Syria: Late in the Day, Are Negotiations Still Possible?

With increasing violence in Syria highlighted by the killing of the Defense elite on July 18, 2012 and a stalemated UN diplomatic effort, the question of the possibility of good faith negotiations between Bashar al-Assad and members of the Syrian oppositions is crucial.  It is certain that issues of greater social, political and economic participation by more segments of the society could have been discussed at the start of the protests over a year ago, when they were then non-violent. Yet neither the government nor the different strands of the opposition moved to setting an agenda of issues on which negotiations were possible, nor did they set a realistic timetable for such negotiations.

Today, with a large number of people having been killed (there are estimates of some 17,000), high refugee flows into neighboring countries, and many displaced persons within Syria, the atmosphere for negotiations on the future structures of society seems negative. Arms are flowing into the country both for the government and for the armed opposition. Foreign countries are increasingly involved, each motivated by its own views of its national interests. Despite an increasing number of meetings among high-level representatives of these foreign governments, a clear policy on issues for negotiations has not emerged.

Has the time for negotiations passed? Is the only realistic possibility a “Yemen option” in which the president leaves and a transition coalition is formed?  Can President Bashar al-Assad, late in the day, still undertake negotiations with the oppositions that would insure his continued role as President while at the same time undertaking reforms that would permanently modify the socio-political structure of the country in order to give greater roles to other social classes, ethnicities, and religious identities than at present?

There has been a certain amount of reflection and research on the concept of “ripeness” in the settlement of armed conflicts. (1) Are there times when it is too early to start collective negotiations and times when it is too late? While the concept of “ripeness” is useful in judging fruit, is it a useful approach to sensing if a conflict is potentially ready for negotiations? There is always on the part of observers a desire to get the parties “to the negotiating table”, but sometimes the rush to negotiations may be counter-productive. An intermediary speaking separately to the parties as well as to the representatives of other states with an interest in the situation can be more productive.

Speaking separately to those concerned has been the approach of Kofi Annan, jointly mandated by the United Nations and the League of Arab States. He has discussed with the government of Syria and some of the Syrian opposition groups, with states with a role or a strong position in the conflict such as Russia, China, Iran, and a fairly wide group of countries acting as a collective “Friends of Syria.”  Annan has also made suggestions as to the outline of a possible solution, largely on the Yemen conflict model.  For the moment, no country-wide negotiations have taken place.

First the League of Arab States and then the United Nations have sent unarmed “observers”. The Arab League ended its observer corps rather quickly saying that it was unable to work effectively in the ongoing violence. The United Nations has said the same thing, and the 300 UN Blue Helmets are not operational as was first envisaged.  However, they are still continuing their presence based on a July 19th Security Council resolution for at least 30 more days. In fact, largely on their own initiative, they have facilitated localized discussions and helped to reach local and temporary cease-fires. The fact that the UN forces have been able to do so is perhaps a sign that local negotiations rather than at a national level may be possible.

“Ripeness” may also be related to the degree of stalemate and desperation of a solution on the basis of current relations.  Each side may prefer a negotiated settlement rather than the current impasse of each trying to dominate the other. A start would be to set an agenda of issues to be negotiated between the government and the oppositions.  A wise negotiator should know what to omit from an agenda as well as what to include.

It is not clear to what extent the Syrian government and the oppositions are aware of the dangers of a continued stalemate, and if they are aware, do they really care? A useful next step would be to explore the possibility of setting an agenda of issues that could be the basis of negotiations. The setting of such an agenda may be more productive than the current proposal of creating by mutual agreement a government of transition: issues before new ministers.

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens and Representative to the UN, Geneva.


(1) See Louis Kriesberg and Stuart Thorson (Eds.) Timing the De-escalation of International Conflicts (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991, 303pp.)