In “Settling Syria,” we argued that the conflict in Syria would likely end in a negotiated settlement. The only question was when. It was thus not too surprising when, earlier this month, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, proposed holding an international conference with leaders from both sides of the conflict who would come together to form a transitional power-sharing government. That government, they hinted, could possibly include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Leaders from both the Syrian government and the opposition have responded with ambivalence. Assad has affirmed that he will not step down -- a precondition to talks for some opposition groups -- and that he is skeptical about the initiative’s chances for success, given the divisions within the opposition. Presumably, he is also reluctant to sit in a room with a United States that is plainly hostile to his remaining in power. Even so, he recently put forward five names for a possible negotiating team.

On the other side of the war, opposition leaders have questioned the very purpose of the conference. George Sabra, the leader of the Syrian National Council, one of the opposition factions, remarked that “it is not clear what this conference is about,” citing the lack of an agenda or a list of countries attending. For its part, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, another major faction, is set to meet in Istanbul this Thursday to discuss whether it will join in.

The concerns -- that the external actors will bring their own agendas to the table, that opposition leaders have made Assad’s stepping down a precondition for talks, and that the Syrian opposition is highly fragmented -- are valid. All the same, they are common problems. External actors always bring their own agendas. Furthermore, opposition groups routinely demand the ouster of the sitting leader. And by default, it is difficult to initiate negotiation among multiple warring parties. Yet successful talks can be -- and often are -- initiated under such conditions.

It is not unusual that outside actors, in this case Kerry and Lavrov, are the main proponents of negotiations. In fact, talks rarely begin without a third-party facilitator. The facilitator’s customary objective is gauging each side’s sensitivities in order to build a mutually acceptable agenda for future negotiations. Scholars debate whether biased or neutral facilitators are more effective. Some argue that neutral mediators, who wish only to end the conflict, tend to produce a greater number of low-quality agreements in which neither party concedes much. Biased mediators, on the other hand, care primarily about safeguarding the interests of their party. They thus tend to resist efforts to produce a quick low-quality agreement and can force greater concessions overall. The fact that the United States and Russia have their own interests, then, should not be problematic.

What is unusual are Kerry and Lavrov’s indications that they have a global conference in mind. Most peace processes begin with secret or else private pre-negotiations. In private talks, there is no audience, and the cost of joining or leaving is low. The primary function of these discussions is to overcome the psychological barriers to formal negotiations by addressing the warring parties’ major fears about the process. Each side expresses the problems as they see them. These perceptions are repeatedly reframed until a shared understanding of the issues that need to be addressed is developed. The parties also deal with procedural issues, such as which groups will send representatives, how security will be provided, and where and when the bigger talks will take place. The pre-negotiation step is especially important in a civil conflict, such as the one in Syria, where the two warring segments of society, the Alawites and the Sunnis, have vilified each other for centuries and lack a shared conception of the conflict. In this case, though, that step seems to have been bypassed.

Because the point of early negotiations is to build confidence, they rarely involve discussions of highly contentious issues such as what to do about the current leader or the creation of a new government. Talks that bite off too much too early are likely to fail. In Nepal’s first round of formal peace talks in 2001, for example, the Maoists put forward a list of roughly 40 demands, which included dissolving the government and the constitution and holding elections for a constituent assembly. Government mediators balked. The talks failed, and the civil war entered its most violent period. Two years later, in 2003, the Maoists called a cease-fire and the government reciprocated. This time, the initial gambit was only three security-related requests that did not include dissolving the government. The government accepted and formal negotiations began. By 2006, the two sides were signing a comprehensive agreement that ended the war. They even agreed to form a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, which, in turn, abolished the monarchy.

The Nepal case illustrates why, traditionally, mediators prefer gradualism and careful sequencing, with the biggest and toughest issues being tackled only after smaller ones have been resolved and some level of trust has been established. Transitional power-sharing arrangements are quite common in peace agreements. (Over half of the accords in the Peace Accords Matrix, a database of comprehensive peace agreements hosted by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, establish a transitional power-sharing arrangement). Such provisions, however, typically entered into agreements later in the process, once the parties had decided what they were transitioning to. Similarly, decisions about the role of the leader of the current regime should not be part of initial talks. Those preparing their briefs for the Syria talks would do well to keep that in mind.

Beyond the procedural issues, the Syrian opposition’s fragmentation is seen as another major stumbling block to starting a peace process. It is true that a unified opposition makes initiating talks somewhat easier. But many successful negotiations do start out as bilateral talks between the government and one or more groups. They tend to expand to include more opposition groups over time because, as talks near their end, no one wants to be left out of the process that will shape new political institutions or even form a new government. If a group does not put down its guns, it runs the risk of being denied recognition as a legal party or, even worse, becoming the target of an increasingly focused military campaign under a unified government. In other words, starting negotiations with one or more groups tend to lead to negotiations with the other groups.

And even if that does not happen, it is also possible to strike deals with each opposition group on its own terms. The Arusha Accords that ended the civil war in Burundi resulted from negotiations that included 19 different groups. One of the biggest opposition groups, the CNDD-FDD, demurred and continued its fight against the government. Two and a half years later, it decided to enter into talks to join the transitional government and become a legal political party. After a deal was struck, the group’s leader went on to win the country’s first post-conflict elections. In other contexts, such as in the Mindanao region in the Philippines, various rebel groups are so independent that the government has had to pursue separate bilateral agreements with each. In 1997, the government struck a deal with the Moro National Liberation Front -- and it has held since then. In 2012, it signed an initial agreement with another group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Negotiations are currently under way with a third, Abu Sayyef.

In Syria, if negotiations did begin between the Syrian government and any of the three main opposition groups -- the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the National Coordination Committee (NCC) -- it is likely that the other two groups would eventually join in. The reasoning is simple: the principal policy difference among the groups is their willingness to negotiate. The SNC and NCC have stated that they want talks. Despite the meeting in Turkey, the National Coalition still officially maintains that it does not. Otherwise, there is little disagreement among the three about Syria’s -- and Assad’s -- future. If the National Coalition, which seems to be the one holdout, came around before talks began, the primary policy difference among the three groups would immediately dissolve. If the SNC, the NCC, or (more likely) both agreed to negotiate while the National Coalition declined, a peace process would still be underway. As the recalcitrant groups see that they are being left out of a political process that very well could shape the future of Syria, they would likely join in.

In light of the challenges, it should be noted that not all negotiations produce an agreement, not all agreements immediately end armed conflict, and negotiations at the beginning of a peace process are generally less successful than later rounds of negotiations. But, even if negotiations fail to stop the violence in Syria immediately and the parties end up returning to war for a period of time, failed negotiations and failed agreements impose costs on the players involved and provide learning opportunities that help pave the way for successful negotiations in the future.

The Kerry-Lavrov plan puts far too much on the agenda, and the venue is far too public for the actors to be able to reach some common understanding of the barriers to peace. At best, the conference could lead to more discreet talks on more manageable issues sometime down the road. If things do break down, it will be up to Assad and representatives of the three main opposition groups to put forth a short list of requests that the other side could reciprocate as preconditions for reentering into negotiations. These items could be as simple as a request that Assad refrain from calling opposition members terrorists in the press. As soon as one party reciprocates, a peace process is underway. And with each successful round, just enough trust and good will may be generated to move on to the next item.

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  • J. MICHAEL QUINN is a Research Assistant Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. MADHAV JOSHI is a Research Assistant Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Associate Director of the Peace Accords Matrix Project.
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