Problems of Brokering an Agreement in Syria
I William Zartman, The Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)
Keynote Speech given to St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies July 2015 Conference “Moving Beyond the Stalemate”
The Syrian Spring, which quickly turned into hot summer and then a winter freeze, poses major challenges to resolution and even management. It is not and never has been ripe for resolution, and may be becoming both more and less so. Raging for over half a decade, it has become ever more complex as a directly regional conflict. Thus, a search for a means of reducing the conflict short of fatigue goes through relations with the region and beyond, where elimination and participation vie with each other for outcomes.
The Legacy of the Spring
As elsewhere, the Arab Spring in Syria rode on two demands: Get Out and Dignity. Bashar al-Asad is the only authoritarian ruler in a major Arab Spring country who did not get out, and the rebels have been caught between their inability either to take him out or talk him out. The demand—irhal!—focused on the authoritarian ruler and, as elsewhere, left little room for thoughts of what was to come afterward (Zartman 2015). Thus in planning and, as developed, in action, the mobilizing demand made the way for a vacuum; as part of nature, politics abhors a vacuum and so forces arose to fill it. As in other Spring countries where the conflict turned to long lasting violence, the Syrian rebels were highly fragmented from the start, although unlike Yemen and Libya, the Syrians were unable to establish even a modicum of unity at the beginning and the more the conflict bogged down the more the rebellion broke up into pieces.
At no time since February 2011 has the conflict ever been ripe for negotiations, direct or mediated, although that may be changing. To recall, ripeness for the opening of negotiations (or mediation) involves two relational and one representational element. The parties must feel that they are caught in a mutually hurting stalemate (MHS) from which they cannot escalate an exit and that they both feel that a negotiated Way Out (WO) is available; the representational element, usually given less emphasis, is that there must be a valid spokesman for each party to make and hold an agreement. From the beginning each party in Syria felt it would—and what’s more, had to—win and that any cost was bearable and part of the game. Thus neither the MHS nor the WO condition was present. Asad felt he owed it to himself, to his father and to his country to hold out, a position expressed even as late as his July 2015 speech. The Syrian National Coalition and its various predecessors, rivals and components felt itself to be the necessary voice of the people against repression; although they fell on some hard times, notably in mid-2013 with the fall of Qusair, this only inoculated them further against feeling themselves to be in a MHS or WO.
Ripeness, it can be noted in passing, is not a stranger to Mideast conflicts. Israelis and Palestinians sensed a MHS at the time of the Oslo talks, characterized by the stalemate of the Madrid-Washington talks, the entrapment of both sides’ leaders’ promise of an agreement within a year, and the common enemy of Hamas; once talks began warily, the sides tested each other to see if the claims of representation were valid and the view of a WO shared (Pruitt 1996), The negotiations made a stab at conflict resolution but the effort was not pursued—indeed, was undermined—by the parties themselves. On a much smaller scale Hamas and Israel negotiated ceasefires in 2008, 2012, and 2014 when the parties felt stymied in their efforts to cause effective damage with their missiles and to stop the missile fire, respectively; both felt that the other was willing to talk for limited purposes, and each had a recognized spokesman. Negotiations indeed began for ceasefires—later broken by the parties when they proved insufficient for their purposes—but the conflict management measure was not followed by any attempt at conflict resolution and the effect was lost.
The UNSC and Arab League sent their best mediator, Kofi Annan, to Syria in 2013. He found a manifest absence of either ingredient of ripeness, and so worked instead on a plan for the talks and transition,if they should occur. The Annan principles provide a sort of roadmap for a MEO about which a sense of a way out could be formed. But, as in Yemen, external pressure was needed to provide a sense of stalemate and pain associated with it, and it was this support that Annan decried as absent from the UNSC, thanks to the vetoes of Asad’s main supporter, Russia. When the international conference in Geneva I failed to produce anything more than an endorsement of the Principles, carefully worded, Annan resigned. His successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, also a seasoned mediator, notably in the Arab and Islamic world, ran into the same problems. He spent his time trying to ripen the parties’ perception of their situation, and again complained of the absence of international support, notably from the UNSC. His successor in turn, Staffan deMistura, saw the situation return to the beginning by declaring from the start that “Asad must go” and seeking to work from the bottom up for some movement in the process.
Heritage of the Summer
But things are not as they were in the beginning. As is well know, the number of parties has not stayed constant at two. Fragmentation has intensified. The Asad camp remains the only side that has not fallen into pieces, so far. The rebels have continued that fragmentation, to the point of now including Jebhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida franchise, among its members. Each of the factions has its foreign patron. The Kurds have a separate organization for each of the three countries where they exist—Turkey the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), Syria the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and YPK (People’s Protection Units) close to the PKK and to Iran, and Iraq the KRG (no involvement for the moment of Iran’s XXX). But the most complicating addition is The Khilafa or Islamic State (of Greater Syria, [ISIL or ISIS]). Ripeness is difficult to obtain in a multi-party conflict, as some parties’ stalemates tend to be another’s opportunity and spokesmen are valid only for small factions. The only hope for a ripe situation would be to hive off a segment of the conflict and seek negotiation among select parties, inspired (as in Oslo) by a common enemy or rival among the other parties.
Ripeness is not a black-and-white affair, a matter of clear objective evidence. It is related to objective conditions but even when these are present, they must be interpreted to be the basis for action. While it may appear to outside observers that human losses, costly requirements, static lines, escalation barriers, support losses, among others, produce an obvious stalemate, if the parties do not feel it and do not sense a willingness of the other party to look for a joint solution, the situation has not met the necessary but still insufficient condition for opening negotiations. And even then, that situation must be seized and turned into negotiations.
There are a number of barriers that inhibit that perception. One is absolute commitment, which blinds the viewer to all problems: “the word of God cannot be contravened.” Another is collective myth, which folds hurt and stalemate into the national narrative: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” A third is sunk costs, which justify throwing good efforts after bad in fruitless escalations: “just a bit more will put us over the top.” There are also other types of stalemates. A more frequent type is the S5 situation—a soft, stable, self-serving stalemate—that the parties have gotten used to because it is not too painful and even has its beneficial aspects; another is the default impasse, a prisoners’ dilemma which is indeed uncomfortable but infinitely preferable to the danger that the other side might win the negotiations. Studies have shown that conflicts over divisible and tangible goods lend themselves more readily to negotiation than those over intangibles, including identity beliefs and above all the word of God. Thus, it is more difficult to negotiate with an Asad who claims to represent all Syria against terrorists, as in his 2011-2013 speeches, than with one negotiating the extent of a reduced territory that he would control, as intimated in his mid-2015 speech. And negotiations with representatives of God’s will are likely to pose insurmountable obstacles.
Prospects for the Winter
In this situation, there are a number of strategies that can be envisaged. The original goal of the various rebel groups combining to overthrow Asad was to join the experience of the other countries of the Arab Spring. This would require more than a takeover of Aleppo and Damascus and would probably require an internal rebellion within the tight group clustered about the president, possibly involving his assassination. As the analysis goes into the details of such an evolution, the clean elimination of the regime as in the other Spring states seems unlikely. It blends instead into a second scenario, in which the regime and the rebels negotiate—tacitly, perhaps—cooperation in face of the common enemy, the so-called Khilafa. This eventuality runs up against the foreign backers of the two groups—Iran and behind it Russia behind Hisbollah and the Asad regime, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar behind the rebels—scarcely potential allies, no matter against whom. Both Russia and Iran, as well as Oman, have promoted negotiations, although they call for “partnership” with Asad against ISIS and preservation of his position, even if not his geographical writ.
As parties seek cooperation, a common enemy is the strongest source of coalescence, although the resulting coalition lasts only as long as the common enemy unless it is then redefined. It has been seen in the various scenarios and situations that the Khilafa is everyone’s common enemy, but its effect in producing coalitions is fragile. In part this is because it is also everybody’s unavowed ally in blocking or fighting someone else. It challenges both the resistants and the regime and therefore is helpful to each, holds back the Kurds and therefore is helpful to Turkey, shows up the Iraqi regime and therefore is helpful to the Saudis, distracts Turkey and therefore is helpful to Asad and to the Kurds, and leaves the US confused on what it’s against and whom it is for. In a word, any common effort to wipe out the Khilafa is undermined by the divisions among the rest.
The greatest reduction agent of conflict is fatigue, upon which the conflicting parties either settle down in their stalemate to manage their conflict, or give way to a dedicated band of committed radicals that takes over on the back of the others’ weariness. This stage has not yet been reached in the Syrian conflict.
But leaning over the complexities of the internal conflict in Syria hang the states of the region. If one aspect of the conflict recalls the Thirty Years War in Europe, another recalls the period of the French Revolution and then Congress of Vienna a century and a half later. Wars of religious sectarianism, emergence of a universalist revolutionary doctrine, and efforts to create a balance of powers in the region are the dominant themes of the Middle East conflict. Turkey and Saudi Arabia with Egypt and Qatar are somewhat unstable allies promoting an active Sunni Islam, with equally unstable US support, maneuvering against Shi’i Iran and its minions, backed by Russia. As in nineteenth century Europe, stability in the region depends on a balance between these forces, in which the momentary strength or weakness of one state-party or another should not destroy the balance and lead to the regional hegemony of one side. Unwittingly, by helping to destroy Iraq, the US upset the tripartite regional balance around the Gulf among Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It requires a more alert and informed “robust regional strategy” to help maintain the balance of forces in the Mashreq.
As a result, two principles should guide any Western policy for the region. Western is underscored because the only other major external player is Russia and its interests are set for cooperation—economically driven in part—with Iran and its satellites in hopes of keeping radical Sunni movements away from the Near Abroad and Russia itself. The two principles are 1) to prevent the persistence of a khilafa and 2) to prevent Iranian domination over the Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon). Why? Because, in broadest terms, both are sworn and practiced enemies of free choice and free expression and human rights in general, often summarized as democracy, and both are practitioners of repression, collective murder, and ideological imposition, again specifics in opposition to democracy and human rights. If there is to be a balance of forces to provide stability in the region, both religious revolutionary dominance and single state (also religious revolutionary) hegemony are to be prevented.
Regarding the Khilafa, the current mantra in the US and Europe is that it cannot be beaten except by going back to its deeper causes, which basically means overcoming the corruption, ineffectiveness, and sectarianism of the various host regimes. This challenging task was the cause of the Arab Spring and Western policy has done little to help the aspirations of the Spring states’ intifadat and is not likely to do better in meeting the needs of the followers of the the Khilafa. Many believe that the so-called Islamic State will implode under its own repression or will “normalize,” much as the theocratic regime in Iran can be said to be doing. That may be true: all radical regimes are either defeated or normalize in the long run, but policy is made and applied in the short run, with no time for waiting around while normal processes take place. Others say that ISIS cannot be defeated militarily, a bit like saying that terrorism can only be eliminated by eliminating poverty. A concerted military offensive is necessary, to show that the divine assurances of success are false.
The principle about Iran operates on a geopolitical rather than a socio-political level. The nuclear agreement (JCPOT) is a small major step in the reinsertion of Iran into conventional international politics, and more such démarches are to be expected. The process is slow and gradual. But entry into normal relations does not means a renversement des alliances; admittance as a player among others in the region does not mean recognition as the regional hegemon. Iran joins Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as the regional powers in the Mashreq but that does not means that it can sweep all the lesser pieces off the board. Domination provides a static stability that brings rebellion, balance fosters dynamic stability that allows for change and cooperation. The resulting balance of forces does not assure any final disposition in the region and any attempt at a final disposition would lead to efforts to overthrow it. Balance leads rather to competition and cooperation within a regional subsystem. Admittedly, such a dynamic regional balance also invites a search for outside allies, but that too could lead to a concert of rivals to set up norms and relations for the regional system, much as the 1992 Paris conference on Cambodia did for Southeast Asia. Admittedly, the Mideast is not there yet, but strategy involves thinking ahead.