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What the Geneva II Talks can do for peace in Syria

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (pictured above in 2012) announced in November 2013 that the Geneva II Syria peace conference would be held on Jan. 22, 2014. Photo: UNIC / John Gillespie

Diplomatic talks known as the Geneva II Talks, which many see as the best chance for reaching the immediate goal of a ceasefire and stopping the war in Syria, are due to start Wednesday, Jan. 22, in Montreux, Switzerland.

As the negotiations draw closer, all parties are maneuvering to enter the negotiations from a position of strength, and the last weeks have seen a spike in news of death, displacement, and destruction.

The United Nations currently estimates that 9.3 million people in Syria—many of them stranded in hard-to-reach and besieged areas—urgently need help. Nearly half of them are children, who do not have adequate access to health care or education. Dozens of children in besieged areas have died of starvation.

It is shocking that the international community can supervise the removal of chemical weapons from Syria but cannot ensure that food reaches children in need.

Outside Syria, at least 3 million people are taking refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, placing unimaginable strain on the host communities. In the face of these human costs, the U.N. has issued an unprecedented appeal for $6.5 billion to meet humanitarian needs within Syria and in neighboring countries. [For more, see “Infographic: Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on the Middle East”]

Humanitarian needs will only continue to grow until the violence stops.

U.S. government officials have said that the war in Syria will not be won militarily, and that they are in full support of efforts like Geneva II.

But in practice, the U.S. is sending mixed messages: providing lethal and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and saying that countries, such as Iran, that have not yet signed on to the agreement produced at the first Geneva meeting in 2012 should not be allowed to attend Geneva II.

Stopping the violence is paramount. The U.S. should therefore cease its support for any military activities. And, if Iran’s presence at the talks will increase the likelihood of a positive outcome to the Geneva II Talks, the U.S. should wholeheartedly support efforts for Iran to attend.

The determination to set aside military means, the commitment to inclusive talks, and the willingness to seek political solutions is not only required at the highest level.

A similar process is going to have to be repeated at a local level if all Syrians are to live together free from the fear of violence in the future.

Syrian communities committed to peaceful change

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has been supporting local peace-building efforts in Syria both to lower the level of violence now and to prepare for the restoration of good relations among neighbors after the end of the war.

Most recently, AFSC facilitated a meeting of Syrians committed to peaceful change in the Al Hasakah governorate, in the northeast of Syria. This is an area of rich diversity: people identify themselves as Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Syriacs. The majority of Arabs and Kurds are Sunni Muslims, and the Assyrians and Syriacs are Christian.

Armed militias have been developed to protect the lands and other resources of each group. Some of these armed militias are associated with the Syrian government, and some are not.

External actors such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran, give support to each militia. There are also intra-group conflicts, with different Kurdish parties having different external backers. In addition, there are local alliances where one small group seeks protection in alliance with a bigger group.

Eighteen people from the community recently came together to make their analysis of the conflict locally and to develop local action plans to drive down the level of violence. These 18 people are from diverse ethnic and religious groups, resilient, well-connected, and ready to take high personal risks to achieve greater security for all in their locality.

Lasting peace

To succeed, the negotiations in Switzerland will require skilled facilitation that brings to the table all the warring parties who have power to derail an agreement, from both inside and outside Syria—and gets them all to stay at the table.

The negotiations will also have to produce tangible outcomes for all the people of Syria, such as a ceasefire and immediate access to humanitarian relief.

To make any peace agreement stick among the different local communities beset by violence, a similar process of conflict analysis and action planning is required at a local level.

Often, the focus is on Syrians either as armed actors or as vulnerable refugees. While the global community gathers in Switzerland, many Syrians are courageously acting within their local communities to build peace from the bottom up.