Negotiating the Syrian crisis – a compromise remains far off
The trajectory of the Geneva II negotiations – either towards convergence (resolution) or divergence (non-resolution) – will affect the outcome of one of the most violent and protracted conflicts in the Middle East.
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Dr. Ahmed Magdy Al-Soukkary
Syria remains beset by internal turmoil between pro-government militias and opposition forces, especially following the first and second round of peace talks in January and February 2014. The opportunity of achieving a comprehensive settlement remains far-off due to various interconnected factors: the great difference in interest, goals, values and perceptions of the concerned parties with respect to negotiations, the hard-line positions of one side during the talks and the weakness of the next best available alternatives to a negotiated agreement. No one could imagine that the pro-economic and political freedoms protests that erupted in Syria in March 2011 would transform into one of the most protracted civil wars in the Middle East.
To understand the defining characteristics of the Syrian conflict, it is important to put it into a larger theoretical context that will help examine some of the widespread claims, especially the belief that civil war was inevitable to oblige the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. Kenneth Waltz, the American political scientist and one of the most prominent scholars in the field of international relations, suggested that the causes of war can be found at the levels of the individual, the nation-state and the international system. The individual level focuses primarily on human nature and instinct theories, plus individual political leaders and their belief systems, personalities and psychological processes. The national level includes both governmental variables (such as the political system and policy-making processes) and societal factors (such as economic systems, the role of public opinion, interest groups, ethnicity and nationalism, and political culture and ideology). Systemic-level causes include the anarchic structure of the international system, the number of major powers, the distribution of military and economic power, patterns of military alliances and international trade, and other factors that constitute the external environment common to all states.
Waltz argues that, “in anarchy there is no automatic harmony,” and that “among autonomous states, war is inevitable”. Having suggested that the roots of international conflict lie in both the clash of interests among states and the absence of effective supranational agencies for the regulation of these clashes, Waltz proceeds to examine some of the corollaries of this assumption for state behavior. The basic proposition is based on the idea that “everybody’s strategy depends on everybody else’s, and any belief in the autonomy of national foreign policy can lead only to disaster. Thus, the balance-of-power doctrine is seen not only as a powerful descriptive device, but as a normative and prescriptive requirement of national survival. In this regard, if some states act on the rule to do whatever you must in order to win, or are expected to act on it, other states must adjust their strategies accordingly”.
The situation in Syria – from crisis to civil war
The situation in Syria transformed from a crisis in dealing with the popular unrest to a conflict that the International Red Cross formally declared a civil war. The international community has also stepped in after accusations of chemical weapons use last December. When Assad’s regime appeared close to collapse, it was believed that it has used such weapons at least fourteen times since 2012. To understand the Syrian crisis, it is important to understand that the complex and overlapping nature of the crisis has multiple roots.
First, some observers understand Syria from a sectarian religious perspective; namely, between Shia and Sunni, or by portraying Syria as a hub for an international Shia Jihad. This perspective, however, ignores important factors regarding how Shia fighters themselves don’t view the crisis in Syria as part of a broader Shia project, contrary to some Sunni Islamist groups among the Syrian opposition who consider the current stand-off a rare opportunity to declare an Islamic state as part of a broader regional Islamic Caliphate State. Moreover, the focus on Syria from the regional Shia community depends largely on how developments affect them on the ground. For Sunnis, large numbers (especially the middle and upper classes) have remained loyal to the regime. However, violence in Syria has emerged along an array of different cleavages, including an aggrieved Sunni majority against the Alawite dominant minority.
Second, moral considerations are behind the international community’s intervention to end the suffering of the Syrian people, with some observers promoting the idea that Barack Obama was the first president to have declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” As a result, following the massacre of nonviolent protesters seeking political change, with UN estimates that Assad’s men have killed thousands and tortured or imprisoned many more, Obama called for Assad to step down August 2011 “for the sake of the Syrian people.” The security dilemma in Syria, and its implications for the wider region, notably the use of chemical weapons, has turned into a nightmare for international community. Moreover, there is the fear that the rebellion, which the West supports, is creating a new generation of jihadists. Though some realists believe that moral concerns play no role in the conflict, some international relations theorists argue that ethics do play a role, as moral arguments move and constrain people. In this sense, morality is a powerful reality.
However, moral arguments can also be used rhetorically as propaganda to disguise less-elevated motives, and those with more power are often able to ignore moral considerations. Moral arguments are not equal; some are more compelling than others. At some point, consequences matter. Moral arguments can be judged in three ways: by the motives or intentions involved, by the means used, and by their consequences or net effects. Although these dimensions are not always easily reconciled, good moral argument tries to take all three into account. In a realist world, moral arguments have little place, while interest-based arguments move and affect state policies. The humanitarian situation in Syria and Palestine is a clear example.
Third, for opposition groups, they face some important difficulties. Though they have a strong incentive to demonstrate that they can provide services and stability in the areas they control, they are geographically divided. The roots of such difficulties lie in the oppressive domestic environment. The diverse array of groups and individuals lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets, but also meaningful political experience and the means to assess their respective popular weight.
Fourth, the regional and international dimension of the conflict. For complex and varied reasons, the conflict in Syria is not only a regional one, but has an international dimension. The conflict, now in its fourth year, has been fuelled by a multiplicity of interest groups and countries with their own agenda, overshadowing the initial causes. The civil war has seen gains and losses, plus human rights violations, on both sides. In 2012 December, the US joined Britain, France, Turkey and Gulf states in formally recognising Syria’s opposition National Coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. On the other hand, some powers (Iran, Russia, and China) have closely allied themselves with the Assad regime. Canada, the EU, the Gulf States and the US have sided with the opposition, offering mainly moral support and working through diplomatic channels, particularly the UN. Moreover, the conflict in Syria displaced millions of people, many of whom sought refuge in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Many more have been displaced within Syria itself; often the most vulnerable.
Fifth, with respect to the issue of radical political change in Syria, there is a dilemma exists between a change within the system and a change of the system itself, . The Syrian crisis is a multi-layered civil war. Syria’s myriad ethnic and religious elements – Salafis, Shias, Kurds, and secularists, to name a few – mostly, though certainly not all, wish to dispose of President Bashar al-Assad. Ethnic conflicts have usually been managed with non-democratic, authoritarian practices such as subjugation and control. However, informal practices of ethnic balancing have at times kept a relative peace even in societies that are not democratic. Democracy is inherently difficult in divided societies, but democratic practices offer greater promise for long-term peaceful conflict management than nondemocratic ones. Even when democracy is unlikely to be introduced quickly, practices can be put in place that help manage ethnic tensions. Simple majoritarian democracy contains special problems for ethnically-divided societies. Minority ethnic groups expect to be permanently excluded from power through the ballot box and fear electoral contests when the principle of simple majority rule is operative. Power-sharing practices offer an alternative to simple majoritarian practices of democratic governance.
Sixth, the internal ethnographic nature of Syrian society affects the attitude of the conflict. Syria is a religiously and ethnically-diverse country, with an Arab majority and Kurdish and Armenian minorities. Approximately 74% of the population is Sunni Muslim, 15% Alawite Muslim (the religion of the ruling family), 10% Christian and 3% Druze. Radical Islamist forces now lead the military campaign against the Asad regime. The Islamists compete with one another for popular backing, but have alienated the general public by fighting with other militias and assaulting minority communities. In response, Kurds, ‘Alawis and others have created armed formations to protect their co-religionists. As the conflict becomes increasingly brutal and sectarian in character, it threatens to inflame simmering tensions in neighboring states. This complicates US efforts to influence the outcome, an effort made even more difficult by the introduction of chemical weapons into the fighting.
Assessing the Geneva negotiations
For civil wars to end in negotiated settlement, one of two things has to happen: all the actors (both internal and external) have to agree to a settlement and actually stop fighting, or international actors have to be willing to impose a peace on unwilling veto players. When there are many veto players, as in Syria, it is extremely difficult to find an agreement that all veto players can agree to, and thus conflicts drag on.
The negotiations in Geneva I and II mark differences in expectations and perspectives, and competing values and goals. While Geneva I concluded with a deal on a transition plan , Geneva II ended without concrete results. Each party blames the others for such a failure – the West blames Assad and the Syrian government, whilst the West has been blamed for hindering the participation of an important regional player like Iran. Both the Syrian government and opposition delegations went to negotiations with two different objectives, particularly related to the based on a different vision of what is going on in Syria. With the first and second round of talks in Geneva II in deadlock, there were some doubts that the talks could succeed, especially when the Syrian National Coalition announced that they would be suspended until negotiators representing the Assad regime engage on the topic of establishing a transitional government.
The main reasons for failure can be summarised as follows:
- Though both sides agreed to use the 2012 Geneva Communique as a basis for discussions, neither side could agree on the focus; the opposition insisted that political transition was the focus; the government wanted to talk about terrorism;
- The prevailing high tensions between the two sides through the conference;
- The talks were further hampered by the lack of representation of some of the rebel fighting groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
The Syrian regime will likely try to intensify violence in order to militarily defeating the insurgents and/or to capture lost territory, as witnessed from the recent round of bombings which reflect a pattern – “destroy a city, empty it out”. The success of this approach will depend on the degree of the opposition’s strength. If the opposition’s options away from the negotiating table are many, this will help protect the Syrian opposition from making an agreement with the Syrian regime that doesn’t ensure the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad and his close associates. If the rebels managed to defeat the regime, there is a valid concern that Alawites and other minorities would be massacred in revenge violence and repression, and that there might be a continued civil war among Sunni factions.
In case of the failure of negotiations between the two parties, civil war will escalate and the human cost will continue to climb. Here the worst alternative to a negotiated agreement may be one of two choices:
- To continue violent conflict, prolonging the civil war and further devastating the country;
- To settle the crisis through Syria’s division on an ethnic, religious or sectarian basis, further destabilizing an already precarious region, including European countries themselves.
No doubt that if the crisis in Syria becomes more entrenched, it may potentially spillover Syria’s borders as a result of its increasingly sectarian nature. The regime and opposition have no alternatives but to return to the negotiating table. Although the regime appears to have the upper hand, facts on the ground show that it is not strong enough to prolong an internal war against its opponents. Furthermore, the Syrian president has forfeited any claim to nationwide legitimacy. Moreover, the probability grows that it will face manpower constraints, even if the conflict drags on at a lower level. . Moreover, the opposition is not at present strong enough.
The international community must assist in leveraging the opportunities of negotiations and meeting the challenges should they fail. The ability to determine the facts, define the process and to make a decision in the Geneva II negotiations doesn’t rest with the participants, but with regional powers (as a third party). International intervention in ethnic conflicts focuses both on the process by which groups rearrange their relations, through violence or dialogue, and on the terms and structures of the outcomes reached. Here the principal decision the international community must face is whether separation or power sharing is the more achievable, sustainable and just outcome. When interests are directly opposed, the conflicting parties should use objective criteria to resolve their differences. Allowing such differences to spark a battle of wills will destroy relationships. Good negotiation is not only when the concerned parties succeed in signing a deal, but it is when the entire process of solving the problem is completed (starting of the process, getting to yes for the deal and ending the problem on the ground).
The two conflicting parties – the regime and the opposition – have to develop objective criteria. The parties must agree which criteria is best for their situation. These criteria should be both legitimate and practical. One way to test for objectivity is to ask if both sides would agree to be bound by those standards. Rather than agreeing substantive criteria, the parties must create a fair procedure for resolving their dispute.
There are three points to keep in mind when using objective criteria. First, each issue should be approached as a shared search for objective criteria. Explore the reasoning behind the other party’s suggestions and use the other parties’ reasoning to support your own position. This can be a powerful way to negotiate. Second, each party must keep an open mind. They must be reasonable and willing to reconsider their positions when there is reason to. Finally, negotiators must never give in to pressure, threats or bribes. When the other party stubbornly refuses to take a reasonable stance, the first party may shift the discussion from a search for substantive criteria to a search for procedural criteria. The trajectory of the Geneva II negotiations – either towards convergence (resolution) or divergence (non-resolution) – will affect the outcome of one of the most violent and protracted conflicts in the Middle East.
Dr. Ahmed Magdy Al-Soukkary is an Egyptian university lecturer in International Negotiation Studies & Mediation Processes with a D.Phil. in International Relations (IR). He teaches, among other subjects, academic courses on International Politics, Comparative Analysis of Conflict Studies, Cross-Cultural Communication, and Foreign Policy. His areas of expertise encompass Turkish Studies and the EU Accession Negotiations. He is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Politics of European Integration with the focus on the Balkan.
1) The levels-of-analysis concept, as a social sciences term, was first systematized by Kenneth N. Waltz. Look: Jack S. Levy, “Contending Theories of International Conflict: A Levels-of-Analysis Approach”, In: Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall, Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict (Washington, DC., United States Institute of Peace,2nd ed., 1997), p.4.
2) J. David Singer, “Review Articles: International Conflict: Three Levels of Analysis”, World Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3. (April 1960), pp. 458-459.
3) “Syria’s civil war: key facts, important players: What’s at stake in an increasingly bloody and dangerous conflict”, Website of CBC News, 3 February 2014.
4) Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander”, The New Yorker, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 30 (September 30, 2013), p.52.
5) We can refer here to the statement of Syrian foreign minister, Walid Al-Moallem, that: “…those who demand the establishment of the Islamic CaliphateState, will not stop at the borders of Syria. So what we are currently doing is even defending Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.”, plus Rodger Shanahan, “What Does Syria Mean for the Region’s Shia”, Website of Sada Online Journal, 7 January 2014.
6) Fotini Christia, “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict?”, In, “The Political Science of Syria’s War”, POMEPS Briefings No. 22, the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, December 18, 2013, p.8.
7) Elie Wiesel, the American professor and political activist, stated that in April 2012, President Obama acknowledged that the United States “cannot control every event.” He announced new sanctions as well as “a legal effort to document atrocities so killers face justice, and a humanitarian effort to get relief and medicine to the Syrian people.” Philip Gourevitch, “The Syria Dilemma”, Website of the New Yorker, 4 June 2012.
8) It is notable that the United States and other countries have assessed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against opposition forces in the country, while the UN’s investigative team report confirmed the large-scale use of the “sarin” nerve agent against civilians in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21, 2013. “How Chemical Weapons in Syria Shaped the Nature of the Conflict”, Website of the Global Oyster, 31 Jan 2014.
9) Some reports refer to that across Europe, intelligence officials, police officers, social workers and teachers have reported an increased push by Islamist radicals to recruit young citizens and foreigners in some European countries to fight on the Syrian battlefield. Most are men, but some women have also been drawn to Syria with the prospect of helping establish an Islamic state, according to German officials and experts monitoring the trend. There is a real problem that young people could join Syria’s rebel groups, some of which have ties to Al Qaeda. Look: Alison Smale, “Flow of Westerners to Syria Prompts Security Concerns”, Website of the New York Times, 15 January 2014.
10) Moral arguments have been used since the days of Thucydides. When Corcyra went to Athens to plead for help against Corinth, it is used the language of ethics: “First, … your assistance will be rendered to a power which, herself inoffensive, is a victim to the injustice of others. Second, you will give unforgettable proof of your goodwill and create in us a lasting sense of gratitude.” Look:Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and David A. Welch, Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation : An Introduction to Theory and History (New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 9th ed., 2013), p.25, p.26.
11) Mohamad Rachid, “Syria: A State of Crisis”, a course at Simon Fraser University, SFU Continuing Studies, January 8 2013 – February 12, 2013.
12) Marc Lynch, “The Political Science of Syria’s War”, POMEPS Briefings No.22 , the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, December 18, 2013, p.6. See:
13) “Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition”, Middle East Report, No. 146, International Crisis Group, 17 October 2013, p. i.
14) Melissa M. Cyrill, “The Increasing Complexity of the Internationalised Syrian Conflict”, Issue Brief of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 8 July 2013.
15) “Country profiles: Middle East: Syria profile: A chronology of key events”, Website of BBC News, 12 December 2013.
16) Mohamad Rachid, “Syria: A State of Crisis”, a course at Simon Fraser University, SFU Continuing Studies, January 8 2013 – February 12, 2013.
17) James Darcy, “DEC Syria Crisis Appeal 2013: Response Review – Final Report”, the findings of a review commissioned by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) of the response to Syria Crisis by DEC member agencies, p.11. See:
18) We can note here that on international level, whereas the focus of systems change is the rise and decline of state systems, the focus of systems change is the rise and decline of the dominant states or empires that govern the particular international system. See: Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.42.
19) It should be noted that Sunni Arabs considers the largest ethno-religious group in Syria, make up approximately 65% of the Syrian population while the Kurds, non-Arab Sunnis with their own irredentist ambitions, compries 8% of the total. Though only representing 13% of the population, the Alawite sect of Shia Islam controls the state bureaucracy, almost in its entirety. Christians, accounting for 10%, compose the only other significant “ethnic group,” as small smatterings of Druze, Turkoman, and other obscure peoples fill the remainder. The Sunni Arabs, the meat of the resistance, have been embittered about their relegation to second fiddle in civil society since the early 20th century. Though they had deprived Alawites of the most basic civil rights before World War I, the Alawites would turn the tables beginning in the 1920s through their complicity with the French counterinsurgency in the region. Having gained control of the military, the Alawites slowly took over the Syrian government in the 1950s before consolidating power through Hafez al-Assad’s installation as dictator in 1970. For the next 42 years, the Sunnis became inured to the rule of an ethno-religious group they had once suppressed. Hafez al-Assad and his successor, Bashar al-Assad would come to be symbols of Sunni discontent. But the hatred of these leaders touches merely the surface of historical foment; the substance of the Sunni gripe lies not with the political abuses of Assad – who was, in days of peace, relatively enlightened as Middle Eastern despots go – but with the Alawite sect in general. See: Gram Slattery, “The Gangs of Syria”, Harvard Political Review, February 17, 2014,
20) Timothy D. Sisk, Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts (Washington, DC, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict and United States Institute of Peace, ), p.ix.
21) Elizabeth Rghebi, “Who’s Who in Syria, Explained in Plain English”, Website of Policymic, September 3, 2013. See:
22) Fred Lawson and Lynn T. White, a lecture titled: “Regional Implications of US Involvement in the Syrian Civil War”, Sponsored by Institute of International Studies, Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
23) David E. Cunningham, “Veto Players and Civil War in Syria”, in, “The Political Science of Syria’s War”, POMEPS Briefings No.22 , the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, December 18, 2013, p.28.
24) “Action Group for Syria: Final Communiqué“, UN Website, 30 June 2012, See:
25) “Both sides at a deadlock as Geneva peace talks on Syria end”, Website of Euronews, 16 February 2014, In: (Accessed on: March 10, 2014), and more at: Paul Dakiki, “Blame game following Geneva II failure, thinking about Iran”, Website of AsiaNews on-line edition, 17 February 2014.
26) “Syrian Opposition Suspends Geneva II Peace Talks”, Website of Talk Radio News Service, February 25, 2014.
27) “Syria crisis: Geneva peace talks end in recriminations”, BBC News Website, 31 January 2014.
28) Joshua Hersh, “The Syrian Regime’s Bombardment of Rebel Cities Is Even More Vicious Than You Think”, Website of New Republic, 13 February 2014.
29) James D. Fearon, “Syria’s Civil War”, In, “The Political Science of Syria’s War”, POMEPS Briefings No.22 , the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, December 18, 2013, p.13.
30) “Syria’s civil war: key facts, important players: What’s at stake in an increasingly bloody and dangerous conflict”, Website of CBC News, 3 February 2014.
31) We can refer here to the annual lecture of Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, titled: “Pluralism: A Key Challenge of the 21st Century“, The Pluralism Annual Lecture Series 23 May 2013.
32) “Now or Never: A Negotiated Transition for Syria”, Middle East Policy Briefing, No. 32, International Crisis Group, 5 March 2012, p.1.
33) James D. Fearon, op.cit., p.13.
34) John S. Cowings, “Strategic Leadership and Decision Making: Strategic Negotiations”, Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF).
35) Timothy D. Sisk, op.cit., p.xii. See also: Abdel Bari Atwan, “It is no surprise Geneva II failed, a military solution looks likely”, Website of the Middle East Monitor “MEM”, 17 February 2014.
36) Kjell-Are Furnes, “Success and Failure in Negotiations in South Korea”, A Powerpoint presentation, SimoveoKultur, February 2009, p.3, p.4, :
40) Suheil Damouny and Emily Benammar, “Syria opposition parties: explained”, Website of ABC News, August 29, 2013.
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Thank you Dr. Ahmad for this detailed & encompassing analysis of the Syrian crisis. It’s especially enlightening your concluding paragraph of the conflict resolution attitudes & procedure that should be adopted by, not only the two conflicting parties, but also, as you mentioned which is very important, the regional parties involved in this crisis.
Indeed, as time passes, it seems more that the solution of this crisis is in the hands of Iran & the Gulf countries more so than Syrians themselves!
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