When we read about conflicts in the news, and efforts to stop them, the stories that are most likely to make the news are those involving the biggest players – UN summits, G8 gatherings, special envoys, or talks brokered by the likes of Kofi Annan. Sometimes they succeed, or at least sketch out rough outlines for peace. Sometimes they don’t, dragging on for years or even decades.
No matter how committed the politicians are to hammering out a deal, nobody has more interest in peace than those living with the conflict. On the ground in the war-zones, people have to get on with their lives. They want their electricity back on, and to get their children back in school. And so while high level talks rumble on, all kinds of peace negotiations are going on at the grassroots level that we don’t hear about.
Take Syria. International agreements didn’t get very far in halting the conflict, which has so far displaced 6.5 million people, and left over 10 million in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. The UN and the Arab League interventions were only temporarily effective.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been peace deals, and a recent paper from LSE sheds a fascinating light on them. Through surveys and a series of Skype interviews with Syrian activists, organisers, and military leaders, it explores the host of local truces are in place, and how they can be supported.
They are often negotiated by ordinary people, by religious groups or tribal leaders, by hastily formed coalitions, or local business groups. The truce in Damascus is apparently brokered by the business community. One in Homs was organised by a doctor and two other professionals. In some cases local dignitaries are able to act as mediators, and often committees are formed to work out details and timetables. In Aleppo, a group of politically neutral volunteers negotiated to reopen the power station. NGOs have in some cases been able to secure ceasefires in order to vaccinate children or provide water supplies.
There are obligations on each side – in exchange for a ceasefire, food supplies, or freedom of movement, a community may hand over weapons, re-open roads, or release prisoners. With so many factions, and with interference from other countries, including funds and arms, these truces are fragile. Some have nonetheless held, and the truces that last are those that represent a win-win for both sides.
LSE suggest that future conflict resolution efforts may work better if they consider both top-down peace talks and support grassroots peace initiatives at the same time. That could involve keeping a lid on regional interference, which is a big factor in the failure of local truces in Syria. Another problem is the lack of trained and trusted mediators – a specialist and risky role – and also of independent monitors. That’s something that the international community can help with.