The independent resource on global security

Syria: grasping the nettle of negotiation

Dan Smith

Russia’s military intervention in Syria brings a dramatic new dimension to a protracted, brutal conflict. The war will go on, however, and nothing so far suggests it will end any time soon with victory for one side or another. If peace is to come about other than through exhaustion, then, it can only be by agreement. And that means everybody grasping the nettle of negotiation.

Russia bombing targets in Syria changes everything and nothing. Everything, because the intervention willshore up the position of the Assad regime, which had been weakening significantly since the start of the year. And nothing, because it still doesn’t mean that Assad can prevail over his multiple opponents.

Leave to one side the controversy about whether Russia is primarily striking at ISIS targets as it claims, or at Western-backed forces as voices in Syria are reporting. And leave also to one side Russian enthusiasm for what may be intended as a short-term action that is actually full of risks of a much longer embroilment. The fact is that for good or bad there is nothing in the Russian action as currently undertaken that suggests it might be the ingredient that decides the war’s outcome.

In that sense, it is no different from the current interventions by the USA, France and some key Arab states, which Britain is thinking of joining. It is a bit of bombing that will inflict casualties and, depending on the targets and weapons, cause more misery for ordinary Syrians who have not yet fled the country, but it will not determine combat outcomes. Nor has any of the outside powers yet shown an appetite for the sort of intervention – major ground forces – that might be decisive but would carry all kinds of extreme risks both for those states that undertook it and for Syrians.

Russia’s intervention does, however, increase the risks and raise the stakes surrounding the Syrian war, because the Syrian combat theatre is already full of external actors. There is a possibility of sorties by the different external powers tripping over each other, and of the downing of aircraft on combat missions being wrongly attributed. The interveners do not agree about the reasons for intervening but they had better come to some pragmatic agreement about use of air space to avoid accidents and misunderstandings.

For both these reasons – the indecisive effect and the increasing risks of current military intervention – the question of achieving a political settlement ought to be at the forefront of thinking about the prospects of peace Syria. The problem is that settlement means agreement, which means negotiations. And there the problem is not only that the West has spent four years saying it would not talk with Assad except about some details of timing of his departure from power. The problem is also that nobody wants to talk with ISIS and the widespread view is that ISIS does not want to negotiate and certainly not to compromise.

The jihadis of al-Qaeda and ISIS have far-ranging, visionary, totalizing demands that reject without reservation the legitimacy of those of whom the demands are made. For many groups – ruling regimes, Shi’a Muslims, Yazidis, Copts – conceding to the demands of ISIS equates to accepting self-destruction. ISIS and al-Qaeda have many differences but in this they are identical: both behave in ways that refuse compromise and seem to make it impossible.

We do not know if that will be the case forever. Just as the possibility of talks of some kind with Assad now seems less outlandish to many than it did two years ago, so things may change with ISIS. Even if they do not there are many other forces engaged in Syria, as well as the Assad regime, with which contact, exchanges and eventually some sort of negotiation is needed if there is to be a political settlement with any traction. And as part of an overall framework for any settlement in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia will also need to grasp the negotiating nettle together.

And this is not the first and will probably not be the last conflict about which the possibility of a negotiated agreement has been ruled out by one or both sides and by the prevailing common sense of the time, only for what is possible and acceptable to change as events unfold and the political actors respond.

So often in my life time has it occurred, that there were talks and agreement between parties who had seemed to be irrevocably divided, that it seems strange that this point needs to be made. But it seems it does, so with some assistance from colleagues here at SIPRI I have put together a rough and ready and undoubtedly incomplete list of talks that, before they happened, seemed next to impossible to realists and knowledgeable observers. Feel free to add to it:

1940s until recently: Burma/Myanmar / armed groups

1950s: USA  / USSR

1954-1960: Algeria: France / FLN

1950-70: USA / China

1950s to late 1980s: South Africa: Apartheid state / ANC

1960 - 2014: USA / Cuba

1967-1977: Egypt/Israel

Late 1960s to early 1990s: Israel / PLO

1969 to early 1990s: Ireland: UK government / IRA / Unionists

1970s: Rhodesia: UK government / Smith regime / ZANU & ZAPU

1975-1991: Morocco / Polisario

1976-2005: Indonesia / GAM

1980-88: Iran / Iraq

1982-1989: Sudan /SPLA

1980s: Mozambique: FRELIMO / RENAMO

Late 1980s: Lebanon: All the militias mutually

1992-1995: Bosnia-Hercegovina: Serbia & Republika Srpska / B-H government

1990s: UK / Libya

1990s-2000s: Palestine: PLO / Hamas

1979 - 2013: USA / Iran

1990s and 2000s: Colombia / FARC



Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.