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As Syrian Peace Talks Take Shape, How Will Women Take Part?


Syrian women refugees at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Sept. 4, 2015. MSTYSLAV CHERNOV/CREATIVE COMMONS
The United Nations is arranging peace talks for Syria in January 2016, the first in years to try to end the nation’s long war. Here, women and children refugees were among those protesting conditions at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Sept. 4, 2015. MSTYSLAV CHERNOV/CREATIVE COMMONS

When the United Nations Security Council recently approved timelines to begin peace talks and institute a national cease-fire in Syria, the language in the resolution gave no hint of the magnitude of such undertakings, nor did the congratulatory speeches afterward by diplomats delve into the details.

That means the nitty-gritty work is left to the UN, as Staffan de Mistura, the Syria envoy, just announced Jan. 25 as the target date to start negotiations that could finally end the war in Syria. As it enters its fifth year, the conflict is estimated to have killed 250,000 men, women and children, left millions of people homeless and an untold number of Syrians kidnapped, tortured, sexually violated, hungry and wounded: a mind-boggling toll of possible war crimes.

In fact, the Security Council resolution, approved on Dec. 18, has been criticized for its large gray areas in how to carry out the formidable steps in the appointed time periods, including arranging a cease-fire, determining who will represent the opposition at the peace talks and deciding the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Consensus has been reached on two items: that Daesh, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both blacklisted by the UN, will be excluded from negotiations.)

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De Mistura and his team of advisers, based in Geneva, may have a time frame to work with, though not explicit dates: besides starting intra-Syrian peace talks in Geneva, they must establish a unity government and draft a new constitution in six months and hold elections in 18 months: all told, a process of two years. De Mistura’s team is rushing through the holidays to try to get the talks ready for next month.

That includes having women involved, as expressly reinforced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and wording in the Dec. 18 resolution. In an interview with PassBlue in New York days after the resolution passed, a member of de Mistura’s team explained the efforts to include women in the opposition side: no easy matter, either. (Women will most likely be included on the government side as well.)

“Staffan was very clear,” said the team member, who asked to remain anonymous given the delicacy of the work, that to attain a “sustainable peace process you need women to be at the table at Day 1.” That was his approach to the Syria file, this person added, “conscious of the grievances around Geneva I and II.”

The Geneva II talks, held in 2014, put women on the sidelines, seriously disappointing groups who had been lobbying to sit as a third party with the warring factions at the table. (The first Geneva talks, in 2012, lead to a communiqué for future discussions to try to end the war.)

For all the Syrian advocacy networks operating inside the country and outside it, the team member said, their biggest tool has been speaking out and saying, Enough is enough. Yet for women to get a place at the peace table and to be useful requires an altogether different tactic: outdoing the men.

“It’s important to have highly trained women among a room of 200 men or so, who are talking in 500 different directions,” the team member said. The key is “outsmarting the men, picking your battles and having two to three messages” when you go in. If women aim for everything under the sun, the person noted, they risk being treated inconsequentially.

This advice has been conveyed to international donors like the Americans, Dutch and British, who have volunteered to train or have been training different Syrian women’s networks, including at a conference held by the UN recently in Amman, Jordan. Another conference organized by the UN in the spring in Geneva brought together a range of advocates to help shape a vision for a post-conflict Syria. It is those voices that the UN said it was determined to include in some form at the Jan. 25 session, said another team member in an overseas call after Christmas.

As to whether any civil society group, including those composed of women, will sit at the peace table is still a big question, given that the makeup of the opposition side is currently under discussion, with plenty of tensions circling around this decision.

On Dec. 18, 2015, the press was briefed at the UN on the new efforts to get a cease-fire in Syria in place as peace negotiations start. From left: Sergey Lavrov of Russia; John Kerry of the US; and Staffan de Mistura. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO
On Dec. 18, 2015, media were briefed at the UN on the new efforts to begin a cease-fire in Syria, among other steps to end the bloodshed in the country. From left: Sergey Lavrov of Russia; John Kerry of the United States; and Staffan de Mistura of the UN. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

“Big politics are being played out,” the UN person said in the call, so it is critical that member states — from Russia and the United States to those in the region — get the parties to Geneva.

At the very least, women’s groups that could end up participating will need some prepping so they can concentrate on such hard-core issues as governance.

Women, the team member in New York noted, are by nature “efficient” and direct, two strong suits in negotiations, but they will also need to keep their emotions out of the room, despite the pain that has been inflicted on them during the long years of the war. Part of the training is to make sure that women avoid “unloading” their grievances in a peace-talk setting, to keep men from stereotyping women and their contributions.

“We have not said that women are not going to be in the room, but we are waiting to see the list from Riyadh,” the team member said, referring to the conference held earlier this month in the Saudi Arabian capital to organize as broad a political representation of opposition forces as possible for the talks.

If the number of women designated from Riyadh is not enough, de Mistura will find another way to give women’s groups “equal standing in an advisory” way, to be his “primary ear.”

The steps leading to the Dec. 18 resolution approving the political track to confront the Syrian crisis began at meetings in Vienna in October and November, providing the first push in years to move a peace process forward, instigated by the Syrian exodus to Europe this year and Russia’s bombing in Syria this fall.

Formally called the International Syria Support Group, it consists of the Arab League, Britain, China, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the UN and the US. But it is Secretary of State John Kerry of the US, working closely with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who is credited with ensuring the Council’s unanimous support of the peace plan.

Indications of how much women will be included meaningfully in the talks could be reflected in how many women attended the Riyadh meeting: 10 percent of the approximately 120 participants. From there, two women make up the 34-member high-level negotiating committee, further paring the list of participants for January.

Choosing who will take part is one of the trickiest aspects of designing the “architecture” of the peace talks, the UN adviser overseas said. Powerful parties like Russia and Iran want to finesse who will be part of the opposition, while Saudis and Turks pull their own weight regarding preferences.

All of which leaves the role of women on the fence for now.

One option, to include women and civil society groups as third-party participants would probably not work, the UN adviser in New York said. A third wheel in the room could enable the government and opposition to play off that presence, diluting the focus of negotiations; in most cases, governments want to talk only with the guys with the guns, as the adviser put it.

Using UN Women and other entities as a guide, how to “best square that circle” of assuring women’s active role in Geneva, without upsetting consensus from Saudi Arabia, not a country especially friendly to women, and the International Syria Support Group, has left de Mistura’s team exploring other choices.

“We’ve heard all along that women want a voice at the negotiating table but also keep their independence as civil society,” the person in New York said, which means not having their voices drowned in the opposition party. Having women involved in “parallel discussions,” like enacting an “advisory role to the mediator [de Mistura]” is a possibility.

“They become a sounding board and reality check, keeping us honest and also giving real advice.”

What do women want, in the end, from the peace talks? Security, transitional justice and accountability for the long, long list of grievances — by many accounts, war crimes — inflicted through the brutal tactics of the regime and rebels as well as the ISIS extremists. Space for accountability will exist in the beginning of the talks, the person in New York said, but the demands must be presented carefully so that negotiations can proceed.

Guaranteeing security — that the bombings by Assad and his Russian supporters will stop — is embedded in the Security Council resolution, the team member noted. It may be an imperfect tool, the person acknowledged, but it represents the best diplomatic avenue to open in years.

Syrians, the UN person overseas said, can barely wait anymore.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland, The Hague and Cyprus). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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