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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Joshua N. Weiss: What is the current role of negotiation in the Syrian crisis?

"The completely understandable urge for a ceasefire can only really have a chance to succeed if this internal step is taken"

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By all accounts the situation in Syria is a tragedy of monumental proportions. Since the conflict began in March of 2011, over 30,000 people have been killed, more than half of them civilians, with another 28,000 people reported missing. Over 1.2 million people have been internally displaced with hundreds of thousands taking refuge in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. The Assad government, while being impinged upon by sanctions and increased pressure from the international community, continues on its destructive course of action. 

There have been numerous attempts to halt the violence – first by the Arab League, who sent observers, then by Kofi Annan as a United Nations Special Envoy, followed by numerous efforts by governments in the region, and now by Lakhtar Brahimi, who is representing the Arab League and United Nations.

Syria is at the crossroads of the Middle East in many regards. There are so many actors involved in this situation, from the Assad government and the deeply disjointed opposition – nominally led by the Syrian National Congress and the Free Syrian Army – to proxy entities that litter the landscape. 

These entities range from free-wheeling non-state actors, such as Hezbollah and Al Qaeda factions, to governments in the region supporting one side or the other. Iran continues to back the Assad regime while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the opposition. Other stakeholders include international bodies such as the Arab League, United Nations, and European Union, not to mention the US, Russian and Chinese governments. Then there is Lebanon, which recently has had spillover from the conflict in the form of bombings and incursions into its territory. Put mildly, it is clear why the international community has not gotten involved with fault line after fault line fracturing the surface, layer after layer unveiling new complexities.    

When trying to understand a conflict, its current status, and prospects for negotiation, there are a number of theoretical perspectives that one can look at to understand what is happening. While there are many concepts that can help in our understanding, nothing does so more in the context of Syria than the notion of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS).

Put simply, a MHS is when the parties to a conflict come to the realization that the current state of the conflict is too painful to continue with the status quo. As a result, the parties are motivated to find a solution and often do take on a new course of action. Often this is what it takes to push conflicting parties to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, when a MHS does not exist the parties to the conflict usually are not compelled to change course, nor understand why it may be in their interest to do so. The lack of a MHS in Syria is a primary reason why the conflict persists and why negotiations will have to take on a different form than many might assume.  

With a full scale civil war raging, the obvious place to start is a cessation of hostilities. But for that to happen the primary parties – the government and the opposition – need to have an ability to control their factions and have a clear sense of what they are trying to achieve. As evidenced by the recent Eid truce, the government seems to have a better handle on this, while the opposition continues to struggle with controlling their diverse ranks, including trying to manage extreme Islamists.

So what to do in the meantime to get the parties to the stage where they actually could negotiate? Simply put, the opposition needs to engage in internal negotiations to get alignment of their interests and agreement that they will speak with one voice.

In contrast, for the most part the Assad regime has a unified strategy with the objective of staying in power. Government support depends in large part on a loose coalition of disparate groups with varying interests, including powerful Sunni tribal leaders, religious minorities within Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. While there have been cracks in the government position – for example, in the form of defections of high level ministers – it has managed to generally keep these groups aligned even if they have different reasons for their support.       

This type of alignment is something that has eluded the opposition, which has little clear leadership or a coherent stance in the short-term other than 'Assad must go.' The international community, led by the US, Turkey, France, and others have gathered the Friends of Syria in order to help the opposition deal with all of these issues and to try to come up with a coherent platform and clear set of articulated interests. Recently there have been questions about whether the opposition’s leadership really represents the Syrian people and if the opposition is succumbing to extremist factions from within.

By many accounts, including the most recent Qatari proposal, the effort to gain alignment is slow going, but the focus is correct. Often in the case of a crisis such as this, outsiders will rush to try to get parties together that are simply not ready to talk and unclear what they want from the process – thereby setting the negotiation up for almost certain failure. 

The completely understandable urge for a ceasefire can only really have a chance to succeed if this internal step is taken. Clearly there is an urgency as people continue to die, but it is a critical step in the process that will give it the best chance for success. 

In addition to the internal negotiations mentioned above, mediators such as Brahimi, working with the international community, have the challenging task of working away from the table to bring a MHS into effect. This is possible through actions such as tighter sanctions than are already in place, other forms of economic and political pressure – including the cutting of funding or the expulsion from different entities Syria is a member of.

Furthermore, this could be coupled with some incremental military steps – including new observers with armed protection, peacekeepers from a regional body such as the Arab League, or the creation of safe zones for noncombatants – that suggest to the regime that the international community is not going away and this war cannot go on for much longer. And after a ceasefire is achieved a skilled mediator like Brahimi can flip the concept of a MHS on its head and talk to the parties about the Mutually Enticing Opportunities (MEO) of reaching an agreement. While this is certainly tricky, MEOs help the parties to see a way out and to highlight an end goal which the parties can work toward.               

To summarize, negotiation will come to the Syrian situation sooner or later. It is the primary means with which we end wars. In this case, internal negotiations for the opposition are the critical first step – leading to clear alignment and a coherent articulation of their interests. This has not been easy and will not be easy going forward – but a necessary condition for success. After that, efforts at bringing about a MHS, through moves away from the table, can set up the possibility for a genuine and lasting ceasefire. And then MEOs can be utilized to change the frame and help the parties envision a way out of this mess. The sequencing here is critical, and while the pressure is great for more drastic action, this is really the only way to use negotiation to begin to reach an end to the crisis in Syria.    

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