How do you solve a problem like Syria?

I have been thinking about Syria and how to resolve the situation there in a way that does not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

My own personal experience of dealing with conflicts both in my professional work as a coach to leaders in businesses across the world and as chairman of a charity is that the resolution of situations like these takes a shift in perspective that is counter-intuitive.  By this I mean that our key concern is not about how to we resolve Syria but rather how we choose to respond without falling into the traps that Syria represents.  If we see it as a test of our ability to show a different model for using power then we enable everyone to make a transition and we become a role-model for a different approach.  In this sense the question is not how to deal with Bashar al-Assad or what he is doing but rather how do we want to exercise power?  Since we cannot ultimately control how he chooses to respond, or all the other various parties included, we can only choose how we want to act.  Why this is counter-intuitive is that our natural inclination is to focus on how to control the other parties involved and the danger with this is it sucks us into putting control as our primary objective and attempting to control something you cannot ultimately control leads you to force.  This is the position that Bashar al-Assad is in and the Rebels.  Everyone is seeking to use force to control each other and achieve their will.

So how do we respond differently and break this cycle?  There are two things I think are important to bear in mind.  Firstly, it is possible to break these cycles and there are examples around that provide confidence that this is the case.  South Africa is one example – who would have thought that it could be resolved without bloodshed and that the white minority government would hand over power as part of a peaceful transition? Northern Ireland is another example; no-one would have envisaged Martin McGuiness, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley working together to share power, nor would anyone during the cold war have believed that Russia and the USA would talk or that the Berlin wall would come down.  On a smaller scale, my own experience also reflects this; I have watched individual leaders shift destructive cultures and transform apparently insoluble conflicts.

What is behind the conflicts and what resolves them?   Behind each of these conflicts is an identification with “us and them”.  The parties involved forget their common humanity and become lost in identifying with the veneers of culture, nationality, religion.  They start to see the other people not as fellow human beings but as being odd, wrong, bad, monsters etc. etc.  Once the other parties are “them”, we do not have to make the effort to understand them and we can treat them in inhuman ways.  In South Africa, the white minority government genuinely thought that blacks were different, that they were from another species that they could not live alongside.  In Northern Ireland, the protestants thought the catholics were so different they could not live with them and vice versa and the Eastern bloc and the West thought they were different beings.  In each case, once they saw each other as fellow human beings the divisions and conflicts were put in perspective – the perspective that we are all human beings feeling the same emotions and suffering the same hurts, misunderstandings etc.  It is difficult for anyone to conceive now that the South African government saw Nelson Mandela as a dangerous terrorist who must be imprisoned.  Similarly it is difficult for us to see the firebrand that was Ian Paisley as the peacemaker.  The only way to resolve the issues effectively is to be on everyone’s side.  If we take sides we are lost because any action we take will contribute to “us and them” divisions that will increase conflict.  Similarly, if we act unilaterally it will create further division and tension.

The second thing that is critical is that it takes time and a long-term perspective to shift these issues.  If the culture is one of power used violently then the temptation is to use power violently to attempt to resolve it.  Even if you are successful then the culture of “might is right” is re-inforced.  The situation has to be transformed and the first transformation is not to respond in the same way.  One obvious short-term solution is removing the individuals who are causing the problem but this is rarely successful.  This is because of a misconception that it is these individuals who are causing the problem, when usually they are symptomatic of the problem.  In fact these individuals are key and understanding and working with them usually provides all the answers to shifting the underlying culture.  In this sense these individuals are like a masterclass in understanding the nature of the issues and how to resolve them.  Getting rid of them is the equivalent of chopping a head of the mythical hydra, two more crop up in its place.  The more attempts to use violence to solve the conflicts, the more new hurts and anger are bred.  A long-term commitment to a positive goal allows the flexibility not to get caught by short-term frustrations.

So what should the goal be?  Personally my goal would be to help Syria solve its own internal conflicts without the need for outside intervention and critically to involve other nations like Russia so that they start to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the problem rather than feeling they are being railroaded.  To do this the first step would be to win the trust of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.  Without trust it is impossible to influence people except through coercive force and this always has a cost, mostly in terms of others’ seeing that your modus operandi is force and fear.  Nelson Mandela took a different approach and created the conditions in himself to overcome “us and them”.  He did not fall prey to the desire for retribution or revenge despite twenty-seven years of provocation.  Instead he worked on staying open to all sides.  When he was released he spoke of love and reconciliation not force.  His power came from the fact that everyone trusted and respected him not from fear or coercion.  When in prison he refused to see the guards as “them”; they had to be part of the solution no matter how badly they were treating him and his comrades.  Forgiveness is very hard but without it the cycle of conflict continues and if the aim is to prevent further violence then someone has to stop and let go of past hurts.  Nelson Mandela’s approach of truth and reconciliation was key because it allowed room for people to express their pain and be heard without further retribution which would create new hurts and pain.

It takes true courage not to resort to fear and coercion because everyone around is inciting us to react and punish the perpetrators.  We fear that it will be interpreted by others as weakness but the paradox is that it takes strength to forgive and it is weakness to use force.  In psychological terms it is a classic Karpman Drama Triangle of Victim, Saviour and Persecutor.  If we come in as saviour to help the victims, we easily become the person who ends up persecuting the persectutor and they become the new victim.  To play any of the roles means to get caught in all three and then there is an endless cycle.  By being on everyone’s side and refusing to be drawn into one-sided action we can resolve it.  But, it takes real strength of character to achieve it; we have to resist the temptation to respond to provocation.

The key to the situation, in my opinion, is Bashar al-Assad.  He is in a dangerous and difficult position and is no doubt very frightened and paranoid.  When I worked as Chairman of a Charity that ran a Rudolf Steiner school, the relationship between the staff and Directors was entrenched in a damaging “us and them” culture with both sides mistrustful of each other.  The incumbent Principal of the Charity had been elected by the staff against the wishes of the board and set about firing staff and fighting the directors.  Most of the directors felt that we, as the directors, needed to assert our power and sack him and install a new Principal.  The argument of many of my fellow directors was that it would be irresponsible not to sack him, since he was committing such atrocities.  Yet, I could see that this reactive approach, whilst it might afford some short term satisfaction for the directors, would achieve nothing and result in a situation where the staff trusted us even less because they could see we would use our power to enforce our will over theirs.

To address this, and in opposition to the wishes of a number of my fellow directors, I chose instead to work with the incumbent principal.  He made it very clear that I was the last person he was interested in listening to and that he was going to fight me for power every step of the way.  I realised that the only way forward was to give him the power and to build a relationship with him where he trusted that I had his best interests at heart.  This was far from easy work.  The last thing I wanted to do was support him or spend more time with him.  Yet I considered that I was doing work to help transform these emotions and to do so I would have to transform them in myself.  I also tried to view it as work on myself – learning how to use power wisely and to transform the sense of “us and them” in me.  After two years there was a seminal moment when my fellow directors turned to me at a key meeting with staff and remarked that they would not choose anyone else to be Principal and I realised that neither would I.  Indeed he became the key to changing and overcoming the whole “us and them” culture within the charity.  In addition to this, as our relationship grew (and that of my fellow directors with him too) the level of challenge he would accept from us grew too, to the point where I was able to challenge him to an extent that I have rarely challenged anyone and he listened and responded beautifully honestly.  By the end he had become a very genuine friend and someone I had deep respect for.  Part of the key to shifting the relationship with him was to recognise that his very strong desire for power came from a feeling of deep vulnerability and powerlessness and that this was the thing to focus on.

I was thinking about this during a recent visit to Northern Ireland and was keen to ask the people I met about what had been the key to the peace process.  The unanimous verdict from Catholics and Protestants alike was that it was Ian Paisley.  Initially people had seen him as the main obstacle to peace.  Who at that stage could have imagined him working hand in hand with Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams and charming Bertie Ahern?  Situations like South-Africa and Northern Ireland look insoluble.  The temptation is to use power to remove the ringleaders of this but, as I mentioned earlier, my experience throughout organizations is that leaders are often representations of something endemic in the culture.  Remove them and replace them with new leaders and nothing changes because the underlying culture which spawned them has not changed.  What is required to change cultures is a shift in consciousness.  This requires an individual who can embody this change through their personal transformation.  Powerful individuals have the capacity for deep transformation.  It is easy but specious to make the leader the scapegoat and simply remove them hoping that the whole culture will change. Even the revolution which promises to bring relief often achieves little because it is usually based on the very power and violence that it is supposed to replace.  So it needs a fresh approach, one based on the positive use of power to transform rather than force.  This achieves real change.

In the context of Syria it requires a long-term perspective and to build a relationship with Bashar Al-Assad and to win his trust.  As a powerful man he is cornered and deeply vulnerable and his natural response is to defend himself wildly and forcefully like a cornered rat.  He knows that if he loses power and control he will be annihilated, similarly, so do the Sunni business leaders who support him.  He can see no options – no foreign power appears willing to help him.  To change this requires the building of a relationship of trust.  Putting further pressure on him without any sense of relationship simply increases his fear and willingness to go to any length to protect himself. At the charity, I took the responsibility and apologised – I explained that it was our fault as directors for not understanding the Principal and staff.  This was not what they were expecting so it surprised them.  We then worked on giving them responsibility for the challenges of the situation and making it clear we did not want to take over the power or responsibility.  Bashar al-Assad needs a motivation to change his approach.  My instinct would be to provide him with one that positions him as the potential transformer of the situation – an opportunity to leave a positive legacy.  In this I would offer him my full support (and mean it).  I would appeal to his desire for power but in such a way that he uses it positively.  I would explain that he might never be understood but he would have the satisfaction of knowing his real contribution and I would explain that if he could do it, we would know and understand the nature of his contribution.  I would also tell him (and mean it) that we would look after him and protect him but that this would rely on him working to help transform the situation and bring about a peaceful transition in Syria (this might be that he lives under house arrest but in comfortable circumstances for the rest of his life or lives in exile).  Unpalatable as this solution is, it is better than further violence and conflict.  I would challenge him to take responsibility for how to solve Syria and involve the rebels or bring together the rival factions.  I would also make it clear that we would be prepared to involve peace keeping forces to support this but only on the grounds that the focus is achieving peace and reconciliation.  This would be a long-term project – he would be deeply mistrustful and suspicious at first – and it might take many years but this gradual change is far more stable than short-term revolution or violent intervention.  It would take creativity and wisdom to do it successfully but the results would be worth it in terms of our evolution and learning about dealing with international conflict and for the Syrian people it would create the opportunity to break the cycle of power and violence.  It sounds simplistic to give Bashar al-Assad responsibility for finding a way to involve the rebels who clearly hate him and want to destroy him, yet, as I mentioned earlier who would have believed that the white apartheid government would ever sit down with and trust Nelson Mandela or that Ian Paisley would work in partnership with Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams?  Bashar al-Assad would need our help to appoint and involve people from across the spectrum in Syria.  Once the majority supports the process of transition and feels it has a stake and involvement then those who still insist on violence become a minority that all sides want to contain, rather than the default leaders for an unrepresented faction.  I mentioned at the beginning that the key misconception is that we are not fellow human beings.  In all my work, I have noticed that people use culture, race, nationality as an excuse to perpetuate mistrust and an “us and them” approach.  Work to understand and empathise with them as fellow human beings and these divisions fade away.  At the charity I mentioned, staff said that we, as directors, could not possibly understand them because we were not spiritual enough and did not follow Rudolf Steiner.  Once they began to trust us all these supposedly irreconcilable differences disappeared.  Who now says that difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are irreconcilable or that blacks and whites in South-Africa cannot live together peacefully?  Yet, we somehow still get caught thinking this way over Islam, Israel, China.  I work regularly with leaders in business who are based in Asia who describe their Asian colleagues as if they are from a different species; that their culture is so different we in the west cannot understand it.  It is a wonderful excuse to justify their frustrations but once they see their Asian colleagues as fellow human beings and work on understanding them they realise it is an illusion; that culture, race, religions are veneers; get caught in these veneers and you miss the deeper level at which we are all the same.

I can hear the objections, indeed, in my experience of the Charity there were fervent objectors among the directors.  One was obsessed with the fact that we were letting the Principal get away with his behaviour and the hurt and pain he had caused staff.  He was determined that he should be bought to account for his actions and that we were setting a precedent for further transgressions among staff; that we must be tough and show that such behaviour would not be tolerated.  This comes to the nub of the difficulty in Syria.  Can we forgive?  In dealing with the situation I faced at the charity and coaching leaders in business this is the most difficult issue.  Yet, when examined honestly it is key.  The real objective of our actions has to be to prevent further transgressions; to contain dangerous or harmful elements and to transform them to prevent them spreading.  I have rarely seen violence or force achieve this.  The real emotion behind “justice” is often revenge and retribution.  Labeling people as tyrants or monsters might allow us to feel justified in treating them as if they were not fellow human beings but it does not break the cycle.  The cycle can only be broken by creating a new approach that transcends the current mode of operating.  This is what Ghandi, Mandela, Gorbachev all achieved.  On a smaller scale I have seen many others do the same throughout organizations with similarly impressive results.  Interestingly, the one director most fervent in his objections at the charity wrote to me many years later to thank me and express his gratitude that the charity had been able to make such a remarkable transformation.

It may be we are not ready to change our approach in Syria yet.  If so, I strongly suspect we will get further opportunities to practice!  There is a collective hesitation and unwillingness to step in where angels fear to tread following the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Everyone is hesitant but no-one can see an alternative.  I am suggesting that there is one and it is a positive thing that intervention is being blocked as it is forcing us to think more deeply.  I could be wrong.

However we act in the situation will send a message about how to use power.  If we use force then the message picked up will be that power is about force.  Our choice concerns how we want to use power and we have responsibility for the consequences of that.  Paraphrasing Ghandi; we must be the change we want to see in the world.



Filed under On Life the Universe and Everything

3 responses to “How do you solve a problem like Syria?

  1. This was an inspiration to read. Not only that, but I found myself nodding, even vehemently(can one nod vehemently?) in agreement. I think that this is now the time when such thinking can be heard and embraced. Perhaps we really can evolve beyond war.
    Oh, by the way, I come from Northern Ireland.

  2. Hi Chrissy, This is a wonderful article about a different approach to conflicts.
    As a former psychotherapist I embrace your views, about ‘the terrible three’, savior, persecutor and victim, the wheel of our karma on this planet.
    And yes, how to step out of this wheel is to learn all the ins and outs of power so that love can arise.. Did you send your blog to Obama? I would advise that.. maybe he will read it.. Hopefully..
    I will spread your article too. I live in France, so I could send it to Francois Hollande and to our PM Mark Rutte in Holland(where I come from). Its getting time that our politicians get to learn some psychology!
    With a heartfelt hug for you! Riet Okken

    • Hi riet, This was written entirely by my friend Nick. Great isn’t it? Thank you so much for your enthusiastic comment. He has been working with me for a very long time, I give him ideas and he picks them up, thinks about them, adds his own experience and applies them with intelligence and integrity.

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