Debate Lessons

From Sudan to Bosnia, what history can teach us about how to manage negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition.

This background paper was created in preparation for the PeaceGame, a program co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace on Dec. 9-10, 2013. For more information, please go to www.peace-game.com.

What can we learn from other peace processes that could help ease the negotiations in Geneva this January between the Syrian government and the country's fractured opposition? Many seasoned practitioners would argue that since no two conflicts are alike, it is dangerous to assume that what worked in managing one conflict will work in another. At the risk of proving the skeptics right, however, there are a few areas in which earlier conflicts might provide useful lessons for Geneva: identity issues, ripeness issues, and issues arising from the lack of cohesion among the opposition.

Identity issues. At first glance, the conflict in Syria seems to be over who has the authority to govern Syria and what the foundation for that authority is. During the early days of the conflict, the battle lines were set between an authoritarian government and "the street," resulting in a popular uprising against a dictatorial government. But these lines are not as clear today -- like many conflicts that preceded it, both in the region and around the world, Syria has become a conflict over legitimacy.

While removing President Bashar al-Assad remains the target of the opposition groups, the vision of the government that would replace the Assad regime differs greatly. If the next government were secular and democratic, would it be seen as legitimate among groups defined by their religious identity? If it were Islamic, would the liberal democracy promoters accept it as valid? Or would the various groups support only the government that represented their own culture, beliefs, and approach? In other words, has the Syrian conflict become an existential conflict -- one based on identity -- as well as a conflict over legitimacy?

If so, it is similar to many intractable conflicts that combined legitimacy and identity-based issues in a stubborn mix of conflict fuel, like Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans, and Sudan and South Sudan. Until they became crises, these conflicts developed without much outside intervention. When the internationals became involved, they dealt primarily with the legitimacy issues and left the identity-based issues to take care of themselves. While the violent conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and Sudan and South Sudan have, for the most part, come to an end, the countries are still dealing with these consequences of this limited perspective.

As such, these conflicts offer a number of lessons: early action is important; late action requires a great deal of energy and resolve; once a conflict has aged into intractability, it is necessary to address identity-based issues lest the agreement over governance break down over sectarian or existential issues. Syria is a young conflict, but already shows characteristics of aging into intractability. Any attempt at resolution now should take into account both legitimacy and identity issues. Intractable conflicts become that way because new obstacles emerge that compound and aggravate the original ones, creating contradictory narratives and new layers of scar tissue.

What makes existential identity issues especially troublesome in the Syrian case is how they are linked to security dilemmas -- the fear that some groups are so strong that they threaten the viability of others or so weak that they cannot help to ward off threats. The common response to these dilemmas is to escalate both arms and capacity, in order to provide protection from increased security threats. But as one group escalates, its actions create a security dilemma for its neighbors, and soon they too are escalating to counteract the security threat they feel from the first group. Third party action, through helping the parties craft credible commitments, providing external guarantees, agreeing to cut off arms supplies, or aiding security sector reform, is essential in counteracting the escalatory effects of security dilemmas.

Ripeness issues. An important question that arises from previous conflicts is whether the parties to the conflict in are Syria ready to negotiate rather than continuing to fight. In other words, is the Syrian conflict ripe for resolution? Ripeness, according to I. William Zartman, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, is the moment when conflict parties are ready to resolve their conflict. Without ripeness, conflicts can be managed, suppressed, or frozen, but they cannot be resolved. Moments of ripeness occur when there is a mutually hurting stalemate, when antagonists feel that, no matter how much the fighting escalates, they cannot overcome the other parties. But as conflicts in the Middle East, the Korea Peninsula, and Kashmir attest, stalemates can go on for a long time without producing resolution. Conflict parties also need a way out -- not just a solution, but a pathway to a future that is better than the current stalemate.

Ripeness only describes a moment when the parties are ready to negotiate, it does not guarantee success in those negotiations. It also rarely occurs spontaneously. Outsiders -- powerful states, the U.N., neighbors, regional organizations, NGOs -- often need to help conflict parties recognize their stalemates and ways out, using persuasive talk or the threat (or use) of force. Outsiders often have to put pressure on the process to keep negotiations going; they often have to help to build leadership and coherence within the conflict parties necessary to carry out negotiations and convince their constituents that they should accept the results.

With the recent escalation by the Syrian government and the reluctance of parties to come to Geneva, it is apparent that the Syrian conflict is far from ripe. The U.S. and other countries have tried to "ripen" the conflict through the dual threats of military force and the imposition of sanctions in an attempt to change the Syrian government's view of the costs and benefits of continuing to fight.

These tools have been effective, but there are also other tools that outsiders can employ. One of the most powerful is "borrowing" leverage from each other as the U.S. and Russia have done in their effort to get the Syrian sides to the negotiating table. This kind of diplomatic engagement needs to be nurtured, as Chester Crocker, professor at Georgetown and former State Department official, points out, not "to make nice," but to "open the door" to a possible agreement. In other words, engagement with erstwhile enemies or antagonists in pursuit of peacemaking is a deliberate move to increase leverage.

Crocker used this approach -- reaching out to his Russian counterparts -- to develop pressure on the parties as he negotiated the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the end to conflicts in southern Africa in the 1980s. Former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon and his counterparts from China and Russia also borrowed leverage from each other to bring peace to Cambodia in the early 1990s. Borrowing leverage is not the same as forming an alliance. While it might be a real bonus if the engagement approach improves relations with former or current antagonists, the fundamental purpose of the engagement is to ripen a conflict.

Cohesion issues. A third challenge is defining which parties to deal with, particularly among a fractured opposition, as is the case in Syria now. The same problem can be found in the Belgrade-Kosovo conflict and the struggle between the government of the Philippines and the various break-away groups in Mindanao. It has also appeared, albeit in a somewhat different form, in the current Egyptian turmoil, as power passes back and forth between groups that firmly oppose the Mubarak regime but don't share a common platform, culture, or ideology.

In the Syrian case, this imbalance will affect negotiations. The government will present a single negotiating voice in the talks, while the fragmented opposition will find it hard to present a unified position. Unless the opposition groups are able to gather around a common set of goals and agree on a spokesperson, it will be very difficult for them to present a strong counterforce to the government's stance.

So how can third parties help to build unity among the opposition? Given time, outsiders can develop productive relationships not only with all of the opposition groups, but also with some of their sponsors -- at least those permitted by the Patriot Act and similar rulings by other countries and international organizations. Such talks, combined with pressure, might lead to the identification of common ground among opposition groups. This is similar to the strategy the U.S. took in pressuring the Bosniaks and the Croats to come together in an alliance, albeit an uneasy one, towards the end of the Bosnian war.

Outsiders could also engage in training and mentoring for the opposition parties on a one-by-one basis, hoping to talk each opposition fragment into recognizing the importance of a unified stand at the negotiating table. Third parties could also let the opposition parties fight it out until one or another emerged as the most powerful. Or they could side with one of the parties, providing arms and support to enable the recipient to defeat militarily all the other groups. Betting on one horse has worked in the past: President Hamid Karzai's ability to retain control over Afghanistan is in large part thanks to Western, largely American, support for his position. However, as the Karzai case suggests, these single-horse betting strategies also have their drawbacks if the horse refuses to run or proves hard to handle.

Whatever the strategy, the outsiders interested in managing the Syrian conflict should focus hard on bringing some kind of unity to the opposition parties. Without that, the negotiations could dissolve into a series of side agreements between the government and the various opposition groups, which would likely evaporate as soon as the negotiators returned to their increasingly radicalized communities.

Looking ahead, Geneva II does not have to produce a comprehensive agreement, but it does need to make progress on the framework provided by Geneva I. Without a sense of forward momentum, the talks may merely inflame the conflict, freeze positions, or provide an opportunity for all parties to be seen negotiating without obliging them to take difficult decisions. While the parties to the conflict and their supporters may be happy with one or all of these outcomes, they will make the next talks -- Geneva III -- even more difficult.



Rift Removal

Why cooperation and coordination are the political keys to ending the Syrian crisis.

This background paper was created in preparation for the PeaceGame, a program co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace on Dec. 9-10, 2013. For more information, please go to www.peace-game.com.

The situation in Syria is dire, and there are no good options for addressing it; even the option of doing nothing is terrible, both morally and strategically. Inaction by the international community allows the killing to continue. Military intervention risks uncontrollable involvement without an obvious positive outcome. Although all agree that only a political solution can end the conflict, there is no agreement on the shape of such a solution.

A negotiated settlement will have to get the support of the Western-backed Syrian opposition, the jihadi opposition, the Syrian Kurdish community, the Syrian regime, the neighboring countries, and major interested powers. The formula worked out in June 2012 at Geneva gives both the opposition and the regime veto power over the composition of an interim government that would oversee stabilization, reconstruction, political resolution and, eventually, peace. A successful negotiation in Geneva, then, is a key political challenge on the road to peace. The U.N. secretary-general has taken the first significant step in tackling the challenge, calling for negotiations to commence on Jan. 22, 2014.

But there are many other related political challenges -- in particular, organizational fragmentation. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has significant military capability and is politically unified. The Russian and Iranian governments support the regime with weapons, fighting formations, money, and political support at the United Nations Security Council. The opposition and its supporters, on the other hand, are fractured. The opposition is divided among the relative moderates in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, "the Coalition"; the Syrian Kurds; and groups of Sunni, largely foreign jihadists intent on establishing an Islamist state.

Under the leadership of Ahmad al-Jarba, the Coalition struggles to maintain coherence among three factions. The first, with which Jarba is aligned, is supported by Saudi Arabia and led by veteran dissident Michel Kilo; the second, supported by Qatar, is led by Mustafa Sabbagh; the third, under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council, is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although leaders within the SNC represent different constituencies. Western powers have supported the Coalition with technical assistance, political backing, and limited, non-lethal military equipment.

Regional competition further damages the Syrian opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar provide the opposition with diplomatic and material support; the Saudis and Qataris provide financing; and the Turks allow the opposition to use its territory to organize and train. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, however, support individual leaders rather than a coherent organization. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait tend to follow the Saudi lead, while Turkey tends to reinforce Qatari initiatives.

This lack of coordination results in rivalries among opposition factions, in particular between the Coalition and the jihadi forces. The perception that jihadi forces are better funded has led several Islamist groups to leave the already-struggling Coalition for the better-funded forces supported by private donors in the Gulf States.

The Kurds are divided between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The KNC has recently aligned with the Syrian National Coalition. The PYD's loyalties are suspect: Its leadership is widely believed to have preserved ties with the Assad regime and recently announced the formation of an autonomous interim government, leading to a backlash from the opposition. Other parties -- the Coalition, the Turks, the Iraqi government -- constantly worry about cross-border Kurdish independence aspirations.

Of the hard-line jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have emerged as the most effective and aggressive, and they compete for territory and influence with the Coalition and its military force, the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Jabhat al-Nusra has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and U.N, among others.

Getting this diverse range of parties to a negotiating table is the immediate challenge. The Syrian opposition is reluctant and divided about participating in the January negotiations, finding it difficult to justify sitting down with a regime that has massacred over 110,000 Syrians with chemical weapons, artillery, fighter bombers, and ground troops. The Syrian Kurds are similarly reluctant to join. Meanwhile, the jihadi extremists are doing better on the battlefield than the moderates, but the regime may be making progress against both. The opposition is not eager to negotiate from a position of perceived weakness, expecting a regime with military momentum to be uncompromising.

What's more, if negotiations do begin as scheduled in January, the SNC would never agree to an interim government headed by Assad -- but without pressure from Russia and Iran, Assad will not step aside.

Given this complicated milieu, there are several possible, if improbable, paths forward.

First, if the Russians and Iranians could be convinced that their interests would be protected in a Syria without Assad, they might be able to offer the president, his family, and immediate supporters asylum in Russia or another willing country. The Russians may not have strong ties to Assad himself, but they do have long-standing interests in Syria, including a naval base -- their only base outside Russia's borders. With assurances from Western powers regarding continued influence in a Syria without Assad, the Russians could conceivably be persuaded to ease him out.

The Iranians and their new leadership, meanwhile, are clearly rethinking their role in the world. Remembering Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war, Iranians have been horrified at the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, Hezbollah may have damaged its relations with some of its supporters by openly intervening militarily in Syria, a departure from its traditional focus on Israel. Although keeping the Syria issue separate from the nuclear negotiations will be important, the time may be ripe for Western powers to push the Iranians on Syria.

If the Russians and Iranians agree to lean on Assad to step aside -- not run in next year's election, retire to a nice dacha, agree to tacit understandings on prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- the Geneva negotiations would be more likely to succeed in establishing an interim governing authority, or U.N.-supervised elections could identify the leaders of an interim government.

Second, outside powers could agree to cut off assistance and support to their respective sides of the civil war. Without external political and military support, neither side could long endure. Such a withdrawal of support would require unusual cooperation among the United States, Europeans, Turkey, Gulf Arabs, and Russia -- and again, Iran would have to be involved as well.

The political, religious, ideological, and sectarian divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran make this option most challenging. No sponsor can agree to withdraw support unilaterally. Such a coordinated action would require unusual cooperation -- but not unprecedented, as the 1990 Lebanon and 1999 Kosovo cases illustrate. A U.N. peacekeeping force could be considered to provide civilian security during the transition.

A third possible way forward would be Western powers and Arab states finally coordinating political and military support for the Coalition and the SMC, in an attempt to bolster the possibility that opposition forces could regain momentum. This would enable them to begin to consolidate control over territory, mainly in the north-central and northern regions of the country, eventually giving them political and military capability to negotiate a power-sharing agreement to form the interim government foreseen in the 2012 Geneva agreement. Attempts at such coordination have been made, unsuccessfully, for the past year.

Finally, representatives of Syrian opposition forces -- and other observers -- argue that a successful political solution to the conflict is impossible without outside military intervention to weaken or defeat the Assad regime. Such military actions could range from targeted missile strikes on Assad's air force, to humanitarian corridors, to no-fly zones in the north or the south. Outside intervention could enable the opposition military forces to regain momentum and give the Coalition leverage in negotiations with the Assad regime.

The Geneva negotiations take on heightened importance because alternatives seem worse. Chances of success in Geneva could be enhanced by intensified diplomatic work with Russia and Iran, coordinated action among outside supporters of the opposition and the regime, renewed attempts to consolidate support for the opposition, or -- as a last resort -- military action.

Odd Anderson/AFP/Getty Images