That's One Way of Looking at It!

Published: Jan 30 , 2014
Author: Robin Copland

For a man who trained as a physician at the University of Damascus and who spent two years in post graduate training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital, part of the St Mary’s group of teaching hospitals in London; a man, furthermore, who had few, if any, political aspirations until his brother’s death in 1994, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is taking a pretty myopic view of retaining political power!  For the past two years he and the Syrian political establishment have been engaged in a ruthless battle for power with the loosely-defined but western-supported opposition rebel forces. 

Assad came to power on the death of his father in 2000.  He inherited the leadership of the Ba’ath party and of the army and was elected (apparently) with massive popular support – 97% of the votes cast.  He was re-elected unopposed in 2007.  As a result of his political hold in Syria, he has allegedly amassed a personal fortune of $1.5bn; he guards against the risk of losing his fortune by spreading his assets between Hong Kong, Russia and other offshore tax havens.

Maybe that’s why he is so keen to hang onto power. Nice guy?  I think probably not.  Greedy megalomaniac?  I couldn’t possibly say, but let’s just opine that the evidence seems overwhelming, m’lud and leave it at that.

But he is still, for good or evil, the  current president of the sovereign state of Syria, which, of course gives  everyone a bit of a problem when it comes to the Geneva II Conference on Syria.  Not wishing to put too fine a point on it, but everyone (except  for members of the current political elite in Syria) want rid of him and all  that he stands for.  He leads one of the two parties involved in the civil  war though and therefore needs to be courted, for as long as he is in that  position, as one of the two main players in the dispute.  He still leads the Ba’ath party and it will have to be involved in the conference and the  subsequent negotiations, when they finally happen. 

The other problem in all of this is  that the opposition alliance is fractured.  On 22 July 2013 Russian  Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reported that the Syrian government was ready to engage in the conference without preconditions.  On 25 November 2013, UN  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed that members of the Syrian government  and of the opposition will be present.  So far, so good. 

But, following the publication of the list of participants on 20 December 2013, Hassan Abboud, the leader of one of  the opposition factions, Ahrar al-Sham, said that they would not be bound by  the outcome of the talks.  The Islamic Front flatly rejected the talks.  The Syrian National Council withdrew from the coalition in protest at its (the  coalition’s) decision to attend the talks. On the other hand, the Syria  Revolutionaries Front and the Soldiers of the Levant supported the talks.  The Kurdish Democratic Union Party requested a delegation to the conference, citing the fact that Kurdish forces had created a semi-autonomous state in northern Syria.

So only some of the opposition attended.  And some wanted to attend whose right so to do was tenuous at  best.  Those who did attend were unhappy at the thought of being in the same room, never mind the same city as members of the Syrian government.  There was precious little chance, in other words of a negotiated settlement at  the conference and it was important that an arbiter, trusted by both sides in  the dispute, could be found.  Fortunately, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN peace  envoy to Syria fulfilled that role and had opened communication channels to both parties.

Another interesting aspect of the  conference, interesting and unavoidable, has been the input from international sponsors of the event.  Perhaps the most interesting was US secretary of  state John Kerry’s statement, “There is no way, no way possible, that a man who  has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to  govern".  Now, the fact that I agree with him is actually not the issue from a negotiating perspective.  Kerry has to understand that putting a pre-condition that one of the two main participants is bound find unacceptable will, in fact, stall the negotiating process, not help it.

Unless, of course, that was the  objective of the statement!  Perhaps what Kerry was actually saying was something like this.  “We shall go along with the talks; we agree with the goal of transferring power to a transitional authority composed of representatives of both the existing government and the opposition; we encourage both warring parties to get together and to negotiate a settlement – just as long as General Basher al-Assad is not involved.”

This negotiating tactic – putting pre-conditions on the negotiation - is interesting.  It can be used to fulfill a number of objectives.

  • Stall a negotiation and stop it in its tracks
  • Define a principled stance or position, in the absence of which negotiation will be impossible – the “line in the sand”, if you will.

Positioning statements like these are often best delivered in advance or at the start of a negotiation.  They can be used to set the scene and outline the background to any negotiated settlement.  Opening statements can outline the shape of an acceptable deal and the beauty of them is that you can plan and rehearse them in advance. 

John Kerry isn’t stupid.  Maybe General al-Assad should get his exit strategy in place.  Seems he can’t see that he is not wanted.

Robin Copland



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