Negotiation as Your BATNA: The Syrian Civil War and Crisis Negotiations

Crisis negotiations in Syria lead to proposals for a peace conference from the United States and Russia

By on / BATNA

The United States and Russia have announced plans to hold a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 70,000 people.

In an op-ed in the New York Times this May, Christopher R. Hill, the dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a former U.S. ambassador, argues that the Obama administration’s decision to engage Russia on the Syrian conflict is both long overdue and insufficient.

Hill criticized the White House for its decision in August 2011 to cut off diplomatic ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government. At the time, revolution seemed to be sweeping through the Middle East, with dictators toppling in Tunisia and Egypt.


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But swearing off talks with Assad made it more difficult for the Obama administration to negotiate with minority Kurds, Christians, and Druse in Syria, writes Hill. These groups are suspicious of Assad yet fear the uncertainty that a takeover by Sunni-led rebels would bring to Syria.

“Our black-and-white stance on Mr. Assad” has boxed in the U.S. government, according to Hill. Syrians on both side of the conflict “desperately need clarity about how their country might be organized in a post-Assad era,” writes Hill.

The disputants must come to believe that neither “is likely to achieve total victory, and that the only realistic outcome is a negotiated settlement,” according to Hill. They require the help of outside parties, including the U.S. government, to get to the table and try to find common ground.

In his 2010 book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight (Simon & Schuster, 2010), Program on Negotiation Chair Robert Mnookin analyzed the common dilemma of when to engage an unsavory party in negotiation and when to steer clear of them.

Most people decide too hastily to walk away from such talks or to turn to the courts for resolution of the dispute, writes Mnookin. Our emotions cause us to err on the side of not negotiating.

In Bargaining with the Devil, Mnookin acknowledges that honor, integrity, and identity can and should be significant factors when deciding whether to negotiate with an enemy whom we believe to be repugnant. But our moral judgments tend to arise from the intuitive side of the brain, he notes. When we rely on these judgments to avoid analyzing a situation, they could become dangerous traps. The key, according to Mnookin, is to recognize that your moral judgments should “involve an interaction between intuition and analysis.” 

Choosing not to negotiate with an enemy for ethical reasons is a legitimate decision, but be sure to think through two factors, writes Mnookin. First, to ensure you aren’t overly swayed by emotion, be willing to probe your moral intuitions by conducting the type of cost-benefit analysis of your options. Second, if you are acting solely on your own behalf, you have every right to allow your personal values to trump reasoned analysis.

If, on the other hand, deciding not to negotiate might indirectly harm those you represent, such as your family or coworkers (or constituents), you may have a greater moral obligation to negotiate.

Related BATNA Article: BATNA Examples – Resurrecting a Deal at the Bargaining Table


Discover how to unleash your power at the bargaining table in this free special report, BATNA Basics: Boost Your Power at the Bargaining Table, from Harvard Law School.


Originally published in 2012.

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