Negotiation time

With all the jabber the last few days about the use of force against both Syria and Iran, media attention is not focused on the prospects for negotiated settlements.  But there are such prospects still, even if the odds are getting longer by the day.


International Crisis Group is out yesterday with a “now or never” manifesto rightly focused on prospects for UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s efforts:

Annan’s best hope lies in enlisting international and notably Russian support for a plan that:

  • comprises an early transfer of power that preserves the integrity of key state institutions;
  • ensures a gradual yet thorough overhaul of security services; and
  • puts in place a process of transitional justice and national reconciliation that reassures Syrian constituencies alarmed by the dual prospect of tumultuous change and violent score-settling.

Arming the Syrian opposition, which is happening already, is not likely to improve the prospects for a negotiated settlement along these lines.  To the contrary, Western contemplation of safe areas and humanitarian corridors, loose Arab talk about armed the Syria Free Army, the occasional Al Qaeda suicide bombing and a Russian blank check for the regime to crack down are combining to plunge Syria into chaos.  Someone may think that deprives Iran of an important ally, but it also spells lasting (as in decades-long) trouble in a part of the world where we can ill afford it.

The Americans have been mumbling about how arms will inevitably get to the Syrian opposition.  This is true enough.  But some visible support for Annan, and a behind the scenes diplomatic game with the Russians, would be more helpful to the cause of preventing Syria from becoming a chronic source of instability in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.


Netanyahu came but this time did not conquer.  He needed President Obama to be forthcoming on an eventual military action against Iran as much as Obama needed him to refrain from aligning with Republican critics.  It fell to Senator Mitch McConnell to crystallize the emerging U.S. position:  if Iran enriches uranium to bomb grade (at or above 90%) or shows signs of having decided to build a nuclear weapon (design and ignition work), then the U.S. would respond with overwhelming force.  This is the proposed “red line.”

We should not be fooled by McConnell’s belligerent tone.  Even assuming very strict verification procedures, the line he proposes is a relatively expansive one that leaves Iran with enrichment technology and peaceful uses of atomic energy, which is what the Islamic Republic claims is its red line.

While the press was focused on belligerent statements, the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China + Germany) have apparently responded to Iran’s offer of renewed negotiations.  Iran has also told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it can visit a previously off-limits nuclear site believed to be engaged in weapons research, but procedures have not yet been worked out.

Bottom line

I wouldn’t get excited about the prospects for negotiated solutions in either Syria or Iran.  But if ever there was a time to negotiate, this is it.  By fall, both situations will likely be too far gone, with serious consequences for the United States, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

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2 thoughts on “Negotiation time”

  1. What I am missing in this plan for Syria is that negotiations have a role of themselves. They would force the opposition to find real leaders. They would force the government to take the opposition more seriously. They would put both sides in a position where they have to trust each other.

    Having an “early transfer of power” is the wrong idea. Negotiations should initially focus on trust-building measures like gradual release of prisoners, withdrawal of rebel forces and an end to the demonstrations. Next would be a government of national unity with opposition representatives.

    The focus should be on agreeing how the new Syria should look like. Not on which people will play what roles. Aiming for the removal of Assad and an “overhaul” of security services as the main points will inevitably lead to both sides digging in.

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