Syrian Rebels Balk at Peace Talks

Russia and the Obama administration have made some moves toward seeking a peace settlement in Syria, even as Russia bolsters its support for Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. But an obstacle has emerged as the deeply divided Syrian rebels balk at meeting with Assad’s representatives, ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Reasonable people can disagree on what to do about Syria, a problem with no good solutions, and particularly about what to do regarding aid to Syrian rebels. There ought not to be disagreement, however, on not letting the United States, a would-be benefactor, get pushed around or have its diplomacy subverted by the rebels, who are the supplicants.

Yet that becomes a possibility when we hear the head of the rebel Syrian National Coalitionthrow cold water on the peace conference that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed to arrange and say that his group will withhold agreement to attend until it sees who from the Assad regime might be coming.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

In a public statement at this week’s “Friends of Syria” meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives.

There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.

Amid all the talk about Assad having to go, there is no reason from the standpoint of U.S. interests to consider his departure an end in itself. It is at most a means to achieve other ends, having to do with instability or extremism in Syria.

An even more fundamental distinction is between objectives, either ultimate or intermediate, and diplomatic modalities such as who exactly will be sitting at a negotiating table. In general, regardless of the objectives, including parties is better than excluding them, which only makes them more likely to be spoilers. This principle goes for outsiders, including Iran.

As for the insiders and specifically the Assad regime, it would be hard to label as peace talks any process in which that regime was not fully at the table in the form of representatives of its own choice. Moreover, think of the incentives — to talk or to fight, to cooperate or to spoil — of the regime’s supporters.

A wide range of possibilities for a new Syria would share the common feature of not having Bashar Assad in charge. But those possibilities can be very different from each other in terms of the ability of those currently supporting the regime to live useful lives in the new Syria, or to live at all.

If they do not believe their interests will be fairly represented in creation of a new order, they are more likely to see the only course as a fight to the death. Anyone who does not acknowledge that reality does not deserve assistance.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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4 comments on “Syrian Rebels Balk at Peace Talks

  1. Paul G. on said:

    Considering the extent of the slaughter going on, getting snooty about who they are willing to negotiate with says a lot about some of the rebels concern for the lives of their fellow Syrians.

  2. Don Bacon on said:

    The SNC is balking because the disorganized fighting groups of foreign-backed insurgents and terrorists are not motivated to back the SNC. In fact there is little connection between the FSA, al-Nusrah and the US-appointed SNC leaders, including “prime minister” Ghassan Hitto, recently from Murphy, Texas.

    Also Syria isn’t strongly motivated to negotiate with insurgents and terrorists. Why should it? Who would?

    SecState Kerry seems to be setting up the upcoming failed negotiations as an excuse to escalate military support for the insurgents and terrorists.

  3. Peter Loeb on said:

    The Syrian “rebels” —a vague term at best— have NEVER been willing to negotiate. The Assad regime has been willing to negotiate for years (See UN negotiations) but the “rebels” have figured out that if they pretend to
    support “democracy” and “order” they will get whatever weapons they wish. Other
    extremist groups have used the very same strategy. Al-Quaeda knew that the
    US and its allies would give to fight the communists. Al Quesda took weapons
    and more. They fought as our poxy in Afghanistan and kept the weapons which
    as we know were then used on the USA. This administration knows that the
    extremists (not the same as “Muslims”!!!~) will do likewise. Reports of their
    Sharia Kangaroo courts, the executions and disappearance of those suspected
    of support for Assad are routinely suppressed. They spoil the fake picture of
    so-called “democrats”. Many observers are not convinced (Patrick Cockburn,
    Shamus Cooke etc.).

    The Gulf states have historically wanted to conquer Syria. Likewise Israel
    which is hoping for full US support at last.

    Was the Assad government a model? Never. In fact, they were a prime destination
    for torture by the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition”. Along with many other of our so-called “allies”. Morrocco. Egypt whose torture of the Society of Muslim
    Brothers was never objected to by the US. Instead our funding of Murbarak
    increased year by year to guarantee that Egypt(under Murbarak) would do Israel’s wishes and participate in the Israeli blockade of territory it had
    cruelly occupied.

  4. “Reasonable people can disagree on what to do about Syria, a problem with no good solutions”

    Actually there is a perfectly good solution: stop arming the criminals and they war will end rather quickly.