The Power of Mediation

Foriegn Policy
By Sharon Morris
January 7, 2014

We must rethink the way we’re dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis — or risk militants winning hearts and minds.

Recent government airstrikes on Aleppo, Syria have led to hundreds of civilian casualties and yet another wave of refugees to neighboring states. Islamist militant groups in the country grow stronger by the day. The moderate opposition is in disarray, unable to agree on a negotiating platform. And President Bashar al-Assad is insisting he will not step down.

Things certainly don’t look promising in Syria heading in to the Geneva Peace talks scheduled to begin on Jan. 22. Participants at December’s Peace Game, sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy, shared this gloomy assessment. But when they shifted their focus from high-power politics to events on the ground, they unearthed some unusual options for promoting peace — options that should receive serious consideration from policymakers, given the lack of viable alternatives.

One option for promoting stability in Syria and around the region centers on deeper engagement with the fast-growing refugee population. There are now more than 2 million refugees from Syria; the United Nations projects that the number may reach 4 million by the end of 2014. Young people represent more than half of the current refugee population. This influx of people puts enormous political and economic strain on neighboring countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Their presence pushes wages down, prices up, and sends unemployment soaring. Housing, schools, and medical facilities are stretched past the breaking point. Water shortages are leading to violent clashes. And violence against refugee women and girls is pervasive.

And yet, these people are not just victims or problems. They are parents and teachers, doctors and shopkeepers, tribal elders and farmers. There are no people on the planet who are more passionately committed to seeing stability return to Syria, and thus they could represent a powerful constituency for peace. But they could also be powerful spoilers — an entrenched source of volatility that could fuel conflict in the region for decades, in particular as young refugees seeking meaning and purpose view militant leaders as the only people offering a solution to the crisis. Which direction refugees end up going depends on how we address and assist them now.

Indeed, it is time to rethink our assistance in protracted crises so that we can begin to tap into the positive potential of refugee communities, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping against hope they won’t become spoilers down the road.

Too often, the international community waits until a political agreement is signed before we begin to strengthen the hand of ordinary people who are committed to peace. But if our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that a political settlement is just the first step, and that the competition and score settling that occur post-agreement can seriously damage the chances for lasting peace. It is never too early to equip people with the skills and support they need to navigate tensions and promote peaceful solutions, even if these people currently seem powerless.

What would that look like in concrete terms? One example is a program implemented by Mercy Corps, a humanitarian relief and development organization that works with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. In addition to humanitarian assistance, Mercy Corps provides mediation training to Syrian refugee leaders and host communities in a pocket of northern Jordan so they can address tensions that emerge over issues such as employment and housing. These leaders then implement development projects that benefit both Syrians and Jordanians. So far, the leaders have used their new skills to calm violent clashes over access to water in Zaatari village, which sits next to Jordan’s largest refugee camp, and have set up a committee to oversee the maintenance of water pipelines shared between the camp and the village. They have raised money from wealthy local families to fund extra water tanker deliveries to both the village and the camp during the year’s hottest months. They have addressed tensions over access to health care and have procured funding to begin construction on an emergency room that will relieve pressure on medical facilities meeting the needs of refugees living in and around Ramtha. And they have worked with the Jordanian government to build new classrooms to accommodate hundreds of Syrian children.

By providing mediation training, the international community is also helping support a future peace, since the skills Syrian leaders learn now can help them manage the disputes they will encounter when they return home. The program in Jordan is based on a similar initiative in Iraq, where in the post-conflict period, a network of leaders — Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, tribal elders and local government officials — have used mediation to resolve hundreds of disputes, from clashes over water to skirmishes between factions of the military and police over control of key roads. In one case, an Iraqi leader brokered a deal between Sunni and Shia villagers that allowed Sunnis to return to homes they had abandoned during a wave of sectarian violence. In addition, the Iraqi mediator and community leaders were able to marginalize extremists who opposed the deal, eventually apprehending them and turning them over to Iraqi security forces.

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