Antje Herrberg, mediatEUr’s CEO, recently took part in a panel discussion entitled: “Post-conflict Syria: Which EU civilian capabilities for reconstruction?” The event set out to explore what role the EU might play in a potential future peace-building effort in Syria. Here, her reflections on Syria’s war, the EU’s prospects as a stabilising actor, and the importance of learning from the past.

I had the honour of giving a talk at a well-attended event at the Centre for European Policy Studies on the topic of Syria, on the 11th of May 2016 on post-conflict civilian crisis management and the European Union, entitled “Post conflict Syria: Which EU civilian capabilities for reconstruction”?. Whilst former Secretary-General of the European External Action Service Pierre Vimont gave a sobering – albeit very insightful – presentation of the Geneva talks themselves, Mazen Darwish from the Syrian Centre for Freedom and Expression gave a plea for making sure that transitional justice will be part and parcel of the eventual peace agreement.

Initially I feared that due to my non-expertise on Syria itself, it would be very difficult to provide expert insights, but in the process discovered then that quite a number of my former colleagues actually work these items, giving me an opportunity to reach out to them and also to reflect on the lessons learned from all the post conflict civilian crisis management cases that I studied or worked on.

What about when we have the agreement? (and if?)

As a starter, it is useful to think about what kind of scenarios one can envisage following an agreement. I fear – and this is inherent in the particular challenges to post-conflict civilian crisis management and peacebuilding – that there are two possible scenarios. The first one is that, even if an agreement is reached with the main governmental stakeholders, the country in itself is under control of a number of different factions/armies and others, so it will be quite challenging to see how critical aspects will be aligned which will then to be de-armed with the agreed balance of power. The second one is that – with or without agreement – there will be a frozen conflict, in which there will be a special extremely difficult to manage kind of civilian crisis management work while the country remains politically and territorially divided.

And the EU?

The EU will need to be open to apply a whole range of tools, at least as many as other actors, or even more so – if possible in an innovative fashion.

Following the cold war and enlargement process, I feel that Syria will be the biggest stabilization challenge for the European Union to date. What will be in particularly tricky in terms of the EU being a peacebuilding actor is that, in essence, the EU is not a truly neutral party to the conflict, having from the beginning of the outbreak of the crisis rebuked the Assad Regime. So it will have to bring itself to be clear about its own role with the parties, in order for it to become a trustable partner. Thus a communication challenge not seldom for the EU.

In terms of post conflict reconstruction, there a two obvious priorities and that is the facilitation of the return of refugees, recovery and rehabilitation of fighters through dedicated DDR programmes, an instauration of a transitional justice process, and the restoration of public services.

This type of work will have to be effected with a high degree of conflict sensitivity as to how to provide capacity building and support. In that sense peacebuilding has to be fully mainstreamed in all of the reconstruction process. It is not only about building bridges, but also how to build bridges, with whom and how, who are the architects and so on. I am not sure whether the EU and its contractors ever fully followed through a likewise challenge (maybe in Kosovo? ). Often times, the peacebuilding aspect seems to be the most tedious to manage, the least tangible to monitor, and requires a critical mass to allow for a transformation. Engineers and economists are not yet attuned to this type of work. A huge undertaking and challenge, maybe the biggest after EU enlargement. We are, and should be in a new Marshall Plan – for Syria, maybe even for the Middle East, who know.

There is impressive work on the financial tools that have been prepared by the EU and others, but it seems that all is on standby, just waiting for an agreement to be signed (which in itself might be a spoiler). In terms of peacebuilding, the tools that might be the most adequate ones are the Madad trust fund (which should be made available to the Syrian conflict issues) and the Syrian Peace Facility, including a framework contract provided to the German GIZ to provide for in-country peacebuilding and flanking measures as well as supporting the UN for diverse activities.

Obviously nothing cannot be done without a strategy which is something the EEAS, together with member states and the European Commission and its partners of the international community, will constitute the backbone of in any future Syrian-type Marshall plan.

The initial communiqué negotiated in Geneva I attests a need for a national dialogue.[1] As Pierre Vimont points out, this communiqué is still an important basis for the negotiations. Even though the international community finds itself in a state of national dialogue fatigue due to the lessons learned from failures and weaknesses elsewhere, such as in Yemen or Ukraine, I believe that a national dialogue should actually be the basis for a transformational process in Syria. This is not so much to be a top-down imposed national dialogue led by prominent International figures, but a carefully crafted fairly open process that can take into account the multiple factions and stakeholders in the Syrian political and societal landscape. It will require patience, time, and outstanding coordination and planning skills to implement. And still it will be the most important driving force for reform, national healing, constitutional change, effective power sharing and transition.  This is what, in terms of a commitment, should be expected of the parties.

Much more can be said about what is needed, how to mainstream dialogue and peacebuilding in all aspects of reconstruction and stabilisation. Let me instead turn me to some other Lessons Learned from Stabilisation efforts in, for example, Iraq, Kosovo, Ukraine and others.

Former UN Envoy and Diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi’s speaks of the 7 sins of mediation. I want to touch on, in this context, the 7 virtues of peace building.

  • Understanding the conflict dynamics – facts on the ground. Syria is extremely complex. We do not know all the facts; maybe never will. Yet we must figure out ways of how we can establish facts on the ground, in a systematic way, using modern mapping methods with regular monitoring. This might be also important in terms of a transitional justice process. A number of NGOs work with mapping tools, and so does mediatEUr, for example in Ukraine. Extending this out to the policy community both in Syria and in the international community will create a common understanding of the key issues involved. I mentioned Srbenica as one  extreme example when we did not do this type of work. Given the extreme rifts between societies, it well possible that revenge and hate killings will continue beyond the war.
  • Stabilisation and Transition go hand in hand, and these should be integrated with one another, albeit difficult to implement as there are different actors involved. Considering the funds and instruments not only from the EU but also other actors, it might be sensible to have an EU Special Representative to oversee the cooperation of such operations. It is critical to deconflict inter-agency competition of the EU and allow for a maximum of synergy alongside one single concept.
  • And here, it is clear that the key to reconstruction will be to address root causes. Thus, in any kind of reconstruction, facilitation of is key. A support basis will be built on the local community level; this dialogue is then also to occur on vertical level. This will prove challenging in Syria due to its heterogeneous population, and the many multiple different levels of conflict. This complexity is a challenge but also allows for several entry points. This is also where conflict mapping could be useful.
  • Reconciliation.  It is clear that the reconciliation is not something the international community should manage but support: by training, by sharing lessons, helping to build institutions, platforms and so on. It is an intimate process within the framework of international legal norms, but the process in itself is to be set out by the key actors.
  • Dealing with local government might be most effective in building the foundations for transition. This is so, since it appears that the government in Syria seems to be so conservative and resistant in its culture. We have experienced a bit of this in Ukraine as well.
  • Easily said, but not often done:  We also know that stabilisation efforts should not be heavy and slow but nimble and quick. Low bureaucracy, easy disbursement, high effectiveness. Maybe handed over to an implementing agency. There will be a lot of money available favouring big projects, but it’s important not to leave out effective niche projects who can leverage more of a difference than big, heavy ones. There is NO time to waste, so please dear funding planners, make it that way!
  •  And again: Easily said and for some reason still saying and saying… One the bureaucratic level, it will be important that we will measure ‘success’ in Syria, no matter what the public opinion demands. Let’s avoid looking for quantitative success rates in a country that is as deeply torn as Europe after WWII, but internally. Let’s avoid the “throw money at the problem” approach. Give more resources to staff to manage projects. Rely less on contractors but work within a partnership approach.
  • And lastly, provide for inclusivity and non-conventional approaches: We will have to involve the diaspora. If we do not work with them they might be the future inciters of violence and often spoilers; funding agencies need to make this possible.

This is just a sketch of some lessons learned, delivered in 10 minutes. We are usually pretty bad at really fully capitalising on our rich resources of lessons learned, but here we must be reflective as possible and even bring these experiences to the ground as we cannot afford to screw it up. It will take generations to rebuild Syria, and a number of generations to heal the wounds in the hearts and minds of the traumas that the people of Syria had to endure. With all of my heart I wish the Syrian people peace and freedom for their country.


[1] United Nations. Action Group for Syria: Final Communiqué; 30 June 2012.

Accessed May 12, 2016.

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Antje Herrberg

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