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By Tom Cushing

Getting to Yes in Syria?

Uploaded: Sep 11, 2013

The Syria serial continues, with this episode focused on a proposal to transcend current posturing at the brink of US military action, which carries twin risks of ineffectiveness and escalation. The learnings contained in a book used mostly by businesses may hold the key.

One of the most valuable things I've ever read is the 1990 business classic "Getting to Yes" (GtY). It's 150 very readable pages by Roger Fisher, a Harvard Professor and founder of its Program on Negotiation. Remarkably, the last time I checked the book was still on the Business Week bestseller list – 20 years later.

In it, he rejects traditional 'haggle-type' competitive or cooperative negotiating strategies as unwise and inefficient – either one leaves value on the table, and risks damaging the ongoing relationship of the Parties. He replaces those approaches with what he calls a 'principled' or 'collaborative' style that can lead to win-win, non-zero-sum outcomes.

Among the several pearls he dispenses, none is more valuable than this: forget arguing over Positions – instead, go behind them to reach Interests – the human needs that animate whatever positions have been staked by the sides. Responding to your counterpart's needs, and understanding your own, opens-up new options to satisfy those needs in ways that may vary the Parties' prior positions, to the benefit of one or both. Usually, an Interest can be identified in the answers to the question "why."

Fisher was deeply involved in the old Camp David Accords in the aftermath of the Egyptian-Israeli War, after which Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula -- a wasteland formerly part of Egypt. Egypt's Sadat demanded that Israel pull out of his country's territory; Israel's Begin refused, and the talks were going nowhere as mutually exclusive positions hardened.

Their respective interests, however, were much more compatible – Egypt wanted the Sinai as a matter of national pride and sovereignty. Israel's interest was security -- they cared little for the territory, except that it provided an early warning buffer against an imminent attack; troops would have to cross it before reaching anything that the Israelis really cared-about.

Comparing those interests provided the basis for a Breakthrough: Egypt would get its sovereign land back, on the enforced promise to maintain it as a demilitarized zone, thus meeting Israel's need for security against attack. Bingo – obvious in retrospect, but hardly self-evident to entrenched bargainers at the time. GtY is an acquired skill (and very often, though not always, equally applicable on an interpersonal level – say, when you and yours want to plan a vacation, or a Saturday night out).

Which brings us to Syria: we 'may' be seeing another GtY example unfold there (BTW, I've seen evidence of a GtY approach in many of Mr. Obama's prior initiatives – unfortunately, the Parties ultimately were not bargaining over the same issues; it's hard to make progress when one side only wants to 'Get to No,' but I digress). There, the US position has been that Assad must be punished for the 'gassacre' of his enemies, and Syria and its allies have promised that they will retaliate against such an attack.

And there we stood until somebody realized that the US interests here include minimizing the chance of future such attacks, not implementing a high-risk/unlikely-reward strategy that could easily fail, and avoiding the risk of being drawn into yet-another land war, far from home. Syria, for its part, needs to avoid the US attack, reduce the risk that their poison weapons will be captured and turned against them by the rebels, and also avoid deeper involvement by the US in a widening war.

And Presto: a solution that addresses all those interests and Just-Might-Work is for Syria to give up that gas arsenal in return for the US remaining on the sidelines, mostly. It's a Eureka! Moment, apparently arrived-at by accident this time, but it has captured the world's imagination.

Now, are there serious practical and logistical problems associated with implementing such a solution in a war zone? You bet. And can we trust that the Syrians even mean it, or is this just a stall tactic? Stay tuned – that proof can only come in whether they'll implement. At minimum, the US will have to maintain a credible threat of a military strike, pending Syrian compliance on its end. But it's fascinating to contemplate, and an ingenious resolution if it works: as Fisher has written elsewhere, there's real [persuasive) power in "an elegant solution."

For that reason, I hold some hope that it can work to resolve this particular conflict. There are certainly forces allied against it, and there's always risk in outreach and trying something new. But I hope it does work – the world, and all its inhabitants, are in need of more elegant solutions -- the kind that Getting to Yes can supply.