One summer evening, a group of diplomats, journalists and religious figures gathered at an unassuming house in central London. It was an informal, almost cosy scene: the moderator of the meeting sat on the floor, as there weren’t enough chairs, while hummus and drinks were laid out on a side table for guests.
What was spoken about that evening cannot be disclosed, nor can its outcomes, but we can assume that the meeting was not successful, as the people assembled there had gathered to discuss an end to the bloodiest war of the 21st century, the Syrian civil war, which is still no closer to conclusion.
But the meeting is important because it represents the new reality of peacemaking, where diplomatic back channels between conflicting factions replace direct talks between heads of state.
“Syria is a very difficult conflict, because you have so many interest groups,” said William Morris of the Next Century Foundation (NCF), who organised that previously unreported meeting in London. “It’s very important to try to not take sides, because that really disables you in our kind of role.”
Deciding who to invite to such talks can be arbitrary and can put organisations like NCF in a powerful position. NCF’s activity relies solely on Morris’ rich catalogue of contacts. While the names of the people present at the Syria talks in his London house are off the books, as is most of the industry, he admits he tries to include a diversity of actors in his dialogues, many of whom he has personal relationships with.
Siwar al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s estranged cousin, who lives in exile in London, has strong links with Morris and sometimes sends a representative from his organisation, the Aramea Foundation, to such informal talks. Morris also keeps close contact with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and considers him a friend. Morris believes that for peace processes to be successful, everyone needs to have a seat at the table.
“People will judge you because you are talking to everybody, and I understand – some of these people are awful,” said Morris. “But if you want to make peace, you have to talk to everybody. If you don’t want to, then forget it, you can’t make peace.”
Informal diplomacy is dubbed Track II — as opposed to Track I, which focuses on state-to-state dialogue. Track II diplomacy aims to bring together stakeholders who normally would not have a seat at the negotiations table, to share perspectives behind closed doors. Track II negotiations have yielded results, contributing to talks that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords of 1993.
In Syria, a ballooning number of armed groups and clashes between non-state actors like ISIS and government forces, along with foreign intervention, have become the main challenges of mediating the conflict.
“It’s very hard to identify who the protagonists are in conflicts, both in a national context as well as in an international context,” said Nita Yawanarajah, senior mediator for Oxford Process, a UK-based conflict resolution organisation.
None of the former UN Special Envoys to Syria – Kofi Annan, Staffan de Mistura and Lakhdar Brahimi – or the current envoy, Geir Pedersen, have achieved the sustainable peace mandate of Security Council Resolution 2254, which was adopted in 2015.
When asked about Track II initiatives that could help the UN with fulfilling its mandate, Jenifer Fenton, a spokesperson for Pedersen, said that the envoy “has repeatedly engaged civil society actors and continues to do so as part of his strategic priorities and his approach to the mediation process”.
But traditional diplomacy has become less and less efficient in attaining peace, especially in Syria. Dozens of official peace processes, many under the auspices of the UN, have failed dismally since the start of the war, almost ten years ago.
Staffan de Mistura quit his role as Special UN Envoy to Syria in 2018 when he realised Assad had won the territorial civil war, saying he couldn’t bring himself to shake the president’s hand. This, coupled with an apparent increase in distrust in official channels like the UN, makes traditional diplomacy slow, if not ineffective.
“There has been a further undercutting of the prestige and moral claims of the UN as leading states pursue unilateral strategies,” said Roger MacGinty, a leading academic in conflict resolution from the UK’s Durham University.
There’s still concern about Track II diplomacy lacking the accountability mechanisms that would ensure the fair conduct of talks. What keeps independent mediators from using their resources to favour one party over another?
When asked about this, Michael Keating, Executive Director of the European Institute of Peace (EIP), a leader in the Track II industry working on Syria, said that their ultimate accountability is to people who are either experiencing violence or are at serious risk of violence.
“Frankly, if you are in this business and you position yourself as a conflict resolution or mediation actor, the most important currency is trust,” Keating said. “If the people you are working with don’t trust you to move things forward, they will simply walk away.”
Independent mediators can also be kept accountable by their boards of trustees: Morris used to give out weekly interviews to Iranian, state-funded Press TV.
“I was taking a moderate line on a platform that is usually occupied by extremists, so I felt that it was useful,” Morris said, “but our trustees programme was nervous about this and felt it was wrong, so I stopped.”
Another issue is effectiveness, as critics might see Track II talks as initiatives with good intentions that don’t achieve concrete results. To be efficient, informal mediation needs to feed into official diplomacy, which has the authority to enforce any potential agreements reached by the parties involved in unofficial talks.
“If [Track II organisations] do bring that agreement to fruition, they actually don’t have the leverage to implement it,” said Yawanarajah, the Oxford Process mediator who is also a former UN and Commonwealth diplomat.
Successful outcomes usually include state diplomats from the early stages of back channel negotiations. This is often possible because such organisations are led by former diplomats who have strong links with governments.
After 30 years in and out of the UN, Michael Keating, also former UN Special Envoy to Somalia, speaks from experience: “I’ve had the experience as a senior UN official of working with Track II organisations, and I found them very useful,” he said, “they can talk to people, do things and convene meetings that were very difficult for me.”
This has created a phenomenon where actors with leverage, like the UN or state governments, have stopped engaging in informal diplomacy and are outsourcing it to private actors.
This is because mediation has become so public, Yawanarajah said, that if states attempt it and are unsuccessful, the media reports it as a failure, so they don’t want to take the responsibility for it.
It is of course very difficult to judge the success of something that is largely happening behind closed doors and, similar to official processes, are slow in achieving meaningful impact on the ground. The discussion in Morris’ house in London that summer evening was one of many others he chaired on Syria, and like most of them, it didn’t result in any meaningful results.
“That’s never going to be easy to kind of gauge,” said Ardi Janjeva, a former NCF intern who attended the Syria talks in London. “The ethos of NCF is more about creating a space for dialogue, putting person A in touch with person B, for them to later reach an agreement,” he added.
This is particularly relevant because those funding conflict mediation organisations –charities, voluntary contributors or governments – want to see results. In 2018, EIP spent almost $3m on conflict mediation initiatives from its over $7.5m budget, according to the EU Transparency registry.
The same year, NCF spent $85,000 on its operations, exceeding its $66,500 budget, according to Companies House, the UK’s companies registry. It was a lack of funding that made Morris move NCF from the house in Vincent Square to the rural outskirts of Penzance, Cornwall, in the south-west of the UK, from where he continues his work.
Traditional diplomatic dialogues only include high-level diplomats. But local associations or community leaders, who wouldn’t normally have a say in a Track I scenario, are invited to some Track II talks, as was the case in London. These are called Track III initiatives because they involve civil society actors, who usually don’t have a say in conflict mediation. Because of this, peace processes become more inclusive and are able to address on-the-ground grievances.
“There’s an added value in engaging people who maybe are not directly involved in the conflict, but who are affected by it,” said Kheira Tarif, Track II dialogue coordinator with the International Crisis Group. “This could have a positive influence on bringing about a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” she adds.
This gap in traditional diplomacy, which peace-making organisations have identified and are trying to fill, stems from a growing demand for private and inclusive peace processes, without which mediation seems to be at odds with resolution.
“You can make a difference if you’re focused and target specific issues,” Morris said, “it’s that same adage — the squeaky gate gets oiled if you’re nagging away.”