Prof Eva Maria Belser is Co-Director of the Institute of Federalism at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland and Professor for Constitutional Law.
Dr Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University.
As fighting has resumed in many parts of Syria, the optimism felt by many in mid-September when a cease fire ended most of the violence, has vanished. With American and Russian diplomats locking heads over the bombardment of government troops and a UN convoy in Syria, it seems that a return to the negotiation table is unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, as US President Obama has recently reiterated, there will not be a military end to the conflict in Syria. Instead, diplomatic efforts need to result in a comprehensive cease fire, which will lay the foundations for peace negotiations and a new post-war order in Syria.
In light of these developments, it is particularly important that the opposition forces in Syria remain as the driver of change and provide clear outlines for a future political order that includes all Syrians and breaks with the decade-long dictatorship of the Baath party and the Assad regime. It is therefore crucial that the opposition formulates policy proposals, which are fundamentally based on democracy, inclusion and a break with the past. The vision of an inclusive state in which all Syrians can feel at home is an essential element and pre-condition of negotiations which raise real hopes for lasting peace. While such a vision therefore deserves the support of the international community, any plan for a post-war order in Syria perpetuating the wrongs of the past does not.
It is therefore worrying, that the High Negotiation Commission for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition forces, which includes the majority of government opposition groups, has published an Executive Framework for a Political Solution Based on the Geneva Communique in September 2016, which fails to address the above-mentioned issues. It seems vital that diplomats and other actors involved in transforming the Syrian conflict make a point of this shortcoming and do not accept the Framework as the basic parameters of future negotiations.
In particular three issues are raised within the Executive Framework, which need to be considered highly problematic. First, right at the beginning of the document, in the “General Principles” section, it is noted that “Syria is an integral part of the Arab World, and Arabic is the official language of the state.” This statement completely ignores the fact that Syria is in fact a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural country, in which in addition to Kurds, also Yezidis, Christians and other groups live, that do not identify with Arab culture. Making Arabic the only official language and concentrating on Islam as the religion of the state is a dangerous policy path; it continues the dominance of the majority group in the country over its many minorities and fails to acknowledge the contribution that many other ethnic, religious and cultural groups have made to Syrian culture and wealth and to the current fight against the Assad regime. We are worried about this passage because it runs the risk of alienating non-Arab Syrians from a future Syrian state and cannot be seen as a factor of stability. While points 5-7 of the same section acknowledge the existence of other groups in Syria, overall the tone of the document and its commitment to Arab culture make it difficult for other groups to identify with this document and its proposal for a future Syrian state.
Second, in the next part of the document, focusing on the Transition Process, it is stated in point 50 that “The local administration system shall be based on the principle of administrative decentralization of authorities and responsibilities.” As scholars of decentralisation and democratisation, we are particularly concerned with this passage. All states in the world use elements of administrative decentralisation to ensure central government decisions are implemented effectively throughout the country. However, a post-war country such as a future Syria, in which one-party dictatorship has resulted in power concentration and the oppression of certain groups, forceful removal of people and Arabisation politics, needs to make a clear break with the centralisation policies of the previous regime. In order to build trust between different groups and to ensure the flourishing of democracy at all levels, power-sharing has to be taken seriously. This requires agreement on clear power-sharing arrangements at the centre and on the design and implementation of substantial political decentralisation accommodating the various groups of the country. Particularly the Kurds, but also many other groups, have suffered under the rule of the Baath party. In order to ensure their protection and their fair and democratic inclusion in a future Syrian state, it is important that these groups can adequately participate in the Syrian state and enjoy guaranteed rights of internal self-determination and the competence to rule over their own affairs. Focusing on administrative decentralisation is a way of denying political and fiscal autonomy for the different regions of Syria which are inhabited by non-majority groups. By contrast, the promise of a substantial power-sharing regime would not only allow all groups to identify with a new democratic Syria and contribute to its stability, but it would also ensure that all conflicting parties gain trust in their state and are able and willing to live peacefully together with their neighbours. Ignoring their demands for internal self-determination and continuing the dominance of Arabs by focusing on a centralised state could eventually lay the ground for new secessionist tendencies. The general principle that “exclusion leads to violence and secession (movements)” should be considered here. There are many examples that can be cited in which the exclusion of certain groups has laid the foundation for new violence and secessionist movements. From Kosovo to South Sudan, there is a clear pattern visible – exclusion will result in violence. And this pattern is not surprising: If a group is not considered to be part of the national culture but systematically marginalised and disenfranchised, this group will – over the short or long run – develop an interest in having a state of its own. In order to build an inclusive, democratic and peaceful post-war Syrian state it is therefore essential that different models of territorial autonomy, including federalism, are considered and implemented in order to ensure that the rights of different cultural, religious and linguistic groups are respected and protected.
Third, while there is a commitment to consensus under the “General Principles” in the document, section 11 makes it very clear that “The rules of decision-making by consensus will apply with respect to legislative and executive procedures which pertain to specific components of the Syrian society. In the event consensus is unattainable, a two-thirds majority decision shall suffice.” This provision is again highly problematic, as it might result in the exclusion of important groups, including Kurdish representatives. It is of key importance that the post-war order in Syria is decided according to consensual and inclusive principles. A focus on a 2/3 majority might lead to the exclusion of important groups and risks to negatively impact on peace negotiations. Small groups will fear that their claims, as legitimate as they might be, will not need to be taken into account seriously. This in turn might result in the creation of spoilers and lay the foundations for future conflict. While it is understandable that rules need to be implemented in order to ensure that individuals cannot block major decisions, this should not include group exclusion. Instead, a system of a double-majority should be introduced, in which all decisions need the majority of representatives in the High Negotiation Commission and a majority within each group represented within the High Negotiation Commission. Such a provision would ensure that individuals cannot block decisions, but groups are included and their voice is heard. It furthermore forces all members of the Commission to work together to achieve consensus and take each other seriously. This will contribute to trust building and negotiations in good faith.
A future Syrian state needs to be built on the principles of inclusion, respect, trust and recognition of diversity. This includes breaking with the undemocratic practices of the past and laying the foundations of a new multi-ethnic, multi-religious state that recognises and celebrates its diversity. Inclusiveness and consensus have to be the bases for this new state. For these reasons, we do not think that the Executive Framework discussed above leads the path to sustainable peace. On the contrary, while laying some reasonable grounds for future negotiations it also contains the seeds for future conflicts. We strongly believe that these issues should be addressed. Too much is at stake in the negotiations, and it is important that a new post-war order does not provide fertile ground for new conflict.