The illusory promise of negotiations in Syria

“Better to jaw-jaw than to war-war,” everyone likes to repeat, affirming Winston Churchill’s truism that negotiation is preferable to fighting.

But the debate should never be about whether negotiation is desirable — it always is. The question is whether negotiation is possible.

Many observers outside Syria assert that negotiation offers the only path to end the war and either say or imply that the primary obstacle to negotiation is the intransigence of Assad’s opponents.

Poor Assad, hamstrung like so many an Israeli government, simply can’t find the right partners for peace.

As for Israel itself, in the last few days it moved from anxious bystander to occasional combatant — a role ostensibly necessitated by the risk that Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, already claimed to contain tens of thousands of rockets, might be enlarged by a few dozen more with questionable specifications.

The damage done by the attack to the Assad regime appears to have been minimal. Indeed, with Saudi Arabia — no friend of Assad — piping up to condemn Israel’s “flagrant violation” of Syria’s sovereignty, the net result may be that Israel is contributing to the extension of the regime’s tenure and not hastening its downfall. Moreover, this could well describe Israel’s hopes: that they would rather see the devil they know hang on for as long as possible, than witness a new devil emerge.

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: On January 19, the Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Moallem gave an apparently conciliatory interview to state TV. “I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms?” In the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus, his voice was drowned out by the continuing roar of the regime’s rocket, artillery and air strikes.

The UN and parts of the media have also called for negotiations. Until late last month, however, the Syria’s National Coalition – the widely recognised opposition umbrella group – opposed the notion absolutely. But then NC leader Moaz Al Khatib announced that he would talk directly to regime representatives (not President Bashar Al Assad himself) on condition that the regime released 160,000 detainees and renew the expired passports of exiled Syrians.

In the context of Mr Al Moallem’s media offensive (and in the absence of concerted international financial or military support for either the NC or the revolutionary militias) Mr Al Khatib’s announcement calls the regime’s bluff. It doesn’t, of course, mean that negotiations are about to be launched. For a start, the regime only intends to negotiate with, as it puts it, those “who have not betrayed Syria”. Like successive Israeli regimes, it will only talk with the “opponents” it chooses to recognise. As well as pro-regime people posing as oppositionists, this includes Haytham Manaa’s National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a group that has no influence whatsoever on the revolutionary fighters setting the agenda. The NC – which does have some influence on the ground, and would have far more if it were sufficiently funded – is definitely not invited.

And negotiations won’t happen, secondly, because the regime won’t release the detainees, at least not yet. If it did release all 160,000, it would indeed be a sign that it had understood that it could no longer torture, imprison and kill Syrians. It would be a reasonable starting point for negotiating the transition.

Why has the NC been so reluctant to negotiate thus far? First there is the obvious moral point, that a regime loses its legitimacy when it prosecutes war against its own people. As a criminal regime, it forfeits its right to engage in national dialogue.

The point is correct, but in the face of such vast tragedy the moral point is not sufficient. It may be a stubborn and ultimately irresponsible idealism that clings to moral principle while a land, a people and their future are burning. A much more intelligent motive for opposing negotiations is hard-nosed realism. [Continue reading…]

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