Last June the big powers gathered in Geneva to talk about a strategy for solving the Syrian conflict. They nearly agreed on a model where after short negotiations a transitional government is installed that should organize elections. It will now guide the newly planned negotiations.
The significance of this strategy is that it excludes the option of first negotiating and agreeing on how the country should look in the future and only then to have a formal transfer of power. As for example South Africa and El Salvador successfully resolved their armed conflicts this way adopting the transitional government model seriously handicaps the UN negotiators in their work.
the transitional government model
A transitional government is the usual option in a power vacuum when the incumbent government has quit. It is a rather common model in democracies where no one will put the legality of decisions by previous governments in question.
But as the problems of Northern Africa show, it is a rather problematic model as a replacement for dictatorships. While the “negotiations-first” model creates a transitional period where both parties are in power and they together introduce agreed-on reforms that were wished by the opposition and modeled so that the government can live with, the “transitional government” model creates a power vacuum. And where in democracies the bureaucracy is used to keep things going and there is a kind of consensus between the parties on what a transitional government is supposed to do this lacks in dictatorships.
So all parties keep pushing for their own demands and criticize the transitional government for anything that they don’t like. As a consequence such a government has very little legitimacy and struggles even to maintain order. This lack of control tends to persist after the transitional government has been replaced by an elected one. It allows violent groups (militia leaders in Libya, Salafist groups in all three countries) to become active and influence the situation. As a consequence all three countries are now adrift and might well end up again as dictatorships again. In the past similar things have happened in Iran (1979) and Russia (1917). Another effect of this power struggle is that there is little opportunity to introduce the kind of reforms that were the original goal of the revolution.
Every country is based on a quiet consensus that is laid down in the constitution. A revolution destroys this consensus but offers nothing instead. It is an illusion that this can be resolved by elections. Voters focus on economic issues and their own interests and most will ignore what their candidate thinks about issues like minority rights. Besides that , first elections after a dictatorship tend to be not very representative of how the country thinks. A third problem is that there often is no two-thirds majority for any specific position. Finally there is the problem that a constitution contains abstract principles of which no one can be certain how they will work out. For those reasons it can be better to start from an old constitution and improve it article by article.
the negotiations-first model
In the negotiations-first model the old government negotiates with the insurgents about the needed reforms and introduces those. So the power transfer is delayed but the reforms are speeded up. In South Africa and El Salvador the reforms were worked out in separate commissions while the old government stayed in power. Poland achieved a similar effect in 1989 by allowing elections for a minority of the parliament seats. Spain had a socialist prime minister while parliament and army were still under fascist control. Major reforms (abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, land reform in El Salvador and economic reforms in Poland) were achieved this way.
Being involved with the reform commits the old government and the civil servants to the reforms, makes it more likely that they will be done well and decreases the chance that they will be turned back later on. It also increases the likelihood that the civil servants will not obstruct a power transfer. As such it decreases the need for a purge of the civil servants that - as we have seen with the de-Baathification in Iraq – can seriously harm a country. In Syria – where even postmen have been killed for being government employees – this is a real risk. The cooperative introduction of reforms also shows that both parties can live and work together – a belief that tends to become questioned in a civil war.
In the negotiations-first model the government may include members of the opposition. It may even hand over the complete government – as we saw in Spain and Poland. But it will still keep the final power until a complete agreement is reached.
points for negotiation
Just as elsewhere in the Arab world the complaints that resulted in the uprising focused on economic policy and to a lesser extent on lack of freedom and police brutality. For some of these issues it shouldn’t be hard to find a solution in negotiations. For example import monopolies can be abolished and police education improved.
But the biggest issue in Syria is sectarian relations. Under Ottoman rule the Alawites had a kind of pariah status as some saw them as not Islamic. Such views are still rather popular: in the 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood waged a murder campaign against Alawite government officials and the present uprising thanks much of its popularity to television preachers like Arour who focused on the Alawite background of Assad and his regime and painted the uprising as a fight of Sunni’s against Alawite oppression. Jabhat Al-Nusra sometimes openly discriminates against and harasses Alawites. It is this tension between the Assad government on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists on the other side that poisons Syria. And to get real peace it needs to be resolved in a way with which most Syrians can live.
Negotiating with your adversaries is at the core of democracy. So – rather than being a concession to a dictatorship – negotiating with Assad is a good preparation for real democracy. It is the difference between the Magna Carta and the Russian revolution.