First step to peace in Syria, the grandest theatre of human cruelty in the world, is pick up the telephone like Corbyn says.

Agus Wandi

THE ONLY solution for the Syrian crisis and for the refugees coming from the Levant region is a political one.

Only through a peaceful political settlement of the conflict, acceptable to all parties, can a possible resolution could be reached. Despite all scepticism, this is achievable and more urgent than anytime before.

Jeremy Corbyn is right, we need to engage with all parties, including the enemies to achieve peace in the Middle East, including in Syria. Calling them “friends” in the broader context and without necessarily agreeing with the parties, is a first step toward opening the conversation on how to end the war, and inviting others to discuss a potential end to the violence.

The Labour leadership frontrunner caused controversy with his willingness to engage in dialogue with armed groups that many consider beyond the pale. Before that much was made of his links with Irish republicans. But, there is one context in which Corbyn’s approach of talking with your enemies hasn’t yet been highlighted – in Syria, where it’s time to talk to Assad.

I returned from Syria in July after working with the UN on the humanitarian response inside the country. People are tired of the war and the endless destruction. After four years of violence, one former supporter of the democratic movement told me that before protests turned violent and the war started, he had been willing to lose hundreds of lives in exchange for a true democracy. Now, he said he would sacrifice a thousand democracies to save a million lives.

That is a realistic estimate of how many people are at risk in this war. This does not mean that an undemocratic reality and a return to the pre-war status quo would be the outcome of talks with President Assad’s government – but it does mean talking about alternatives to the war that include Assad, rather than call for his removal a pre-condition. Regardless of your world view, it is undeniable that President Assad has significant support among large sections of the populace.

Regionally, momentum for peace is there. There are literally millions of refugees in neighbouring countries. 1.2 million Syrians are now in Lebanon. There are two million in Turkey, 600,000 in Jordan. This creates a strong incentive for neighbours to support peace efforts that would allow the return of these refugees.

Europe is only now waking up to this, when hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are risking all to cross into Europe. Policymakers should know that this will continue as long as the crisis in Syria rages.

Militarily, there is already stalemate in Syria. Nobody can win the war. So breaking the stalemate and opening a peaceful solution to the conflict may be the only option.

Despite the fragmentation of Syrian society that the conflict has brought, almost all the parties agree on one thing: the preservation of the Syrian state. Syrians are proud of their heritage. Rebels and government supporters alike identify as Syrian, though that may be alongside other identifiers of sect and ethnicity. This common ground gives a point where negotiations can be initiated. However, it won’t be there forever.

The most urgent task is to push for dialogue on the Syrian conflict, before the war destroys the social fabric of Syrian society and this belief in the need for Syria to continue as a state. Each day the conflict drags on, it breeds radicalism, warlordism, and hate.

We also need to talk to non-state armed groups, including those with whom we disagree. This includes a possibility of opening a dialogue with Islamic State. This sounds inconceivable as many still see the group as irrational. If there is a lesson from the history of ending wars though, it is that sometimes there is a need to shake hands with the devil.

The week I left Syria, the most watched YouTube video in the country was the decapitation of a Syrian officer by a child of about 10. Every day the crisis continues in Syria is a day that opportunities for peace are lost.

Syria is the grandest theatre of human cruelty in the world now, worse than the height of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In those countries, the UK went to war for peace. In Syria, it should follow Jeremy Corbyn’s example and pick up the telephone instead.

Agus Wandi, a peace and conflict adviser with the UN, worked earlier this year in Syria. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Source: The Guardian

12 Sep 2015

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