Syria – preparing for a decade of conflict


Syria - a decade of conflictThere is a growing recognition that despite its brutality, the civil war in Syria is going to be with us for some time to come, maybe as long as a decade. This conclusion is based on both an understanding of the specifics of the conflict in Syria as well as a wider understanding of how civil wars end.

Although the frequency of civil wars has remained pretty constant over the last century, the length of civil wars has grown since the end of the Cold War. While the average civil war lasted 2 years in 1947, it lasted 15 years in 1999. Where rebels fight for secession or natural resources, and where they are funded by smuggled goods, it tends to be longer than in other cases. Civil wars have their own internal clocks which need to be properly understood.

It might offend our liberal sensitivities, but sadly, most civil wars end with the military victory of one side, while only 30% result in a negotiated settlement – a trend that has been somewhat reversed since the end of the Cold War, when international preference (and pressure) for negotiated solutions emerged.

The chances for negotiated settlements to succeed depend, essentially on 2 criteria.

First the leaderships of the parties involved must have the commitment and the capacity to execute what is agreed on (in a fragmented situation, the latter is not always the case). Second, all sides involved have to have realised that they cannot win militarily. Such realisation depends largely on perception: how a party in a civil war assesses the likelihood of victory is contingent on subjective as well as objective factors. The supply of weapons from outsiders, for instance, not only enhances the probability of a civil war but also increases the expectation of an eventual military victory.

As the hope of outright victory decrease with time, a negotiated solution is more likely the longer a conflict lasts. Outsiders can play an important role here, since the success of a settlement depends in part on a ‘guarantor’ who is both willing and able to enforce the agreed framework (e.g. NATO in Bosnia and UN in East Timor).

One option to end a civil war is a full scale military intervention. Statistics show that intervention on the government’s side tends to lengthen a war, while intervention on the rebels’ side shortens it. If both sides are assisted by outsiders, the conflict reaches a stalemate and is therefore prolonged – which explains why, on average, civil wars involving outsiders are both deadlier and more difficult to resolve. In addition, military intervention alone does not alter the conflict’s structure: if the political and economic causes underlying the war are not addressed simultaneously, then terrorism and/or insurgency against the outside forces will begin (eg Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983).

Sadly, Syria has all the characteristics of a long rather than a short civil war. All sides still believe that they can win militarily. In part this is due to the political and military support they are receiving from their backers (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah v Qatar, US, Saudi Arabia, UK and France). The intensity of the civil war might fluctuate, but until one or more sides recognises that they cannot win militarily the essential dynamics are unlikely to change.

The divisions and tensions between Russia and the US that grew out of the West’s regime change in Libya means there is limited coordinated international pressure and preference for a negotiated settlement. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the subsequent international response has fractured yet further the international community’s capacity and appetite to resolve this conflict.

The US, UK and France have shield away from military intervention in support of opposition groups in Syria. This has removed, perhaps, the one instrument that they had at their disposal to radically change the terms of the conflict. The subsequent supply of military assistance – both lethal and non-lethal – to rebel groups helps build their resilience and even guarantees their survival but it is insufficient to tip the scales militarily in their favour.

A further complication is that the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition group that has to date participated in the talks in Geneva, has little legitimacy with those opposition groups in Syria and therefore has limited capacity to execute anything that might be agreed upon. The sad reality is that Western governments have limited leverage with the regime players in Syria and they have limited traction with the myriad of opposition groups inside Syria.

All of this should help in explaining why the West’s policy towards Syria isn’t working and why it is in serious need of review. Three years on, West is still falling foul of simplistic meta narratives and is at risk of pursuing a multiplicity of goals not all of which are complementary.

The West needs to acknowledge both the complexity of this conflict and the lack of leverage that it has to affect positive change. In doing so it needs to learn the lessons from the wider literature on how civil wars end.

The West needs to refocus its efforts on joint humanitarian-political goals and look to a more transactional diplomacy. It needs to avoid backing winners and look instead to engage with a broader array of Syrian opposition and civil society groups regarding Syria’s future. These steps might not foreshorten the war but they won’t prolong it and they might just help to minimise the violence and ensure the continued territorial integrity of Syria.

Finally, even if the complex dynamics of this conflict prohibit a negotiated settlement over the short and medium term, the civil war will at some point come to an end. Western governments, especially those on the United Nations Security Council, need to start thinking through how security will be negotiated in any post-conflict Syria, as this is likely to be the key to any successful negotiated transition.

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Ukraine and the politics of discontent

ukraine 2In my last blog I looked at Russia’s annexation of Crimea and tried to unpack some of the reasons why Russia took the decisions that it did. I suggested that if we can look into Putin’s soul and fathom the complex and varied impulses behind his actions then Western governments will be better equipped to shape an appropriate response and to envisage how he might in turn react. I proposed that while the EU treated its European Partnership Programme as a technocratic exercise in state building, Russia saw it as a provocative exercise in high politics and geostrategy.

The recognition that we are often implicated in each other’s sins is not to excuse Russia’s actions or to legitimise the subsequent injustice that Russia has committed in the Crimea. Even if it is true that Russia’s actions in the Crimea were a response to the EU’s exercise in state building, it does not follow that such action constituted a justifiable response. Similarly, even if the EU’s autism made it somehow complicit in recent events, that does not mean that it should not oppose the annexation. This is an important distinction to make less the exercise in sympathy legitimates a wider injustice.

With pro-Russian separatists now seizing government buildings in the cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, there is a risk that the Crimea scenario is now at play in eastern parts of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s silence means it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy whether this civil unrest is an intentional move for further territorial aggrandizement or the unavoidable destabilising effects of having such a massive build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.

If the former were to occur then we are likely to see a significant ratcheting up of the sanctions regime against Putin’s Russia and see Russia isolated in a way not seen since Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan. Even if the latter is true, it is entirely possible that Putin might prove reckless enough to exploit the tension. It will therefore be important to see whether Putin offer separatists in eastern Ukraine active support or mere rhetoric.

Either way, events in Donetsk and Khrakiv suggests that the instability in eastern Ukraine is likely to be permanent rather than temporary and one that Putin can play to his advantage whenever he so wishes. Such a state of affairs cannot but have a destabilising effect on Western and wider international efforts to assist Ukraine with its programme of economic and political reform.

Even if the EU and the US are right not to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea – to do so would make them complicit in a truly wicked act – it is clear that no one expects sanctions to result in a return to the status quo ante. With this in mind, at some point the EU and the US must sit down with the Ukrainian government and talk to Russia. Without such engagement, attempts to contain this crisis are likely to be frustrated by the whims of ethnic resentment and mutual suspicion in eastern Ukraine.

There is much in this crisis that smacks of the law of unintended consequences and misfortune. If this litany of unforeseen developments is not to continue unchecked we will need to find ways of re-structuring this conflict and containing the risks of destructive spillover. The existing sanctions response only gets us so far. We need a more imaginative response.

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Resolving the Crimean Standoff

In Musings of a Restless Bishop, the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, poses the million dollar question as to why Russia is doing what it is doing and why is it doing it now?

The question reminds us that Christian ethics is at heart an exercise in sympathy and self-reflection. To understand Russia’s actions in the Ukraine is not an exercise in apologetics or appeasement but rather critical engagement.

This process is also a critical element of effective statecraft. If we can look into Putin’s soul and fathom the complex and varied impulses behind his actions then Western governments will be better equipped to shape an appropriate response and to envisage how he might in turn react.

To do otherwise is to allow the narratives that we create to determine our play book. Narratives provide comfort at times of crisis, but their simplicity can lead to creaturely miscalculation by blinding us to the unavoidable fog of uncertainty that descends at times of international crisis.

The Bishop of Bradford suggests a number of framing grievances that have come together in Ukraine. Much has been made of the Crimea as part of Russia’s historic homeland and how this was threatened by the Maidan. But, to understand the depth of feeling here it is necessary to bring it into conversation with Putin’s rigidly legalistic understanding of world affairs.

Territorial integrity, state sovereignty and the non-interference in the internal affairs of other states have been key elements in Putin’s foreign policy. When seen in this context the decision to intervene in Crimea and to depart from these core guiding principles could not have been easy and suggests that something existential is at stake. This might explain why he’s gone further than many of us expected him to go, but it also warns that we have no real idea how far he might go.

Another constant in Putin’s foreign policy has been his opposition both to the easterly expansion of NATO and the EU. At the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 he told assembled leaders that “the emergence of a powerful military bloc at our borders will be seen as a direct threat to Russian security.” With regard to the EU, Putin has repeatedly said that he sees the EU’s European Partnership Agreement as the political and economic equivalent of NATO.

It is worth taking a closer look at the Eastern Partnership Programme as it provides the immediate background to the Ukraine crisis. Established in 2009 the Eastern Partnership programmes were intended to build regional stability and democratic institution building with six countries in Eastern Europe and the South Caucuses. It was launched after the EU’s enlargement in 2004 and 2007 to include 10 central and eastern states.

Russia has always seen the European Partnership Programme as an an attempt by the EU to carve out a new sphere of influence in its back yard. Russia’s response was the Eurasia Customs Union and it has sought to use its own incentives to draw these countries back into its orbit.

Since one of the main goals of the European Partnership Programme is to build gas pipelines bypassing Russian, it is perhaps not surprising that Moscow has perceived this project as a dire threat to its economic interests. The EU has played true to form and taken a somewhat technocratic approach to the various partnership agreements. It has been autistic to Russia’s concerns.

Each country obviously has a right to chart its own trajectory, but seen through Putin’s eyes the EU’s attempt to tether countries to itself is clearly provocative. Not surprisingly Russia”s Eurasia Customs Union leads to self-righteous indignation by the EU.
This cycle of mutually competitive behaviour reduces trust and increases suspicion. Western governments and Russia will need to find reciprocal confidence building measures if they are to break this cycle.

For one, the the EU needs to do much, much more to partner Russia in the region, rather than offering mutually exclusive trade deals to European Partnership Programme countries, which only fosters a sense of competition between Brussels and Moscow. What is worrying here is that Russia’s actions in the Crimea is intensifying discussion in some EU capitals that additional political reassurance needs to be offered to these same countries.

The risk here is that the Ukraine becomes the opening salvo in a much wider territorial game. The stand-off in the Crimea might be fuelling the current news cycle and monopolising our attention, but we should also be paying attention to what is going on in Moldova which is due to sign an Association Agreement with the EU later this year.

Against this background, I’m puzzled that Western governments are seriously considering abandoning the G8 in favour of the G7 and scrapping the EU-Russia Summit planned for later this year. The logic is understandable. It deprives Russia of international platforms that it thinks necessary to boost its own national prestige and standing.

Having being involved in the G8 Religious Leaders Dialogue for 10 years I remember the G8 St Petersberg Summit in 2006. As the first G8 Summit organized by Russia, this was a lavish, no expense spared affair designed to show that Russia had reclaimed its place at the top table. The Religious Leaders Summit was no different.To deprive Russia of platforms like this will hurt it, but there are consequential risks attached.

The decision to hold a G7 meeting in the margins of next week’s Nuclear Summit in the Netherlands has seen Putin boycott the main event. Putting aside the risk of allowing the crisis in Ukraine to infect other policy areas, the move risks reinforcing the emerging international division.

The legitimacy of bodies like the G8 is of course questionable, but they do provide a means to communicate national intentions more clearly. In this respect a return to the fireside chats of old might prove more effective than the mega phone diplomacy of recent weeks and might provide an opportunity to escape the unmistakable fog of uncertainty that has descended over Europe in recent months.


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With SyriaLast week marked the 3rd anniversary to the conflict in Syria.

Over the course of the last 3 years the conflict has resulted in over 2.5 million refugees, 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria and over 6.5 million Internally Displaced Persons. There are over twice as many Syrian refugees than there were Rwandan refugees during the 1994 genocide. The number of Syrian refugees also now exceeds the number of refugees during all the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1997.

The third anniversary of the Syrian conflict was marked with vigils around the world, with humanitarian and religious groups calling for an end to the bloodshed and humanitarian access to those most in need. I was really pleased that the Church of England decided to stand with Syria by being part of the global vigil. As the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, said in a statement last week:

How many more harrowing scenes of exhausted families crossing the borders from Syria must we bear witness to before world leaders take the necessary steps to resolve this conflict? For how long must we hear the heartbreaking stories of hungry crying children from besieged cities in Syria before we secure unfettered humanitarian access to those most in need? We can remain silent no more. The world can ill-afford another anniversary for Syria marked by bloodshed.

Despite all the encouraging tweets last week from diplomats, foreign ministers and Heads of State recommitting to resolve the crisis, it is difficult not to conclude that the international community’s policy towards Syria isn’t working and is in need of review.

Firstly, at current rates the deadline on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons will be missed – Syria has relinquished only 11%of its chemical weapons in three shipments and is on track to miss a politically-loaded mid-year deadline (30 June) to completely destroy the toxic stockpile.

Secondly, the fighting continues unabated in Syria –Cities and towns remain under siege. Cities are being bombed and starved into submission. The rules of war are being wilfully neglected by all sides.

Thirdly, despite the record amount of British aid (£600m) the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to worsen. The risk of contagion remains high and yet the UN Security Council has proved itself incapable of responding.

Fourthly, diplomatically, the Geneva 2 peace talks have reached an impasse. The second round of talks in Geneva (8-15 Feb) closed with an air of failure. There was no date set for a follow-up meeting, no constructive engagement to build, no trust.

Part of the explanation here is that governments, especially Western ones, continue to fall foul of simplistic meta-narratives and are at risk of pursuing a multiplicity of goals not all of which are complementary.

The West needs to acknowledge both the complexity of this conflict and the lack of leverage that it has to affect positive change. In doing so it needs to refocus its efforts on joint humanitarian-political goals and look to a more transactional diplomacy that looks to link Syria to other policy issues. It needs to avoid backing winners and look instead to engage with a broader array of Syrian opposition and civil society groups regarding Syria’s future.

These steps might not foreshorten the war but they might help to minimise the violence and ensure the continued territorial integrity of Syria. Whether such steps are now possible given the wider ramifications of the crisis in Ukraine is another matter. If not, there is a very real danger that we will witness yet another bloody anniversary in 2015.

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Egyptian Reflections

It might seem strange to write about Egypt while the situation in the Ukraine remains so precarious, but having spent last week in Cairo, this blog attempts to ground some of the experiences arising from that visit, before they get lost amidst my efforts to make sense of the politics of the Crimea.

For those interested in the finer details, I was in Cairo taking part in a conference organised by the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS) and the German Protestant Academy Loccum (EAL). This was the third in a series of conferences they have organized since the start, or probably more accurately, the renewal of the ‘Arab Awakening’.

Discussions this time around were framed under the catchy heading of Citizenship and Religion in Processes of Political Transformation – Current developments in Egypt and Arab countries and its impact on Arab-European Relations. Arriving a day early I squeezed in a series of meetings with NGOs and faith-based organisations based in Cairo.

Drawing on the wise advice of the Bishop of Bradford that blogs are meant to be the first rather than the last word on any subject, what follows is a series of over-arching reflections – not all of them I suspect coherent or even consistent. I apologise in advance for the length of this blog.

Reflection 1: Traffic in Cairo is quite literally a nightmare

This might be a strange observation to include here, but since it is a daily reality for the approximately 17 million people who live in this concrete metropolis it can’t be overlooked. It is not so much the congestion that is problematic – although being stuck in a traffic jam on the 6th October Bridge in the heat of summer can’t be good for one’s blood pressure – but rather the difficulty that it poses in planning one’s day.Cairo Jam

You really just don’t how long a journey is going to take and therefore how long to leave. Predictability and planning becomes that much harder and impacts on productivity. As I found out to my cost, a journey that should take 20 minutes can take 2 hours.

One of my favourite quotes from my visit was from a Liverpool FC supporting taxi driver who, with a copy of a well-thumbed Koran on the dashboard, said: “The problem with this city is that there are too many cars and too many mosques.” When I said that the easiest way to solve the problem would be to cut the fuel subsidy, he looked at me aghast and said: “Are you mad, do you want to start a revolution”.

Reflection 2: The Egyptian army makes the worst pasta

It’s claimed that the army has control over as much as 40% of the Egyptian economy. It owns football grounds, pasta factories, restaurants and provides services such as managing petrol stations. Some even estimate the military control as much as 80% of manufacturing alone. The Army isn’t just a military institution and a national symbol of unity, it is the dominant economic actor in the country.

Egypt PastaThis state of affairs is problematic in so many ways, not least because the army has a vested interest in maintaining its economic monopoly. This suffocates innovation, economic reform and market liberalisation.

With Field Marshal Sisi set to become the next President, this arrangement is unlikely to change soon. Yet, without reform it’s difficult to see Egypt meeting the legitimate aspirations of its citizens, especially its burgeoning youth. So far Egypt has decided to reject the reform conditioned loans from the EU in favour of no-strings attached financial support from the Gulf, but this generosity will not continue indefinitely.

Reflection 3: Egyptians are without a doubt very proud of ‘their’ revolution

So much so, perhaps, that they have become blind to its shortcomings. Even in respectable circles, any questioning, however gentle, as to whether the ideals of the revolution have been betrayed leads to a passionate defence that portrays Sisi as Egypt’s saviour, the new constitution as a return to democratic values and the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation that needs to be prosecuted by all means necessary.

Outsiders just don’t understand the uniqueness of the ‘Egyptian revolution’ and the need for it to be studied in its own terms. Europe’s own painful experience of political transition count for little here.

This self-defence mechanism is understandable given the upheavals of recent years, but if it is true that we inhabit the world which our words create, then there is a risk that the prevailing narrative in Egypt will see the country return unconsciously to authoritarian rule. Egypt -- Tahrir

The democratic space in Egypt is shrinking. As an ‘eradicationist’ tendency takes hold, human rights are being curtailed and the opportunities for even a partial reconciliation with the more ‘moderate’ members of the Brotherhood shut down.

To be fair, there are signs that there is some questioning of the regime by political activist and youth groups, but the impact is limited given the restrictions on press freedom.

This situation creates its own policy dilemmas for Europe’s policy makers. With a country hyper-sensitive to outside criticism, and with Egypt willing to look to the Gulf for outside funding, it will be all to easy for Europe to conclude that it can do little to influence the course of Egypt’s political development. Europe should be wary however, of allowing its own lack of leverage to contribute to a normalisation of an abnormal situation.

Reflection 4: Egypt is a country where your security and prosperity depends on your loyalty

Within Egypt’s unstable mix it is important to consider the situation of Egypt’s religious minorities not least the Coptic churches – orthodox, catholic and evangelical.

All too often the media in Europe present images of burning churches in Egypt as evidence that Coptic Christians are being persecuted because of their faith. This narrative paints a picture of a bubbling sectarian cauldron at odds with reality.

Egypt CopticThe violence experienced by Coptic Christians is politically motivated. It owes much to the fact that Coptic religious leaders came out so visibly in support of General Sisi’s ousting of President Morsi. To be fair, they had little choice.

As in other parts of the Middle East where Christians are numerically small in size, Coptic Christians have historically found that their security is dependent on showing loyalty to the regime of the day. This arrangement is akin to a secular version of the dhimmi contract between ruler and minority.

The scale of attacks on churches has diminished from its peak last year, but attacks still continue. The crackdown on the Muslim brotherhood is fuelling violence rather than curbing it and Coptic Christians remain an easy target because of their numerical size.

This again poses its own dilemmas for churches in the West.

Do we make the case that the Egyptian government is not upholding its end of the bargain and press it to take ever more stringent measures to provide protection and security?

Or, do we recognise that this only perpetuates the cycle of violence and that an alternative non-eradicationist and reconciling strategy is needed? Would such a strategy challenge the prevailing security narrative and in so doing create its own problems for Coptic churches?

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Ukraine: A crisis of Europe’s own making?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been taken back by the speed with which events in Ukraine have unfolded.  Rather than risking whatever credibility I have as an analyst in predicting how this crisis is going to play out, this blog takes a fresh look at whether the crisis could have been avoided.

To ask this question is not in any way to excuse Russia for its de facto annexation of the Crimea which violates international law and also the multilateral agreement regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity to which Russia is a signatory.  Putin’s Russia has been the subject of intense critique in recent years which were widely rehashed in the Western media in the months leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.

For what it’s worth, I think the inherent flaws in the design of Putin’s Russia will ultimately shine through. Russia’s grand ambitions to set up a Eurasia Customs Union to rival the EU, which in many ways is at the heart of this dispute, is unlikely to develop any economic momentum precisely because it doesn’t place any reform conditions on participating states. It is likely to crystallise economic stagnation and cement the oligarchical relationships that thwart the legitimate aspirations of citizens for a better life.    

My point in asking the question is that the emerging narrative that paints Russia as the road hog of Europe swallowing up European countries in its wake leaves me distinctly uneasy. Putting aside Russia’s legitimate sensitivities and interests in the Crimea, and Yanokovich’s stupidity – not to say anything about his brutality – in the handling of the demonstrations in Kiev, it is difficult to avoid the sense that this is a crisis of Europe’s making.

Russia UkraineFirst, Europe was a day late and a Euro short when negotiating with Ukraine last year. Would more generous economic concessions last year have been enough to tempt Ukraine away from Russia? 

Second, the deal that the 3 Europe Foreign Ministers brokered in Kiev was broken within 24hrs with no sanction. Did Europe give into mob rule, when it should have been reassuring Russia?

Third, the crisis once against highlights the structural shortcomings in Europe’s security apparatus and the fact that it doesn’t pose a deterrent effect in its own neighbourhood. Would Russia have behaved in the way it has, if Europe had paid as much attention to developing its hard power as its soft power?  

Fourth, there has been incoherence in Europe’s handling of Russia going back a decade or more. The cacophony of diplomatic statements – although more consistent in recent days – underlines the fragmented nature of Europe’s response and the divergence of national interests.  These interests are likely to come to the front again all too soon as EU governments attempt to move beyond words to action.

Fifth, there has been incoherence in the EU’s handling of the Ukraine stretching back years that has created a vacuum. The EU has pursued a multiplicity of objectives not all of which have been complementary.

In questioning Europe’s handling of events, my intention is not to engage in a predictable bout of British eurosceptism. To the contrary, if anything it suggests we need more not less Europe.

But, it is to suggest that even if the Crimea is now lost, we are unlikely to learn the lessons from this crisis if we allow ourselves to be deceived by a narrative that excuses our own failings. What is worse, our narrative is likely to blind us to opportunities to escape the present crisis.  Russian tanks

As Europe navigates its way through this crisis it would be wise to avoid the re-deployment of Cold War language. Such language is unhelpful and overtly simplistic as is the analysis that paints this as an East/West division. It should be avoided at all costs. Even in Ukraine there are forces that are opposed to both East and West. 

The talk of boycotts and sanctions, visa and travel bans and the idea that Russia should somehow be kicked out of the G8 are all understandable reactions, but there is also a value in maintaining a presence in those bodies that encourage face to face encounter.  

Where does this all leave the churches of Europe?  

As churches we should be pressing for patience and forbearance and for a policy which tries to bring together Russia and NATO to work together on this. We have got to get out of the either/or scenario. We should press for a narrative that assumes cooperation as its foundation.

We really must find someone or someway of galvanizing the Ukraine churches into a similar cooperative mindset. Outside south-west India there is nowhere where there is greater fragmentation and mistrust between the churches. The division between the churches and the competing jurisdictions and rites underlines just how fragmented Ukraine has become.

Russian Orthodox ChurchWe too should admit our own failings here. We have allowed the reconciliation work of the churches that was at the heart of the post-1945 ecumenical movement to slip off the agenda as we jostled unceremoniously for a seat at the table in Brussels. Have we turned our back on the wider pan-European vision of ecumenism in favour of an ecumenism which is centred around maintaining a transparent, open and regular dialogue with the institutions of Europe?

Even when we sit joyfully at the table in Brussels our focus is invariably inwards rather than outwards. Might not now be a good time for the Conference of European Churches to reach out again to the Russian Orthodox Church and to develop, however painful the process, a more inclusive pan-European ecumenical engagement with the institutions of Europe – EU, NATO, OSCE and Council of Europe?

What do you think? Could this crisis have been avoided? Is this a crisis of Europe’s own making? What are the lessons we need to learn?

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Diplomatic headaches in Geneva

What are we to make of the recent diplomatic encounters in Geneva as to the future of Syria?Geneva2

The answer to that question depends in part on whether you had high or low expectations as to what the talks could achieve.

Those that hoped the conference would result in an end to the conflict and the start of a negotiated transition to a more peaceful future will be sorely disappointed. The fighting continues unabated. The death toll continues to mount unchecked.   

Yet, even those that had recognized that a political breakthrough was never on the cards will be discouraged by the lack of agreement on the humanitarian agenda. Homs continues to be a city under siege. Civilians continue to be denied their basic needs.

If anything the talks in Geneva underlined just how intractable the conflict has become. The position of all parties remains deeply entrenched. Yet despite this harsh reality check, and the lack of any substantive agreement or breakthrough, we should not write off the Geneva talks.

It was a miracle that the talks took place at all.  The talks took place against a bleak back ground of 18 months of diplomatic wrangling over the meaning of the 2012 Geneva Communique as well as deep divisions within and between opposition groups both inside and outside Syria. The last-minute diplomatic kerfuffle over who should be invited could easily have derailed the process. 

The Summit signaled the resumption of politics and that move should be welcomed even if the politics remains for the moment dysfunctional. This was the first time in 3 years that the regime and opposition met face to face. Progress was always going to be incremental and piecemeal. 

We need to accept, however, that the Summit represented just another phase in a protracted negotiating process that will in all likelihood continue for years.  We should prepare ourselves for the reality that if the negotiating parties do resume talks on next week that the results are unlikely to be any more substantial. 

That doesn’t mean that they are a waste of time or a protracted distraction. With a stalemate on the battlefield talks remains the only way to resolve the conflict. It can only be hoped that the frequency of interactions over the coming weeks will see a gradual narrowing of the differences between international and regional actors as well as those party to the conflict in Syria.

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