One reason that recent wars have lasted so long is that so little remains understood about how to build a stable peace. Half of the world’s current armed conflicts have lasted for more than 20 years. More than half of conflicts that ended in the early 2000s have since relapsed. Reversing this recent record will require a reassessment of past methods aimed at taming mass violence.
A good place to bring fresh thinking is in Syria. Its war is “only” seven years old. Yet the toll in lives (more than 350,000) and displaced civilians (12 million) give it a special urgency. Most of the pro-democracy rebels fighting against a ruthless Assad regime have been defeated. And the territory once occupied by the Islamic State has been retaken. Many powerful nations, such as Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Israel, claim a stake in a post-conflict Syria. For its part, the United States has just reimposed sanctions on Iran in part to get its forces and allies out of Syria as a protection for Israel.
A political settlement in Syria calls for peacemaking on a new order, one that will require opponents with very little trust in each other to negotiate. “There will be times when we have to hold our nose and support dialogue with those who oppose our values, or who may have committed war crimes,” said Alistair Burt, a British Foreign Office minister, in a recent talk about a new government report on ways to end the world’s current conflicts.
A new set of talks on Syria, led by Russia and Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, is slated for September. Given that negotiations since 2015 have failed, these talks must be conducted in a very different way to succeed. The UN envoy hopes to organize democratic elections within two years under the supervision of the UN and somehow bring the country’s Sunni, Shiite, and minorities together as a country again.
The dynamics of Syria are complex but one aspect stands out: The West appears willing and able to finance the rebuilding of the country if there is a political transition from President Bashar al-Assad that would include a new constitution and elections. Iran and Russia can hardly afford the price tag, estimated at some $250 billion, to restore the country. Yet rebuilding is necessary to assure the safe return of millions of refugees – and to prevent them from migrating to Europe.
Negotiators need to use that lure of a peaceful, prosperous Syria to win over the players with the biggest stake in its future. As the British report finds, based on research about 21 recent conflicts, resolving a war must rely on progress in understanding what often drives a country’s warring elites: “perceptions of fear and insecurity and forms of envy, rivalry, hatred, prejudice, solidarity and loyalty.”
Today’s conflicts that can’t seem to end need a new model of peacemaking. For several years, Syria has been the world’s biggest war. Soon, with fresh thinking about peacemaking, it could be the best example of how to end a war.