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Syrian Stalemate: Late in the Day: Are Negotiations Still Possible? Syrian Stalemate: Late in the Day: Are Negotiations Still Possible?
by Rene Wadlow
2012-10-04 10:10:07
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The United Nations-League of Arab States mediator in the Syrian conflict Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian Foreign Minister, in his late September report to the UN Security Council spoke of a “Syrian stalemate” in which neither the government not the opposition forces can defeat the other.  At the same time in Geneva at the Human Rights Council, the chairman of the Council’s inquiry commission on human rights in Syria, Paulo S. Pinheiro highlighted the increased escalation in fighting and stated that both the government and the anti-government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.  He went on to add that the escalating conflict in which civilians bear the brunt of the killed and wounded now has an increasing presence of “foreign elements”. Some have joined anti-government forces and some operate independently.  Pinheiro, who has long experience in UN human rights efforts, went on to add that such foreign elements “tend to push anti-government fighters toward more radical positions.”

Pinheiro, using up-to-date reports from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, highlighted the refugee flow to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and the destabilizing impact that the refugees may have on these countries, especially a growth of sectarian ethnic and religious tensions.  In addition to refugees who cross State frontiers, there are a large number of internally displaced persons within Syria.

Arms are flowing into the country both for the government and for the armed oppositions.  Foreign countries are increasingly involved, each motivated by its own views of its national interests.  There is increasing talk of foreign intervention on the Libyan example or the creation of a “no-flight zone” as had been used for the Kurdish area of Iraq.  Turkey is increasingly concerned with the possible impact of Kurdish areas of Syria on the Kurdish activities in Turkey and a revival of demands for an independent Kurdish State.  There is also the issue of foreign fighters taking control of towns on the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

With the stalemated situation in Syria, the issue of the possibility of good faith negotiations between Bashar al-Assad and members of the Syrian oppositions is crucial.  It is certain that issues of greater social, political, and economic participation by more segments of the society could have been discussed at the start of the protests in March 2011 when the protests were then non-violent.  However at that time, neither the government nor the different strands of the opposition moved to set an agenda on issues on which negotiations were possible or a realistic timetable for such negotiations.

Has the time for negotiations passed?  Is the only realistic possibility a “Yemen option” in which the president leaves the country and a transition coalition is formed?  Some representatives of Syria’s political opposition have presented a report The Day After Project: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria to prevent the country from falling into chaos when President Assad leaves power.  The Project offers recommendations for writing a new constitution and principles for new institution building.  The basis of the proposals is that President Assad leaves power followed by radical changes.

However, there is no evidence that Bashar al-Assad plans to leave or that he can be pushed out.  In fact, the Syrian government has placed the blame for the escalation of violence on foreign countries — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and hinted that Israel was the mastermind behind the crisis.  In such a stalemated situation, can President al-Assad, late in the day, still undertake negotiations with the oppositions that would insure his continued role as President while at the same time undertaking reforms that would permanently modify the socio-political structures of the country in order to give greater role to other social classes, ethnicities, and religious identities than at present?  Is it possible to set an agenda of issues to be negotiated between the current government and the oppositions?


The al-Assad government will have to recognize that one-family rule is no longer possible and that its opponents have real grievances.  The oppositions need to drop its insistence that there can be no talks until the government resigns and leaves the country.  A zero-sum approach will translate into a continuing war.


It is to be hoped that each side may prefer a negotiated settlement rather than the current stalemate of each trying to dominate the other. A start would be to set an agenda of issues to be negotiated between the government and the oppositions. Unfortunately, initiatives for good faith negotiations through the League of Arab States or the United Nations have broken down from lack of trust.  Thus, there may be a role for Track II, non-governmental facilitated negotiations, what I have called “world citizen diplomacy.”  The dangers of the continuing stalemate are increasingly obvious.  Though late in the day, creative efforts of world citizen diplomacy may prepare the way for negotiations in good faith.


Rene Wadlow, President and representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens


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