Saturday, March 10, 2012

How (not) to negotiate in Syria

The International Crisis Group has a released a report "Now or Never: A Negotiated Transition for Syria" in which it advocates a plan that:

- comprises an early transfer of power that preserves the integrity of key state institutions;
- ensures a gradual yet thorough overhaul of security services; and
- puts in place a process of transitional justice and national reconciliation that reassures Syrian constituencies alarmed by the dual prospect of tumultuous change and violent score-settling.

I don't believe this will work.

The first problem is that it has copied the Arab League (read: Wahabi) demand for immediate regime change. But there is no organization ready to replace the regime. The opposition is hopelessly divided. So we would see a lot of infighting before Syria has once again a stable government.

The claim that the "integrity of key state institutions" should preserved is in this context an empty shell. It is very unlikely that in such a climate of infighting the politicians will be inclined to respect certain institutions. Politicians want to profile themselves and one of the obvious targets for that will inevitably be the Baath institutions.

But the biggest problem is that it is a "camel's nose" tactic. Nobody expects replacing Assad with some deputy will solve anything. The only reason to ask it is that it is believed that it has a better chance to be accepted than a demand for an immediate replacement of Assad by someone from the opposition. But the calculation is that it will weaken the regime so that such a demand for an opposition takeover becomes more feasible. Assad and his supporters will of course recognize this and can be expected to resolutely resist it.

A second problem is that this proposal ignores the value of negotiations in itself. Negotiations can serve to let people learn to know and trust each other. They would offer a forum where people from the government and the opposition can develop a common vision on the future of Syria. They would force the government to take the opposition more seriously. But they would also force the opposition to find a common view.

Having an “early transfer of power” is the wrong idea. Negotiations should initially focus on trust-building measures like gradual release of prisoners, withdrawal of rebel forces and an end to the demonstrations. Demonstrations are nice to express popular demands but they should not degenerate into mob rule: in the end solutions should be negotiated. Next would be a government of national unity with opposition representatives. The focus should be on agreeing how the new Syria should look like. Not on which people will play what roles.

The often repeated argument not to negotiate is that Assad would just negotiate to buy time and would only use the opportunity to repackage reforms he is already introducing. I think this argument is wrong for several reasons:
- the fact that Assad is already introducing reforms should be appreciated. The attitude should be that these are not enough - not that they are fundamentally wrong. One may question Assad's sincerity for reform but his claim that controlled reform is better than a revolution is sound.
- one may ask Assad to release some prisoners as a specific gesture of goodwill before the negotiations.
- it ignores that the opposition - and specially the foreign-based SNC - has good reasons not to want to negotiate: they are too divided and not representative. When they have to take positions for negotiations this will show and they are likely to fall apart. Yet one may ask whether it would be in the interest of Syria when that division comes out after they have acquired power. In addition many opposition "leaders" represent nobody and are incapable as politicians. They were simply picked out for having an impressive resume when the uprising needed spokesmen.
- protests can always be restarted. Assad wins nothing with delaying tactics.

The call for an "overhaul" of security services has problems too. It is clear that in a peaceful Syria there is no place or need for Shabeeha. But the police and military is a different thing. Sure, the police could do with less torture and the military could have done more to avoid damage and civilian casualties when it conquered Baba Amr. But to a large extent these are problems that play in many Arab countries and mainly reflect a lack of appropriate training and expectations. Replacing these guys with amateurs from the opposition would lead to a deterioration of standards - not an improvement - as can be seen in Libya. Bringing improvements would primarily mean better training and political agreement. There is also a need to bring more Sunni's in the higher positions of the security services, but these two issues should not be confused. Trying to use the present problems of the security services as a wedge to introduce more Sunni's might very well backfire and result in neither of the goals being achieved.

Then there is the issue of trust. You cannot both aim for a revolution and reform. One of the reasons the opposition achieved so little in the beginning was that it only wanted regime change and didn't even want to negotiate about that. The same issue could be seen in the Security Council resolution that was rightly rejected by Russia and China because it asked the government to stop hostilities but refused to ask the same from the opposition. Real negotiating means that the opposition should give up on revolutionary regime change and seriously starts negotiating with the regime about building trust and making reforms. They might at some time conclude that it doesn't work and return to a revolution but before that they should be really prepared to give peaceful reform a chance. That would mean that their proposals should be aimed at real improvements and not at weakening the regime so that later on it can be overthrown more easily.

A revolution would cause serious problems in a country like Syria. Revolutions tend to polarize. Despite all the nice statements we hear now there is a considerable chance that after a revolution the country will evolve towards de-Baathisation and discrimination of the Alawites and other groups while the former rebel fighters demand their "rightful rewards". A gradual transition on the other hand can do a lot to preserve and improve the equality of people.

Bashar Assad will not be the easiest person to negotiate with. He is known to be rather reserved and often to leave negotiations to others. Also his political instincts are seen as less developed than those of his father. Occasionally some Western pressure may be needed but the main accent should be creating a vision on how Syria should go forward.

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