When International Negotiation Stymies the Best Mediators

For better negotiation outcomes, work to build relationships with potential partners before any obvious opportunity for dealmaking arises.

By — on / International Negotiation


Back on May 13, 2014, Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy to Syria, announced that he was quitting his position as lead mediator of the Syrian conflict due to frustration with a lack of progress. The same day, a French diplomat said the Syrian government had used chemical weapons more than 12 times after signing a treaty banning the weapons, according to the New York Times.

“It’s very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state,” Brahimi told reporters.

He was the second high-level mediator to abandon the conflict. In 2012, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave up his efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government failed to implement the six-point plan that Annan had negotiated between the government and opposition leaders.

“Let me say that the world is full of crazy people like me, so don’t be surprised if someone else decides to take it on,” Annan said at the time of his resignation. He blamed finger pointing and name calling within the U.N. Security council for his plan’s inability to take hold. According to Annan, only international pressure would persuade the Syrian government and the opposition to negotiate in good faith.

On September 15, 2013, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, announced a deal aimed at heading off a U.S. attack on Syria in exchange for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s promise to dismantle his country’s chemical weapons. The proposal initially came from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Brahimi, who helped to negotiate an end to Lebanan’s civil war and stabilize Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban rule, led Syrian government and opposition representatives in two rounds of negotiations over the formation of an interim transitional government, the Times reports. In the most recent round, the parties were not even able to negotiate an agenda for their talks. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed Brahimi’s departure in part on members of the U.N. Security Council for failing to support the mediator’s efforts.

In 2002, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School honored Brahimi with its Great Negotiator Award, which is given to individuals whose lifetime achievements in negotiation and dispute resolution have had a significant, lasting impact. During his visit to Harvard, Brahimi reflected on the importance of using time to one’s advantage in complex negotiations, wrote Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra in a Negotiation Briefings article.

In particular, Brahimi stressed the importance of taking time to get to know the other parties to the negotiation. For business negotiators, that might mean working to build relationships with potential partners before any obvious opportunity for dealmaking arises. By doing so, you lay the groundwork for a more trusting partnership down the line.

The fact that both Brahimi and Annan ultimately felt they were unable to resolve the Syrian conflict attests both to the complexity of the crisis and to the difficulty the mediators have faced in building trust among parties. For now, with no mediator stepping in to take Brahimi’s place, the prospects for a lasting peace in Syria appear bleak.

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