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Q&A: From Back Channel to Diplomatic Fixture

For years prior to last month’s suspension of formal peace talks in Geneva, Track 2 discussions have taken place behind closed doors between parties to the Syrian crisis, experts and others. Randa Slim, a veteran of these dialogues, discusses their role in Syria as the formal peace process collapses (part 2).

Written by Scott Malcomson Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

Part 2 of a Q&A with Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute on Track 2 diplomacy and the Syrian situation (Part 1).

Last October, as the Iran nuclear negotiations began to bear fruit, the powers that had been involved since 2012 in the on-and-off “Geneva process” of Syria negotiations tried to restart the process, this time with Iran openly a party. The talks began in late January of this year and were almost immediately suspended, to universal disappointment. But for several years prior to the suspension, and continuing even as formal talks subside, there have been Track 2 discussions taking place among the parties to the Syrian conflict. Track 2 refers to private, usually confidential talks among parties, experts and others; Track 1.5 indicates the presence of sitting government officials; while Track 1 refers to formal negotiations of the traditional kind, dominated by governments.

Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute is a veteran practitioner of such talks and is closely involved in them on both Syria and Iraq, from which she recently returned. Carnegie Corporation visiting media fellow Scott Malcomson reached her at her home in Beirut to discuss the state of Track 2. (Part 2 of 2)

How do you account for the increased use of Track 2 processes, including by governments?

The activity of officials in Track 2 has increased, in part, because there is much more appreciation of diplomacy as a multitrack process, with a variety of entry points and a multiplicity of actors. We need to understand international politics as interactions among diverse “body politics.”

Due to unprecedented regional turmoil, the Middle East presents one of these rare cases where, because of the crisis overload the U.S. administration and Western and regional governments are experiencing, we see officials proactively seeking advice and willing to consider ideas generated in Track 1.5 and Track 2 spaces. Not only are officials more willing to listen to us than in the past, some also participate in Track 1.5 talks. This does not exclude the fact that there are still some officials, especially in the Middle East, who consider Track 1.5 and Track 2 work as creating “unnecessary background noise.” Still, we have moved far from the suspicion official actors reserved for Track 2 work in the past. This is partly due to the fact that we now have individuals and organizations that have been involved in Track 2 work for some time and have gained both the experience and the respect to reach out and involve a wide range of official and unofficial actors in the international and regional arenas.

In our dialogues, we have officials sitting in not necessarily as representatives of their governments, but as informed and influential experts there to participate and, especially, to listen. Such semiofficial or unofficial dialogues are great places for experimenting with new ideas, for floating trial balloons to see how the other side perceives them, how the other side reacts—without any binding commitments from any party sitting at the table. This function of idea testing is not always possible in formal Track 1 negotiations.

Track 2 spaces are also ideal for addressing misperceptions. Relationships among states have a psychological aspect just as relationships between people do. There is a lot of historical and psychological baggage between countries, as we have been seeing lately between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A wall of mistrust exists between some countries; Track 2 provides a place to start chipping away at this wall. Beyond that, it provides a place to do scenario-building, good and bad, and to think together how to move toward best-case scenarios.

Track 2 is a phenomenon of its era. In the past, conflict was between nations. Now, conflict involves a host of nonstate actors. Governments sometimes face political and/or legal prohibitions against reaching out to certain nonstate actors. Track 2 actors, who don’t face the same legal and political restrictions, can reach out to these actors. Ahrar al-Sham in Syria is one example of such a nonstate actor. It might be politically difficult for American officials to meet with Ahrar al-Sham leaders, but Track 2 actors, including Americans, can.

As it has become increasingly common, Track 2 has developed both as a practice and in terms of the institutional infrastructure it requires. In the past, the participants were mostly former officials and some academics; now Track 1.5 includes officials along with former officials and analysts. The infrastructure of a Track 1.5 or Track 2 process has also become multilayered and more resource-intensive. For our Middle East Dialogue, we hold two to three meetings in the region every year. We also have three or four people at the Middle East Institute who undertake regular postmeeting briefings with officials in the United States and abroad. In between meetings, we hold regional consultations—in Iran, Iraq, Russia, Washington, Riyadh, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Turkey. The primary purpose of these regional consultations is to share the dialogue recommendations with as wide a set of official actors as possible and also to monitor how governments in the United States, the West and the region are analyzing developments.

We also upload some of our meeting memos on our website to place ideas from the dialogue in the public arena. Ahead of every meeting, we conduct our own analytical work about the topics that are on the dialogue agenda. On a regular basis, we try to experiment with new methods in conducting the dialogue. Some of these methods work. Others fail.

The Track 2 field has become more sophisticated, in terms of the participant profile, its modalities including pre- and postmeeting activities, and means of transferring results from Track 2 into Track 1, which is of course crucial.

Still, one should not make exaggerated claims of impact from Track 1.5 or Track 2 projects on the official process. There are many entry points and many actors in any official decision-making process, and ideas generated through Track 1.5 or Track 2 enter this process along with many other competing ideas generated by official and unofficial sources.

To what degree do Track 2 or Track 1.5 institutions fill the vacuums left by the weakening of intergovernmental institutions such as the Arab League?

The Arab League is a product of a regional order that is no longer there. The new regional order will need a new regional organization. The Arab League as it is constructed today is unable to evolve with the times. A new institution will take a long time to emerge but it will have to eventually as the new order settles. It will need to recognize the much greater role of the Gulf countries, for instance. The major actors within the Gulf Cooperation Council have more of a regional sway and influence now than the Arab League does. The Arab League was the product of a regional order that pivoted around power centers in Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo; that regional order is long gone. Now you have Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha that are primary drivers in regional politics—and non-Arab actors like Turkey and Iran.

Track 2 is not a substitute for government. It creates spaces where, as power structures and relationships change, various actors can meet to develop ideas and to address specific problems. In the case of Syria, our regional dialogue preceded the formation of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Now, we are discussing how this Track 1.5 can complement an official process like the ISSG. In a Track 1.5 or Track 2 process, one thinks across borders, since the regional consensus is that ISIS is a border-crossing common enemy. While governments are adopting an “Iraq first” solution to ISIS, participants in the Middle East Dialogue understand there is no Iraqi solution to ISIS or a Syrian solution to ISIS. The solution, like the problem, has to be regional and viable across state lines.

Your professional education is in social psychology rather than international relations or area studies. How is it then that you’ve made a career in the nitty-gritty of international relations through Track 2 and Track 1.5 processes?

I experienced firsthand, as an adolescent, the civil war in Lebanon, and I was always drawn to look at what civilians can contribute to conflict resolution. I studied Track 2 efforts by people throughout the civil war in Lebanon to generate ideas for an agreement, for a deal. And in fact, the Taif Agreement of 1989 is very much the product of a three-to-four-year Track 2 process started among Lebanese inside Lebanon from different communities. Most of the ideas in the agreement came out of this Track 2 process which was convened in Lebanon, with meetings often held in the green zone separating the two parts of Beirut, and which not many people know about. From my experience as a Lebanese citizen during the civil war, I find that outsiders often look at local actors only as victims. Of course they are victims but they can also be agents of change, with resources, with power, which if brought together smartly and creatively, could marshal a momentum and develop ideas for conflict resolution.

So this whole process of “citizen-led” peacemaking activities piqued my intellectual curiosity. I think partly because as a citizen living through the civil war I felt at times powerless, my life being decided by parties and forces outside my control. By being involved in conflict-resolution work, by becoming an actor in a peacemaking effort, no matter how small it is, you gain some power over, and make some sense of, the conflict that is raging around you. You are not a fighter, you are not a government official, but you become an actor, and not just a passive observer of events unfolding around you.

My work in social psychology was all oriented toward conflict resolution. My first job was at the Kettering Foundation, which convened the Dartmouth Conference, one of the oldest and highly influential Track 2 dialogue processes between the Soviet Union and the United States. It was started in the 1960s at the behest of President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev.

That was my introduction to Track 2 work, and I was given the opportunity to learn from expert practitioners, people who were at the top of their game. And I was able to see how Track 2 gave you the chance to escape the constraints of diplomacy, and to reach out to actors who are necessary to a solution but cannot be communicated with by someone in an official capacity. This experience defined my interest in becoming a practitioner of Track 1.5 and Track 2.

In the 1990s, I joined a Russian-American third-party team negotiating the intra-Tajik conflict, between the government and the opposition in Tajikistan. This dialogue preceded by one year, and then worked in concert with, the UN-mediated intra-Tajik negotiations. After that, I worked for three years as an advisor to a Swiss-government funded project in the Ferghana Valley, working on designing and establishing local conflict-preventing mechanisms on issues dealing with border, resources and security.

After 9/11, as an Arab-American I felt a moral responsibility to start working on issues involving the United States and the Arab region. Until then, I had shied away from working in the Middle East. After 9/11, I felt I must re-engage with the issues of the Middle East.

I organized two Track 2 dialogue projects, one bringing former senior American and European officials together with leaders of Islamic movements in five countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In 2006–2009, I worked with a U.S.-E.U. third-party team on a Track 1.5 national reconciliation effort involving mostly Iraqi parliamentarians, representing the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities and tribal leaders. That dialogue ended in 2009 because the Iraqi prime minister at the time was not a big proponent of national reconciliation.

After the Arab Spring and the civil wars that started raging, especially in Syria, launching the Middle East Dialogue was a natural reaction to the developments that were unfolding very rapidly in the region. From the beginning, my co-moderator Paul Salem and I have placed particular emphasis on convening participants from the region in the region, which we consider a very important characteristic of the process and one that is essential to preserve.

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference following a day of meetings in Vienna on October 23, 2015, focused on a political transition in Syria. (Associated Press)

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