The interests and demands of the Syrian government, rebel groups, terrorists, regional actors, superpowers and not least the Syrian people diverge so greatly that there is little room for compromise in the Syrian civil war. Yet pragmatic compromise is precisely what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested recently.
Turnbull called for a power-sharing government modelled on nearby Lebanon’s post-civil war political settlement. It recognises that a resolution to the Syrian civil war must be political, not simply military. This stems from an underlying belief that inclusive government will “deprive Daesh [Islamic State] of its support base” within Syria.
Realistic solutions to the conflict are few and far between. Turnbull has joined an emerging consensus in recognising that the Syrian conflict requires a comprehensive political solution, not just a military one. But the unstable – and arguably unsustainable – Lebanese political system does not provide a workable model.
The Lebanese model
Well before the Taif Agreement ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1989, its political system was characterised by “confessionalism”. This is a complex quota system in which political, judicial and administrative power is distributed among religious groups.
Confessionalism was formalised during the period of French mandate from 1920. This was a time when Christians constituted a majority in the newly formed state arbitrarily carved out of Greater Syria.
From independence in 1943 until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Christians and Muslims were represented in parliament at a ratio of six to five. The president was a Christian. Both these mechanisms ensured Christian political pre-eminence.
Consequent tensions emerged over time. As Lebanese demographics changed and Muslims increasingly constituted a larger percentage of the population, they understandably demanded a bigger piece of the political pie. Alongside external forces and other internal problems, these tensions contributed to the outbreak of the civil war that left more than 144,000 people dead.
The Taif Agreement ended the conflict and allowed for equal Christian and Muslim representation in parliament.
Today, Lebanon’s complex political system requires that the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the house is a Shi’a Muslim. Seats in parliament are based on confessional quotas.
Stability and security
The Taif Agreement was a compromise between the actors in the exhausting civil war and was supported by key international interests. It established the rules of the game for the Lebanese model to which Turnbull referred.
Importantly, the agreement also included a military and security element to keep the peace. Ironically, the Syrian army was the internationally backed guarantor of the peace in post-war Lebanon, although this was supposed to be for only two years.
Who would keep the peace while a power-sharing deal is implemented in Syria? This is especially pertinent given the dominant presence of eschatological extremists who will brook no compromise. Given the Syrian civil war’s sectarian brutality, what guarantees could possibly convince rival militias to give up their weapons? And who would uphold the terms of such deals?
Lebanon’s experience is not inspiring in this regard. The Shi’a militant group Hezbollah, now fighting alongside the Assad regime, is effectively a state within a state in southern Lebanon. As the Syrian civil war has spilled over into Lebanon, rival Sunni and Shi’a militias have also repeatedly exchanged fire with deadly results.
While the Taif Agreement did mostly stop the violence, Lebanon’s parliament is notorious for its corruption, clientism and inefficiency. Today, Lebanese politics is in a state of paralysis. The parliament has twice extended its term without elections. For 18 months it has been unable to agree on the appointment of a president.
The parliament can’t even agree on a contract for garbage collection. As a result, waste and ordure have piled up and rotted in the streets of Beirut, prompting civil unrest.
Lebanese political parties also remain beholden to powerful outside interests, which effectively curtail any attempts at meaningful change.
The number of regional actors with a hand in the Syrian conflict makes such a scenario likely there, too. We can expect, for instance, that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf nations and the West will pick favourites and continue to exert influence.
Sectarianism and demography
Since the Syrian army withdrew in 2005, sectarian tensions in Lebanon, especially between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, have increased markedly. Lebanese Christians have split their support between these two highly polarised camps.
The November terrorist bombings in Beirut, claimed by Islamic State (IS), demonstrated the potential for outside forces to foment sectarian divisions. IS would undoubtedly act as a “spoiler” should a Syrian political settlement take shape between remnants of the Assad regime and rebels. This also presumes there are rebels “moderate” and representative enough to negotiate and uphold such a deal.
Prior to Russia’s intervention, the US government openly admitted that its efforts to train and arm “moderates” had failed. In his 2015 book, journalist Charles Glass – who viewed the Lebanese civil war from the unique perspective of an Islamist kidnap victim – recounts the views of a Red Cross worker in Syria:
If there are secularist rebels, I haven’t met them.
Similarly, the Sunni Salafist chant in Syria – “Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the coffin” – doesn’t inspire confidence.
In practical terms, Syria’s demographics are markedly different to Lebanon’s and a power-sharing arrangement would be more difficult to design.
In Lebanon the population is generally held to be roughly split between various Christian, Sunni and Shi’a denominations (although no-one truly knows because the sectarian balance is so fragile that a census has not been held since 1932). Sunni Muslims make up around 70% of the population in Syria. A quota system would empower this group and marginalise smaller groups.
Thus, while the power-sharing agreement in Lebanon could perhaps notionally be passed off as at least somewhat “democratic”, it would be very difficult to argue this position in Syria.
The question of legitimacy
Lebanese academic Bassel F. Salloukh wrote recently of:
… the postwar political economic pact that has brought nothing but perpetual instability and socioeconomic misery for large parts of the population.
If recent protests against corruption and ineffective governance are anything to go by, many Lebanese share this view.
Perhaps most significantly, Lebanese anti-corruption protestors express clear opposition to the confessional system. They see it as a mechanism that institutionalises sectarianism and clientelism at the expense of meritocracy and accountability.
Iraqi protestors have for years expressed similar concerns about the sectarian quota system created after the US invasion.
It would make little sense to adopt this broken model and expect it to work in Syria – a broken country.