Negotiating in Syria
Leiden Public Administration alumnus Jeffrey Jonkers negotiates in Syria with the Assad government, civilians and even with IS. The UN peace talks are due to start shortly in Geneva. Jonkers negotiates behind the scenes.
Jonkers works in Syria for the British organisation Peaceful Change Initiative. He advises a network of 50 Syrian civilian negotiators who represent different organisations and rebel factions.
How is the peace process going?
‘Better than expected. The Assad government will be joining the negotiations in Geneva for the first time on 25 January. Nobody thought that would ever happen, although we shouldn’t expect too much in the way of concrete results. We hope this will kick off a process that will lead to a date for a ceasefire. But there’s no point in pushing too hard for that aim because the different parties won’t stick to it. People first need to have the confidence that they will be able to rebuild their lives. And if the parties reach an agreement, they can then create a united front against Islamic State and the Al-Nusra terror movement that aren’t taking part in the negotiations.’
What is your role in the negotiating process?
‘You won’t find me at the negotiating table in Geneva; that would compromise my neutral position. I coach the parties behind the scenes. I'm advising fifty Syrian civilian negotiators representing diverse organisations and rebel groups. In practice, I’m mainly involved in discussions with the different groups to try to bring them together. They also want help with setting out the details of their strategy. One issue we’re working on is the return of civilians who have been displaced. The UN draft resolution doesn’t mention that, so I’m advising them on how they can get that issue on the agenda.’
IS isn’t taking part in these UN negotiations. In Syria you are talking with representatives of IS. Can you really negotiate with them?
‘I never discuss ideology with IS and there’s no talk of withdrawal. There’s no point in that. It’s about very practical matters, such as maintaining basic necessities, like drinking water, that also benefit IS. There are around 8 million people living in the areas that are now controlled by IS. My contacts are not with soldiers, but with people higher up the ladder. The talks are normally by phone because my contacts are often in hiding. I also have discussions with local officials and tribal representatives. Fortunately, IS has left the tribal relations largely intact.’
How dangerous is your work?
‘Of course it’s dangerous. But, oddly enough, I’m not often afraid. That may have a physical cause, namely that my brain doesn’t make a rapid link with feelings of anxiety. There are times when I’m back in my hotel room that I realise a situation was close to the edge. But you can’t do this work if you’re forever worrying about your own anxieties and fears. That won’t change the situation and it’s not in the interests of the local people if you’re preoccupied with your own emotions. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I take unnecessary risks; I try be as rational as possible in how I do my work.’
‘This work is completely absorbing. I don’t have a family and I’m always travelling. I often have no idea where I will be the following month. I have an apartment on the Turkish-Syrian border and still have some things in London from when I used to live there. I’m 36 now and I do wonder how long I will want to continue doing this. Having said that, a nine-to-five desk job just isn’t for me.’
You studied Public Administration in Leiden. Do your studies come in useful in your job?
‘Absolutely! In Leiden I learned how states function, what it takes for a state to work well, and how citizens relate to their state. I still use my textbooks regularly. People in Syria know about Max Wever and his socialist ideas, and they're keen to talk about them. And there’s another area where my study has proven very useful: I have learned to think very critically. Everything that you read is a reflection of someone else’s ideas.’
‘One thing that was important for me was that I had so much freedom in my studies. I was able to take all kinds of optional subjects, such as a programme on Islam. My thesis supervisor asked me some critical questions when I wanted to carry out research in the Palestine, but she still let me go there. She said: ‘Go for a month and then come back with a good plan.’ That’s when it all started to happen. I went there to do fieldwork and investigate women’s rights. I also gave workshops about human rights and strategy because I wanted to give something back to the local population. After I graduated, I was able to stay in the region working for aid organisations. Then I worked in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. If my thesis supervisor had stopped me going to Palestine, none of this would have happened.’