Saving the Syria mediation by ending it

Hopes for progress in negotiating an end to the violence in Syria were dimmed on Saturday, when the latest round of facilitated negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition broke down, ending without a specific date set for its continuation. With more than 100,000 killed and millions more fleeing their homes since the conflict started, it is undoubtedly a tragedy that this conflict has yet to be resolved.

Nevertheless, there are times when suspending mediation, as Lakhdar Brahimi did here, is really the best way for a mediator to help reach a resolution.

Parties frequently come to the mediation process from the front lines of a conflict where they are engaged in battle, whether literally, as is the case in Syria, or figuratively, as is the case in a lawsuit. They naturally see the mediation as an extension of the battlefield, an arena within which to continue fighting to reach their goals. Thus, it is to be expected that they will engage in tactics to manipulate the process to their own benefit. To assume otherwise is naïve.

It is up to the mediator to steward the mediation process, creating a context within which parties can attempt to negotiate a resolution despite mutual mistrust and cynicism. The mediator has many tools at her disposal – she can speak with both sides together or individually; she can listen carefully and distill the essence of each party’s concerns; she can help them focus on the benefits of negotiating an agreement; but most importantly and most simply, it is the mediator’s job to ensure that rather than serving as an additional locus for battle, the mediation provides a space for battling parties to communicate with one another. 

A skilled mediator has to strike the right balance between tolerating inevitable attempts to manipulate the process, while resisting true exploitation by a party that is simply using mediation as a delaying tactic or camouflage while he fights on the battlefield. If and when the mediator sees that there is no real willingness to reach a negotiated agreement, it is vital to end the process, for two reasons. 

First, if one side is using the mediation itself as a tactic while the other is sincerely engaging in dialogue, a battlefield advantage is conferred on that insincere party. That party succeeds in delaying, and may become privy to new information to be used to his advantage. Determining the sincerity of a party’s willingness to mediate an agreement is a difficult task. Nevertheless, a skilled mediator must do so, and when she senses that one or both sides is/are simply “going through the motions,” it is time to end the mediation. Although his language was very balanced and gentle, it was not hard to discern Brahimi’s questioning of the Syrian government’s intentions, mentioning as he did the opposition’s suspicion that the government is not serious about negotiating a transitional governing body. 

Second, ending a mediation that is going nowhere preserves the integrity of the process, keeping it available for a future time, when parties may be more receptive. The worst outcome would be endless rounds of mediation that go nowhere. Too many rounds of futile mediation are like the little boy who cried wolf: when a real possibility of mediating does come around, one or both parties will be cynical and refuse to participate sincerely. Knowing when to halt a mediation that is not working is essential to using the process successfully.

If the problem with this mediation is the Syrian government’s lack of motivation to negotiate an agreement, the next move isn’t to force the two sides to keep on mediating. Circumstances outside the mediation may eventually propel the parties to sincerely discuss a negotiated outcome – although that will not bring immediate relief to the civilians suffering in Syria daily. 

The response to the mediation breakdown by outside parties such as the US, the UK, and Russia has included mutual recriminations. The multi-dimensional aspects of this conflict suggest an alternative approach: widening the scope of the mediation to include two or three key outside players from among the US, Russia, the UK, France, and Turkey. Adding players to the negotiating table makes possible a more explicit discussion of the various parties’ agendas (for example, Russia’s solidarity with and desire to protect the Orthodox Christian minority currently aligned with the government). It would also make it more difficult for the parties to evade discussion of the hard truths and difficult topics that are preventing a negotiated outcome (such as fears about radical Islamic elements within the opposition). The presence of allies of both the Syrian government and the opposition might allow a robust discussion of these types of concerns, and open the door to more options than have been considered thus far. If that type of mediation fails as well, it may be a sign that a mediated outcome is not going to bring quick relief, and that other measures, whether though sanctions or military action, should be considered.

As UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “This cannot be the end of the road. With the war in Syria causing more death and destruction every day, we owe it to the people of Syria to do all we can to make progress towards a political solution.” That is no doubt true. But this may have to be the end of the road, perhaps temporarily, for these particular negotiations.  

About the Author
Donny Ebenstein is an expert in negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution. He has trained and coached clients in both the public and private sectors across five continents, including extensive work in the Middle East. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Donny runs his own consulting firm, Ebenstein Consulting. He is the author of I Hear You: Repair Communication Breakdowns, Negotiate Successfully, and Build Consensus . . . In Three Simple Steps.
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