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Game Theory Approach For Conflict Resolution: The Lebanese Civil War Case

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Mediation is one of the oldest forms of conflict resolution that has been used extensively worldwide by individuals, states and organizations to bring about peaceful resolution to inter-state and intra-state conflicts. International Mediation is commonly understood as the “best thought of as a mode of negotiation in which a third party helps the parties finding a solution which they cannot find by themselves. In other words, mediation requires the peaceful intervention and involvement of a third party to settle disputes between two parties, with the goal of encouraging them to make concessions in order to improve the nature of interaction between them. In this paper, I will explain the concept of game theory applied to conflict resolution and then refer to a successful case reflecting on the theory (The Lebanese civil war) and finally I will elaborate on theories related to the success of conflict management and resolution.

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As a conflict resolution tool, mediation has proved to be the most popular form of contemporary conflict resolution, present in nearly 60 percent of international and intrastate disputes. Furthermore, third parties mediated nearly half of the entire post-cold war crisis. However, not all attempts at mediation are successful. Therefore, the main question remains: What are the primary mechanisms that result in successful and effective mediation? According to Brian S. Mandell, two factors have impact on the success of international mediation. The first set of factors is the contextual factors, which includes the nature of the conflict, the characteristics of the parties in conflict and the relations between them. It also takes into consideration the characteristics of the third party, and the relations between the third party and each of the parties involved in the conflict. The second set of factors is the procedural one, which refers to the strategies employed by the mediating party. The study of procedural factors considers primarily the different outcomes of various strategies. In contrast to contextual factors, there has been limited research on the procedural factors of the mediation approach. Researchers that have made empirical analyses place too much emphasis on case studies, failing systematically to explore patterns associated with mediation strategies. Therefore, in order to establish which of the strategies has the strongest successful associations; this research paper employs a systematic comparison of the short and long-term effects of various mediation strategies.

To begin with, mediation strategy refers to the holistic conflict-resolution approach that includes dispute management and conflict coordination. Bervovitch, in summarizing various academic perspectives, identifies three different mediation strategies: the directive strategy, the communication facilitation strategy and the procedural strategy. Each of the three main strategies is associated with different outcomes. One main school of thought that attempts to order strategies and their outcomes is the ‘level of intervention school’, of which Bercovitch is a representative figure. He argues that the level of intervention has a considerable impact on the respective effectiveness of the three conflict resolution strategies. Bercovitch ranks strategy effectiveness according to their level of intervention, in ascending order, as follows: Communication facilitation strategy, Procedural strategy and Directive strategy. A second theory among literature on this topic is the ‘casual mechanism theory’. Its supporters argue that it is the casual mechanism associated with each of the three different strategies that determines which is the most effective.

Applying the Concept of Game Theory to the Short-Term Outcomes of the Three Mediation Strategies

The game theory approach supposes that the parties in conflict are players engaged in a game consisting of specific moves and countermoves. In this game, each player tends to achieve a certain outcome that is best fit to its interests. Any two parties who are in conflict will try to influence the other to achieve their objectives and goals. For this reason, the moves that each player take are calculated and result in different outcomes dependent on each other.

For instance, suppose S1 and S2 are two parties that are engaged in a certain disagreement. Once mediation is offered, there are different possibilities of how it will be carried on. S1 represents the party that responds first and S2 the party that responds second to mediation. When mediation starts, S1 responds by choosing either to accept a mediated solution to the conflict, or to refuse and fall back into conflict. After S1 has made its play, S2 also responds by deciding whether to accept the solution or not. The outcomes listed in the table below show that only when both parties choose to accept resolution of the conflict, the mediation is successful. However, if one party only accepts resolution, mediation fails; parties should reach consensus.

The mediator has a crucial objective in persuading both parties to accept mediation. The mediator could make several steps to achieve a positive outcome. The first is through the mediator changing the payoffs of the game through coercion or offering positive incentives, a second is through the third party’s convincing players that resolution represents a better choice than conflict; and a third is through changing the environment to alter the values of the parties to the conflict.

Applying the Concept of Game Theory to the Long-term Outcomes of the Three Mediation Strategies

In order to assess the long-term effectiveness of international mediation, the mediator should also focus on the probability that the two parties may re-engage in conflict even if initial mediation ended the dispute.

As soon as the mediation takes place, the mediator should look beyond the first stage of the game and treat the interaction between the parties as a repeated game. After the mediator mediates, S1 agrees to the resolution and S2 also agrees, which implies that this round of mediation has been successful. Still, there are two possibilities arising from successful mediation; either conflict re-occurs between the parties, or no further conflict between the parties exists. When looking at the ultimate outcomes, the two parties’ having no further conflict implies a mediation outcome that is effective long-term; if on the other hand conflict recurs, mediation has not been effective over the long-term.

A Successful Mediation Case Study – The Lebanese Civil War (1976 attempt vs. 1989 attempt)

The Lebanese civil war started in 13 April 1975. Several theories argue the essential causes of the war referring to different factors: Economic, Socio-political and geopolitical. This following section will examine the conflict management and resolution in the Lebanese Civil war. From 1975 to 1990, many peace attempts took place in the country and by different international and local actors. We will focus on two attempts that will reflect empirically on the game theory strategy in conflict resolution. We will start by examining the historical background of the two attempts (1976 Syrian intervention and 1989 Taif Agreement) necessary to be able to analyze the events based on the game theory strategy explained in the previous section.

After the two years’ war (1975-76), Syrian under Hafez Al Assad proposed a military intervention in Lebanon in order to initiate a cease-fire. Far rights Maronite parties welcomed the intervention on one hand and the Palestinian guerillas and their leftists’ allies rejected it on the other. The 1976 military intervention was welcomed in October 16 by most of the Arab countries after the 1976 Arab League summit. The negotiation resulted in the creation of the ADF (Arab Deterrent Force) taking control over Lebanon to regulate the different parties in war and it was almost entirely composed of Syrian troops. The active initiative of the Syrians in 1976 failed after the assassination of Kamal Jomblat in 1977. Two critical events afterwards were essential for the transformation of the Syrian position in Lebanon: The Litani Operation in 1978 and The Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. All means of peace initiative divided into two separate categories: active brutal initiative between the entities in war and passive negotiation initiative that were limited and not influential on the war. The Taif agreement rooted back to the first meeting of representatives of the Lebanese factions in Geneva in 1983. Agreement was on little basic issues such as the identity of Lebanon. Several military conflicts continued until the Taif agreement was signed in 22 October 1989 in Taif city-Saudi Arabia and confirmed eventually in the Lebanese parliament on 5 November1989. This second attempt was the successful one that ended the Lebanese Civil war. The players to take into consideration in the game theory approach of the previous examined events are Syria, US and Israel. Although several other groups were essential in the evolution of the Lebanese civil war, we will be only focusing on the major power that take the initial decision. In fact, the strategy of the game theory is based on the decision a player and thus the focus on the major players.

In the first attempt (1976), Syria’s goal was to take control over the unorganized practices of the Palestinians guerillas as a local strategy and to be able to discuss the Golan case in the Geneva 1977 meeting the following year. As for the US, the goal was to keep a status-quo stagnation in the area to prevent any further soviet expansion over the Middle East. In the second attempt (1989), Syria’s goal developed to political dominance over the Lebanese political realm due to the threat created by the consecutive Israeli military interventions in Lebanon. In 1976 attempt, the Arab League was a weak mediator in the Lebanese conflict because the political parties in war did not reach a consensus about the Syrian intervention. While the far right Maronite parties welcomed the intervention, the Palestinians guerillas and their leftist allies were against it. This attempt reflects the concept of game theory to the short-term outcomes discussed earlier: The formulation of the solution resulted in the ADF control failed to progress. In fact, the ADF became part of the war as military intervention and that created a structural asymmetry of the internal conflict at that time, the mediator could not create a consistent resolution for peace making. In the second attempt, the Saudi Arabia was clearly a stronger mediator than the Arab League because it was first a neutral party to the conflict and second all the Lebanese fractions representatives accepted it as mediator. Moreover, the negotiations that started in the 1980’s (1983 Geneva) and resulted eventually in the Taif agreement in 1989 presented a key figure: Rafiq al Hariri. Hariri represented the leading Lebanese neutral figure to the conflict, bringing future development after fifteen years of war and taking part of the mediation. According to Nahla Yassine, the conflict resolution in the Arab countries should prioritize the culture in order to be successful; and that was reached by the presence of Rafiq al Hariri as part of the mediation. Aside from the mediation itself, peace agreement was reached because of the conflict-transformation that took place after the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, the US fears and goals in the Middle East changed and Syria’s strong international backup vanished. This transformation allowed a better negotiation between the two countries in order to find a resolution for the Lebanese civil war. As the theory says, peace is reached when all parties reach consensus. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Syria and the US agreed that the threat in the Middle East is the political agenda and practices of Saddam Hussein intervening in the proxy war in Lebanon. This same event represents a ripe moment combined with an international consensus.The Taif agreement came as a first step of the development of an anti-Saddam international alliance joined the next year by Egypt and Iran.

Theory on Arab Mediation

Among the ten hypothesis Bercovitch presents about Arab-Arab conflict, two are very relevant to the Lebanese civil war case and are essential to understand the conflict and its resolution. “The greater the power differential between the two parties, the smaller the odds of a partial or full settlement”. This hypothesis is clear in the asymmetry of conflict created by the intervention of the Syrian and later on the presence of the ADF as part of the conflict. “If either or both parties have an alignment of any kind, the smaller the odds of a partial or full settlement”. This hypothesis illustrates the second peace attempt discussed earlier (1989 Taif agreement). While the Soviet Union exercised an essential backbone to the Syrians in the regime, the US feared a soviet hegemony in the area and preferred to keep the status quo of the Lebanese civil war. In addition, the conflict transformation after the fall of the Soviet Union proved right this hypothesis; by breaking the alignment of the parties in conflict, the settlement was easier to reach. Choosing the right mediator to achieve the best outcomesWhat should be learnt from this case study is that greater attention should be given to the criteria for appointing mediators and to the talent and experience of those who are appointed. Moreover, this case study highlights the notion that mediators could be individuals, governments or both.

The current approach of deploying serving or retired heads of state and diplomats in mediation, without regard to their aptitude for peacemaking is not very efficient. According to Laurie Nathan, the mediators should meet the following criteria: Skill in peacemaking, credibility with the parties in conflict, proficiency in at least one of the languages spoken by the parties, and availability for full-time deployment. In addition, personal attributes of the mediator are also important. A mediator should work on developing his analytical ability, political judgment, problem-solving skills, and communication and facilitation skills in addition to developing a strong sense of calm confidence and authority. Moreover, the mediator should be able to evaluate the moves of the parties in conflict in order to predict the possible outcomes and prevent those that can damage them both.

Developing a learning cultureMediation is not characterized by any remarkable degree of learning and improvement over time; rather it is determined by power politics, deadlines and organizational limitations. If mediation is to become more successful, mediators need to develop a learning culture based on four components in order to build an efficient mediation process. These components are:

  • Periodically reviewing active mediation in order to analyze the changing dynamics of the conflict, evaluate the efficacy of the mediation strategies, and decide what adjustments should be made
  • Recording and evaluating carefully all mediation processes after their completion with the aim of identifying lessons for future activities
  • Examining detailed mediation case studies to examine the complexities of the process since national conflicts have common features and challenges


An effective strategy-Confidence building through mediationMediation in national conflicts usually relies on exerting pressure on the conflicting parties through declarations, warnings, threats and even punishment. Therefore, mediation depends too much on power-based diplomacy, rather than soft diplomacy. According to Laurie Nathan, this type of mediation must be replaced by a confidence building approach. It is obvious that deep-rooted national conflict is very hard to solve quickly. Nevertheless, mediators and states frequently make the mistake of seeking a quick fix. In doing so, they tend to overestimate their influence and underestimate the complexity of the conflict. In reality, mediators should take into consideration the interests, agendas and culture of the conflicting parties. Furthermore, they should analyze the socio-political environment of the conflict before any action is undertaken.

Therefore, mediation should involve a long procedure of meetings, gatherings and arrangements in which mediator helps the parties to engage in collaborative problem solving and accommodate each other’s concerns and needs. This practice was clear in the Lebanese civil war; the meetings started in 1983 in Geneva and continued until the final agreement in Taif in 1989. Throughout these processes, the mediator creates trust between the two parties that will probably decrease the chances of conflict re-occurrence. It is important to note that building confidence between the actors in a national conflict is vital for several reasons. Firstly, a negotiated settlement necessitates compromises and mutual accommodation by the parties and this will not happen if they remain locked in enmity. Secondly, confidence-building help in establishing stable governance in the long-term depending on the on-going co-operation between the parties. Given these factors, confidence building becomes a pragmatic imperative and should be dominant goal of the mediator.


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14 May 2021

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