Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

No Settlement In Damascus

The Danger of a Negotiated Peace

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries the empty shell of a cluster bomb. (Courtesy Reuters)

In recent weeks, the argument that a decisive Syrian rebel victory would not necessarily be a good thing has gained ground in U.S. foreign policy circles. A negotiated settlement between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, the argument goes, would be preferable. Such an ending would have a better chance of stanching the violence and preventing outright sectarian war between the mostly Sunni rebels -- hungry for revenge against the Alawites -- and the rest of the country.

Yet after almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government, there is little chance that splitting the difference between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad's favorite strategy -- honed over decades -- of using the threat of sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of the Assad regime should be decisive and complete.

Of course, there are those who disagree. For one, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that the Syrian rebels, if they win, will seek revenge and embrace neither democracy nor liberalism. Arguing along the same lines, Madhav Joshi, a senior researcher at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and David Mason, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that a decisive military victory in a civil war is dangerous. The victorious side, they say, is likely to try to exclude the other from government (and enforce that exclusion through its military dominance) rather than to try to co-opt the former rival's supporters by including them.

But history does not necessarily bear that out. Negotiated settlements have, in fact, proved weak in terms of promoting mutual disarmament, military integration, and political power sharing. Less than a quarter of all civil wars since 1945 have ended in a negotiated settlement. Many of those power-sharing deals were broken before they could be implemented (such as Uganda in 1985 and Rwanda in 1993). Of those that made it to implementation, the governments generally collapsed into renewed conflict (Lebanon in 1958 and 1976, Chad in 1979, Angola in 1994, and Sierra Leone in 1999). Other recently negotiated settlements remain tenuous (Bosnia in 1995, Northern Ireland in 1998, Burundi in 2000, and Macedonia in 2001).

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