Should We Talk To ISIS And Assad? The Elusive Quest For Peace


Published 11 th January 2015 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

With well over 200,000 dead in Syria [1] alone and the recent brutal attacks in France the elusive nature of peace is as important as always. Records of war and violence go back as far as humanity, yet peace remains just as intangible. The nature and extent of violence may have changed [2] but the road to peace must remain a priority with such crushing death tolls and statistics on violence. Syrian ConflictSo why is peace so elusive and why are conflicts so intractable with "thirty-one conflicts active in the past ten years, only eight were new conflicts, thirty-one being resurgent conflicts in areas where they had been dormant for at least a year" [3]? I believe the answers may lie in the peace processes themselves.  

LSE academic, David Keen, stated: "In one sense, everybody wants peace; it is just that they want their own version of peace." [4] Peace is subjective. When someone says that they want a peaceful resolution to a conflict, what they are actually saying is that they want their version of peace imposed upon the conflict. This becomes problematic when it results in victor's peace; when one party in the conflict is proportionately more powerful than the others and imposes their peace demands at the expense of other parties. Other issues can arise in the group representation at negotiations, often consisting of political elites who are more interested in personal gain than national interest. Furthermore, pragmatic resolutions to conflict such as amnesties or reparations may reward actors for engaging in violence hence reinforcing its strategic value.

These issues develop out of various conceptions of what peace is which can be understood if we consider one prominent definition of peace which defines it simply as the, "absence of violence" [5]. Depending on what is meant by violence will shape our conception of peace and how we seek to achieve it. One of the main theorists in this field, Johan Gatlung, developed a threefold definition:

- Direct violence: This is generally what we understand to be violence - physical harm in the form of murder, rape, looting or sabotage.

- Structural violence: This is where violence is "present within structures which den[y]...people access to physical and social well-being" [6] such as political exclusion, economic exploitation, religious persecution etc.

- Cultural violence: This form provides the environment which makes direct and structural violence appear justified and legitimate. It can be understood in relation to cultural peace: "aspects of a culture that serve to justify and legitimise direct peace and structural peace." [7]

As is often the case, a focus on merely direct violence is incomplete usually resulting in a 'negative peace', this being the absence of overt violence often characterised by a ceasefire; while direct forms of violence may be dealt with other forms are left unchecked or are possibly further embedded such as economic inequalities, political exclusion, and/or lack of security. In contrast to this limited concept of peace is 'positive peace', a sustainable non-violent situation where conflict can be manifestly said to have ended; characterised by the cessation of the causes of a conflict and the reconciliation of actors. Positive peace therefore seeks to address not just direct violence but also structural and cultural, thereby preventing a recurrence of direct violence. Recognising the rationale behind violence - often grounded in a complex miasma of grievances [8] or opportunism - enables peace processes to function as pathways to reconciliation between actors. So what does this look like in practise?

Take the situation in Syria at present: a conflict between Bashar al-Assad's Ba'athist government forces, and ISIS and secular rebels (though there are also multiple other international actors including the UK). Generally it is characterised as a religious conflict between Sunni and Shi'a Islam but this reductionist explanation simplifies these forms of Islam as homogenous. What is really happening is due to a complex mix of historical, political, economic, social, and religious grievances and resolving the conflict will likely happen in either a victor emerging or a peace settlement. In the case of a victor this will address the direct violence associated with the war but structural inequalities are likely to be perpetuated and continue. In the case of a peace settlement this would require parties coming together likely only occurring in the case of a military stalemate and even then the legacy of the war will severely limit any capacity for negotiations. ISIS's political polarisation with Assad makes the situation deeply intractable and as ISIS's power grows [9] peace remains as elusive as ever.

So what are we doing about it? Well the current UK government position of stripping ISIS fighters of British passports rendering them stateless [10] and treating them as terrorists only serves to embed their impression of the UK as a repressive state that seeks to oppress Islam. Rather it is either through dialogue with the 'enemy' or else military defeat that such 'threats' to our national security can be addressed. Current measures are only a sticking plaster over a festering wound that will continue to worsen until our approach develops. Our infatuation with negative peace leaves us incapacitated in resolving underlying causes of violence and war and results in state responses that embed the very issues that they seek to resolve.

A positive peace approach would involve dialogue with ISIS and Assad alongside the secular rebels. Rather than focussing purely on the grossly inhumane acts that are being committed we must try to understand the rationale behind them and seek to address these issues. Focussing on acts of violence results in zero-sum positional politics that entrenches grievances rather than seeking to address the causes. What is needed is a transformation of how we engage with these actors; either we need to be prepared to consider the need for military action to force resolution (though this more often leads to further resentment and alienation of the West) or else dialogue with 'the enemy' needs to develop.


[1] Adam Taylor, "200,00 dead? Why Syria's rising death toll is so divisive", The Washington Post, December 3 rd 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/12/03/200000-dead-why-syrias-rising-death-toll-is-so-divisive/

[2] Steven Pinker, "The surprising decline in violence", TED Talks, March 2007. http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence?language=en (accessed 01/01/15).

[3]Oliver Ramsbotham et al. (2011), Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Third Edition. Cambridge: Polity Press. p71.

[4] David Keen, "War and peace: What's the difference?" International Peacekeeping, 7(4): 1-22.

[5] Johan Gatlung (1969), "Violence, Peace, and Peace Research", Journal of Peace Research, 6(3): 167-191.

[6] A.B. Fetherston (2000), "Peacekeeping, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding: A Reconsideration Theoretical Frameworks", International Peacekeeping, 7(1):190-218.

[7] Johan Gatlung (1990), "Cultural Violence", Journal of Peace Research, 27(3): 291-305.

[8] E. Azar (1990), The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases. Dartmouth: Aldershot.

[9] See the article by one journalist who recently returned from observing ISIS. Jurgen Todenhöfer. "'Islamic State' - Seven Impressions of a difficult journey", 22 nd December 2014. http://juergentodenhoefer.de/seven-impressions-of-a-difficult-journey/?lang=en

[10] "Passport Seizures To Keep UK Jihadis Out", Sky News, Friday 14 th November. http://news.sky.com/story/1372934/passport-seizures-to-keep-uk-jihadis-out