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Geneva II: The View From Here

January 25, 2014

The view from our new apartment is glorious; you can see the white-capped mountains of the Jura in the distance, the majestic jet d’eau rising over the sparkling waters of Lac Leman in the forefront and in between those, every few minutes a plane taking off or landing at the Geneva Airport. These past two days I have sat here watching those planes bringing negotiators from the West from one direction and the Middle East from the other, wondering what if anything will come of their visit.

Politicians, negotiators, government representatives, and opposition leaders of all types are here for the Geneva II talks on the future of Syria. UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has cited the lofty goal of the talks as “to Save Syria” but on the ground and in the media, expectations are much lower. Since Wednesday Brahimi has had his hands full trying to convince each side to meet with the other. Yesterday was supposed to be the first day of substantive talks but things got off to a rocky start with government and opposition representatives refusing to meet. By the end of the day, things seemed to be looking up as both sides agreed to meet in the same room today.

Photo courtesy of Google images

Photo courtesy of Google images

BBC Video on Geneva II

As much as Brahimi seems to be masterfully spearheading these talks, the approach others have taken leaves anyone who has taken a basic negotiation course furrowing their brows. There are a few basic rules to good negotiating that every professional negotiator knows. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert negotiator but after five years as a lawyer, having negotiated during an armed conflict, and managing to navigate marriage to another lawyer, I’ve at least whet my chops as a negotiator. For those who haven’t taken a negotiation course, there is this book Getting to Yes that is the basic handbook for good negotiations – this is of course assuming you want to get somewhere with your negotiation. It outlines the basics of negotiations, how to expand the pie by thinking outside the box, and a whole host of other taglines – but as overused as some of the terms have become, the rules are simple and they work.

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Sitting across the lake from the Geneva II talks over the past few days, I couldn’t help thinking, excuse me, while I take these guys over a copy of Getting to Yes. All week it’s been shenanigans that would have gotten some of these guys a big fat C in a negotiations class- and that is being generous. All week leading up to the talks it was threats, ultimatums, attacking “the person, not the problem” – all textbook examples of how to sabotage a negotiation. On the one side we had John Kerry laying out his our-way-or the highway re: Assad needing to leave power is the only way forward or nothing, and then haughtily proclaiming no one has done more damage to Syria than Assad himself. Here’s an idea, if you actually want to get anywhere don’t start off a negotiation by personally attacking one party in public or making ultimatums, at the very least get to the table first. Then yesterday we had Syria threatening to leave if they don’t get down to serious talks immediately. It doesn’t mean these aren’t valid views; Kerry’s comments may be what the majority of the world is thinking, and one side’s frustration at coming to the table only to find finger-pointing rather than serious discussions is understandable – but that’s not the point: this is not a tribunal, this is not a court – these are negotiations to find a way out of three years of destruction of a people and their homeland your job is to negotiate a way out, if not then at least improve the situation, or at the very least come away with a better understanding of the situation. Your job here is to negotiate, the prosecutions will come.

The fact that this is an extremely difficult situation to negotiate is not a valid excuse; of course it is difficult, it may be a seemingly impossible negotiation but these are supposed to be the world’s expert negotiators on it – the skills match the problem. Just because the subject matter is extremely difficult doesn’t mean you drop those skills at the door, now it is more important than ever to rely on them. This is their Superbowl, their World Cup – not to make light of an armed conflict and its thousands of casualties the point is just that, like skills developed by athletes, these are learned skills negotiators have. Athletes don’t spend their whole sporting careers honing their skills just to drop them at the door and go back to chaos during the biggest competition of their lives – no, they take those skills and they apply them to the situation, and that’s what needs to happen here.

Enough games, enough threats, enough personal attacks, it’s time to check the egos at the door and get down to the business of negotiating.

The apparent impossibility of an immediate negotiated peace is not a reason to give up before you start, specific issues like humanitarian couloirs or plans for civilian safe-areas could be accomplished here, which seems to be the new goal of the talks since last night. So let’s give Brahimi and the others trying to move forward some support; you are all here, you didn’t come all this way to eat chocolate and ski (at least we hope), let’s get to it.

Even if you can’t get to “yes” at least you can get to something.

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