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World Politics

Contribution of International Non-Governmental Organizations to Peaceful Conflict Resolution Processes: The Case of the Syrian Conflict

Rustamova Leili Rustamovna

PhD in Politics

Research Fellow at the Primakov National Research Institute of the World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences

117418, Russia, Moscow, ul. Trade Union, 23

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Abstract: Due to the increase in the number of conflicts, which lead to the growth of tension and destabilization of the system of international relations, the search for new mechanisms for their settlement and new participants who are able to introduce a positive agenda through interaction with all parties is an urgent research task. This paper focuses on international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), acting as such new actors and taking part in the settlement of the conflict in Syria. The purpose of the article is to analyze their contribution to the Syrian peace process, to consider their possibilities and limitations. The methodology is based on discourse analysis and case studies. The case of Syria was chosen because of the ongoing nature of the civil war there, as well as the fact that INGOs have proposed a number of new initiatives to resolve the conflict, which makes this study novel. The study identified the main organizations that propose a peaceful settlement of the conflict, and also identified the main trends in the participation of INGOs in the crisis settlement in Syria. Thus, participating in the peace process, they also implement peacebuilding projects, actively cooperate with local INGOs, and switch to remote work formats due to security problems. However, the analysis of their proposals for the peace process also revealed the main problems of the activities of INGOs within the framework of track II diplomacy, which consist in their neglect of the principle of impartiality. The ability of INGOs to promote their initiatives is also influenced by the dynamics of traditional diplomacy. The key takeaway is that, despite the complexity of the Syrian peace process and the dominant role of traditional diplomacy, INGOs have a significant positive impact on the peace process as they promote grassroots cohesion among the Syrian population and encourage them to form civil associations similar to INGOs, which are also gradually beginning to look for ways of national reconciliation.


INGOs, peace processes, track two diplomacy, violence, armed conflict, Syria, civil society, mediation, principles of INGOs, non-state actors

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

MNPO activities in conflictsMNPOS are actively involved in solving many global issues that are somehow related to conflicts between states.

 A discourse analysis of the works of such well-known Russian researchers studying the role of MNPO, as P. A. Tsygankov, L. S. Voronkov, V. G. Baranovsky, A. O. Naumov, E. V. Stetsko, A.V. Shitova, allows us to conclude that despite all the criticism of their activities, their growing global role and increasing involvement in the settlement of problems is precisely high security. At the same time, a significant part of the research consists of works that analyze their humanitarian activities or involvement in domestic political processes. The involvement of NGOs directly in the negotiation process and their impact on peace processes remain the focus of attention of only a small part of the work. Nevertheless, monitoring the situation with the level of environmental pollution or lack of water and other resources along the perimeter of the borders of States, pointing out violence against a particular social group, drawing attention to the increase in tension along the line of contact of disputed state borders, they act as early warning agents about a possible new conflict or the incitement of old ones smoldering conflicts. Some of the NGOs with a history of decades of successful work on the protection of human rights, including during armed conflicts, have established themselves as authoritative participants in the conflict resolution process, enjoying in some cases even greater authority than the States, since in the XXI century the credibility of state structures, especially authoritarian countries, has been called into question. Amnesty International, Transparency International, Hu man Rights Watch are among such organizations that have also become the most researched cases of the possibility of MNPO to participate in monitoring conflicts and resolving problems related to conflicts . These organizations also exercise oversight functions over States, carefully collecting information on their compliance with their obligations under international humanitarian law during armed conflicts. At the same time, in their work they are guided by such principles of international organizations as humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, which allow them to remain on the territory of conflict-affected countries and not be attacked by the most belligerent participants in conflicts. Of particular importance is such a principle as "do no harm", which in the broadest sense means recognition that any kind of assistance from the MNPO, even medical, is a significant third-party intervention in the situation on the ground and can seriously affect the local economy, the balance of power and the displacement of the population. Therefore, organizations that provide humanitarian assistance or take part in the negotiation process should proceed from the fact that any "potentially negative consequences" should be critically analyzed [1].If we talk specifically about those NGOs that specialize, first of all, in providing mediation services in conflict settlement negotiations, that is, they participate in the so-called second line of diplomacy, in addition to these principles, according to researcher P. All, they must also meet four conditions:

it is good to know the country, its problems and participants in the conflict; to have partners from among the local population; to have experience, skills and knowledge in conflict resolution; to understand the personal risk that MNPO employees face when trying to directly intervene in the conflict [2]Russian researchers engaged in the study of the peculiarities of the functioning of the second track diplomacy and the involvement of MNPO in the course of internal conflicts, for example, Yu. N. Sayamov [3], A.V. Shitova [4], add to these criteria the need to take into account the peculiarities of local traditions and political culture. NGOs that cooperate with local forces and have full information directly on the ground, as a rule, act based on an understanding of the relationship between crisis management and long-term sustainable development.

They proceed, among other things, from considerations of post-conflict reconstruction and the fight against such root causes of conflicts as, for example, the struggle for drinking water sources, etc., and therefore the solutions they offer, coupled with humanitarian projects, are able to achieve a more sustainable and lasting peace. Their undoubted advantage is also the fact that due to their authority, non-belonging to one side or another, they are able to interact with a very different set of actors with whom, for one reason or another, representatives of the official government cannot negotiate. Such actors include rebels, separatists, terrorist groups, which, thanks to their extensive resource base, are able to create quasi-state associations in the territories under their control. Their willingness to enter into a dialogue with reputable NGOs is conditioned by the fact that they see in them the possibility of their legitimization in the international arena and recognition of themselves as participants in the conflict, who can then get the opportunity to participate in the process of transit of power.The ability of MNPOS to help reduce tension also lies in the fact that, playing the role of mediators, they find compromise solutions on acute issues of international relations.

Unlike official representatives of states, as R. S. Mukhametov notes, they are not afraid of losing votes and therefore are more free to express non-standard interpretations on conflict resolution [5].

Due to the fact that most modern conflicts are hybrid, each individual case of conflict, along with the common problems faced by NGOs participating in the peace process, introduces new difficulties for them and leads to the development of new approaches. Therefore, in order to assess the complexity of the participation of such organizations in the settlement process and the possibility of making a positive contribution, it is advisable to turn to the case of a certain conflict. This article focuses on the possibilities and limits of the MNPO to participate in the peace process on the example of the current peace process in Syria. Relying on such research methods as case study, event analysis and discourse analysis, the author aims to determine the impact of MNPOS on the peace process in Syria. Features of the participation of MNPO in the peace process on the example of the settlement of the conflict in Syria

The Syrian conflict has become one of the most dramatic conflicts of the XXI century, during which, according to the UN, about 400 thousand people have already died by the time of 2021, almost 5.6 million have fled abroad, mainly to neighboring countries — Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan [6], which also provoked an increase in internal tensions as in neighboring countries, and throughout the Middle East. The conflict is complicated by a large number of States involved, as well as non-State actors, some of whom are also directly involved in the fighting. The interests of non-State actors, their status and opportunities for access to the negotiation process cause disagreements between States. In particular, it is widely known that at the very initial stage of negotiations between Russia and the United States on the Syrian problem, the issue of classifying a number of Syrian organizations as terrorist became a stumbling block. While Russia insisted on excluding them from the negotiation process, the United States referred them to the moderate opposition and looked for opportunities in the face of such groups to establish contact with political forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A large number of NGOs can also be attributed to the number of non-State actors that take part in the settlement of the conflict. At the same time, their participation is characterized by the following features: reliance on a variety of political forces within the country and the fragmentation of the MNPOS themselves; the influence of the dynamics of traditional diplomacy on the ability of MNPOS to contribute to the peace process; low security and limited opportunities for MNPOS to be present on the ground, which determines their close interaction with local civilian forces.

By implementing peace-building and peace process programs, MNPOS somehow deal with civil society, which is divided in Syria. At the same time, the part of society that supports the government of Bashar al-Assad and the part of society that advocates for representatives of the opposition often stand in directly opposite positions. The multi-pronged attempts to bring their positions closer, which were made at the UN site within the framework of the mechanism to promote the participation of civil society in the intra-Syrian negotiations in Geneva (the so-called Civil Society Support Room (CSSR)), according to experts, did not lead to success [7], and foreign NGOs have to either choose between them or rely on a variety of groups and political forces. A number of organizations have relied on the Syrian diaspora living abroad in the hope that its influential representatives, who maintain contacts with political forces inside Syria, will be able to convince the government to make certain concessions to the opposition. This kind of organization, for example, includes The Shaikh group , which positions itself as an independent NGO, whose mission is to promote dialogue with the peoples of the region and between the states of the region, as well as with key international players. In Syria, the organization has developed a draft of constitutional amendments and a number of programs that bring together various representatives of Arab and Kurdish communities from the north and northeast of Syria for dialogue [8].

MNPOS with close ties to their State of origin also came to the country. These include, for example, the Swiss platform KOFF, which is engaged in peace-building around the world; the American NGO "Carter Center", which developed the initiative "Support for Peace in Syria", which includes two interrelated areas of development of the peace process: dialogue on conflict transformation and research, analysis and documentation of the conflict; the Turkish NGO "Humanitarian Aid Fund", which mediated in various conflict situations in Syria (for example, the release of prisoners and tortured journalists) [9].

In the conditions of fragmentation of such MNPOS, it became necessary to create a single negotiating platform linking MNPOS and the forces on which they rely. Such functions were assumed by the Search for Common Ground and the European Institute for Peace (EIP), which in 2015 created a platform for regular meetings and exchange of views between NGOs, government representatives, as well as international multilateral organizations actively supporting efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria. The advantages of this platform include the creation of a real channel for the exchange of information between participants and the creation of opportunities for coordinating efforts through traditional diplomacy operating at the UN site and second track diplomacy operating on the spot.

At the same time, the achievement of foreign NGOs was the fact that against the background of their efforts to bring together various groups of the population, civil society organizations also began to be created within Syrian society, which began to independently look for ways to solve humanitarian problems and unite into entire networks and platforms based on the similarity of their goals, principles of work or assessment of the Syrian peace process. The creation of such organizations and their active interaction with foreign NGOs made it possible to solve a number of local conflict situations, since, due to the cultural traditions of Syrian society, local authoritative elders of communities, heads of families played a decisive influence in their communities and a significant role in terms of reducing conflicts at the local level, mediation and promotion of peaceful values. In the report of the Swiss peacebuilding organization S wisspeace "Inside Syria. What are local actors doing for peace?" it was noted that "in Idlib and Aleppo, community leaders often participated in negotiations on the release of detainees and abducted persons, as well as in conflict resolution and mediation between various armed groups" [10]. By mid-2021, the International Council of Volunteer Organizations stated the existence of 12 Syrian civic platforms, which united many small organizations that launched local peace-building initiatives aimed at overcoming political, ideological and interfaith differences [11]. For example, the Coalition of Syrian Civilian Youth "Nabd" ("Pulse"), an interfaith movement with branches in several cities, created in mid-2011, fought the growing influence of jihadist militants through interfaith unity programs [12]. Women's Syrian organizations also organized peace-building events between the opposition and supporters of the regime, uniting women loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad and supporters of the opposition in events aimed at identifying common features between them.

In view of the fact that the conflict in Syria has caused a real humanitarian catastrophe, NGOs that deliver humanitarian aid are of great importance for the peace process, since meeting the basic needs of the population helps to minimize their participation in the conflict. This conclusion was reached, in particular, by a team of scientists who analyzed the practice and consequences of providing humanitarian assistance to the population in Idlib and Northern Aleppo, GOAL NGO, which organized programs there to provide the population with bread at a reduced price through the supply of flour and yeast to local bakeries, as well as to ensure constant access to clean tap drinking water through the maintenance of work 66 water-bearing stations and four water supply nodes [13].

Specifically in Syria, humanitarian activities and peace processes turned out to be closely interrelated, since humanitarian assistance was the most urgent need, and it was this that caused a high degree of trust in foreign NGOs in the civilian environment. At the same time, the complexity of the conflict and its impact on regional security also necessitated the work of NGOs in neighboring countries with a large number of Syrian refugees. The insufficiently high level of socio-economic development of neighboring countries, resource limitations could potentially cause new conflicts already between Syria and its neighbors, for this reason, for example, a large number of German NGOs implemented programs in close cooperation with the German Ministry of Development on the territory of neighboring countries with Syria: in Jordan they were engaged in providing access to drinking water, in Lebanon - the provision of medical services, in Turkey – employment projects. Such projects, in particular, are implemented by the German organization Welthungerhilfe , which notes that social and humanitarian support projects in nearby countries help to develop social cohesion between Syrian refugees and the population of host communities [14].

However, the complexity of the work of MNPOS in neighboring countries is due to the fact that they have to take into account what position their official government takes towards certain ethnic groups inside Syria or in relation to the negotiation process itself. Thus, the Turkish government expelled two NGOs from its territory: Mercy Corps and International Medical Corps , which provided assistance mainly to Syrian Kurds in Afrin, an enclave of the Kurdish People's Self-Defense Units (YPG), which maintain ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) [15]. Turkey also resists the participation of the Kurds as a third independent political force in the Syrian peace negotiation process, fearing that they will create an independent state hostile to Turkey. With the direct participation of Turkey, the Kurds, in particular, were not invited to the talks as a separate force in Geneva in 2016, individual representatives who proved their non-involvement in ties with the PKK were able to attend only as part of the general delegation of the Syrian opposition, which complicated and delayed the peace process [16].

         Although MNPOS are formally independent both from their home States and from the policy of the country on whose territory they operate, the dynamics of the negotiation process and the positions of States on the first track have a certain impact on their ability to participate in the peace process. Firstly, this is due to the fact that it is the states that ensure the safe stay of MNPOS on the territory of Syria, as well as compliance with the ceasefire regime, during which they have the opportunity to establish direct contacts with the population. Secondly, the experts themselves from among the MNPO called the irreconcilable position of the states with which they are associated on the immediate change of power in Syria and the policy of non-interaction with the Syrian regime as restrictions on their ability to participate in the negotiation process, which sharply narrowed their negotiating capabilities at the initial stage of the conflict.

Problems and prospects of MNPO participation in conflict resolutionThe participation of NGOs in the peace process requires an integrated approach and is often more complicated than the activities of traditional channels of diplomacy, since they have to take into account the opinions of many parties.

At the same time, such organizations cannot ignore the humanitarian component of crises, and a significant part of their work is cooperation with humanitarian organizations or directly humanitarian activities in order to prevent escalation of tension in the region.

The great merit of the MNPO, including in Syria, is that they allow to stop a number of problems and prevent conflicts from growing in neighboring countries by launching programs on intercultural dialogue and humanitarian assistance in them in a timely manner.

Their analytical work and drawing attention to the problems of the negotiation process has a certain influence on the course of the traditional direction of diplomacy, although the latter has the decisive word. In this regard, M. Teros and R. Turkmani cited as an example how the position of the third UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura, as the person responsible for organizing and conducting peace negotiations, was influenced by a number of influential NGOs, the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) and the Women's Advisory Council (WAB), prompting him to insist on the broad inclusiveness of all parties to the peace process [17].

Without their active participation, it is impossible to create the foundations for interethnic reconciliation on the spot, since the daily work of such NGOs leads to the formation of a certain civic awareness and readiness for dialogue, therefore, their activities within the framework of the second line of diplomacy accompany the practical implementation of traditional diplomacy.

Taking into account their positive contribution to solving the most acute problems hindering the establishment of the peace process and the transition to national reconciliation in Syria, the United States was forced to amend its Regulation on sanctions against the Syrian government and remove from there items that previously did not allow non-governmental organizations to deal with elements of the Syrian government if they are engaged in peace-building projects and measures in support of the peace process and democracy [18].

Experts directly involved in the second track diplomacy in Syria emphasize that the architecture of the settlement between the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition, which includes the processes of drafting a new constitution; holding free and fair elections; a ceasefire led by the UN; ensuring political pluralism in Syria under majority rule, but with strong guarantees for minorities, - was developed on the basis of the painstaking activities of their organizations. They developed these guarantees and prepared the intellectual ground for traditional diplomacy.

At the same time, a number of experts note that it is impossible to exaggerate the possibilities of civil society to influence the course of the conflict and its settlement. E.A. Stepanova in this regard cites as an example how civil associations of Armenia opposed any peace deal with Azerbaijan during the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which took place in the first decade of the X XI century.[19] With regard to the Syrian peace process, the limitations of MNPOS can be considered their minimal interaction with pro-government representatives of Syrian society.   More and more NGOs are being criticized for a unilateral approach to conflict resolution, disrespect for the principle of impartiality. Their true interest and effectiveness are also questioned by a number of researchers, who noted that their reports of abuse by the authorities are not based on the reporting of their own employees in the field, but on information provided by third parties, often interested parties, and the sources of funding are often hidden, and this leads to the fact that grant-givers actually receive indulgence from criticism [20].This also applies to the Syrian case, where MNPOS faced serious security problems (for the period 2019-2022

The International Security Organization (IOM) recorded that 35 employees were killed in Syria, 118 were wounded and 4 were abducted) [21]. More than half of all NGOs worked remotely, interacting with local civil organizations via electronic communication, which led to their non-compliance with the principles of work of international non-governmental organizations, in particular, the principle of impartiality.

The most serious criticism was caused by the activities of the White Helmets organization, which is perceived by the absolute majority of Russian experts as an engaged organization created from abroad to support anti-government forces in the Syrian Arab Republic. Since from the very beginning of its creation, the organization worked exclusively in territories beyond the control of the Syrian government and under the control of the armed opposition, often the most radical, its disloyalty to terrorist organizations was questioned. The organization tended to document crimes against human rights in Syria, but not only Russian, but also foreign journalists and eyewitnesses on the ground noted that the organization was engaged in falsification of crimes against civilians, discrediting the official government in Damascus. Russian expert Yu. N. Zinin cites as an example the non-profit public organization "Swedish Doctors for Human Rights", which accused the activists of the "White Helmets" of staging the filming of allegedly injured children in Syria [22].

         Criticism is caused by the International Crisis group , which positions itself as an organization whose integrated approach is to prepare analytical materials, provide humanitarian assistance and also proposals for a peaceful settlement. At the same time, as a measure of political settlement in Syria, the organization sets the task of changing the dominant narratives, which "focus on jihadism and migrant flows, which are symptoms, not causes of the problem" [23]. In 2011, the organization presented an analytical report with the provocative title "Delayed suicide of the Syrian regime", in which, in fact, it abandoned the traditional diplomatic methods for the second track: defending active international participation and coordinated decisions in which the safety of the civilian population is of paramount importance. The organization suggested that "armed escalation led by America is the only reliable way out of the impasse" [24].

Experts also state that as the number of intermediary NGOs increases, the danger of their competition and competition among themselves increases. Working on the same battlefield, a number of MNPOS tend to cultivate a culture of secrecy, a plurality of leaders and competing peace settlement projects, which not only does not contribute to conflict resolution, but also gives an additional impetus to its protracted nature [25]. This problem has become especially urgent due to the fact that Syrian civil society has been divided in accordance with the current territorial division of Syria into three main territorial enclaves, each of which is controlled by different political forces.

Russia, as a direct participant in the anti-terrorist campaign on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, actively interacted with foreign NGOs in order to provide humanitarian assistance to the population, and also welcomed peaceful initiatives to bring together the disparate civilian population, but its official position is characterized by a restrained assessment of the positive contribution of NGOs operating not on the territory of the country, but from abroad.  Noting that they link projects on the peace process and post-conflict reconstruction with the fulfillment of a number of political conditions by the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Russian side insists on the introduction of a mechanism for verifying the activities of NGOs (for example, how their humanitarian aid is distributed in the territories controlled by terrorist groups) and their active interaction with the official government of Syria. At the same time, Russia also encourages the efforts of its NGOs to promote projects for the peaceful settlement of the conflict and the restoration of peaceful life in the country. So far, among the organizations engaged in promoting inter-Syrian reconciliation and restoring peaceful life, the oldest Russian international organization is the most active: the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society, which promotes interreligious dialogue in Syria. However, there are no Russian organizations specializing in the development of conflict resolution projects in the second line of diplomacy in Syria yet, for this reason, studying the experience of foreign NGOs, their capabilities and limitations remains an urgent research task in Russia.  ***

          At the moment, the prospects for the settlement of the Syrian conflict remain vague. A large number of participating states, whose interests in Syria are existential interests of high security, on which they are not ready to make concessions, cause the low possibility of participants in the diplomacy of the second track to have a decisive influence on the dynamics of the negotiation process and bring all interested parties to a common denominator. However, if the diplomacy of the second track had not been involved in the settlement of the crisis, the situation would have been even more depressing, since NGOs dealing exclusively with the peace process and humanitarian projects contributed to local cohesion and convergence of positions at the local level. Their analytical work also gave a clearer picture of the whole complex of problems preventing the end of the civil war in this country. At the moment, experts state that the conflict has become frozen, but projects on the peace process continue to be developed by both NGOs and analytical centers. One of the last such projects was presented by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations "Klingendahl" in July 2022. [26] Thus, the efforts of actors operating within the framework of the second line of diplomacy to promote the peace process do not allow us to stop the search for peaceful initiatives to resolve the conflict in Syria, while the focus of attention of all key states, those who acted as parties to the negotiation process moved to the European continent and the conflict in Ukraine that unfolded there. 


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