There was a time, long before the situation in Syria regressed into a full-scale civil war, that people believed the government and its opponents could enter negotiations and solve the political crisis in a pragmatic way. Nearly two years into the turmoil, it is difficult to imagine that Syria’s uprising was entirely peaceful in its first few months when tens of thousands chanted for greater freedoms, reforms and simple respect from their government.
Once the regime of President Bashar al-Assad chose to use bullets and tanks to snuff out dissident, the civil activism that at the time dominated the protest movement morphed in a completely different direction. Twenty-three months later, the war will most certainly be won through the force of the gun rather than the voice of reason.
Millions of lives have been shattered in the interim as the violence has crept closer to the heart of Damascus than ever before. The United Nations estimate that 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict but given the difficulty and confusion of counting deaths, that number is almost certainly on the conservative end of the spectrum.
The killing and outright destruction has got so bad that both the Assad regime and the opposition Syrian National Coalition have been throwing up the possibility of preliminary discussions as a way out of the impasse.
Moaz al-Khatib, the opposition group’s president, took the first step earlier this month when he opened up the prospect of talking directly with Syrian government representatives who have not taken part in the killing of civilians. Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister whose mission to find a diplomatic solution has got nowhere, upped the ante further by calling on regime officials and opposition delegates to meet on United Nations property to get the process started. The man whom Bashar al-Assad appointed as his reconciliation advisor, Ali Haidar, appears sympathetic to the idea, claiming that the government will meet with any Syrian dissident who is willing to seriously discuss peace.
While it is encouraging to hear officials on both sides broaching the topic of negotiation, there is little reason to believe that these rumors will amount to anything substantive in the short term.
Talking with one’s adversaries, however informal, continues to be perceived by the majority of the Syrian opposition and Bashar al-Assad himself as akin to caving under pressure. The war is at a point where launching a political dialogue is more radical that maintaining the fight.
Mere hours after Khatib made his announcement about negotiating with the government, members of his own coalition pummeled him for even suggesting that talking with the regime was an option.
The same calculation holds true to the other side. As much as the Syrian military’s position has weakened since July of last year, Bashar al-Assad appears to remain steadfast in his determination to crush his enemies with as much force as is needed to do the job. The near constant bombardment of areas that are controlled by the opposition with jet aircraft, helicopters, tanks, mortars and the occasional Scud missile is not the type of action that gives diplomats a sense of optimism.
Talks about talks aside, the Assad regime and its opponents are not interested in a political solution, at least for now. As long as the war gets more brutal and inhumane by the day, human rights violations continue to mount and the glue of society is ripped apart, the combatants that matter in this war will be hoping for a total military triumph.
Two years into the crisis, with tens of thousands of casualties, hundreds and perhaps thousands of extrajudicial executions, millions of families ruined and entire cities destroyed, sitting down and starting the arduous work of reconciliation is not on either party’s agenda.