Syria (Minding the Minds II)

EDITORIAL, 11 Jan 2016

#410 | Johan Galtung, 11 Jan 2016 - TRANSCEND Media Service

Baher Kamal, in And All of a Sudden Syria!: “The “big five” /the UN veto powers/ have just agreed /Res 2254 of 18-12-2015/–time to end the Syrian five-year long human tragedy–they waited until 300,000 innocent civilians were killed–4,5 million humans lost as refugees and homeless at home, hundreds of field testing of state-of-the-art drones made, and daily US, British, French and Russian bombing carried out”. No Chinese bombing.

One term in the resolution, road map, already spells failure. There is another reason: missing issues. But something can be done.

Roads twist, turn and may be far from straight. Traveling a road is a linear, one step or mile-stone after another, process, by the map. The West loves linearity; as causal chains (“falling dominoes”) from a root cause; as deductive chains from axioms; as ranks from high to low.

However, is that not how the world is, moving in time, causes-effects, axioms-consequences, rank, power, over others? Are roads not rather useful? They are. Is there an alternative to a road map? There is.

One step after the other in time is diachronic. An alternative would be synchronic; at the same time. Let us call it a cake map.

A cake is served, cut in slices, each party takes a slice, waits till all are served to start together. By the road map, first come first served first to eat. Or, highest rank eats first, down the line. The cake map stands for togetherness, simultaneity, shared experience. Not necessarily good: was also used by the West to carve up Africa.

The cake is an issue; the slices are aspects. How it is defined, how it is cut, who are invited is essential. Basic to the cake map is equality among parties and slices: all get theirs at the same time.

For the Syria issue the Resolution lists the aspects on the road:

  • 25 January 2016 (in two weeks) as the target date to begin talks;
  • immediately all parties stop attacking civilians;
  • within one month: options for a ceasefire monitoring mechanism;
  • within 6 months “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”;
  • within 18 months “free and fair elections–by the new constitution”.

Kamal mentions many actors and crucial problems with this agenda. The focus here is on the linearity: ceasefire-governance-constitution-free and fair elections. Why stop attacking civilians who can become or are combatants? Why should actors agree to a ceasefire before their rights are guaranteed in a constitution? Why non-sectarian “governance” in a sectarian country? Each step presupposes the next. The “peace process” can be blocked, at any point, by any one party. Like a road.

Proposal: On 25 January, appoint four representative commissions– one for each of the four aspects–with mechanisms of dialogue for all six pairs and plenaries. Then report on all aspects on the agenda.

Back to the cake, “Syria”. Does “Syria” exist? Once much of the Middle East, the name was used for the French “mandate” carved out of the vast Ottoman Empire from 1516 to 1916 when ended by Sykes-Picot. A commission on the Ottoman period, exploring millets for minorities, is indispensable. So is a commission on the Sykes-Picot trauma, also with Turkey as a member; hopefully with UK-France-Russia apologizing.

We have seen it before. The US was a major party to the conflict and the UN conference manager 2013-14. There are now more parties: Jordan has identified up to 160 terrorist groups (Kamal), probably not counting state terrorists. And today the UN is the conference manager.

This column at the time (27 Jan 2014) identified seven Syria conflicts:

  1. Minority/majority, democracy/dictatorship, Assad/not Assad in Syria;
  2. Sunni/Shia all over, also with “Sunni Islamic State Iraq-Syria ISIS”;
  3. Syrians/minorities “like Turks and Kurds, Maronites and Christians”;
  4. Syria/”those who, like USA and Israel, prefer Syria fragmented”;
  5. Syria/Turkey with “neo-Ottoman expansionist policies”;
  6. USA-UK-France/Russia-China “determined to avoid another Libya”;
  7. Violent perpetrators of all kinds/killed-bereaved-potential victims.

All seven are still there. They have become more violent, like the second, between Saudi Arabia–also financing IS–and Iran. But the resolution focuses on the first and the last. All parties mentioned should be invited or at least consulted publicly. Last time Iran was excluded, defined as the bad one; this time IS(IS), today called Daesh.

A process excluding major process parties is doomed in advance.

However, imagine that the cake is defined as, “the conflict formation in and around Syria”; that the slices are the seven conflicts indicated with one commission for each; that around the table are the actors mentioned, some grouped together. The Resolution aspects are on their agendas; with commissions on the Ottoman Empire and Sykes-Picot.

What can we expect, what can we reasonably hope for, as visions?

“Mandate”, “colony”: there is some reality to Syria (and to Iraq). The borders are hopeless and should be respected, but not for a unitary state. For something looser, a (con)federation. Basic building-blocs would be provinces from Ottoman times, millets for smaller minorities, and cantons for the strip of Kurds along the Turkish border. The constitution could define a national assembly with two chambers: one territorial for the provinces, and one non-territorial for nations and faiths with some cultural veto in matters concerning themselves.

There is also the Swiss model with the assembly being based on territorially defined cantons, and the cabinet on nations-faiths: of 7 members 3 speak German, 1 Rheto-roman, 2 French and 1 Italian (4 Protestant and 3 Catholic?). Not impossible for Syria. With the Kurds as some kind of Liechtenstein (that is where con-federation enters).

In addition to parallel NGO fora. There is much to articulate.

Assad or not? If he is excluded as punishment for violence, there are many to be excluded. A conference only for victims, and China?

Better see it as human tragedy-stupidity, and build something new.

The violent parties will not get what they want. The victims can be accommodated peacefully in this looser Syria. Moreover, the perpetrators should fund reconstruction proportionate to the violence they wrought in the past four years. As quickly as humanly possible.

Syria offered a poor choice between a minority dictatorship with tolerance and a majority dictatorship–democracy–without. Violence flourished, attracting old suspects for proxy wars. “Bomb Syria” was the panacea, after “bomb Libya”. What a shame. Bring it to an end.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

Tags: , ,


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jan 2016.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Syria (Minding the Minds II), is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

3 Responses to “Syria (Minding the Minds II)”

  1. Per-Stian says:

    Thanks for another good “helicopter view”, Johan Galtung.

    Having read more about federations in “Democracy, Peace, Development”, I’ve gained more belief in, and understanding of, federations as a conflict management tool (ideally solution, we don’t want to “manage conflicts” after all). I see it as “peace is the way”. It deals with the underlying causes, at least partly, and surely that is better than bombing people from afar, and insisting on a unitary state (easier for the West to manipulate and control?).

  2. fernando ianeselli says:

    I would like to point out a cultural and artistic initiative created to sensitize more and more public opinion on the tragedy of war and migrants.
    This is a rock opera multi medial entitled Quo Vadis – Stories of migrants; the work will be presented in Italy in the month of March 2016
    This is the page that contains the texts and films in preparation:

  3. Professor Bishnu Pathak says:

    I like to generous words what father of peace studies Prof. Dr. Dr. Johan Galtung coined, namely: human tragedy, 300,000 innocent civilians killed,diachronic-synchronic, cake and slices as a issue and aspects, indispensable, victims accommodation… It means the article is beautifully architect similar to violin rhythms. Many thanks for this valuable thought at right time.