Pathways to Peace in Syria and Iraq

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On March 10th, The Rideau Institute, Group of 78, and CIC jointly hosted a public forum entitled Pathways to Peace in Syria and Iraq, featuring panelists Payam Akhavan, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University; Marina Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Mokhtar Lamani, Former Head of the Office of the UN-Arab League of States Joint Special Representative for Syria in Damascus; Sebastien Beaulieu, Director for Middle East Relations, Global Affairs Canada; and moderator Paul Dewar, former MP for Ottawa Centre.

The following summary outlines a few of the highlights from the wide-ranging panel and audience discussion.

Marina Ottaway cited two big reasons why all the various peacemaking efforts in Syria have borne so little fruit to this point. The first is the lack of a “mutually hurting stalemate” whereby all sides realize that they cannot win militarily. The second is the lack of focus on mechanisms to bring extremely disparate groups together in a new governance structure.

Calling for “inclusive democratic institutions” in her view will go nowhere without a move away from the current centralized, “top down” state structures to provide for greater autonomy at the local level. The issue is much more complex than Sunni, Shia, and Kurds because there are many sub-divisions within each of these three groups. If real solutions are to be found, discussion of new, more decentralized governance structures must be facilitated among these groups.

But the peace process itself cannot move forward without progress first being made in convincing all sides that they must unite against Islamic State. Here the regional and international backers of the various factions have a huge role to play. Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey must all stop supporting their various proxies and make it clear that the only way forward is at the negotiating table.

Mokhtar Lamani underscored the complexities on the ground and the “new realities” created because of the length of the conflicts and the many, disastrous mistakes made by international actors in Iraq, from the US-led invasion onward. He noted that 70% of ISIL fighters in Iraq are Iraqi, the result of the vicious sectarianism practiced by the al Maliki government, while only 20% of ISIL fighters in Syria are Syrian. He decried the extremist nature of the Shia militias fighting against ISIL in Iraq, which he characterized as “at least as dangerous” as ISIL.

Like Marina Ottaway, he highlighted the conflicting agendas of the regional and international actors in Syria and how “removed” from the realities on the ground were the Russians and Americans. The focus in both Iraq and Syria, he too urged, has to be on isolating ISIL. To do this in Iraq there must be “inclusive national reconciliation efforts”, including reaching out to the cadre of disaffected former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army who have joined up with ISIL. In Syria, that means allowing Al Nusra and related fighters to join the peace process as well.

In summation he asked:

Why is the international community not planning a Summit to develop a multifaceted strategy to promote a culture of respect?

Payam Akhavan focused on the fundamental importance of accountability mechanisms in Syria and Iraq for egregious human rights abuses. This does not necessarily mean recourse to the International Criminal Court, but could include mechanisms such as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Audience members underscored the importance of civil society involvement in the peace negotiations, leading Canadian diplomat Sebastien Beaulieu to highlight Canadian support for civil society and women at the negotiating table.

In summing up, Peggy Mason for the Rideau Institute raised three points:

The first key issue is how the conflicting agendas of the international and regional backers of the parties to the civil war in Syria are preventing the achievement of a ‘hurting stalemate’ and in turn any hope of isolating Islamic State.

The second is the importance in the peace negotiations of finding the right balance between peace and justice and the vital role of civil society, including women to this end.

In that regard she noted that the UN Special Envoy and peace mediator for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, has established a series of Advisory Groups composed of civil society members, including one specifically of women, and that this is a step towards their greater inclusion in the peace process.

The third is the need for deep thinking on how to promote inclusive national reconciliation in Iraq and whether more decentralized power structures might contribute to such efforts in both Iraq and Syria.

 

For a recent update on the UN-facilitated peace process, see Don’t look now, but peace in Syria may be inching closer (CBC.ca, 14 March, 2016).

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