A rebel fighter signals victory after he fires a shoulder-fired missile toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad were hiding in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on November 4, 2012.
c Freedom House

Syria: Assad might negotiate, but why would the rebels?

We are only engaging with half the problem on Syria. As hard as it might be to persuade Assad that he cannot win the war, it may be harder to persuade the rebels they should stop fighting it. The reason why goes to the heart of the psychology of warfare.

“There is no military solution to the crisis in Syria, only a political solution,” US Secretary of State John Kerry is fond of saying. The political solution he and much of the West dreams of is one in which Assad, undefeated but unable to strike a decisive blow against the rebels, comes grudgingly to the negotiating table to thrash out a deal.

Increasing Assad’s incentives to negotiate has been the aim of Western policy on Syria since the conflict erupted in 2011. And despite the ever-more despairing tone of reportage on the crisis, this is by no means a lost cause.

Why? Because for negotiation to become the most attractive option for Assad, he doesn’t have to believe he will lose the war, he simply has to believe he cannot win it. This belief must become more plausible with every day of fighting, no matter how many yes-men Assad is surrounded with.

The implications of an unwinnable war for Assad are stark. First, there is the prospect of permanent international pariah status: in the West, where Vogue was fawning over his wife as recently as March 2011; in the East, where Russia and China’s support grows ever less explicit with every chemical attack; even in Iran, where the use of chemical weapons risks alienating a people still scarred by Saddam’s mustard gas attacks during the Iran-Iraq War.

Second, internally, Assad’s obvious inability to deliver the swift, crushing victory he always promised will begin to alienate the Alawite middle classes, the Syrian Kurds and the small but symbolically important group of Syrian Palestinians. All of these groups have so far provided crucial, but not unwavering, backing to the regime. Their support, however, was always contingent on an eventual return to ‘business as usual’ in which their respective goals of trade, Kurdish autonomy and Palestinian independence could be pursued. As any prospect of peace in Syria recedes and Assad’s perceived impotence grows, negotiation may begin to seem less like capitulation and more like the only trump card the embattled leader has left to play to retain the support of his key constituencies.

Above all, it should be remembered that by the standards of Middle Eastern dictators facing deposition, Assad is a young man; he turned 48 on 11th September. It would therefore be a mistake to assume he has the same mind-set as others in his dilemma. Hosni Mubarak was 83 when he was forced into exile after refusing to negotiate with protestors; Tunisia’s Ben Ali was 75; Gaddafi was 70. Assad may well believe his best years as a respected, influential leader are not behind him; he will certainly know that his only chance of avoiding international isolation, exile, or death is to negotiate.

So far, so good. But Mr Kerry’s “political solution” requires two to tango, not one. In the rush to analyse Assad’s strategic position in advance of Western intervention, few have thought to question whether the rebels themselves will agree to negotiate, despite ominous rumblings on this front from the Syrian National Council.

The reason for our collective blind spot relates to one of our deepest and most flawed assumptions about conflict: that all parties will, as a rule, act rationally. As we watch the rebels suffer unimaginable losses trying merely to hold their ground against better armed, better trained regime forces, it seems obvious that the only reason they aren’t negotiating is because of the lack of a dance partner. Given the massive casualties they are taking, to say nothing of the thousands scarred horrifically by gas attacks or the millions forced into overcrowded refugee camps, it would surely be in the rational self-interest of the rebels to negotiate.

This logic seems to hold even if negotiations are premised upon Assad retaining some form of power—be it in a partitioned Syria or in a power-sharing arrangement – which is likely to be the only condition under which he would come to the table. It is logic, however, which fundamentally misunderstands the nature of war.

To assume the rebels would join Assad at the table is to ignore the fact that negotiation has a significance above and beyond its practical consequences. For the thousands of rebels who have lost friends, families and loved ones in the battle to rid Syria of Assad, to negotiate would be to betray everything they fought for, to admit that they died for nothing. And the more rebels die, the bigger a betrayal this would be, even as the rational case for negotiation grows stronger.

This thinking stems from what psychologists call the ‘sunk costs’ effect, in which staying the course becomes seen as the only way to justify an initial investment. Since human lives are the ultimate investment, the sunk costs effect is all too applicable to war. This was demonstrated in a recent study by a team of psychologists, led by Dr John Paul Schott of Washington University. Schott and his team found that when American students were given detailed information about US casualties in the Iraq or Afghan wars, their attitude towards continuing the wars was more favourable than the attitude of a control group given innocuous information about the weather. Once sunk costs were highlighted, changing course became more difficult to contemplate.

In 1971, a young John Kerry summed this up perfectly when testifying against the Vietnam War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

This is the paradox of war. It is the reason the Tamil Tigers fought to the last man against the overwhelmingly powerful Sri Lankan army in 2009, even as their families died around them. It is also the reason Palestinian leaders find it so hard to justify negotiation with Israel to their people, no matter how bad conditions in the occupied territories become.

It may not be ‘rational’, but it stems from one of our strongest psychological needs: to make every death meaningful; to avoid confronting the utter cruelty and randomness of life. Faced with a choice between upholding the memories of the dead and securing the futures of the living, we cannot be sure the rebels will opt for the latter.

All this, of course, assumes the rebels are one cohesive group, when in reality they are a shifting mass of highly divided tribes and militias, with even the nominal coalitions riven by irreconcilable differences. But even if the finest minds in international diplomacy manage to assemble a broad, representative, coherent rebel coalition with the decision-making capacity to negotiate with Assad, there is good reason to believe they may refuse to. For Mr Kerry’s political solution to work, he needs to invest as much effort into persuading the rebels to negotiate as he does into persuading Assad himself.

Benjamin Young


Benjamin Young recently completed a Masters in International Relations at Cambridge University. He writes on the Middle East, international organisations and humanitarian intervention.

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