In Geneva, Help the Syrian Rebels Bargain from a Position of Strength

By Bilal Y. Saab – Terminating what is now a two-year-old sectarian civil war in Syria in which roughly 90,000 people have died and more than 1.5 million people have become refugees will be an enormously tall order. Add to that active intervention by external actors and a growing terrorist presence in the conflict and Geneva 2 almost becomes mission impossible. But the U.S. and Russian sponsored international peace conference for Syria should be a start to a long-term process, not a one-time negotiating session, and the more Moscow and Washington put into it, the more they will get out of it.

This practically means strong and unwavering political backing, international commitment to the negotiating process and eventually to peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction efforts, and an understanding by the Russians and the Americans to sustain this new initiative, withstand bumps along the way, and contain negative external influences. If Moscow and Washington manage to do those things, the chances of success in Geneva, assuming the conference takes place, will dramatically increase.  

However, the actions and intentions of the antagonists themselves, i.e. the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels led by a fractured political opposition, will have the most profound and direct impact on the fate of the conference and more broadly on the likelihood of achieving peace in Syria. No matter how much preparation goes into the conference and how much backing the process receives, the bottom line is that if the combatants are not ready to bargain in good faith and make concessions Geneva 2 will most likely fail.

In Geneva, the experience and coherence of the opposing negotiating teams and the formulation in advance of smart bargaining tactics will be important assets (assuming those among the political opposition will get their acts together and reach a semblance of political unity), but there is no question that battlefield outcomes will speak loudest at the negotiating table. In other words, the more military gains one makes on the battlefield the stronger his bargaining position will be in Geneva and vice versa.

Yet even two years after it all began, the situation on the ground in Syria, with its ebbs and flows, is still not definitive and does not conclusively show which side is dominant. While there is talk in the Western press of a “turning point” in the Syrian conflict following the battle of Qusayr, none of that is accurate. Yes, Assad has launched a major assault on a strategic rebel stronghold in Qusayr and it seems that his army, with the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah and possibly Iranian special forces, have captured most of the area, but he has not been able to “turn the tide” and the advances made by the Syrian army have not led to the defeat of the rebels. Qusayr is not Al Alamein in July through November 1942, and it is definitely not Stalingrad in winter 1942 through 1943.

Insurgencies against central governments, like Syria’s case, are long-term affairs in which tactical retreats and reversible military gains are the norm. In short, it will take a while before we can judge with any degree of confidence the trajectory of the war in Syria. Despite recent military developments, there is still a stalemate in Syria today, and this condition carries important implications for the talks in Geneva.

Until the fog of war is cleared, negotiations in Geneva, or anywhere else for that matter, will amount to little. That’s because neither side has much of an incentive to concede at the moment. Assad will not rush to talks because he believes he could still improve his bargaining position through military advances. The rebels on the other hand have no interest in urgently instructing their political representatives to negotiate because they think that they will be bargaining from a position of relative weakness. So it’s a waiting game for both sides and each is looking to gain more information about the other’s relative strength through the battlefield. As one U.S. soldier once put it so eloquently, “the battlefield is the most honest place on earth.”

The policy of the Obama administration, shared by the Russian government, has been all along to push for a negotiated peace settlement. Washington’s position is understandable, knowing the possibility of genocide against the Alawites should the Sunni rebels and al Qaeda-affiliated groups succeed in toppling Assad. But the crucial difference between the Russian and U.S. position is that Moscow, knowing that Assad simply cannot win (no matter how hard he thinks he can), has effectively prepared and armed its client for potential talks, sending him weapons and providing him with strong backing at the United Nations Security Council so that he can survive this conflict and protect Russian interests, whereas Washington has done nothing but throw money at the problem.

It is from the prism of such bargaining power asymmetry between Assad and the rebels that one should evaluate the costs and benefits of the U.S. strategy of arming the rebels. The strategy was never meant to enable the rebels to crush Assad militarily (it will take a lot because Assad controls the skies, has much more firepower, and has more active and determined friends in Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah) but to achieve some military gains on the ground to make Assad nervous and willing to concede. To quote strategist Thomas Schelling, “the power to hurt is bargaining power.”

The risks of arming the rebels are well known. Even the most ardent supporter of arming the rebels cannot ignore that it is unclear how further militarization of the Syrian conflict could ameliorate the plight of the Syrian people. It is also less certain if the rebels’ problem is a lack of arms or a lack of discipline, coherence, and unity in the ranks. Yes, the Free Syrian Army’s command and control has been improved through foreign assistance, but the rebels, secular and Islamist, remain a chaotic bunch operating with multiple leaderships and competing agendas. Finally, one must admit that sending strategic weapons to a war zone heavily infiltrated by al Qaeda-affiliated entities does not sound like a terrific idea.

But these risks notwithstanding (some of which have been overblown), the prospect of political talks between Assad and the Syrian opposition should change Washington’s cost-benefit analysis of the strategy of sending weapons to the rebels. For better or worse, despite reports that the Pentagon has prepared Syria military plans for the president, Geneva 2 is the only game in town for Washington. So if the conference fails, Washington is left without real options, and we are back to square one, i.e., escalation of the Syrian conflict, further disintegration of the country, and a higher risk of regional war.

Therefore, it comes down to the question of what Washington can do to increase the chances of getting something meaningful out of Geneva 2. The status quo is simply a recipe for failure. Indeed, rebel relative inferiority on the battlefield means the death of the political track, the continuation of Assad’s military onslaught, and the prolonged dominance of terrorist fighters in Syria, outcomes that the United States so desperately wants to avoid. Washington cannot expect Geneva 2 to produce anything if it doesn’t help the rebels negotiate from a position of relative strength. No wonder why the rebels are so hesitant to send their political representatives to Geneva, lacking necessary ammunition for talks with a tough-minded and brutal adversary that has powerful allies. A rebel trip to Geneva today is like a call for surrender.

The United States can employ several measures to reduce the risks of arming the rebels. First of all, let it be clear that we are not talking about a massive military program designed to destroy Assad’s army. The goal is not even to provide the rebels with a military edge or change the balance of power in their favor, but to send a strong message to Assad that there will be consequences should he refuse to concede in Geneva. Washington does not have to splash around military hardware, just a very carefully scrutinized amount to enable thoroughly vetted rebels to force Assad to come to the negotiating table humbled and ready to cut a reasonable deal. So the focus is not on quantity of arms but on quality and control, and because Assad will never know the depth and scope of U.S. supplies (only the rebels will), he will naturally assume the worst. At its core, the strategy is psychological, designed to challenge Assad’s overconfidence and push him to recalculate.

A cease-fire should be on top of the agenda in Geneva, but Assad will most probably want none of it. His strategy, a rational one, is to continue to expand militarily and potentially impose political conditions on the other side. The rebels should be given an opportunity to check him in the battlefield, demonstrate their strength to him (and the terrorists), and give the political opposition a chance to negotiate with confidence and leverage. If Geneva 2 is all that Washington can offer to the Syrian people, it better back up its choice and give it a chance to succeed.

This article initially appeared in Foreign Policy – The Middle East Channel on May 30, 2013.