If you’re think every time Barack Obama talks to a Republican he’s about ready to “cave”, imagine how democratically-minded Syrians feel about some of their representatives going to have some talks with Bashar al-Assad, who’s spent the better part of two years unleashing upon Syria something that looks like Hieronymous Bosch’s Hell or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. The word “cave” is definitely on the lips of quite a few worried Syrians right now.
That being said, the Syrian oppositionists who want to go talk with representatives of the Syrian government are right to want to do that. Indeed, it is important that the world see them doing it. Just as people needed to see Barack Obama talking to Republicans, because so many had it in their head that Democrats would be stubborn and unreasonable rather than serious about negotiations, people need to see Syrian oppositionists talking to Assad, because so many have it in their head that the opposition will be stubborn and unreasonable rather than serious about negotiations.
It’s also a golden opportunity for the Syrian democratic opposition to distinguish itself from the jihadi opposition, which is having nothing to do with these talks because they are unlikely to lead to the “Islamic Republic of Syria” being established. The jihadi Syrians will come off millennarian and unrealistic, while their democratic fellow Syrians will look like people capable of making a pragmatic deal. That will be an important line to draw for a world community that right now is lumping people who just want to be left in peace by the mad dog Assad government in with those who want to replace that government with a mad dog jihadi government.
Showing up to talk, however, doesn’t mean accepting an ugly deal. In that respect, I think the Syrian democratic opposition has to play their cards right.
Obama is actually a fair model here – where he has conceded to Republicans, he has largely done so in a way that leaves open the possibility to return to unfinished business later. For example, Obama gave into the Republicans in 2010 on the Bush Tax Cuts (to cries of “Cave! Cave!”) but was then able to successfully return to the matter after the 2012 elections, when he had better circumstances and was able to nix tax cuts for the rich after securing the necessary power to win on the matter. There may be places where the opposition can negotiate with the current government which may seem like similar “caving” positions but where this may open the door to return to the matter later.
Another model to consider here, of course, is Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, who was able to negotiate an agreement with Robert Mugabe, someone every bit as brutal of a dictator as Assad. That agreement lasted for four years and permitted Tsvangirai to do much to improve the economy of Zimbabwe and open up some space for the protection of the civil rights of the average Zimbabwean citizen for that time. If you stop there, it sounds like it was worth it to have made a deal with this particular devil. However, Mugabe stole this year’s elections in Zimbabwe with only the tiniest of peeps from election observers from other southern African countries. (Those observers noted there was no direct harassment of opposition voters, but also that there were “irregularities” that cast doubt on the election’s “fairness”. But hey, no one in the opposition was bloodied by roving mobs this year, so we’ll count that as a step in the right direction and award Mugabe the election…)
That story could be the story of a Syrian opposition that negotiates a deal with Assad. Syria could rest semi-comfortably for a while, perhaps, until Assad felt he had gotten everything he could in terms of international credibility and political legitimacy from the opposition – and then he could rig another election, claim that the people had spoken and kick the opposition to the curb.
Syria’s opposition has to ask itself if negotiating with the current government would be worthwhile if it led to that kind of a temporary victory followed by a disturbing defeat. Mugabe may have ended up using Tsvangirai to consolidate dictatorial rule over Zimbabwe rather than weakening it – of course, on the other hand, most Zimbabweans may still credit Tsvangirai for the improvements that occurred from 2009-2013, before the election restored Mugabe to the throne. Maybe enough of them will survive Mugabe to bring Zimbabwe to a decent place at some later date. Maybe Tsvangirai will win the long game. But how long a game? And what will happen to Zimbabweans in the meantime?
Negotiating with Assad is a dangerous game. Even if he stands down, negotiating with members of a government that would carry out Assad’s orders is a dangerous game. Making a deal may help people in the short run, but may also legitimise the dictatorship in the long run. The questions, it seems to me, are the same as they were in Zimbabwe. It may be worth it. Perhaps the Syrian democratic opposition will win the long game. But how long a game? And what will happen to Syrians in the meantime?