Geneva Day 5

Day 5 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

On the front page of the International New York Times (which I still call the “International Herald Trib”!) there is a photo of a Syrian woman standing in the middle of a rubble-strewn street in Aleppo. She has spontaneously put her hand up to cover mouth as bombs have just fallen. As I looked at her, I thought: Who is representing you here at the Geneva Peace Talks?

 As so often happens in the mainstream media (as versus online and print reports by feminist researchers and journalists), a woman is made the subject of a news photo, with a brief caption underneath, but then she – and in fact virtually all women – vanish when the full news article is written. This is what happened today. The Times inside story about the “scramble” to keep the faltering peace talks alive was a story about men, rival men, mediating official men, but all men – Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, the men of the Opposition, the men of Assad’s government, the men of the Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and Qatari governments, the officers and conscripts in the Assad government military, the commanders and fighters for the Syrian pro-anti Assad militias, the commanders and fighters for the foreign Islamist militias….

At meetings yesterday, Syrian women civil society activists and their transnational feminist supporters, however, remained engaged. The 10 Syrian women from inside Syria, women active in civil society groups “on the ground,” kept up their rounds of meetings with various state delegations, with the EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton, with staff of UN Women and with these independent “INGO’s” (the lingo for international non-governmental organizations, such as WILPF, ICAN, Kvinna till Kvinna and other feminist groups).

But it is not clear that simply doing these rounds of embassy visits is proving very useful. No government official offered to do anything. They did not expend any of their own political currency. They didn’t even offer to get them passes so they could get inside the building. Their meetings with these ten Syrian women representatives may just allow these governments to claim that they “care” about Syrian women without actually doing anything to insure that their important voices – their knowledge, their peace strategies – are inside the peace talk negotiating room.

Syrian Women Activists speak at UN Women Press Conference.

Syrian Women Activists speak at UN Women Press Conference. Photo by UN Women, retrieved from Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One puzzle I heard voiced yesterday was why the UN Women staff here are setting their political sights so low, why are they recommending that the Syrian women push at most for “observer” status in the talks — to listen but not talk? Admittedly, they don’t even have that now, but why start with such a modest demand? Perhaps the UN Women staff are also just “ticking the box”? That is, are they, like their counterparts in the various embassies just eager to be able to say that they were “supportive” of the Syrian women, without actually rocking any diplomatic boats – and thus without actually altering the structure of the official peace talks? A puzzle.

But the feminist strategists working with the Syrian women are certainly not setting their sights low. In all the conversations yesterday, they worked on plans to get the Syrian women’s voices, ideas, knowledge and proposals into the room.

For instance, one of the plans crafted by one of Syrian civil society networks would implement regional ceasefires with the aim of delivering desperately need humanitarian aid — food and medicine. They say that all of Syria is not an active fighting zone. The country really is made up today of violent war zones (for instance Aleppo, where the Assad Air Force is bombing civilian areas), but also areas – even particular neighborhoods of cities such as Homs and Damascus – where there is now a precarious peace.

For instance, on the coast, there is currently little open fighting, but there has been an influx of people from other regions fleeing to the coast in the aftermath of violence in their own home regions. The coastal region is where many Syrians who identify as Alawite (the group that Assad’s governing elite draws upon for its male personnel), but it has been women from this coastal community who have taken the initiative to actively set up support systems for the incoming displaced people, a majority women with their dependent children, even though outsiders would see those people as “Sunni.”

The Syrian woman presenting this proposed region-by-region peace plan yesterday – from the pro-civil society group Madani – drew a diagram on a white board (around the table there were 13 of us — British, Northern Irish, Turkish, Swedish, American, Norwegian – today it was 8 Macs, 2 pcs). She stressed that in these unstable but not openly violent areas such as along the coast and certain neighborhoods of Homs and

Damascus, what was immediately called for was NOT armed UN peacekeeping soldiers. Rather, what was needed there were locally designated civilian peace monitors – to be recognized by all sides – to oversee the bringing in of aid. In addition, there could be external and locally trained mediators, who would spot rising tensions and intervene to address them before they erupted into open violence.

The other point that was emphasized in yesterday’s strategy meetings was that any and all civil society/women representatives needed to put into place clear “feed back”

mechanisms. One of the groups that has conducted surveys among Syrians doing peace work inside country – the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSDS) – has found that the people who were most trusted by Syrians were “those who came and asked us what we thought, then went off and DID something about that, and THEN returned and told us what they had done and asked us for our responses to that.”

All the women with experience not only in Syria, but in Northern Ireland, Somalia, and Bosnia, emphasized that creating the conditions for ceasefires and maintaining them, as well as keeping precarious areas back from the brink of violence is itself peacebuilding. That is, we shouldn’t imagine that this hard, smart work in the midst of war’s violence and dislocation to be simply preliminary to peace; it itself is peacebuilding. And, of course, right now it is women who are developing those crucial peacebuilding skills and crafting these important political concepts.

So, I head for the airport in an hour with all these new ideas and images in my head. But the story isn’t over. Here in Geneva, feminists from independent transnational groups and Syrian women representing civil society groups inside Syria are still meeting, still strategizing, still pressing governments, opposition leaders, and the UN to make the peace talks more realistic and more potentially productive by bringing Syrian women’s voices and ideas to the table.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.