What the world brings to Syrian peace talks

Doubts remain high about next week’s negotiations to end Syria’s civil war. Yet the UN and others are bringing decades of wisdom in peacemaking. Recent history shows that wars end more often by talking than by military victory.

AP Photo
A Syrian soldier keeps watch near Hama, Syria, March 2. A Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that is intended to help pave the way for Syria peace talks planned for next week in Geneva.

A great deal of doubt surrounds the United Nations-sponsored talks planned next week to end Syria’s civil war – despite a cease-fire that began Feb. 27. Such skepticism would seem justified if the focus were solely on the complexity of players, both inside and outside Syria. Many of them will not even be at the negotiating table in Geneva.

Yet the skepticism is odd considering one lesson from recent history that can help broaden the focus for the talks – and thus provide hope. 

The lesson is this: In the last quarter century since the end of the cold war, more conflicts have been resolved by peace settlements than by military victories. This means the Syrian talks have plenty of templates to follow and negative lessons to avoid.

Take, for example, the 1995 peace accord that ended a three-year war in Bosnia, one also driven by ethnic and religious conflict and that was the most brutal conflict in Europe since World War II. 

While the parallels with Syria are far from exact, all sides of the Bosnian war agreed to end the fighting and create a “soft partition” of the country with a weak central government. In addition, a special court was set up to deal with war crimes committed by top leaders. An uneasy peace remains in Bosnia today, but it is nonetheless a peace of more than two decades.

Why is it becoming easier to resolve conflicts, either between countries or in civil wars? A big reason is the evolving wisdom and experience in “peacebuilding,” or the skills needed to create a consensus for a settlement. 

A global drive to build up a “peace industry” began after World War I and has deepened itself in academic, international bodies, and the diplomatic corps of many nations. More than 1,000 civil society groups are involved with conflict resolution in one way or another. One group even provides a “peace index” each year to measure the ups and downs of peacemaking.

These efforts challenge the old idea that a conflict must “burn itself out” before it can end. Violence is not the natural state of humanity. Instead the presumption is one of finding bonds and common interests to live in peace. 

Maintaining a military is still necessary for most countries, but the destructive power of modern weapons has helped drive the discovery of new peace tools. (One “tool” used by today’s mediators is to help each party see that one side’s gain is not the other’s loss, or a zero-sum situation, and that both sides share a desire for dignity and security.)

The fact that most of the parties involved in the Syrian war have agreed to a cessation of hostilities reflects the collective experience of the UN and others in peacemaking. The coming negotiations in Geneva are not an isolated event. The rest of the world is bringing its wisdom and support.

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