A new book by scholars inside and outside the Arab region presents proposals for political reconstruction in post-war Syria.
Post-Conflict Power-Sharing Agreements is a collection of papers that offer guidelines for establishing a peaceful and stable Syrian state once the fighting has stopped. A political settlement with any hope of enduring, its editors argue, would need to be based on the sharing of power among the main groups in the society.
The proposals they discuss include two novel features.
This power-sharing arrangement would include a process of social reconciliation tailored to the specific conditions of Syrian society, running alongside the political process. And Syrian people would be represented in the political process not only as individual citizens, but also as members of a group that may make a greater claim to their allegiance than the national flag—such as religion, language, ethnicity, tribe or region. (See a related article, “Scholar Sees Power Shift From Governments to Communities.”)
Some of these groups—notably the Alawites, who form the core of President Bashar al-Assad’s power base—are well represented politically, but others are not. “The Sunni majority is not coherent; it is split into secular and religious groups, and no respected spokesman has yet emerged from among them,” said Chahine Ghais of Lebanon’s Notre Dame University-Louaize, one of the book’s contributors
The legitimacy of a new political system would depend on the introduction of a credible process of national and social reconciliation, said Mohammed Abu-Nimer of American University in Washington, D.C., one of the book’s editors. “Regardless of who wins this war, you have to move to the next phase,” he said. “Reconciliation is the only way for the country to move forward. Otherwise, Syria will be like Afghanistan or Somalia.”
The reconciliation process could include local traditions of arbitration such as those practiced by tribal leaders or Muslim and Christian religious leaders. “The society has been torn apart in a very severe way,” Abu-Nimer said. “Reconciliation must be both local and national.”
An instance of a successful national reconciliation process in an Arab country could be the Equity and Reconciliation Commission established in Morocco in 2004 by King Mohammed VI to investigate human-rights abuses in the country from 1956 to 1999, under the two previous monarchs. The commission investigated thousands of cases and made recommendations of reparations to victims and political reform.
“The Moroccan process investigated and acknowledged the crimes that were committed, but did not name names,” said Faten Ghosn of the University of Arizona, a co-author of one of the papers in the book. “Its implementation was not perfect, but it was ground-breaking,” she said.
Whoever designs the reconciliation process for Syria will have to decide on the time period to be considered. “We need to uncover what happened during the civil war, but we also need to go back further, to the 1970s perhaps, or to the events in Hama in 1982,” when the Syrian government (then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad) ruthlessly suppressed an Islamist uprising, killing tens of thousands of people, Abu-Nimer said.
The book collects presentations made at a conference at the Lebanese American University in Beirut in November 2016, and can be seen as a response to one of the key provisions of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, passed in December 2015, which specifies a “Syrian-led” process of political reform. (All of this is separate from public discussion of the economic reconstruction of Syria.)
The authors make no assumptions about the state of the political landscape in Syria on the day after an armistice is declared; that is, the ideas presented do not depend on either the presence or the absence of the Assad regime. “He may win militarily,” said Imad Salamey of the Lebanese American University, one of the book’s editors. “But Assad represents an Arab nationalist paradigm which has failed and which has been failing for a long time. Whether Assad stays or not, we rule out the possibility of the restoration of national autocracy” of the kind that existed before the war, Salamey said. “Politically, he can’t restore the state the way it was.”
It may seem difficult to imagine how the processes described here could be implemented with the existing regime still in place. “The regime is going to stay,” Faten Ghosn said. “Assad is just a symbol. There is no one in the opposition forces who has not also committed war crimes. There is nobody with clean hands.”
The book considers the possibility that the country could be partitioned (an idea that John Kerry, then the U.S. secretary of state, suggested in October 2016), but the balance of argument among its authors does not favor such a solution. “Partitions do happen sometimes,” Salamey said. “Divorces happen. Nobody’s happy with divorce, but sometimes it’s the best option. We have to discuss it.”