Africa's lessons for ending Syria conflict

Pro-government fighter in Damascus Image copyright AFP

Africa can hardly boast about the number of conflicts that have blighted this continent. On the other hand, it can lay claim to a rich history of negotiating its way out of all sorts of confrontations.

So should the world be listening a little harder to Africa and its experiences, as it ponders a way out of Syria's desperate war?

Some of its elder statesmen are arguing as much here.

South Africa, of course, leads the pack in terms of its own extraordinary track record of negotiating its way out of apartheid - albeit with serious bloodshed.

Last week I managed to spend a few minutes chatting with President Jacob Zuma about his vocal insistence that the same rules should now apply in Damascus.

European history may teach the need to confront dictators, but South African history teaches the opposite, said Mr Zuma. "And we are right, absolutely." Always? I asked… "Always," he declared resolutely.

And yet across Africa, the reality is more mixed.

Negotiations have achieved plenty - an end to the longest war of all, between Sudan and South Sudan springs to mind.

Then there's Cameroon and Nigeria's dispute over Bakassi, Burundi and a host of others.

But today South African troops are part of a robust new UN force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is doing a great deal more than simply facilitating a peace process.

The same is true for Ugandan and other forces in Somalia. And South Africa's military role in Central African Republic remains murky at best.

Then there's Britain's intervention in Sierra Leone's civil war, and France's recent deployments in Ivory Coast and Mali.

Widely seen, alongside operations in places like Kosovo, as successes.

Having been in all three countries at the time and watched the delirious reaction of local civilians, I can vouch for the popularity of those short, sharp missions.

As for Libya… the outcome of that intervention remains unclear, at best.

But I struggle to believe that South Africa's government had any illusions about what it was voting for, when it backed the UN no-fly zone in 2011, even if Pretoria - stung by domestic criticism from within its own ranks - has since tried to claim it was deceived.

So can Africa offer lessons for Syria? Undoubtedly. But surely the clearest message from this continent is that one size doesn't fit all - that negotiations can achieve miracles, but that limited interventions can sometimes do as much.