Local Engagement with Armed Groups in the Midst of Violence

REVIEWS, 7 Dec 2015

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René Wadlow

René Wadlow

Sophie Haspeslaugh and Zahbia Yousuf (Eds.),
Local Engagement with Armed Groups in the Midst of Violence
(London: Conciliation Resources, 2015, 40 pp.)

The armed conflict in Iraq-Syria-ISIS-Kurds becomes more complex each day, and good faith negotiations seem ever further away. Those of us on the outside who would like to see compromises so that the killing may stop find it difficult, if not impossible to find those who represent the armed groups. No doubt, there are people from different intelligence services who have contacts, but good faith negotiations may not be their central aim.

As Wisam Elhamoui and Sinan al-Hawat point out in their chapter “Civilian interaction with armed groups in the Syrian conflict” As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, it is important not to lose sight of the significant roles played by unarmed, non-state actors to develop structures for promoting local security and peace and to adapt to the constantly changing demands of the conflict. Hugh efforts have been invested in maintaining a civilian voice by activists and locals. They have shown courage and resilience and an incredible capacity to sustain their efforts and aspirations despite hugh challenges and lack of support.”

At the local level, conflict-reduction efforts depend on channels of kinship and earlier social relations. “Personal links, such as those deriving from kinship, tribal affiliation, and solidarity between friends and neighbours, play a key role in how communities reach out to armed groups. Whether armed groups and civilians are from the same locality is of particular − often paramount-importance in relation to their interaction, building on existing social capital and encouraging the development of networks for civilians and armed groups to trust each other and work together.”

However with the intensification of the armed conflict, many civilian structures have been dismantled. There have been large scale population displacement and refugee flows. Persons in local leadership positions have been deliberately put in jail, killed and targeted by government or opposition factions. New fighters from different countries have joined government or opposition factions. They have no local or kinship ties and have little or no individual decision-making ability. While at the start of the conflict there were locally negotiated ceasefires, such local initiatives based on local needs and conditions have largely disappeared. “Personal and competitive agendas can also emerge in conflict contexts, which can undermine social and cultural structures that support community cohesion…The strategic conflict priorities of armed groups can also reduce the influence of personal relations. Where militants possess the upper hand militarily, personal links are superseded in favor of military necessity…Inevitably, armed groups that have adopted an Islamist ideology are less accountable to the community. An activist from Yarmouk quoted a response he was offered from a local armed group; ‘Our role is to raise the word of God. This is more important than human life.’ Activists that do not conform to the views of Islamist armed groups, such as those who are openly secularist, pro-freedom or pro-democracy, have also been forced to flee.”

It is certain that insider mediators can play a key role in informal peace processes if they have “space” for action. Local populations are not just passive actors, simply coerced by armed actors. Yet the violent tactics of armed groups can overwhelm and silence voices for peace. The capacity of conflict to disrupt the social fabric can also allow for new or previously muted social, cultural and political voices to come to the fore. It is up to us on the outside to be sensitive to new voices and innovations. For the moment, military options seem to be “the order of the day”. Therefore we must work for formal negotiations among governments with interests in the conflict and with the major armed factions. However, we must also be sensitive to new voices, some of which call for non-violence and reason. These new voices may yet be soft, but they will be potentially important currents for the future.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Dec 2015.

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