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


Sometimes your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) is realizing that the negotiation itself is worth the risk. Back in May 2012, the United States and Russia announced a plan to hold a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, which had killed more than 70,000 people at that time.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Christopher R. Hill, the dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a former U.S. ambassador, argued 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” 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.

Obviously a lot has changed in Syria, and in the relationship between the U.S. and Russia since then, but there are still negotiation lessons to learn.

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.

Do you find this article helpful in developing your own BATNA?

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

BATNA Basics

Claim your FREE copy: BATNA Basics

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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5 Responses to “Negotiation as Your BATNA: The Syrian Civil War and Crisis Negotiations”

  • No, I would like to continue to be logged. Your articles and teaching materials are of outstanding quality. They share the strong academic background with diplomatic, legal and business experiences. They are extremely useful. Please, continue.

  • John D.

    Clearly part of determining a BATNA in very complex positions is not just a probabilistic analysis of a fault-tree (i.e. what are the probable consequences of the initial decision, on balance), which will change over time and dependent on each decision taken; but also looking at the broader cost-benefit environment for the decision maker. For a politician, this involves consequence analysis that is separate to the people immediately affected by the decision (i.e. public perception of voters) and for a corporate entity will be market reputation. The other complicating factor is “interruptibility” … which is the extent to which one decision path can be interrupted (change tack, go back, suspend), with least incremental loss; and which decision path results in a rapid and irreversible loss. The odds in the latter might look better if just examining the beginning and end … but the chance to change your outcome as you proceed and gain new information may be far more valuable.

  • Costas A.

    The USA response to the so called Arab Spring of revolutions in north Africa and Syria has been disatrous for the countries involved and long run US interests, because it has caused acute instability and allowed radical islamic groups to cause chaos. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the west led by the USA has as its main concern the potection of Israel.How does this effect the BATNA of the combatants in Syria, As the article above states the USA cut diplomatic relations with the Assad government in Syria, even though the Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Shiites and some Sunnis either supported the regime or were more afraid of the opposition than the regime. The US opposition to the Assad regime was extended to support for the opposition, including radicalized sunnis and islamic sunni movements which either directly or in directly were supported by the west. Including groups associated with Al Guida. When Turkish supported elements made encroachments into the Alawhite heartland of the Assad regime, Russia intervened and dramtatically increased the BATNA of Assad. At that time it was clear that the main threat to western interests was not from Assad but from Islamic fundamentalists largely ISIS that threatened the Governments of both Iraq and Syria. At this point it became clear that these fundamentalists groups could only be defeated in cooperation with the Russians and Assads Government. Had the US taken that option it may have been possible to reach agreement on a new constitution that would meet the interests of the people of Syria by ending the war, but also meeting the legitimate interests of the USA and Israel. Nobody believes that a strong ISIS or Ak Guida in Syria and Iraq increases the security of Israel. Christopher Hills analysis has been shown to have been correct, and the BATNA of Assad and RUssia has increased, and a deal can only be achieved with their involvement. furthermore The USA has betrayed their allies in Syria, the Kurds who have been militarily weakened by the intervention of Turkey into the conflict, not against ISIS but against the Kurdish allies of the US. While the US did nothing to curb the attack with US arms of NATO ally Turkey against the kurds of Syria. Cooperation between the USA, Russia, Assad and the more democratic less fundamentalist opposition is essential for an end of the war in Syria, and Assad has to play a role becuse his BATNA has increased.

  • Ethics are philosophical guidelines that we used to come to a decision. They have little to do with emotion more to deal with reasoning and balance of logic. Ethics are not laurels all the other related because we are more or less rules of the Haviar. Any choice in the go she ate or not negotiate is in fact up to the parties. As far as this article specifically Sunnis and the Shiites are two different factions ones fives of a religion. Turning on which faction they go shaders along to determine whether to negotiate or not.

  • Mural R.

    In addition to the two factors the author has explained when we decide to not to negotiate, the third factor is our ability to empathise with the opponent. Ethics, sometimes, are contextual and are driven by perspectives.


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