One aspect of Middle Eastern culture which is almost completely foreign to me personally is the culture of bargaining. Where I grew up, we bargained for baseball cards and used cars, and nothing else. But in most of the Middle East, prices are negotiable. You ask the price of an object, you do some quick arithmetic to see how far above what you want to pay that price is, you take the difference off what you want to pay, and you make a counter-offer. At that point it’s a game between seller and buyer to see who can give up less. A Middle Eastern friend of mine told me before my first visit to the region, “You can always play the walk-out. If there’s something you really want, and you can’t get the price you want, just start to walk away. Don’t worry, the shopkeeper will call you back!”
What I do not know, but very much hope, is whether some of the positions and statements of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian National Coalition are simply posturing in order to secure a more favorable outcome of the Geneva 2 dialogues next month. It is worth remembering that Russia insisted that there must be no preconditions to these talks, largely as a way of disqualifying the Syrian National Coalition’s previous position of seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad before agreeing to dialogue. Since then, both the Syrian National Coalition and the Assad regime have made statements that sound like preconditions to Geneva 2, and the question is what these statements are intended to achieve.
On the regime’s side, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed “in principle” to participate in the Geneva 2 dialogues, with the goal of seeking a political solution to the violence (which US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated will create a transitional government acceptable to all parties and thus ensure the removal of Bashar al-Assad). But al-Assad has also said that he does not intend to step down, but will seek re-election in the 2014 elections. He has declared that the loyal Syrian Army is defeating the rebels. He has stated (in a press release for an interview) and implied (in the actual interview) that he has received the first shipments of Russian missiles, although Russian sources contradicted him.
On the opposition side, although the lesser-known National Coordination Coalition has agreed to the talks, the Syrian National Coalition has rejected the notion of dialogue with the regime as long as the “massacres” continue.
This rejection by the Syrian National Coalition seemed short-sighted to me. Certainly, one can understand the emotional reasoning and the dread of “striking a deal with the devil” in their eyes, since they blame Bashar al-Assad personally for all of the awful things of this war. But their position seems absurd: they require the regime to unilaterally declare a ceasefire and the president to voluntarily step down, before dialogue can happen at which sides might agree to a ceasefire.
But the interchange regarding the Russian missiles reminded me that not all is as it seems in the Middle East, and words mean different things in different contexts. If, as seems likely, the Russian sources are correct that the missiles haven’t shipped (and won’t get there for at least a few months), then the president’s claim to the contrary is an attempt at intimidation and indicating a strong position from which to bargain. He does not need to drop his price very much. Because the other side of bargaining is that the buyer needs to be willing to pay a price which the seller is willing to take seriously. From the opposition perspective, since they want al-Assad to go, the opposite counter-offer of his insisting he’ll seek re-election is to insist that he leave from the start. Are these statements just rhetorical preparation for bargaining at Geneva 2?
I do not know. They could be, and I hope they are. That would make a lot more sense of the Syrian National Coalition’s position. On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad last November vowed to “live or die” in Syria, so it may be that he fully intends not to compromise on his re-election bid. And the Syrian National Coalition must know that a public refusal to take part in the Geneva 2 dialogues, even only a temporary refusal, is costing them a lot of international support. The strife of their meeting in Istanbul last week already cost them a lot of support within Syria (here, and here). If these statements are not driving a hard bargain, the talks can still go on even without the Syrian National Coalition (after all, the National Coordination Coalition agreed to participate), but the Geneva 2 are even more unlikely than they already seemed to bring an end to the Syrian Civil War without some involvement from the Syrian National Coalition. A lot is now riding on whether the bargaining culture of the Middle East is found or lost in these statements of both the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition.