About two weeks ago, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (better known as the SNC) agreed to attend the “Geneva 2” talks being pushed and planned for by the U.N., the U.S., Russia, and others world powers. These talks would bring the Assad government and the SNC (which is currently recognized as the legitimate alternative to the current Syrian regime by many Middle Eastern and Western nations) together to resolve the lopsided civil war that has resulted in approximately 120,000 casualties, millions of refugees, and thousands of rape and torture victims.
The flocking of foreign fighters to the conflict has made the Syrian revolution a messy one indeed. Unabashed intervention by Hezbollah and al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists has bloodied the waters further and made Western powers reluctant to act more decisively, though Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have had no such qualms. International attempts to relieve suffering inside Syria have been blocked by the regime, and the outpouring of refugees has created one of the most dire regional crises in recent history. Needless to say, these harrowing realities necessitate a solution.
The chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime on August 21st played a cruel trick on the opposition. Instead of further delegitimizing the regime and prompting Western countries to punish Assad in a way that possibly could have tipped the war in the rebels’ favor (or if not, at least have given them a morale boost), the Assad government’s subsequent agreement to give up their chemical weapons re-integrated the regime into the international community as a legitimate bargaining partner. The cruel irony being that you can use scary weapons for mass killing, give them up, and be applauded while continuing to slaughter populations at close range. Foreign officials have expressed “concern” over this of course, but this is the rhetorical equivalent of throwing up one’s hands with a shrug. And because the military remains largely intact, Assad will not be retreating into a sewer pipe à la Muammar Gaddafi anytime soon.
The philosophy of Cold War-style authoritarian regimes like those of Gaddafi and Assad is to retain power at all costs. And while this method will continue to reduce Syria to rubble, the regime will gladly govern over corpses and dust as long as the ants stay in line. And if the rebels ultimately lose, liberated areas like Kafranbel will certainly be punished in a manner reminiscent of the 1982 Hama massacre, during which the regime of Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) massacred tens of thousands of civilians in an act of hellish vengeance for the presence of less than 300 armed dissidents. If the regime prevails, it would be absurd to argue that violence will be reduced. On the contrary, the wave of retribution that will follow will be apocalyptic for the people of Syria.
Certainly, the SNC knows all of this better than I do, and for these reasons, their preconditions for participating in the Geneva 2 talks include a transitional government and the end to Assad’s rule in Syria.
I have been thinking a lot about the conditions under which negotiations work for social movements this month while reading Bearing the Cross, the Pulitzer-prize winning account of the civil rights movement (CRM), written by David J. Garrow. Dr. King’s orientation toward racist local business leaders and government authorities was that they could be persuaded to act morally. However, when these groups would not be persuaded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations deployed disruptive tactics as a last resort in order to produce “negative inducements to bargaining” (McAdam 1983; Wilson 1961). These tactics were not designed just to produce bargaining in and of itself, however. As Garrow details, negotiations occurred consistently between movement leaders, local business leaders, city councils, and federal officials throughout the civil rights struggle. Rather, the CRM’s tactics were designed to level the playing field such that their opponents would return to the bargaining table in good faith because the movement had left them with no better alternative. As one Birmingham merchant remarked, “The idea of negotiation… was offensive to all present,’ but ‘the prospect of continued violence’ was ‘an unpleasant and even more disastrous alternative’” (Garrow 1986: 252).
It may go without saying that movements and their targets will come to the table in good faith when each side has an incentive to do so, and when social movements believe that any ensuing agreements made with power-holders can and will be enforced. But for the anti-Assad movement, it appears that the Geneva 2 talks hold more perils than prospects for peace for several reasons.
First, the Assad regime does not feel the same way as the merchant of Birmingham quoted above. Their method for dealing with dissent has been and continues to be brutal repression, not compromise. In fact, violence is their preferred method, not their tactic of last resort. Second, the Assad regime has no incentive to acquiesce to the SNC’s pre-condition of allowing a transitional government to take over. As in any revolutionary stand-off, each side in Syria (and there are multiple sides, not just two) has fundamentally rejected the legitimacy of the others. The revolution at this point is a zero-sum game, and to give an inch is to give a mile. The regime and the rebels, therefore, have no common ground on which to stand. Third, if the SNC cannot press for its demands during Geneva 2 because it lacks a relatively elevated bargaining position, this risks further eroding their already tenuous authority as representatives of Syria’s government-in-exile, the Free Syrian Army, and other moderate groups. If they agree (or are coerced to agree) to a bad-faith bargain, this will be disastrous for the movement. And this coalition is the rebel’s only legitimate political voice, even if the SNC are losing the faith of their constituents by the day.
Geneva 2 may happen January, it may not. But I would not place my bets on this conference as the pathway to a negotiated settlement for peace. And certainly not with “Bashar the Butcher” sitting at the table, holding a knife.
Garrow, David J. 1986. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Vintage Books, New York.
McAdam, Doug. 1983. “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.” American Sociological Review 48(6): 735-54.
Wilson, James Q. 1961. “The Strategy of Protest: Problems of Negro Civic Action.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 5(3): 291-303.