The last thing anyone wants to do is offer Bashar al-Assad a carrot. The idea of granting concessions to the brutal dictator is enough to make one’s stomach turn. But the implications of failing to do so are more dire than anyone cares to admit.
In a thoughtful New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Noe makes the case for negotiating with Assad—for “bargaining with the devil.” His point, well made and well-taken, is that the United States and its allies are currently operating as if they can somehow engineer a controlled collapse of the Assad government. In fact, for a number of reasons that Noe puts forth, the far likelier scenario is “a bloody last-ditch effort by Mr. Assad, Iran and Hezbollah to save the Syrian government, which they have the means to do.”
The crucial part of Noe’s piece is his insistence that Washington—not Russia, not China, not even Assad himself, although these actors certainly deserve their fair shares of blame—should be held accountable for jettisoning its “inconsistent maxim that bargaining is morally prohibited when a leader is deemed to have gone beyond the pale—especially when bargaining could actually mitigate future fallout, while eventually securing one’s interests and values.” Sanctions aren’t working. Threats aren’t working. The UN Security Council resolution is dead in its tracks. Washington should be willing to seriously consider the option of negotiating, even if it will produce a less-than-ideal outcome and even if it entails granting concessions to the devil.
The details of Noe’s proposed bargain are murky—it’s probably unfeasible to base a deal on Israel’s willingness to return the Golan Heights, for example, or to expect that the Syrian insurgents will suspend their operations if America asks nicely—but his point about accountability is pivotal. Before pointing the finger at Moscow and Beijing for their UN vetoes, Washington should acknowledge that it is equally unwilling to take a course that, however distasteful, may produce acceptable results and help avoid a catastrophe. Noe’s analysis isn’t perfect, but his central argument is notable.