Restructuring the State: Possible Power-Sharing Agreements for Syria

Kurdish demands for regional autonomy will play a central role in any power sharing agreement. YPG fighters, December 2014.

Kurdish demands for regional autonomy will play a central role in any power sharing agreement. YPG fighters, December 2014.

As world powers push ahead with diplomatic attempts to end the war in Syria, any potential political settlements must address the key component of power distribution, according to Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

Salamey, one of the editors and authors of a recent anthology titled Post-Conflict Power-Sharing Agreements: Options for Syria, says that power-sharing between competing ethno-sectarian groups is a prerequisite for sustainable peace.

Syria Deeply spoke to Salamey about possible arrangements, takeaways from experiences in post-conflict Lebanon and Iraq, and the potential role these agreements may play in strengthening sectarian animosity in the aftermath of the war in Syria.

Syria Deeply: Can the Baath party’s prewar, nationalist and centralized model of governance survive after the conflict?

Imad Salamey: In one way, the regime has been able to assert itself as a mighty fighting force with significant backing from international and regional powers. It has in many ways defeated the alternatives – groups that sought greater justice or greater communitarian power-sharing arrangement in government. However, I think the Syrian government and its backers recognize that they need to have a more accommodating approach to the various groups in order to sustain their position and conduct government affairs without a major opposition. In other words, any post-conflict settlement has to diffuse grievances of exclusion. The old system cannot be sustained without major reforms and power-sharing mechanisms.

Syria Deeply: What elements should a power-sharing arrangement for Syria have to ensure a sustainable and lasting reconciliation?

Salamey: Any power-sharing agreement needs to decentralize power in favor of localities, particularly regional provinces. In this way, regional communities can participate in determining their own destinies. Secondly, there is a need to establish a new, inclusive army that accommodates rival fighting bands in Syria, whether pro- or anti-regime. This army may also need to adopt a new ideology that moves away from monolithic Arab nationalism towards an accommodating doctrine that is inclusive of Kurdish security – so it may need to advance a pluralistic vision of Arabism.

There also needs to be a new constitution and a new electoral system that recognize plurality and cherish diversity in Syria. Part of this is to introduce a system of checks and balances, possibly by limiting presidential terms, or giving greater power to parliament and the prime minister so that they can balance against the president.

Minority rights must also be protected. So the Alawite minority or the Druze minority need to have a certain share or a protected quota in government in proportion to their population. This arrangement provides assurances to smaller groups that they will not be overwhelmed by the majority.

A post-conflict agreement will also need to notice the importance of transitional justice, and therefore the judiciary in Syria will need to be strengthened and given a more independent role in its conduct to reconcile communitarian grievances and undermine war trauma between communities. A post-conflict agreement will also have to respect the right to opposition, and the right to freedom of expression and assembly, which can only be achieved through power-sharing.

Syria Deeply: Iraq and Lebanon both have a troublesome history with power-sharing political arrangements. What lessons can we take from Syria’s two neighbors?

Salamey: Any power-sharing agreement in Syria, must learn from the lessons of Lebanon and Iraq. For example, power-sharing in Lebanon has allowed Lebanon to confront a variety of challenges, including foreign occupations. The state has also been able to accommodate various groups, despite regional friction, particularly the Shiite-Sunni divide. Lebanon has been able to overcome these differences by assuring the different groups a share in power. In other words, power-sharing has given them protection from being dominated by other sects. So the balance of power between the different communities has helped Lebanon overcome a turbulent region. It can do the same for Syria.

Alternatively, in Iraq, there have been many problems, that in many ways have undermined the consolidation of equity in power-sharing arrangements. Chief among them is foreign intervention, which has worked to the disadvantage of the Sunni community in Iraq, favoring the Shiite ruling elite. This skewed balance of power has undermined and threatened its fragile stability. The same scenario could play out in Syria. That is, there is a possibility of inappropriately designed arrangements that favor the Alawites. But, if you introduce decentralization and checks and balances that guarantee proportional distribution of public offices, you can then provide assurances to all groups, and the likelihood of sectarian unbalance will be reduced rather than exacerbated.

Syria Deeply: Scholars and analysts have argued that dividing power among ethnic/sectarian lines only hardens sectarian and ethnic identities. Is this a relevant concern for a postwar Syrian state?

Salamey: Yes, of course. Power-sharing in Syria may consolidate ethno-sectarian identities by making groups mobilize behind sectarian and ethnic demands. Comparative studies, however, have long recognized the fragmenting nature of identity-based politics, and advocated ways and means to mitigate this shortcoming. One way is to draw up an electoral system that makes cross-sectarian alliances essential to winning the vote. This will undermine radical flanks and extremist voices.

With time, power-sharing agreements will lead to shared interests in economics, politics or international relations. So the state will have collective interests rather than exclusionary communitarian interests. In the long run, cross-communitarian social cleavages may emerge providing a cohesive affiliation to statehood.

Syria Deeply: International and regional meddling in Syrian peace-building efforts seem inevitable. Will this likely be a debilitating or enabling factor when it comes to agreeing on a transitional power-sharing arrangement?

Salamey: One of the major challenges of power-sharing is how to deal with foreign relations and how to buffer foreign meddling. Foreign intervention can be a curse and blessing for [Iraq and Lebanon]. Lebanon has witnessed both fortunes.

Sometimes foreign intervention fuels differences, especially when states are competing for influence. Other times, foreign states find a common interest in maintaining stability in a given country rather than feeding conflict. When interests of foreign states converge, their role lends support to a political settlement. For example, the Taif agreement brokered in Saudi Arabia in 1989 between a number of foreign countries, including France, Iran, Syria and the U.S., succeeded in ending Lebanon’s civil war.

For states like Lebanon and Syria, there is a requirement for international and regional agreement over the political arrangement. Things cannot be done otherwise. In Syria today, the only way to have stability is to have a convergence between the domestic and international drives. I think there is a growing consensus among regional and international players that the ongoing conflict in Syria is futile, so the best way to pursue their interests is to establish a political arrangement that balances the different powers without an open and costly conflict.

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply. You can find the original hereThe answers have been edited for length and clarity. For important news about the war in Syria, you can sign up to the Syria email listThe views expressed in this article belong to the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply. Photograph courtesy of  Kurdish Struggle. Published under a Creative Commons license.