuse an official consultative forum, a third option is to set up an informal consultative forum instead. This happened in Kenya in 2008, during negotiations in the aftermath of post-election violence, when three civil society forums comprised of peace, human rights, and women’s groups were established with an informal mandate. These forums advocated for their proposals by lobbying the international community and working with the Kenyan press. The mediators, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the African Union’s Graça Machel, made the forums quasi-official by regularly meeting with their members, encouraging them to develop concise position papers, and inviting forum representatives to the negotiations.

Though observer status may also be a way for groups to overcome exclusion from the peace process, research indicates that meaningful influence by observers has rarely occurred. When it has, it was only when groups were closely connected to their counterparts outside of the formal process. In Liberia in 2003, women’s observer groups systematically provided information to groups outside the negotiations, allowing them to then take coordinated, strategic street action to pressure for a peace agreement.

2) Establish Smart Negotiation Rules and Procedures

Negotiation rules and procedures are extremely important. Even the best negotiation design can be nullified by weak or unclear procedures. The selection of participants in peace negotiations is usually highly contested, and is often a make-or-break factor before talks can even begin. The power to select can be given either to mediators, negotiating parties, technical committees, or a combination of these actors.

In Syria, a smart mix of selection criteria and procedures reflecting society, politics, and armed conflict dynamics could help overcome tiresome debates over who nominates whom. A special committee, possibly composed of single representatives from each constituency and from the mediation team, could also be tasked with choosing the candidates. The extra step of selecting the members of the selection committee itself is perhaps more straightforward than it seems, given that it is much smaller than the overall negotiations.

Decision-making procedures during peace negotiations are most often consensus-based. For example, Yemen set a 90% minimum voting threshold and a 75% second round threshold. To some extent, obstruction by large groups can be prevented by adopting a high consensus requirement, or else a requirement that a “veto” vote has to come from at least two constituencies. Special committees may also help resolve intractable issues, as successfully demonstrated during the recent Tunisia National Dialogue process.

Effective transfer of proposals from consultative forums to the negotiating table is best ensured by putting in place clear formal mechanisms. Such transfer mechanisms should, on the one hand, stipulate exactly how and when forum proposals will be received; on the other, they should establish that an official follow-up response is mandatory. However, informal transfer strategies may also be effective, such as the writing of common documents that could be handed to mediators or negotiation teams, and also used to lobby the international community and media.

3) Link Peace Negotiations to the Syrian People

Given the extremely complicated situation on the ground in Syria, the number of displaced Syrians, and the externally driven nature of both the conflict and the peace process, the legitimacy of the talks is a serious issue. How can the Syrian people be linked to them from a distance?

Local consultations on the ground, as well as with the diaspora and refugee communities, have been organized in a number of previous cases. Different entities may be responsible for organizing such consultations, and have in the past included an independent commission in Turkey; a mediator in Moldova; an international organization in the form of UNDP in Cyprus, Colombia, and the Solomon Islands; and the local government in cooperation with specialized commissions in Afghanistan and Kenya. To conduct consultations with the diaspora and refugee communities, one additional solution could be to set up online platforms to voice concerns and make proposals, as in Colombia and Yemen.

Three common features can be observed across all prior cases where people were able to raise their concerns in a meaningful way. The first was the systematic transfer of the results of consultations to the negotiations, mostly in the form of reports, by a technical entity able to group proposals along themes and priorities. The second was the provision of qualitative feedback to the population by the mediators and negotiators, which in turn built trust and support. And third was transparent information disseminated to society by delegations and/or mediators. During the Chapultepec Peace Negotiations in El Salvador, unsuccessful transfer from the active civil society platform of dialogue resulted in a sense of alienation—precisely what should be avoided in Syria.

4) Establish a Support Center for the Talks in Geneva

Support centers for less-empowered delegations and participants of parallel consultations have helped tremendously to make negotiation outcomes more effective in past peace talks. The objective is to provide quick expertise in areas under discussion, to monitor political developments, and help draft concise statements and clear position papers. Support centers are best run by a mandated, transparent, and credible organization or network of organizations. These are best located where the talks are held and most effective when assured access to a wide network of relevant experts. Hence, establishing such a center in Geneva could be a valid option capitalizing on existing expertise there and beyond.

5) Maintain the Unity of the ISSG

An important condition for negotiations that occur in a complex multi-level environment is for the main regional and international actors concerned to support the process. As such, the existence of ISSG is therefore an achievement that by all means needs to be kept. In most negotiations, members of similar international support groups are afforded either observer status and/or are established as official consultative groups with close connections with the main negotiations. Recent efforts by de Mistura to keep the ISSG alive—despite the current Saudi/Iran crisis—are therefore essential.

Thania Paffenholz is Director of the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. This article is based on findings from the “Broadening Participation in Political Negotiations and Implementation” project.