Small Wars Journal

Is Lebanonisation the answer to Syria’s problems?

Across almost all of the cases of civil war I have encountered, I have found that the key factor leading to the decision to take up arms against ones’ countrymen is not a simple primordial difference such as religion, nor the explosion of built up rage over mistreatment. Neither is it a greedy desire to advance the position of one’s’ own group for the pure sake of gain. Rather, I have observed that the most frequent cause for violence is a perception of insecurity that can only be remedied through mobilisation. This observation is not hard to understand, as the threat of impending destruction must surely be one of the few forces that justifies a course of action bound to bring great suffering to one’s  own people. That is not to say that the discourse surrounding conflict will not be shaped by the aforementioned forces, but rather that few desires (outside of survival) are strong enough to make a broad range of combatants risk their lives and pursue security through the subjugation or elimination of their neighbours.

Drawing on the economic-rationalist school of conflict analysis (spearheaded by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, as well as James Fearon and David Laitin) this risk is amplified in cases of ethnic dominance (where one ethnic group is clearly more numerous, but not so much so that it can automatically consolidate control), economic downturn (when there is little incentive to maintain the status quo), state disintegration (where confidence in the state’s ability to provide protection is low) and the failure of repressive rule (in which opposition groups have been prepared to fight instead of participate politically and violence is seen as a key tenet of state policy).  It is easy to see how these factors may presage civil war by creating conditions where the future is uncertain, but expected to involve chaotic competition and the threat of violence. It must be noted however, that these conditions are not in themselves a cause for violent mobilisation, rather serving to contribute to the security dilemmas that can quickly spiral into civil war.

 In this environment, it is easy to see how the actions of threatened groups may be informed by what Vesna Pešić has called a “fear of the future, lived through the past” – the expectation that their very existence is threatened, and the consequent approval of drastic measures of securitisation – ethnic cleansing, militarisation and war.

I am hesitant to make predictions about a world too complex to fully understand, and as such make no judgement on the likelihood of civil war in Syria. It is enough to note it as a possibility, a potential scenario where many key indicators are present and therefore one that must be countenanced.  What is needed then, if the international community is to try to reduce this possibility, is a way to assuage the fears of those who would otherwise see their interests served through resisting change. This means primarily the Alawi and Sunni elite who continue to support the Ba’athist regime, but should not exclude any group who may perceive a threat in the destabilisation and realignment expected to follow the removal of Syria’s governing power. I mention the Alawi and Sunni elite specifically because it is their support that is crucial to encouraging the fierce repression seen this year, and their fears that make a continuation of the status quo preferable to change. If these fears could be addressed through the creation of an inclusive and stable transitional structure, these powerholders may find themselves free to defect without fear for what the future may hold.  

I believe that the answer lies in a voluntary charter of governance, a concept proposed by Paul Collier for addressing electoral misconduct but equally applicable to stabilisation and conflict prevention. Such a charter would be concrete and enforceable and guarantee the security (economic, physical, religious or otherwise) of Syria’s minorities, particularly the aforementioned elites but equally extended to all who may be threatened by change.  

The content of such a charter would of course be subject to negotiation, but would ideally incorporate key features such as:

  • An amnesty for defectors, protecting them against prosecution for crimes committed so long as they agreed to support a productive new order. A form of justice may still be served by a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ that recognised wrongdoing without excluding potential supporters;
  • A firm constitutional commitment to minority rights, laying out principles that would enhance faith in future governments;
  • A commitment to genuine and inclusive democracy, allowing threatened groups to raise and mollify fears and guaranteeing fluidity in state policy;
  • The banning of political campaigning on sectarian grounds, which could be expected to promote broader-based policies and reduce ethnic or religious particularism. While this might initially seem incompatible with a consociational allocation of power along ethnic lines, in practice it may be quite simple to legislate. Laws that ban exclusionary campaigning and ethnic entrepreneurship need not restrict candidates’ public self-identification, provided they have strong provisions to prevent candidates basing their appeal on confessional favouritism or elitism; 
  • The reservation of seats in parliament and the cabinet for minority representatives, ensuring that their voices cannot be drowned out by the democratic weight of the majority;
  • The reservation of key roles to discourage the perception of powerlessness – examples may include stipulating that the Vice President, Prime Minister or Chief of Defence Force be drawn from specific minority groups; and
  • Legal protection for established business and political elites, guaranteeing their ongoing prosperity and influence, within boundaries laid down by the new state. 

While such a charter may be appealing to minorities, for a majority there must be some further incentive – why, if one group expected to dominate any conflict or democratic competition, would they agree to relinquish even a nominal degree of power? The answer may lie in their own fears.

To secure majority support, such a charter would need to be accompanied by a firm guarantee by the international community that once an acceptable standard of governance was achieved, it would be supported and defended.

Such a guarantee would need to:

  • Recognise and respect the sovereignty of the new state;
  • Lift sanctions and sponsor economic development; and
  • Promise support in the face of internal challenges (allowing, among other things the mopping up of resistant elements, to be carried out within clear boundaries reflective of international standards). Most crucially, a commitment to the continued existence of the new polity in the face of existential threats such as coups and further revolutions, which are bound to be a prime fear for a fledgling democracy.

While significant support in international disputes may be a bridge too far given Syria’s historic relationship with Israel, assistance could still be given in the form of pressure applied to non-compliants outside of the country (those with looted assets stashed overseas, for example).

This is not to say that this path is not without significant challenges. A balance must be achieved between minority security and majority acceptance, but such a balance could surely be reached through negotiation, the careful application of incentives by the international community and negotiations framed in a way that emphasise the very real risks faced by all parties if a workable solution is not found.

Although guaranteed representation is a good start to minority protection, this may be marginalised if minority voices are democratically dominated by the weight of demographics. As such, the preservation of a minority veto power over parliamentary decisions may be in order and could most easily be achieved by a minority quota in cabinet or parliament, the approval of which would be required to sign bills into law. Giving threatened groups a veto power does pose the risk of minority obstruction as a way to hold government to ransom, but this scenario may be less important than it initially seems. The reason for this is that even if given a veto power, minority groups will be highly aware of their relative weakness and the need to compromise. It may simply be that the availability of a veto power is enough to force a parliamentary majority to compromise, allowing enough of a balance of power that all groups may only pass legislation through accommodative politics. 

Perhaps the biggest problem faced in this scenario is the credibility of the international community’s promise to support the sovereignty of the new state. New leaders would be acutely aware of the time-consistency problem exhibited in the international community’s prioritisation of short-term pragmatism, and as such the terms of any support would have to be laid out in a clear and specific fashion. This problem may also be mitigated by the close incorporation of regional powers into the group of security guarantors, who, once a definite schematic for security is agreed upon will have a significant interest in upholding the deal they have agreed to. While the role of the western powers is undeniably vital in validating and developing the new state, they must also recognise the need to broker a deal that includes those powers most closely connected with Syria’s future, and encourages them to invest in a positive future for the country.

Criticism is often levelled at consociationalism for the way that it is said to institutionalise ethnic and religious difference, and judging by similar cases this criticism may be valid. It is hoped that in a successful transition the ban on sectarian campaigning would encourage cross-sectarian support for candidates, and especially those from the majority group. An electoral system that ensures that encourages minorities to vote for candidates from different sects without fear of losing their own representation would foster an environment where there is a significant disadvantage to exclusionary politics, and candidates are encouraged to compete across sectarian boundaries. This would differ from many other consociational democracies such as Lebanon, where candidates only really compete against ethnic kin, and as such become locked in a battle of ethnic outbidding where they compete as to who is most emblematic of their particular sect and moderation is discouraged.

In short, if minority insecurity is to be attacked through institutional design, architects must consider what they would like the political character of threatened minorities to resemble. I suggest that the Lebanese Druze minority (and specifically the Progressive Socialist Party) while not without problems, has highlighted many positive characteristics in the post-war period. Assured of access to parliament and strong support through cohesion that arises from both tradition and threat, the PSP has been free to realign as serves their interests and has historically been a significant player in the balance of parliamentary power. The security and mobility inherent in this position cements the value of the established order and makes the rational benefit of participation versus rejection clear. A similar position is not unfathomable for Syrian minorities – Syria’s minorities (and in particular the Alawi) are large enough to become a significant force in a representative democracy, yet small enough to see the value in group cohesion. As such, any minority bloc in a future Syrian parliament could wield significant power and be an attractive means to safeguard community interests

‘Lebanonisation’ is often used incorrectly as a pejorative, to describe the fragmentation and clannishness that has crippled Lebanese political development. In its proper use however, it denotes the necessity of compromise and accommodation which has been engendered by the Lebanese structural requirement of minority alliance and strategic positioning. Despite Lebanon’s past and ongoing problems, it should be recognised as a country with a rich history of democracy and a political system designed to force cross-sectarian cooperation – something it has succeeded in for a significant proportion of its history. To use a favourite truism, Lebanese democracy is a success of consociational inclusion, except when it isn’t. These problems should not detract from the value of the political structure as a way to include and empower minorities who may otherwise be threatened.

The similarities between the two countries are significant – potential divisions are rife in Syria, and despite fears of Sunni Arab domination, no one group possesses a great enough majority to dominate a democratic government unless first-past-the-post electoral policies are used. This method of counting has been evaluated extensively and is highly unsuitable for fragmented societies. A better solution is an electoral law that encourages the broadest possible consensus, whether it is preferential voting or a higher threshold for victory. Sunni Muslims make up around 74% of the population, but are divided between ethnic groups. The Alawi may make up as much as 12%, while Christians of varying denominations contribute another  10%. Druze are thought to be around 3%, and Shi’a (both Twelver and Ismaili), as well as miscellaneous confessions comprise the remainder. Ethnically, while the majority are Arabs, an estimated 9% are Kurds with a further 1% comprising Turkmen, Assyrians and Armenians.[1]

For a relatively peaceful transition to a function democracy, a system must be designed that allows each group the perception of security, encouraging them towards the rational observation that their interests will be better served through participation within the new system, rather than opposition to it. It seems clear that given the visible fears of some segments of society, this goal would be best achieved by a system that allocates and guarantees access to the power required for self-preservation and representation free from domination. Based on the above analysis, it seems that the best option is the division of positions of power (both inside and outside the legislature) in a way that grants minorities a veto power, but ensures that it is not in their interests to routinely obstruct the activities of the state.

This can be negotiated through the application of incentives by the international community, as well as stressing the consequences of failing to adequately accommodate threatened minorities. Although  the threat of civil war has been championed most vocally by advocates for the maintenance of the status quo, that same threat can be turned back against the supporters of the regime. If those groups fighting change can be made to see that intransigence may result in a total and chaotic disintegration of order, they may be enticed to an alternative that contains clear provisions for their protection and ongoing prosperity.

I have not discussed the possible need to entice key powerholders with specific terms of support for the new system, but such negotiation would surely need to take place, particularly with regard to elites outside of the government. While in many ways it is appealing to wipe the slate clean and eliminate all traces of the ancien régime, the lessons of past revolutions must be heeded. It is the thesis of this article that it may be better to compromise than clash, and accept some remnants of the old order to ease the transition to a gradualist-progressive system. This should have been a key lesson from Iraq too – instead of remaking the state in an ideal image immediately, perhaps it is preferable to make as few changes as possible, while introducing the means for continuous change and progress. In this way, once the core machinery of democracy is in place the Syrian state will be equipped to move towards its preferred ideal image, in an environment where the potential for opposition is mitigated through an inclusive structural framework.

Such a transition would certainly not be immune from problems, but at this stage it is impossible to identify a scenario that would be. In terms of pure harm minimisation it seems like the most appropriate method to guarantee peace, but the international community must be willing to commit to supporting such a plan, as well as being willing to accept the occasional stutter of democracy as a necessary step in building a functioning and accommodative system.

[1] Note that listed divisions are ethnic as well as religious and proportions are listed not to provide a breakdown of society, but rather to illustrate the potential diversity a democratic Syria could yield. Figures vary according to source and do not always equal 100%: the point of compiling the above figures is simply to show the divisions along which competition may emerge.




Ed Judd

Mon, 10/17/2011 - 9:56am

In reply to by Mark Pyruz

I definitely think it's an important consideration, but the "international community" doesn't have to be a static concept, even in the minds of those who feel they've been historically wronged by it. That's why I mentioned the need to involve regional powers as a vital step in adding credibility - a charter with support from those with a genuine interest in stability would be far more valuable than something more abstract that was backed primarily by Western powers.

I don't for a second suggest that Lebanon is a shining success (to the contrary, I never cease to be disappointed with the political culture there) but rather that it does show some interesting possibilities that could help if applied carefully. The title is meant to be provocative but the key point is about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Lebanon's potential for cooperation and compromise is what is valuable, but it is definitely undermined if an environment of favouritism and ethnic competition develops.

Mark Pyruz

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 2:13pm

While I recognize the well intentions of Mr. Judd, I don't think he fully understands the implications of intrusion by the so-called "international community." For a great majority of Syrians, "the international community" is code for the West. Syrians remember full well their colonial experience of being divided and ruled by the West, an experience where in their minds they lost Lebanon.

And there are few Lebanese that consider their current system a shining success story. If anything it's a perpetual compromise solution in the making.

The most persuasive assessments of the current situation in Syria can be found in the writings of former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke.