Why the Syrian opposition isn’t negotiating…and why it makes perfect sense

I came across this story today about how the Syrian opposition, populated by an increasing number of former generals and high-ranking officials, has rejected the UN’s (via Kofi Annan) attempts to bring the belligerents together for peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in their country. While some readers may lament the fact that the opposition is turning down a chance at “peace,” or think that this says something about their ultimate aims in the conflict, I’m (obviously) going to dispute that here. In fact, we’ve got every reason to believe that under the current circumstances, any deal that leaves the current government even partially intact will be a non-starter, and reasonably so.

There are two reasons for this. First, as the article indicates, the opposition is starting to attract some more powerful defectors from the Assad regime, meaning that their relative power is likely on the rise, and they expect to do better in the future. Sitting down at the negotiating table now runs the risk of locking in an agreement that reflects the current military situation. However, the opposition clearly prefers fighting to whatever stopping now might look like, and they’re likely to require even more in the way of concessions from the top if they can continue to attract more defectors. This, of course, assumes that there would be some third party able to enforce a deal between government and opposition…

…which may not be all that likely.

That leads me to the second point. Even if the opposition didn’t think it could do better by fighting on rather than accept some UN-brokered deal, it probably has little reason to suspect that any deal agreed upon today would actually stick. If some new power-sharing agreement required either disarming or letting up on the military pressure it’s currently putting on the regime, then Assad’s government would be free to renege—it would certainly have the incentives and restored power to do so—and undo all the gains that the opposition won in the agreement. In other words, an agreement that would shift bargaining power away from the opposition wouldn’t be credible, and the opposition has every incentive to fight for a better deal than take the fool’s gold of a bargain that their enemies could renege on easily. (On the other hand, Assad’s government would probably also rather fight than give the opposition enough in a power-sharing agreement to take advantage of it in the future, too.)

In that sense, this isn’t unlike the Egyptian opposition’s refusal to leave the streets of Cairo in response to empty promises of reform last spring. What’s the point of all this, then? Well, first, as well-meaning as calls for negotiation might be, there’s little reason to expect that it’s in either party’s interest to participate in them in good faith. Second, any deal that would require the rebels to disarm in a power-sharing agreement likely just  won’t stick if there is some kind of attempt to implement it. And, finally, third party attempts to mediate or, especially, to impose a settlement aren’t likely to be all that stable…something we all might wish to keep in mind as the debate over what to do about Syria moves forward…

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One thought on “Why the Syrian opposition isn’t negotiating…and why it makes perfect sense

  1. Pingback: What could the UNSC actually do in Syria? | The Wolf Den

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