Lost in Transition: Lessons from UN Mediation in Syria and Beyond

Then UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi addresses a press conference on the Syrian conflict. Geneva, Switzerland, February 11, 2014. (Sana/UN Photo)

Syrian rebels appear set to soon lose their foothold in the city of Aleppo. At least one commentator is treating this as signaling the end of the civil war and of a coming military victory for the Assad regime and its allies. While this reality has largely been forged through bombs, blood, and destruction, it was also supported by actions in the pristine chamber of the United Nations Security Council, where China joined Russia on Monday in vetoing a resolution for a humanitarian pause to the fighting.

Military victory would also mean the conclusion of efforts by the UN Secretariat to reach a political solution to the conflict, which it has been relentlessly working to achieve since early 2012, and the start of a new phase: post-conflict negotiations to implement peace. In the meantime, in Libya and Yemen, the two other countries in which UN mediators are engaged in the broader region, war continues to rage and the prospect of a negotiated solution also appears, at this advanced stage, highly unlikely.

At this juncture, a number of lessons may be drawn from the origins of these three conflicts in the post-2011 chaos that engulfed the Arab region, and the challenges faced by UN mediators attempting to find political solutions, as we do in a new International Peace Institute report. The relevant efforts of UN envoys can be analyzed according to the following parameters:

  • Mandate: The mediator having a clearly defined mandate upon entering a conflict appears an ideal situation. The experience in Yemen, however, illustrates the value in deploying a low-profile mission that initiates contact with parties to the conflict and carves out its own mandate. In contrast, the UN mission in Syria was created with a detailed mandate that constrained mediation efforts. Its level of ambiguity also left room for UN Security Council members to wrangle over its interpretation. Regardless, we found that that once a mediator is set on his or her course, the Security Council must show unequivocal support. This was the experience of mediator Jamal Benomar during the first part of the process in Yemen, yet was far from the case in Libya, where Abdelelah al-Khatib and the Security Council were working at cross purposes, despite the council having ostensibly endorsed his mission.
  • Impartiality: Impartiality, one of the basic principles of mediation, was central to the problem of the three mediation efforts in that these processes were about facilitating regime change. In all cases, an authoritarian system had been in place for decades and its dismantlement was a basic demand of the forces leading the original uprisings that swept the region in 2011. It is, however, a rule of thumb that the desired outcome should not be placed as a precondition for starting any negotiation process. The Syrian conflict is the archetypal example, with President Bashar al-Assad expected to cede the reins of power before even sitting down at the negotiating table. The result was that neither the opposition nor the mediators had the coercive power to force him to make this major concession. The UN mediators were aware of this difficulty but were unable to temper the demand.
  • Inclusivity: Inclusivity is a self-evident principle of mediation. It implies that the mediator should include all major stakeholders in the negotiations. Despite this intuitive nature, it is surprisingly difficult to implement. A mediator inevitably chooses one set of actors over another, and then struggles to make these representative of the process. All three mediation processes show deficiencies in this regard. The first envoys to Syria focused primarily on the great powers of Russia and the United States, to the detriment of the local actors, the regime, and the opposition, among which they could have practiced shuttle diplomacy. In Yemen, despite commendable efforts to reach out to civil society, particularly women and youth, the transition agreement by which President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down became a deal among elites that saw him hand power to his deputy. In Libya the problem, in the post-Qaddafi period in particular, was finding and engaging the actors that actually held the reins of power.
  • Entry and Consent: While the UN is often faulted for arriving late in the conflict in Syria, the Libyan process illustrates that an early entry is no guarantee of success if the international community is not fully engaged in the mediation efforts. In Yemen, on the other hand, an early entry allowed the mediator to make himself indispensable and lead the transition.
  • Strategy: One of the main dilemmas facing a mediator is whether to aim for an overarching political deal straight away or to first address the violence and achieve a cessation of hostilities. Each strategy has its risks. The latter can lead to a stable stalemate in which the parties do not feel the need to make concessions and engage in negotiations. All three case studies are, however, examples of mediations that attempted to reach a broad deal, i.e. regime change, from the very beginning. They were all eventually overwhelmed by conflict, which means that more attention should have been paid to the violence. A clear indication of this is the focus on ceasefires of the current UN mediator in Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
  • Leverage: The question of leverage reflects the essential contradiction in UN mediation efforts. As the world’s preeminent intergovernmental organization, representing each and every nation state, it is uniquely placed to act as a mediator in conflicts. This is, however, the source of its main weakness due to the competing interests of its members and resulting internal divisions. The division of the Security Council on Syria has most prevented a solution to the conflict there. Despite the deterioration in conditions ultimately seen there, the case of Benomar in Yemen illustrates the progress that can be made, at least in the short term, when the Security Council is united. This case also illustrates the advantage of being a UN insider and thus able to more successfully lobby the Security Council by, for example, pushing for the approval of specific resolutions and using reporting mechanisms as an advantage.

The desire to draw broad lessons from these mediation efforts should not obscure the fact that it was the individual circumstances of the conflicts themselves that made their dire outcomes inevitable. A set of independent variables, including the configuration of geopolitical interests and the capacity of the different sides to inflict and withstand violence, were of much greater influence than the actions of the mediators and determined the room that these individuals had to maneuver. This does not mean that we cannot learn from their experiences in a bid to improve international responses to similar circumstances in the future.