Levels of Political Deadlock in the Syrian Conflict

Note:  A revised version of this article has been republished by George Mason University’s Unrest Magazine.  You can find this publication here.

The Annan peace process that tried to halt hostilities between the rebels and Bashar al-Assad’s government put in place several conventional tools that did not account for the multifaceted political reality of the conflict.  This work will propose that the Syrian conflict suffers from three different levels of political deadlock, which have thus far stalled the peace process.  Much emphasis has been placed on easing hostilities at the Syrian national level in an attempt to prevent any further bloodshed, and to help maintain the social and political structures that are still standing in Syria.  While these structures would inevitably serve as a potential base for a smooth and peaceful democratic transition, a holistic analysis of the obstacles faced outside of Syria needs to be initiated in order to understand the highly complex nature of the conflict’s political substance.

Human beings are at the core of any social institution, for it is men and women who create and develop the very foundations of these entities.  Guaranteeing citizens’ physical and mental integrity are values that make democratic institutions, and hence societies, work effectively.  When these values are threatened by the rise of a unilateral power, lives and democracy are at risk.  Given these factors, it is not surprising that the United Nations (UN), through the expertise of its special envoy Kofi Annan, focused its resources on the installation of a six-point plan that proposed, among other things, a cease-fire between the Assad forces and the rebels, and a Syrian-originated peace process.  While these points remain important and a central part of any peace initiative in Syria, I believe that, on their own, they fail to recognize several of the international realities that cloud the political feasibility of the overall plan.  By concentrating on Syria’s local dynamics, the UN was unsuccessful in recognizing the conflict’s levels of complexity, which I argue, are all in a state of political deadlock.

A realistic peace proposal must consider and address with equal importance these three levels of political deadlock in order to increase the feasibility of peace at the local Syrian level.  The identified levels are the following: the Intra-Syrian level, the Inter-state level, and the UN Security Council Level.  As was specified before, the Annan Plan’s focus was devoted at ending hostile behaviours at the local level, or at the Intra-Syrian level.  By focusing on this level, the plan faced several difficulties at the other two levels, which contributed to the eventual downfall of the peace process.

The Annan Peace Plan

Kofi Annan’s peace plan was presented at the 6736th meeting of the UN Security Council, where six points were proposed.  The first point sought “an inclusive Syrian-led process to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people” (United Nations Security Council, 2012).  The second point called on a halt of violence from both the Syrian forces and the rebels.  The third point outlined the need to allow access and functioning of humanitarian assistance in Syria.  The fourth point called for the gradual release of prisoners, and points five and six called for freedoms of movement and association respectively.

The intention behind this work is not to discredit the genuine efforts of the Annan plan, nor to besmirch the reputation of its author, but to enhance the feasibility of the plan by focusing on unexplored political avenues that are captured in the above-mentioned levels of political deadlock.  By exploring each level of political deadlock, it is possible to arrive at an overarching grasp of the multi-faceted dynamics of the Syrian conflict, and therefore its resolution.

Intra-Syrian Level

The first and most basic level is the Intra-Syrian level, which covers the national Syrian spectrum, including the reasons that drive the rebels and the Assad government to engage in violent action, and their relative apathy towards a negotiated settlement.  Unlike the other levels, the Intra-Syrian level differs in that human suffering and the loss of lives are bourne within the confines of Syria’s political and geographical reality, which helps explain why the UN’s resources were mostly focused on this level.

All the directly-related political demands of the fighting parties are contested at this level, and, based on both sides’ actions, can be seen as being absolutist in nature.  The substance of each warring side’s demands is extremely important to understand why the Annan Plan failed.  The demands from both sides are mutually-exclusive, for both of their efforts are bent on either keeping, or having the opportunity to achieve power.  On one hand, it is hard to envision a scenario where Assad would willingly accept to abandon the Syrian presidency for the sake of open democratic contests, knowing that this act would inevitably strip him of his power.  On a similar vein, the likelihood of the Syrian rebels perceiving themselves as having true and realizable political aspirations is severely decreased if Assad remains in power.  This is true to the point where they have expressed support for a peace plan under the strict condition that Assad abandons power. (Rezaian, 2012)

The absolutist degree of these demands makes it extremely difficult for negotiations to emanate from within Syria, for negotiating at this stage of the conflict would go against the parties’ very goals.  This deems the first point of the Annan Plan insufficient, for it does not enhance the warring parties’ willingness to start a bargaining process on their own.  Rather, it bears the practical consequence of maintaining the attractiveness of armed struggle over the benefits of peaceful negotiation, which also helps explain why the second point of the Annan Plan was ill-equipped to stop violence.  The mutually-exclusive core of the warring parties’ demands help in great part to create the first level of political deadlock.

Inter-State Level

In terms of political leverage, the Inter-State level is the most influential of all levels.  This level governs the relations between Syria and the world, and those of other states.  The political deadlock that exists at the Inter-State level deserves special attention, for the output of politically-driven relations at this level will affect the actions at the third and final level.  Additionally, a great part of the skepticism that surrounded Annan’s peace proposal was based on the political realities of the world at this level.

As it was mentioned above, the Annan Plan was mostly focused on the Intra-Syrian level, and left out of its framework the formal involvement of ally countries with strong ties with the fighting parties.  Countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have openly expressed their support for the opposition fighters, while states like Iran and Russia have shown allegiance towards the Assad government.  These loyalties are governed by interests that originate in the countries themselves, which weave a highly complex network of bilateral relations.  These bilateral relations are of extreme importance in this level, for they shape the degree of cohesiveness and the approach of any given peace process.

Arriving at an active participation of ally countries is a cumbersome task, yet one that has the strong potential of changing the fate of the entire peace process.  In our present-day political world, states favor other states on the basis of mutually beneficial interests, membership in international organizations and on the existence of democratic regimes, among others.  The rationale that guides a country into favoring another regulates the degree to which they will be able to cooperate with one another.  This logic makes it extremely difficult to find collaboration between two countries undergoing strained relations.

In the case of the Syrian conflict, there was much interest by peace practitioners and some government officials to see a country such as Iran fulfilling a role in the peace process, given its strong influence within the quarters of Assad’s governmental palace.  This idea found much resistance from countries with which Iran has tremulous relations, including the U.S.  Aversion towards Iranian involvement in the process is not guided by the value, or lack thereof, that such engagement would provide on the likelihood of peace in Syria.  Refusal of such a plan is due to already wavering bilateral relations between Iran and the Western powers.

The Iranian example illustrates the complexity of accomplishing the involvement of key regional actors in the Syrian conflict.  This however does not make a strong enough case for non-cooperation in the peace process.  Having a considerable, formal international political sway is vital to reignite the peace process in three ways.

Firstly, having the active participation of ally countries would help to increase the bargaining space at the Intra-Syrian level, by softening each warring party’s otherwise inflexible claims.  This would consequently enhance the warring parties’ willingness to initiate negotiations within Syria, hence adhering to the first point of the Annan Plan.  Secondly, if ally countries are included as formal parties in the peace process, unified and structured (as opposed to unilateral) sanctions can be orchestrated to help control, and ultimately end violence at the Intra-Syrian level.  And thirdly, having a combined involvement of key international actors will help resolve the third and final level of political deadlock at the UN Security Council.

UN Security Council Level

The decision-making process that takes place at the UN Security Council (SC) is mostly guided by the national interests of the countries that hold a seat in this chamber, particularly the permanent five members (P5), which makes the verdict on SC resolutions highly reflective of the deliberants’ national standpoints.  While this could lead to the idea that political engagement at the Security Council level is an extension of member states’ foreign policies, it is nonetheless necessary to make a distinction between these forums.  This distinction is essential because, even though both forums share a common origin in their respective constituencies, their direct outputs are different, hence producing different results.

Foreign policy decisions, as it was mentioned earlier, are based on national interests, which to a great extent, rids these decisions from the relative selflessness one might expect in theory from the UN SC.  At the latter level, decisions are taken on behalf of the international community for the sake of international peace.  Therefore, any mandate to pursue military intervention on the grounds of moral and internationally agreed-upon goals will be more likely to come from the SC, than from individual states.  This is why it is imperative to analyze the SC level separately, for any deadlock at this level will lead to a complete stall on the international community’s ability to act in the face of human tragedy.

The SC has been marred by the use of the veto by Russia and China, in decisions that have been rooted on these countries’ bilateral relations with Syria.  After a third failed SC resolution, Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin argued that the use of the veto was necessary in order to avoid “external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs” (AlJazeera, 2012).  In terms of national interests, however, there is much at stake for Russia in Syria.  In the midst of the Arab Spring, the Russian government has purportedly been one of the main military providers for the Assad regime (The Associated Press, 2012), and unlike the U.S and other Western powers, has continued its arms deliveries on regions unaffected by UN arms embargoes, which includes Syria (Bromley & Wezeman, 2012).  Any UN SC resolution that puts forward a plan to intervene in Syria would have negative repercussions on Russia’s interests, deeming the attractiveness of supporting such a resolution less favourable.

Similarly, China has derived an informed decision of vetoing UN SC resolutions on Syria based on its interests in the country.  After the third SC resolution vote, Chinese ambassador Li Baodong argued that the veto was used due to the uneven content of the resolution, which he believed put pressure on only one side of the conflict (Gabbatt, 2012).  As with Russia, China’s bilateral relations with Syria are in good standing.  In 2010, Chinese imports accounted for 10.3% of Syria’s trade, making of China its third largest import partner (European Commission).

In both Russia and China’s case, a UN SC resolution that approved of the use of force in Syria would have had a strong impact on Russian and Chinese bilateral relations with Syria, and on their interests in Syrian soil.  These factors have clearly informed Russia and China’s voting patterns at the SC, which in turn have led the UN SC to a state of political deadlock.  For this reason, any viable and feasible peace plan must cope with the political deadlock created by the P5’s bilateral relations prior to any deliberation at the Security Council level.

Reconciling Political Deadlocks

In a previous work, I argued for the creation of a two-party meditational scheme that would include a Western state and Iran.  This is an avenue I believe would work, but is certainly not the only feasible one.  Unlike other countries, Iran was chosen for this work due to its relatively strong influence on the Assad regime, and to its close bilateral ties with Russia and China.  Conceiving potential Iranian participation in the peace process is an idea that has been met with different views.  Sadjadpour sees Iranian participation in the peace process with skepticism, to the point of comparing their inclusion to “inviting vegetarians to a barbecue” (The Associated Press, 2012).  Conversely, Buckley argues that “the international community should find a way to use [Syria’s] alliances to its advantage during negotiations” (Buckley, 2012), when refering to Syria’s bilateral ties with Iran and Russia.
Iran, like all states, also has its national interests at heart, and will decide on foreign policy matters accordingly.  Including Iran in the peace process would bear two clear benefits in the process.  Firstly, a dual Western-Iranian meditational framework would convey on both rebels and on the Assad regime a feeling that a peace produced through negotiations would be beneficial, resulting in a softening of their positions.  On one hand, the state representing the West, a region that has shown sympathy towards the rebels, would have a significant sway on the latter’s activities, while Iran would have a similar effect on the Assad regime.  Including Western-Iranian mediation would have a direct impact on the increase of the bargaining space in Syria, allowing for a veritable opportunity for negotiations to start.  This would ultimately lead to an ease of the political deadlock at the Intra-Syrian level.

And secondly, a framework that includes Iran and a Western power would make use of these countries’ strong bilateral relations (at the Inter-State level) with P5 members to expand the UN Security Council’s ability to operate.  Iranian participation would create a political scenario where future vetoes from Russia and China would be met with strong Iranian opposition, hence making it less likely to occur.  In other words, Iran’s participation would allow the peace process to effectively triangulate the non-usage of Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council.  Similarly, allowing a Western country to mediate alongside Iran would not only provide a balance in the mediation effort in Syrian soil, but it would also ensure that the veto use in the Security Council does not rebound to the other P5 members (US, UK, and France).  Having a co-mediation scheme would create a convergence of goals between Iran and the Western power in the Syrian conflict, which would in turn increase the political cost of using and/or supporting the use of the veto at the Security Council level.  Ultimately, this scheme would lead to a better functioning UN, through the disentanglement of the political deadlock at the Security Council level.

To conclude, this work concentrated on conceptualizing the political complexity of the Syrian conflict, and how in order to arrive at a truly attainable resolution, it is necessary to solve the different types of political deadlock that have thus far blocked the UN’s efforts to negotiate peace in Syria.  This work provided the example of a joint Western-Iranian meditational effort as a way to break the deadlock at the Security Council level, but it also recognizes that there exist several other avenues that could bear similar results.

To focus on obtaining a ceasefire is beneficial and necessary to avoid further bloodshed, but alone, it is not sufficient to address the political realities that surround the conflict.  Furthermore, expecting a Syrian-initiated peace initiative to flourish, given the international political realities of today, is a scenario hard to envision as being attainable.  A holistic approach that coordinates participation of Syrian society, allies and Western powers would help reignite peace negotiations and ease further procedural obstacles at the UN Security Council level, leading to a peace process that aptly reflects the desires and aspirations of the international community.


AlJazeera. (2012, July 20). West Conderms Russia and China Veto on Syria. AlJazeera .

Bromley, M., & Wezeman, P. D. (2012). The impact of the Arab Spring on arms export policies. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm.

Buckley, C. A. (2012). Learning from Libya, Acting in Syria. Journal of Strategic Security , 5 (2), 91.

European Commission. (n.d.). Syria – Trade Statistics. Retrieved September 7, 2012, from European Commission: Trade: http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_113451.pdf

Gabbatt, A. (2012, July 19). Russia and China veto of Syria sanctions condemned as ‘indefensible’. The Guardian .

Rezaian, J. (2012, July 10). Kofi Annan says Iran can help end Syrian crisis. The Washington Post .

The Associated Press. (2012, July 9). Annan seeks help on Syria peace plan from Iran. Retrieved September 1, 2012, from CBC News: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/07/09/syria-assad-kofi-annan.html

The Associated Press. (2012, September 7). French direct aid a break for Syria opposition, but rebels say it will hardly make a dent. The Gazette .

United Nations Security Council. (2012, March 21). Calls on Government, Opposition to Work in Good Faith to Implement ‘Fully and Immediately’ Six-Point Proposal Presented to Syrian Authorities. Retrieved September 1, 2012, from Department of Public Information • News and Media Division: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10583.doc.htm

This entry was posted in Peace and conflict studies, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s