Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Peace in Syria starts with building trust

See also my follow-up article Syria and the transition to democracy that discusses how a polarized country like Syria could become democratic.

When you study successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy the most common model is that where reforms are introduces when the old guard is still in power but allows or actively implements reforms. In El Salvador and South Africa most reforms were implemented during negotiations while the old regime stayed in power. In Poland and Spain there was a reformist government while parliament and the army were still dominated by the old regime. The main benefit of such a mixed transition phase is that there comes a kind of consensus: people attached to the old order will respect the reforms because they have been involved with them and people connected to the new order will respect that the old order had its good sides too and not press for destructive changes like the de-Baathification in Iraq.

When on the other hand there is a complete transition at once you get an unstable situation where different factions try to grab power. This could be seen for example in Russia (both 1917 and 1991), Iran (1979), Portugal (1974) France (1789) and most recently in Northern Africa.

Unfortunately the UN mediation by Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi chose for the untested Geneva model that foresees first in an armistice, then a transitional government and finally elections. That model was the text of a preliminary agreement that was concluded by the main powers in Geneva in June 2012. Unfortunately it not suitable for the Syrian situation.

The main problem – apart from ongoing foreign interference - is that the plan does not address the distrust. Both sides fear massive retaliation when they lose and as a consequence both have proposed mutually incompatible conditions that should prevent such retaliation. Demands by the opposition that Assad should resign are just as senseless as demands by Assad that the rebels should surrender: they fail to address the fears on the other side. Elections won’t help: they are just another way to declare a winner and a loser and the loser might still face retaliation. As we have seen in Ivory Coast elections under such tense circumstances tend to degrade into fraud and accusations of fraud.

To solve the distrust long negotiations are needed that settle how the country should look like. In this scenario Assad should stay in power but stay on the background while his people work out compromises with the opposition.

In this article I want to discuss what is wrong with the Geneva model and how a model inspired by previous successful conflict resolutions in countries like El Salvador and South Africa might look.

The wrong model

Transitional governments are quite common in democracies between the time a government has fallen and new elections. Usually they are caretaker governments that take only the most needed decisions.

Transitional governments are typically implemented when the present government has lost so much credibility that it is no longer able to govern. Transitional governments tend to be powerless and do little more than organize elections and hand over power. This lack of power also makes it impossible to introduce reforms and for that reason countries like South Africa and El Salvador have preferred to keep their old governments while the reforms were initiated, negotiated and overseen in special committees. Only after elections did they have a formal handover of power. An additional advantage is that reforms introduced this way tend to be universally accepted.

Of the Arab Spring countries only Tunisia came in a position where a transitional government was needed when Ben Ali fled the country. Tunisia shows also the disadvantages of this model. As there were no negotiations before the elections the country only could start negotiating a new constitution after the elections. And because this kind of transition delegitimizes the old constitution the result is a temporary legal void that still is harming the country. As we also see in Egypt and Libya - where the old regimes were forced out partly by the West - this void opens the door for undemocratic power grabs.

In Syria Assad still has considerable support and a functional government. Most people from the religious minorities and most people in Aleppo and Damascus support him. Several journalists (for example Nir Rosen) have estimated that Assad and the opposition have about the same level of support while a large number of people is neutral and only wants peace. So there is no reason to use a transitional government.

So the job of any peacemaker is not to get rid of Assad but to reconcile the two segments of the population with each other. After two years of violence that may take considerable effort and time. South Africa took three years from its National Peace Agreement in 1991 to hold its first inclusive elections in 1994. El Salvador ended its guerrilla war in January 1992 and had elections in 1994. If this may seem long one should consider that Tunisia's handover of power happened more than two years ago and yet a new constitution still doesn't seem near.

A transitional government cannot be the place were negotiations take place - that would paralyze it. Negotiations need to take place outside the government. They should also be part of a wider dialogue. Think of the "national dialogue" that took place in July 2011 and in which for a short time there was an open dialogue in the Syrian media. Below I want to sketch below how such a transition might look in Syria. It is not my intention to provide a complete blueprint. Rather I want to raise enthusiasm for a peaceful solution by giving an impression how it could look like.


Assad has called the rebel fighters “murderous criminals” while the rebels have called for Assad’s unconditional resignation because he “has too much blood on his hands”. In Northern Ireland this stalemate is called the “politics of the latest atrocity”. It is a perfect excuse not to negotiate. Therefore, one of the main tasks of mediators is to convince both sides that negotiating is not about who is right or wrong but about serving the interests of the country. In this context it may be good to remember that in El Salvador the disbalance between the number killed by the regime and the number killed by the opposition was much wider than it is now in Syria.

Some people from the opposition like to claim that Assad has “too much blood on his hands”. In fact most people have died in the armed battles of the uprising. Only about 12% of the victims are women and children - what suggests that the great majority of the people who die in Syria are involved in military affairs. So one might as well blame the opposition for the high death toll as it initiates most of the military attacks and opens most new fronts.

But the distrust goes deeper. Under Ottoman rule Alawites were considered by some as not Islamic. This put them in a worse position than Christians and Jews. In fact they were treated like a kind of pariahs. Under and after French rule their position improved. Yet one of the more ugly features of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising around 1980 that ended in the Hama massacre was a murder campaign against Alawites with government jobs. The Brotherhood clearly appealed to the old prejudices against Alawites (what makes it so incomprehensible that the West gave them so much influence on the negotiations). In the present uprising we see appeals to the same sentiments: The uprising gained much in appeal after preachers like Arour framed it as an uprising of Sunni against Alawites. And it is well known that Al-Nusra considers Alawites as not Muslim and treats them badly.

There is also the Damascus Spring - the period in 2001 when Bashar Assad had just risen to power and allowed more freedom - only to crack down again in the end. For many opposition leaders this is a reason not to trust Assad. Yet no one knows why the period of freedom was ended.

To overcome this distrust time and careful negotiations are needed. You cannot solve this by issuing an ultimatum that your demands should be granted within a few days - as the opposition initially did. Unfortunately the Western and Gulf countries did more to encourage this hotheadedness than to encourage the opposition to behave responsible and to show that it could be trusted.

Assad has done a lot what the protesters asked: shortly after the beginning of the uprising he changed the constitution, ended the state of emergency and released many prisoners. More recently when Al-Khatib proposed direct talks with Assad he had two conditions: release of political prisoners and passports for exiles. Assad didn't release prisoners - very probably afraid that they might join the rebel fighters - but he did change his policy on the passports. Both times he didn't provide all the opposition asked and he didn't stick to their time schedule. But that is part of the negotiation game and shouldn't be an excuse not to talk.

The role of the mediator

There is a big difference between encouraging and forcing to negotiate. The task of the mediator is not to force, but to convince people of the benefit of negotiations. Unfortunately this is insufficiently understood. Annan asked for sanctions to force Assad to follow his plans – and became so a party in the conflict. Pushed by the Geneva framework Brahimi is operating close to the same edge.

What handicaps Brahimi is the “international community” that is not united and in some cases wants regime change in Syria for its own interests. Brahimi should to more to expose the hypocrisy of those who say that they want peace in Syria while at the same time they don’t want to give up on their own petty interests. In this context it may be good to remember that international law forbids interference in the internal affairs of other countries and that that is for good reasons as tend to have a very destabilizing effect.

Brahimi should openly talk about the need to build trust. He or a deputy might even have round table discussions with ordinary Syrians that are broadcast on television. Bringing peace means convincing people like a missionary of a vision of peaceful coexistence. You cannot just do that in the closure of negotiation rooms: there are thousands of people whose lives are involved and who want guarantees. This applies the more as the rebels lack strong leadership and it is rumored that Assad cannot make important decisions without the consent of his close circle.

Brahimi should openly encourage Assad to say something about the fact that the large number of people who have participated in the uprising need to have a place in Syria’s future and cannot just be driven into exile or put in jail. He should also encourage Assad to make an opening towards the long term exiles. Syria can no longer afford to have a large number of hostile exiles: it should find a way to reconcile with them and allow them back.

Brahimi should similarly encourage the rebels (and the countries supporting them) to appoint representatives, to become more specific about the changes they want and to embrace negotiations. He should tell both parties that a military victory will come at the cost of many more Syrian lives and leave a great deal of rancor and that therefore negotiations are the better road – no matter how much each side may despise the other.

Brahimi might also address the past. He could encourage Assad to discuss why he turned the Syrian Spring of 2001 back and arrested many of the people involved after first having encouraged them to speak out. This issue is at the root of much of the distrust that many opposition members skeptical of negotiating with Assad.

On the other side Brahimi could encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to apologize for its murder campaign against Alawite officials around 1980 that still fuels much of the fear on the Assad side. That campaign made not only that but also by inheritance the present uprising into a sectarian conflict.

In the late 1980s public expectations about South Africa were very negative and many expected that once the black majority got the power there would be revenge on the whites - throwing the country in chaos and anarchy. That it didn't happen was to a large extent the result of long talks between the sides - encouraged by the Western countries who wanted stability. It is a pity that at the moment the Gulf States and many Western countries seem to make different calculations.

Implementing an armistice

As Annan and Brahimi have already discovered after some failed attempts, implementing an armistice in Syria is difficult. There are many different rebel groups, some of whom openly boycotted the last armistice. Much of the battle front is in urban areas where the parties are very close to each other and the front is difficult to oversee. In such circumstances violations occur easily and it is not always possible to identify the culprits. The rise of Islamists among the rebels doesn’t bode well either: some Islamists see a prolonged conflict as in their interest because it leads to radicalization of the populace and will bring more support for their goal of an Islamist state.

For an armistice to work in Syria there need to be regularly scheduled talks between the two sides so that the inevitable violations can be isolated and dealt with. Probably the best way is to make a separate agreement for each city and region about which group controls which territory. Each local armistice should be overseen by a local council composed of members of both sides. The parties at the national level should only deal with problems when they can’t be solved locally.

Those groups who don’t want to participate in the armistice should initially be assigned a territory where they will be tolerated. Just as in South Africa they should be allowed to become part of the peace process later on.

There needs to be an agreement on localization of conflicts: if a renegade rebel group attacks the army at one point the army should be justified to counterattack – but only to a certain extent - and the other rebel groups in the region should keep out of the conflict. Something similar should apply when a renegade Shabiha group attacks a rebel held area. Of course once the renegades are under control there should be negotiations how to stabilize the situation and prevent a repeat.

Disarming and disbanding the rebels will be a long process. Many will go home but some – mostly previous deserters – will be (re)integrated into the army or the police. In the meantime the government might have to provide local rebel units with food to survive – so that they do not need to pilfer their environment for that – as now sometimes happens.

Violence by extremist groups may stay a problem for quite some time. For that reason it is important that all the countries that now support the uprising support the peace effort so that the extremists at least don’t receive foreign support.

The Western and Arab countries have taken the position that the Brotherhood dominated SNC is the sole "legitimate representative" of Syria's people. This creates a lot of problems. The Brotherhood has little support among Syria´s population and – due to its targeted killing of Alawite officials in the 1980 uprising – the Syrian government is less likely to transfer power to them than to anyone else. Another problem is that the SNC is mainly composed of long term exiles. As we have seen in Sri Lanka and Yugoslavia exiles tend to be much more radical and irreconcilable than people who have to live through the war. A compromise between Assad and the Brotherhood would of course be the ideal solution, but until now no foreign power is pressuring the Brotherhood in that direction. It looks rather that they have selected the Brotherhood to prevent a compromise and to have a full revolution instead in order to achieve a desired "regime change". So it is important that Brahimi includes a broader array of opposition groups in his talks.

For an armistice to work it is also important that both sides agree on a framework how the conflict should be solved. One reason previous armistice agreements failed was that neither side believed that it would lead to peace.

Opposition supporters in government controlled areas and government supporters in rebel controlled areas should not be harassed and refugee returns should be allowed. Just as in Western countries protest demonstrations should only be allowed with local government permission. Because of freedom of expression such permissions should normally be allowed. However, the government should be free to set restrictions on the places where the demonstrations may be held. Central squares are for the general public – so they should be used for demonstrations only on special occasions. In addition, hate speech on protest banners should not be tolerated.

The basis for peace is amnesty for both sides – both for fighters, activists and decision makers.

Only when representatives from both parties agree should war crimes be persecuted. This will mean that some go free – but that happens always in wars. More important is that the persecution of war crimes will not be tainted by alleged and real partisan motives. This approach will turn the focus on the worst psychopaths. As both sides fight under the assumption that they will win this might have more of a deterring effect than victor’s justice. Too often in the past war crime tribunals have become efforts to prove that one side waged an immoral war – what seriously harmed their effectiveness and credibility.

Such a gradual approach also opens the door to the use of truth commissions. In countries like South Africa and Poland this have proved to be a very effective way to deal with crimes from a previous regime - and in the case of South Africa also from its opponents.

Efforts by the international community to persecute war crimes are in my opinion destructive. As we see in Uganda with the LRA such persecutions are not easily turned back and are a great obstacle to the local parties to solve their conflicts. If the international community wants to do something it should start by looking at itself: supporting uprisings in other countries is against international law. Specially Turkey is very aggressive in this respect.

Towards reform

Once the nuts and bolts of an armistice are in place, it would be time to take the next step: discussing reforms. This phase should be about concrete reforms and not about constitutional issues. Working together on shaping the future of Syria can lay the basis for future cooperation and trust. In contrast focusing on people and positions is bound to be divisive and should initially be avoided.

Freedom of information is definitely needed. To arrive at a new national consensus it is important to give public opinion a voice and to have an open discussion. Given the presence of extremists it is important that foreign mediators and parties have a clear vision about what is reasonable and what not and why and that they share those views.

The uprising is to a large extent an uprising of the countryside. So it would make sense to address their complaints about too easy access for agricultural imports, the lack of agricultural development programs and the lack of government support in periods of adverse weather.

Another complaint concerns sectarian favoritism. There should be an ombudsman (probably best a commission where both sides are represented) to handle complaints about favoritism. This ombudsman should not concern himself with favoritism in the case of civil service appointments – discussion about those can better be left to politicians.

Democracy itself is no guarantee against discrimination. There should be an effort to formulate universal principles of fairness and respect.

Crony capitalism has two faces. On the one hand it contains such exploitative practices as import monopolies. But these can easily be abolished. On the other side it is a model of state guided modernization. Countries like South Korea and Japan have used such favoritism with great success in their modernization process. As Syria contains both types of crony capitalism its tackling should be done with care.

Reform of the security sector should focus on professionalizing (less torture, more professional counter-terrorism methods) and not on sectarian issues. This shouldn’t be too contentious as it is well known that torture is not very effective – as interrogation method it tends to generate false confessions and misinformation, and as punishment method it tends to breed resentment.

The position of Assad

I don’t believe it is a good idea to ask Assad to leave now. The opposition might demand that some lower level officials be replaced for their behavior in the war. But Assad represents a large group of Syrians. Sidelining him means sidelining that group and undermines the possibility of compromise.

Focusing on people instead of issues detracts from the discussion about the future of Syria. Having a compromise means that both sides will have to swallow. That is good because it brings the message that neither side has won and prevents triumphalism and revenge.

China’s Deng once said "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice". The same principle should apply in Syria. If Assad wants to reinvent himself as a democratic leader he should get the opportunity. Rejecting him on beforehand because of grudges may carry a huge humanitarian cost. In the end he might prove too controversial to be elected, but if he had in the process contributed to peace it would still have been worth the effort.

Conditions for democracy

To function reliably as a system where the population can choose the most capable government democracy needs mutual respect and trust. The different parts of a society must respect each other enough not to abuse their power when they have it and must trust each other enough to voluntarily hand over power when they lose the elections. To achieve this there must be a sense that all parties have the common goal of furthering the interests of the country. From that point of view revolutions are not helpful as they tend to cause polarization and mutual distrust. Strong leaders with an inclusive vision like Mandela can overcome this problem but they are very rare and none of the revolutions in the Arab world is blessed with such a leader.

Peaceful protests can help introducing democracy because they show that the opposition is mature and ready to cooperate in a constructive and peaceful way with the government. Unfortunately the peaceful protests in Syria look mostly like a gimmick for pr purposes. The consistent refusal to talk with Assad shows an attitude where the interests of the country are less important than group demands. And often the protests are not even really peaceful as they depend on violent gangs to keep the police on a distance while the event is filmed for Youtube. Not to mention the violent and revengeful behavior of the rebels in areas where they receive little support. Gandhi - a gentleman who was always prepared to talk with the British - would be horrified if he saw how his nonviolent ideals are distorted in Syria.

Within the ranks of the Syrian opposition many seem to believe that maintaining peaceful protests in the face of violent repression is somehow meritorious. What they forget is that it depends. Protesting under violence works when it shows your commitment to peace and democracy. It does not work when it transfers the message that you want power at any price.

In the 1930s European democracy was undermined by fascism that used violent gangs to intimidate its adversaries. Since then European countries have been very careful to maintain the monopoly of violence for the state. Unfortunately the memories have started to fade. Recent European reactions against violent political groups in Hungary and Tunisia show a lack of awareness of how dangerous they are for democracy.

US democracy is not in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party but in the tension and the choice between them. Similarly the tension between two political camps in Syria offers a good basis for democracy. It would take some careful mediation to have them choose for peaceful competition, but it is certainly possible. The efforts, specially of France and the UK, to have one party win seems to me a foolish enterprise that nearly certainly will bring another dictatorship.

It is fashionable - specially in the West - to see things in terms of good and bad people. But by putting all the effort in replacing the people you end up keeping the same structure - only with different people at the top: a familiar scenario for anyone who has read Orwell's Animal Farm. It is much better to keep much of the old regime and change it step by step. That keeps the focus on what really needs changing. If the North African uprisings had followed that path there would now be sound discussions about how their crony capitalism can be transformed and red tape can be cut - instead of sterile discussions about shariah and lustration.

Democracy is about peaceful negotiations and coalitions. A violent uprising that doesn't even want to negotiate is at odds with those values. So it is no coincidence that Libya is such a mess and that Tunisia - that had a non-violent transition but no real negotiations - has problems with Salafist gangs imposing their ideas. Given the kind of behavior the present leaders in Tunisia and Libya got used to while they conducted their rebellion it is very likely those countries will end up once again as a dictatorship. By promoting such behavior - now again in Syria - the West is doing great harm to the democratic prospects of the Middle East.

Political reform

Assad would like to forbid the Muslim Brotherhood, while the opposition would like to forbid Assad’s Baath Party. Both positions are understandable: the Baath Party rules now as a dictatorship and the Brotherhood is often accused of seeing elections as only a means to grab power and then never to give it up again. Yet if a lasting peace is to be achieved, both of these parties must be allowed to participate. But this should be made conditional on a publicly renunciation of violence and other unlawful means to grab or retain power.

Stabilizing a conflict and initiating peace in a situation like Syria’s is hard work. It will require a lot of tough meetings and political courage on both sides to make it work. A network of institutions needs to be built, which might look something like this:
- A Negotiation Council on the national level where the main talks take place
- Local councils for local problems
- A Mediation Council, established and controlled by the Negotiation Council to set up and assist the local councils.

The Negotiation Council should consist of a broad selection of participants: about a third should represent the side of Assad, another third the side of the rebels and the remaining third of neutral groups. Both fighting parties (that is: the majority of their representatives) should have veto power. The main roles of the neutral group are to give that section of the population a voice and to form a voice of reason that prevents the fighting parties from extremism and deadlock. That way they could mostly take over the role of the UN mediator. The Council might consist of some 20 to 30 people. It would be the place where the future of Syria is determined.

Local councils should play the major role in maintaining the armistice on a local level. Although initially they might play some role restoring basic services, their main role should be like that of the Negotiation Council at the national level – implementing peace. This would include both mediating and overseeing the armistice, initiating reforms, critically following the municipal government and overseeing elections. There are already small local truces on which can be built.

In composing local councils pragmatism should play a major role. Initially council members might be appointed by the fighting parties. Later on civil society should get more influence. The territory that they control should be determined by the needs of the situation and not be limited by the Syria’s administrative boundaries.

Local government should build on what is. In rebel controlled areas the local government might initially be the rebel institution. In any case where there is controversy there soon should be elections to get a local government with at least some basis for acceptance. As it cannot be expected that all elections will be fair so soon after a war they should be repeated after a year.

Getting Syria functioning at the local level first is important because local successes can serve as a model for similar cooperation at the national level. If priority were given to the national level, achieved agreements would very likely be undermined by disturbances at the local level, and that might be the end of it. Starting on the local level, however, allows for experimentation and offers space to build trust between the fighting parties. The local level might also serve as an arena where opposition politicians can prove themselves capable – solving the problem of the opposition’s lack of respected leaders.

This Negotiation Council should appoint a Mediation Council of some 3 to 6 people whose job it is to initiate and mediate local armistice agreements and local government. They should have a staff to keep track of the developments all over Syria. They should also watch out for hate crimes and discrimination. The members should be capable negotiators who are respected and have access at both sides.

In the meantime the central government should concentrate on restoring normal life: the supply of food, medicine and fuel, repair of infrastructure, and support for people to rebuild their houses. For the rest the central government should concentrate on demands from the Negotiation Council. In this configuration Assad would still formally wield power but he would hardly use it.

As the opposition would only gradually disarm there would be time to work out how the local transition towards democracy should look like.

This plea for regional government should not be mistaken as a plea for a more decentralized model of government. It is only meant as a transitional phase to overcome the distrust.


Above I have tried to sketch how a solution for Syria could look like. For this I took inspiration from how similar conflicts have been solved elsewhere. The scenario above is only a sketch. It will take some negotiations to work out the model that best fits the Syrian situation. Rather than being a cookbook my main goal was to transmit the feeling that it can be done.

Crucial to the success will be foreign support. The locally focused bottom-up approach will put Syrian interests first. Some countries bent on pushing their geopolitical goals – like having Assad removed to harm Iran - may find that unattractive.

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