By Muriel Asseburgk, Wolfram Lacher, and Mareike Transfeld
The upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 have led to civil wars in three countries: Libya, Syria and Yemen.
In all three cases, the United Nations (UN) are trying to mediate agreements between parties in the conflicts to bring about peace through power-sharing.
Conditions for Successful Mediation
There is no agreement on whether or not conflict dynamics can make a civil war ripe for resolution or ensure that all negotiations will fail in the absence of ripeness.
According to an influential thesis, successful conflict resolution requires a stalemate between the conflicting parties in which the costs of continuing conflict exceed those of making concessions for a peace agreement. But whether a conflict had reached this stage often only becomes clear in retrospect.
The expectation that a civil war will be ripe for resolution at some future point is not only questionable because it can serve as a convenient pretext for insufficient efforts at mediation, but also because many civil wars come no closer to a solution as they grind on; rather, they produce ever new conflicts, as well as new actors and war profiteers with a strong interest in continuing conflict.
Clearly, however, a negotiated settlement will remain out of reach as long as the military balance of power changes rapidly or conflict parties can count on sustained foreign backing – in other words, as long as one or more conflict parties expects to make military gains.
Mediation efforts themselves can contribute to the formation of new alliances among those who oppose an agreement, thereby provoking escalation.
The decisive role of external support, in turn, explains why, during the Cold War, civil wars – most of which were then also proxy wars – rarely ended through negotiated settlements, and why the “unipolar moment” of the 1990s set in motion a series of peace agreements for old and new conflicts.
However, even during this heyday for conflict settlements, only a quarter of mediation attempts produced an agreement, and only a fraction of these agreements saw implementation.
By contrast, the growing multipolar disorder of recent years offers far more difficult conditions for conflict resolution.
It drives a growing internationalisation of civil wars – an increasing number of great and regional powers are now involved – and a trend towards fragmented conflict landscapes: instead of binary struggles between a government and a rebel movement, we increasingly see multi-party conflicts in which continuously changing alliances prevent the emergence of a stalemate.
The three conflicts this study focuses on are prime examples for this development.
Which mediation strategy is successful depends not only on the configuration of the conflict, but also on the characteristics of the mediator. Mediators with little leverage – such as representatives of small states or non-governmental organisations – have to convince conflict parties that they are absolutely impartial. Their strategy will necessarily focus on creating trust between the conflicting parties.
By contrast, a mediator who represents world powers and can bring their influence to bear will rely more on international pressure to prod the conflict parties towards compromise, and on third-state guarantees to ensure the implementation of an agreement.
Mediation based on such “manipulation” of the balance of power aims either to bring about a stalemate or to demonstrate to the conflict parties that they have already reached a stalemate.
Either way, the minimum requirement is that the conflict parties agree to mediation. It is also important that all relevant conflict actors and their external supporters are directly or indirectly involved in the talks.
There are two reasons why this has also become more challenging in recent years. First, the growing internationalisation of conflicts increases the number of external actors who need to sit at the negotiating table – and who will try to exclude other local or external actors. Second, jihadi groups have played an ever greater role in recent civil wars. They show little willingness to engage in talks, and their participation in negotiations remains an international taboo.
Wherever the UN mediates, the approach pursued by mediators and its efficacy depend greatly on the Security Council. For UN mediation to be successful, a whole series of conditions have to be met.
The Security Council has to provide the mediator with a clear mandate, but above all it has to be united in its support for the mediation efforts and its interest in solving the conflict.
The mediator also depends on the permanent members to back an agreement with guarantees – such as the UN or third states deploying troops – and threaten transgressors with sanctions.
When these conditions are not met, even experienced UN mediators find it difficult to negotiate viable agreements.
Finally, the UN Security Council’s position on a conflict determines whether the mediator can gain a reputation for impartiality, or is seen as biased towards one party in the conflict.
Negotiated solutions to civil wars are notoriously fragile. It is well-established that when a civil war has ended with a negotiated settlement, a resumption of conflict is much more likely than if it has ended with a military victory by one side. It is the subject of lively debate under what conditions peace agreements survive or collapse.
The debate particularly revolves around the issue of whether certain types of power-sharing agreement are more robust than others, or whether it is the conditions under which the power-sharing agreement was concluded that are crucial.
Clearly, however, there is no straightforward formula for successful peace agreements. Only detailed analysis of individual cases allows an informed guess as to whether an agreement has a realistic chance of implementation or is likely to founder. Even in the best case, power-sharing agreements remain a gamble for the local and international actors involved.
Power-sharing arrangements – whether political, military, economic or territorial – have been a component of most peace agreements since the 1990s.
Even when implementation is relatively successful, critics question the sustainability of power-sharing agreements. They point out that power-sharing agreements signal to political actors that violence pays; that they are more of an obstacle to sustainable conflict resolution, since power-sharing usually only comes about through massive international commitment, which often declines during implementation; and finally, that they primarily serve the interests of power-hungry politicians and warlords without addressing the actual causes of conflicts.
On the last point, proponents counter that peace negotiations cannot succeed unless they bring together only those actors who can cause an agreement to fail. Includeing a broader range of negotiating parties would dilute the influence of such veto players, who would therefore also lose interest in a solution.
As it stands, however, the interests of regional and great powers and the exclusion of some groups as terrorists often makes it difficult or even impossible to bring all relevant actors to the negotiating table. The case studies in this analysis underline this point.
They also show that the prominent role of external powers in these conflicts necessitates a negotiating framework that involves both local and international actors. It is hardly surprising that such a complex undertaking rarely succeeds.
Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether the configuration of a conflict made the failure of UN efforts all but inevitable, or whether the mediator’s miscalculations or bias contributed to failure. Answering this question will help in devising more successful mediation efforts for similarly complex future conflicts.
With this objective in mind, the following contributions analyse the UN’s mediation strategies in Libya, Syria and Yemen against the background of these conflicts’ trajectories, and the competing interests of local, regional and international actors involved in them.
The focus is on the following questions:
How do UN mediators deal with the structures and dynamics of these conflicts?
What are the main obstacles to success for the UN’s efforts?
What can European policymakers do to support UN mediation and make it more effective?
Dr Muriel Asseburg is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Mareike Transfeld is a doctoral student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies