Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Syria (Update), Seperating “Positions” and “Interests”

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Negotiation almost always plays a part in resolving any political, economic, or philosophical / ideological divide. Negotiation theory proposes that by moving past each side’s positions (which tend to be incompatible), and instead focusing on each sides interest, bargaining space can be created where seemingly none exists. Whether arguing with a friend, or trying to negotiate the end of a bloody civil war, the first step is almost always getting the right people to come to the table together and talk with open minds:

“The [Syrian National Coalition] regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” he said in separate comments to Al Jazeera television.”

But Assad thinks he can win the war against the rebels, whom he still describes as terrorists:

“Assad has described the rebels as foreign-backed Islamist terrorists and said a precondition for any solution is that Turkey and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states stop funding, sheltering and arming his foes.”

Both sides have maintained that the other side must stop doing what it is doing as a precondition for negotiations. If neither side will budge, then Syria will be in what is known as a “hurting stalemate”, a situation whether neither side of a conflict advances or regresses meaningfully. Resources continue to be depleted, while people die as a result of fighting and malnutrition and Syria loses years [possibly decades] of economic progress and development. Alkhatib, a SNC leader, has drawn unfair criticism from some of his more radical supporters in offering to negotiate with Assad:

“Alkhatib said it was not “treachery” to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.”

Yesterday, the rest of the SNC seemed to have officially fallen in line with its leader’s softer stance; The opposition hopes Assad will be open to leaving if he is given amnesty for his role during the 22 month Syrian civil war:

Syria’s opposition coalition gave qualified backing on Monday to its leader’s surprise offer last week for a dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war, pressing him to respond definitively and even offering the added inducement that he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country… “We say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” Sheik Khatib said in the interview. “It is now in the hands of the regime.”

“Mr. Bunni [a Syrian human rights activist] also said, “If this goal, Assad stepping down, can be achieved through a political solution, then we are going to receive it in a positive way.”

The SNC has backed off its position that Assad must step down before negotiations can take place, in hopes of pursuing its interests of ending the bloody civil war and ensuing humanitarian crisis in Syria. It remains to be seen if Assad has reconsidered his position and is willing to put his interests (keeping his life and avoiding the shame/punishment resulting from a trial for war crimes against the Syrian people) ahead of his position that he will never willingly leave Syria.

The only way any progress can be made in the Syrian conflict is if: A) The two sides of the conflict agree to drop preconditions for talks or B) An outside power shifts the tide of the conflict by increasing support for either side (realistically, only the rebels have hopes of getting additional support, as Assad has few supporters left.)

One of Assad’s few remaining supporters, Iran, has seemingly become increasingly disenfranchised with Assad’s prospects for victory. If Iran decides Assad must go, then Assad will be without any official supporters in the region, and will have to seriously consider the SNC’s offer of amnesty:
“The army of Syria is big enough, they do not need fighters from outside,” Iran’s Salehi said in Berlin on Monday.

“We are giving them economic support, we are sending gasoline, we are sending wheat. We are trying to send electricity to them through Iraq; we have not been successful.”

“We believe that (deciding) whoever stays or goes is the right of the Syrian people. How can we interfere in that? We must strive to achieve national understanding, and free elections.”

Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden all met Alkhatib in Munich at the weekend and portrayed his willingness to talk with Syrian authorities as a major step towards resolving the war.”

However, questions still remain as to who will fill the power vacuum left by Assad’s departure, which has caused reluctance among Western powers to arm the Syrian rebels:

“The majority of the insurgents are Islamists but those affiliated with al Qaeda are smaller in number, although their influence is growing. For that reason, Western states have been loath to arm the rebels despite their calls for Assad’s ouster.”

The power vacuum created by Assad’ removal, coupled with the large costs associated with direct military intervention (not to mention such an action has been vetoed numerous times by China / Russia in the U.N.S.C.) have resulted in relative inaction by the West at the expense of the Syrian people. While the West slowly decides how best to handle the situation in Syria, regional actors Iran and Egypt may be able to play a bigger role in ending the civil war:

“Egypt is concerned by Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush an uprising inspired by the revolt that swept Mubarak from power two years ago. Egypt’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is broadly supportive of the uprising against Assad’s Alawite-led administration.”

I have supported Morsi’s rule in Egypt for exactly this reason. If Egypt can champion democracy and modernization in the Middle-East, while remaining an Islamic state, then it will be proof that Islamic culture and “Western values” can coexist, setting a valuable precedent in the region. Egypt can be a strong ally geopolitical ally to the west, both in the Middle-East and Northern Africa thanks to its location. Because of its Islamic population, other countries are much more likely to listen to what Egypt has to say than a Western power (Islamic nations often accuse the west of trying to impose “Western values” at the expense of tradition. Egypt can show them this is not true, that modernization and tradition are compatible).

One way or another, something has to give in the Syrian civil war. It is promising that there seem to be multiple avenues working towards Assad’s removal and a political resolution to the Syrian civil war. However, all this is contingent on Assad being a rational person and reconsidering his position in light of his increasingly bleak outlook. If Assad remains unwilling to come to a political compromise, military intervention may remain the only way to end the war.


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