Center for Strategic Communication

by Ian Derk

In the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheik, several Middle Eastern nations and the US met to discuss Iraq. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice went to the resort town to debate the future of Iraq, particularly the flow of foreign fighters and debt relief. Among the more exciting pieces of the conference were discussions between the United States and Syria.

In 2005, President Bush withdrew the ambassador to Syria after claiming Damascus’ involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese Prime Minister. In the two years since then, President Bush accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters into Iraq, tacitly supporting the Iraqi insurgency, and sponsoring terrorism with Hezbollah and Hamas. The Sunni/Arab state of Syria ties itself to Shia/Persian Iran through support to Hezbollah. The US diplomatic strategy for Iran and Syria are similar. US diplomats refuse to engage either nation in formal, direct negotiations. The current strategy of the Bush Administration is to isolate the Syrian regime to force change.

Because Iran, Syria, and the US all have interests in a stable Iraq, the three foes have a similar interest. At the conference, Secretary Rice talked with Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, her Syrian counterpart, in a side room separated from the main conference. The Syrian press claims the pair discussed “bilateral relations” and wants to improve the Syrian-US relationship. Syrian President Bashar Assad asserts that it is “too early to see if the conference is a breakthrough,” citing fears that Syria would be scapegoated for the poor situation in Iraq. Secretary Rice maintains that Syria has failed to act in the past but hopes the current situation in Iraq will encourage them to stop the flow of foreign fighters across their borders.


Conflicts between parties are common in communication. Most conflicts move through stages. A latent conflict becomes an emergent conflict as grievances become intolerable to one side. The conflict continues to escalate as both sides begin to invest more in a conflict. High-investment conflict increases the stakes, prompting defensive and coercive behavior (see Burgess & Burgess in Further Reading). As defensive behavior and coercion rise, distrust between parties also increases, making negotiations difficult (see Tomlinson & Lewicky in Further Reading). The distrust builds a hurting stalemate or intractable conflict.

The definition of “intractable conflict” is difficult because conflicts are not linear processes. As reconciliation takes place, an eruption of violence could return the conflict to an escalation. One key component is the idea of a “hurting stalemate,” a point where neither side is able or willing to overcome the other but both parties remain committed to the conflict. Ongoing conflict begins to damage both parties and increases the fear and distrust each party has for the other. The mixture of distrust, an emotional state, with policy- or action-based problems can increase the complexity of a conflict. Long-term stalemates also increase the importance of polarizing communication to each group’s identity. Conflicts with strong negative emotions, policy/action problems, and identity threats are likely to become intractable.

While intractability is undesirable in conflicts, the hurting stalemate still has potential. Both sides recognizing that a stalemate is mutually harmful can foster a sense of “ripeness.” As parties view the polarized, distrustful, and destructive environment of a conflict as negative, they are willing to find different methods of conflict resolution. Peter T. Coleman compares this state to an addict “hitting bottom” and becoming willing to make major changes in his/her life. Ripeness is the willing of both sides to make a course correction, not only in one area but in all parts of a conflict.


The Iraq Study Group Report recommended discussions with Iran and Syria as methods of solving the current crisis in Iraq. Because the two nations share borders with Iraq and have an interest in a secure neighbor, the US has a mutual interest with both nations. In the case of Syria, a stream of foreign fighters running through the country is bad for the security of the nation, and diplomatic isolation could harm the country. Syria wants good relations with the West, the US in particular.

And yet, a hurtful stalemate seems to be in effect. Syria continues to threaten Lebanon, and President Assad escalates their conflict. Statements by the Bush Administration have threatened the identity of Syria, and the security situation in Iraq continues to decline. Stalemates such as this one are fostered by the view that parties have no options except destruction. Refusing to negotiate with Syria forces the US to use coercive language and military force to solve problems with Syria. If the US continues to strategically ignore Syria, it could allow the conflict between Syria and Lebanon to become intractable and violent. Hostilities between the US and Syria could also force Syria to join sides with Iran, already a major intractable conflict partner with the US in the region. A stalemate with Syria could further spoil our relations with Iran and our ability to act in the Middle East will decline.

However, Secretary Rice’s ability to address a specific concern with Syria, border security, is a start to fostering ripeness. The sense of common interest in Iraqi stability could decrease US/Middle Eastern polarization. Syria’s increased border security also fosters a greater sense of trust, an important aspect of overcoming hurtful stalemates. It may not be necessary to absolve Syria of all allegations now, but preventing an adversarial relationship with the Syrian government is critical to our diplomatic strategy in the region. Toning down the harsh rhetoric could help as well, and following up with rewards for successful border security will increase the trust between Syria and the US. Fostering ripe relationships will allow for more negotiation as an alternative to military force, an alternative more likely to end an intractable conflict than more violence.

Further Reading

  • Beyond Intractability Project (2003). Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado.
  • Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess (2003). What Are Intractable Conflicts? Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.
  • Coleman, P. T. (2000). Fostering ripeness in seemingly intractable conflict: An experimental study. International Journal of Conflict Management (1997-2002), 11, 300.
  • Tomlinson, E. C., & Lewicki, R. J. Managing distrust in intractable conflicts. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 24(2), 219-228.