Syria, Iraq: What now?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

The tragedies in Syria and Iraq are threatening to explode into a regional sectarian conflict with looming superpower confrontation.   How can the conflict be contained and eventually solved? As yet, no realistic model is apparent.  Nobody has suggested an eventual solution and described how to get there.  Still, diplomacy must find the way forward; the alternative will be worse for all parties, and especially for the harassed and suffering living there.

Incompatible narratives drive conflicts

The conflicts are driven by incompatible narratives. As discussed in my previous blog input, the Nobel Laureate, the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, shows how we construct our ideas of social reality by simplifications. In his view, we tend to believe those that present the most coherent narrative. Unfortunately, to work political narratives need to be cognitively simple but emotionally charged. The simpler and more emotional, the more powerful. Their power derives from evoking simplified ideas about causality, roles and grievances.

The narratives’ subtexts reflect alternative mental models about confrontation versus cooperation, the two basic political options. Compromise is necessary for cooperation.  Two competing mental models affect how we view the role of compromise: either we see it as an invitation to respond by compromise, or we view willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, encouraging us to stay firm, even raise the stakes to increase pressure.

In the Middle East political narratives tend to thrive on confrontation and perpetuate conflicts. But they fail to provide clear and realistic ideas about solutions. Inevitably, in such narratives the ideas about the future are actually about the past, which cannot be changed. The future, however, is open.

Dealing with narratives

How can diplomacy deal with narratives?  We can seek guidance from those that have actually succeeded in bridging the abyss of incompatible confrontational narratives in the Middle East. One of the most spectacular successes in negotiating under extremely difficult circumstances was UN Assistant Secretary General Giandomenico Picco’s deal with Iran in the early 1990’s to secure the release of hostages in Lebanon.  In an article published in 2012 (Al Monitor, IV-18-12) he explains: “We all have our narratives that are the core of who we are and what we do. Thus the key to successful negotiations with the adversaries is to discover – not to share necessarily – “some” or “one” page of their narrative, for there is the soil in which the roots of their decisions are born”.  He calls for narratives that can “afford leaders who can lead without an enemy”.  In other words, by understanding and accepting narratives we build the necessary cognitive and emotional interface to relate constructively.


Projecting his experience as successful negotiator to the current crisis in Syria (Oxford Research Group, II-7-13), Picco suggests involving the regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia.  In his view, a regional solution needs to comprise Iraq in addition to Syria. Majority rule – Sunni in Syria and Shia in Iraq – must guarantee minority rights. Only the two main regional sectarian protagonists, Iran and Saudi Arabia, can guarantee such a solution. US, Russia and China should in Picco’s view support a regional agreement.

Applying Picco’s experience that narratives must be understood, preferably partly shared, to enable negotiated solutions, we can identify indications of a nascent convergence of the regional narratives towards more pragmatic attitudes by the following observations:

  • Supreme Leaders Khamenei has “moved towards accepting a more nuanced conception of the West as a complex social reality” and may find that negotiations with the US about the nuclear issues and regional stability possible (Akbar Ganji, in Foreign Affairs IX,X-13.) Actually, his support for the new president Rowhani can hardly be interpreted differently.
  • The election of President Rowhani has effectively blocked the option of forced regime change in Iran. This option emerged after the contested election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009. If anyone in Iran has perceived a need to prevent intervention by the ultimate deterrence of nuclear arms, this option has been obviated by the legitimacy of the regime bestowed by the election. This legitimacy is of course limited given the nature of the regime, but it is sufficient to block any option of intervention.

The gas attacks in Syria show that there are circumstances in which weapons of mass destruction will be used. Nuclear arms are of course infinitely worse than gas, but, conceivably, no less a real option in desperate or unscrupulous hands. Weapons of mass destruction can therefore no longer be accepted as means of deterrence. President Rowhani has been clear in his strong condemnation of the gas attacks in Syria. As an expert in nuclear issues he will know that nuclear arms pose unacceptable risks. These risks would become unmanageable in a regional nuclear arms race.