The MJDR-RRDM recently had the privilege of conducting an interview with Ambassador Mokhtar Lamani, a lifetime diplomat with the United Nations who has extensive experience with mediation and negotiation in post-conflict situations throughout the Middle East. This included extensive work in the League of Arab States as special representative in Iraq in 2006-2007, and head of the UN mission in Damascus to end the conflict in Syria from 2012-2014. In both cases he resigned in protest because of the conflicting agenda he found on the ground. These are his insights on his experience followed by advice to future potential mediators and negotiators looking to resolve issues relating to violent conflict and post-war society.
In 2007, you spent a year in Baghdad, Iraq, as an ambassador of the Arab League charged with the task of assisting Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, and Christian leaders to make peace. You resigned from your post in February 2007. What motivated you to submit your resignation? What were the principal factors that weighed in the balance when you made your decision? Was this a difficult decision for you to make? Do you have any regrets about the decision you made?
It was definitely a very hard decision to make. I was appointed by a resolution of the Arab Summit, which took place in March 2006 in Khartoum, Sudan. In the resolution, you can see that we were aware of the extreme level of complication at that time on the ground. And it’s not only an Arab problem because Iraq has a long border with non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran. It’s an international problem.
I accepted the position in part because it was a huge mess, so if we could do anything about national reconciliation it would be a massive step for the people of Iraq. The thing that has encouraged me is the Arab league. Prior to that, they were the only group who succeeded to organize, in Cairo, a meeting of national reconciliation that was attended by everybody: those that accepted to be in a political process and occupation, as well as those who were opposing even armed American troops on the ground.
With the resolution it was very clear that, as a special envoy in Iraq by establishing that was my choice, establishing an office in Baghdad, that would be the very first step to build on it and I was very clear and open to it, to talk to anybody locally, regionally, internationally, to explore possibilities to end the drama and the suffering of the Iraqi people. I divided the Iraqis in four major groups: politicians, inside as well as outside the political process, tribes, the sheikh of the tribes, and civil society and religious leaders. I made certain to listen to everybody to understand, so I had no problem of developing a dialogue and I think until now, I was the only one who used to be received by everybody. But what I needed in such position was to move from dialogue to negotiation, and for this, you need a lot of tools and these tools were not in my hands and in a way, the Arab League itself, you know, were very happy to have an ambassador there who was received by everybody you can see on TV like as if it was an objective.
I was making lots of proposals about how to conduct some other negotiations but nobody was listening and it was very dangerous also because I chose, just to have credibility with the Iraqi people, to live in the red zone and, if you remember at that time, they used to find every single day, thousands of bodies just in Baghdad. I was strongly targeted by some extremists, especially Al Qaeda at the time, so after one year, making all these proposals, things were not moving and I was witnessing that it was going from bad to worse. I did not want to lie to the kids of Iraq over the future, that there was anything positive for the future that would be of honour for me. I was frustrated and I had to leave because I knew there was no difference that I could help make for the country, and you see now after almost 10 years things are getting worse.
While you were in Baghdad, you refused to live outside the Green Zone (International Zone of Baghdad). Why?
Yes, for one thing it was not because I am a hero or Tarzan. It was just because I was holding a project of national reconciliation and I wanted to make it easy for any Iraqi to come to see me, because those Iraqis that were opposing by arms could not come to the Green Zone. So I established myself outside of the Green Zone, which was considered by lots of people to be suicide, but I’m still in one piece.
In March 2012, you also stepped down from your post as head of the office of the United Nations-Arab League Joint Special Representative in Damascus, Syria. Why?
Firstly, this mission is different as it was mainly in the name of the UN and it came as a second mission, after the mission of Mr. Kofi Annan. But, it was totally different because the mission of Mr. Kofi Annan and the office of the UN was much more in line of office of military observers.
Our mission was much more political and working with Lakhtar Brahimi, who was a very old friend of more than three decades, so I was so happy to work with him because I considered this the last chance to have real peace in Syria if people would like it. And he, a great friend, asked me because the mission has two dimensions, an international one and a local one. He needed someone to trust working there so I immediately accepted. Those are our own people and if we can help them that would be great for me, while at the same time helping Mr. Brahimi inside Syria. This is why I decided to be in Damascus.
In the few first months, I used to travel every Saturday to go meet with the commanders of the Free Syrian Army and others, and in turn the opposition. That was my work during two years while Mr. Brahimi took so long himself to convince both the Americans and Russians to work together with the UN to prepare Geneva.
As you know, conflicting agendas dominated and so after two years’ time of stalemate we had to leave with things not moving. I’m not the kind of person to stay just for money or for press or whatever. When you are witnessing the suffering of lots of people you have to take the right decision at the right moment.
So it was a similar decision as in Iraq, the same idea that things were not moving?
No, actually they were only getting worse.
You have also mentioned, in an event with the Middle East Institute in June 2014, that there is a high level of mistrust between Syrians. As a mediator, how did you attempt to build trust between parties that were in Syria?
Actually, those were common characteristics between both crises when I was in Iraq as well as in Syria.
There are two main things I noticed as the larges problems. The first is the very high level of mistrust of concerned people. They don’t even make a distinction between dialogue and negotiation. They don’t talk to each other. The second is the fragmentation. Forces are so fragmented, and not only politically. The conflict took a social dimension. So, it would be very easy if you were mediating between two people fighting each other, but if you’re a handlers and it keeps changing on a daily basis, all the time, you know when we wanted to have data of the armed groups, what they call brigades and, of course, brigades has no military definition. It can be 5 people, as well as 30,000 people. We counted more than 2,000 groups, so in mediation this fragmentation causes a huge handicap, as well as that very high level of mistrust.
How did you deal with that? How did you approach it?
Well you have to meet and to listen and to try and see everybody to have an idea about the situation on the ground and if you see, even one of the problems that’s both the Americans as well as the Russians were came in with strongly held positions, especially the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State, as they wanted Geneva to happen as soon as possible.
In my view, dealing that way creates a new situation in which Geneva becomes an objective, instead of a tool, and this is why it was so complicated and it is still very complicated.
When I used to go and meet with the commanders and ask them about the opposition inside, mainly the coalition, you know these people within the coalition themselves, I consider them as victims because I told them in one of the meetings of the Friends of Syria, “you are the only representatives of the Syrian people and you are recognized by 152 countries as the only representatives of the Syrian people” so they trusted that and waited in standby waiting for the American army to take the power. It didn’t happen, but when I used to go and see the commanders I had a list of personalities from the coalition as well as from the internal opposition and I used to ask the people “who do you think is representing you?” and you could not imagine that you would have an infinite number of answers. So, no one is representing anyone if you live in Syria.
This is one of the major problems and from the other side you are dealing with one of the most cynical regimes which cannot imagine the possibility of a political solution. Everything is a unilateral approach emphasizing security, security, security, which only seems to cause complications.
ISLAMIC STATE IN IRAQ AND THE LEVANT
In June 2014, the Islamic State occupied a territory across Syria and Iraq. The United States led a coalition in an air-strike campaign. In an article with the Globe and Mail in May 2015, you stated that the air war against the Islamic State is failing. You recommended that a systemic approach be encouraged, including initiatives like Montreal’s multidisciplinary centre for the prevention of radicalization. Why sort of initiatives like these needed?
First of all, we know from history that there was no war that was won from the air. You need troops on the ground, and there are so many complications when you see that the Islamic State is the same organization both in Syria and Iraq, but the very first thing we must ask ourselves is “why in Iraq are the extreme majority of people in the Islamic State Iraqis, while in Syria they are a minority?” You see, it is because of the specification to each one of these two crises.
More than that, the security solution cannot be because there were so many people coming from all over the world, some of them just for adventure, some of them just the something to be killing or whatever else. In my view, these kinds of radicalization need a different approach.
In the international community we had a summit about AIDS, about climate change, and in others, we had many summits. Why not create a summit about this kind of radicalism in which we put programs for how to deal with it because you need to deal with it in a multidisciplinary way?
When I give the example of a centre or whatever, this is because it was a consequence that there were so many young people that wanted to join ISIS. So, if you tried to convince them and talk to them, the multidisciplinary approach is not the way they are presenting things to you on the net to attract you to go there. There are different approaches, different experiences and some countries choose just the security approach, but with ISIL it was a total failure.
They had lots of young people going there, but some like Denmark opened the door. They had the experience to go there and they were strongly disappointed by their own experience, to bring them and talk to people their own age.
Now, the radicalism we have is Islamic, but we had the same kind of radicalism in the 30s with the Nazis. So, you have kinds of radicalism every time it’s happening so it’s not specific to an ethnic group or religion, but it’s true that some extremists are using it and succeeding. In my view, the approach should be definitely multidisciplinary and you have to go deeply inside all the issues at every level. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have security, but not only security.
Is that why these types of initiatives are so important?
Yes and they must be connected internationally. In my opinion, a summit of the international community is the most effective. We human beings have huge problems and with this question we must ask how to approach it in different ways.
There are so many things to be done like creating a proper education system, but you have to begin the process. What I regret, and I said that in the same article you mentioned, is the fact that the international community when Daesh, the Islamic State, took Mosul and became a real force in the region, the Americans reacted by having the coalition bombing them and having this and look now after more than one year it was a total failure and the fact that we in the international community were just reacting.
We are not proactive and in my view we have to be proactive, not just that the problem is there and we react then. From the beginning until now, the initiative has been in the hands of the Islamic State. It should be the opposite. The initiative to end this kind of problem should be in the hands of the international community.
Do you think that should also be multidisciplinary and multilateral in terms of having many countries involved?
It has to be discussed because if you see the example on the ground now with ISIS from the beginning the international coalition led by the Americans counted on the Iraqi army and the militia.
I know these militia personally. I was there. And some of them are at least as dangerous as the Islamic State, from the other side. Some are very strongly sectarian. The conflict is an opportunity for them to have the upper hand and if there are so many Iraqis in the Islamic State, maybe those were some from the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein, because they were left from 2003.
So they had no choice than to change, which is why we have to be very careful why in Syria they didn’t want to count on the Syrian army and they’re counting on Kurdish militia and it’s very weak and very limited. You need to change dramatically the approach and I think this is even why General Allen resigned. It’s not working.