Like Lebanon, could Syria establish a fragile peace through power-sharing?

Syrian refugees rest while cooking a meal at an informal settlement in Lebanon (CNS)

If there is ever to be peace in Syria – and one day, surely there will be – what would a peaceful Syria look like? A recent interview with the Papal Nuncio to Lebanon, Archbishop, Gabriele Caccia, gives us some indication what Syria might look like in future.

Lebanon enjoys (if that is the right word) a complex power sharing constitution, which may well be unique in the world, given that it has to take account of 18 different confessional groups in the country. The offices are distributed according to confessional allegiances: thus the President of Lebanon always has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the House a Shia. Half the members of Parliament must be Christian and half Muslim. The accord that ended Lebanon’s sixteen year Civil War speaks of the necessity of deconfessionalisation, but set no timescale for this. The system works, but only just. Lebanon has been at peace more or less since 1990, apart from the odd bomb and political assassination.

Similar power-sharing agreements are in force in Belgium, where an complex mechanism divides responsibilities between Flemings and Walloons. That system sort of works, though there have been serious difficulties in recent times, including a period when Belgium was left without a government for a year. This Belgian-style system has also been transposed to Northern Ireland. Most of us would agree that the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland has worked reasonably well, and is preferable to what went before. There is also some sort of power-sharing agreement in force in Bosnia. Could something similar work in Syria or for that matter Iraq? Or to put it another way, would the once dominant Alawites of Syria and their allies consent to share power with the Sunni? And would the once dominant Sunni in Iraq and their allies consent to share power with the Shia?

One notes one thing about all the power-sharing deals mentioned above: they came about not because the deal had obvious merit, but because it was the last resort. Lebanon’s deal is fragile; perhaps the only thing that keeps it alive is the thought of that dreadful sixteen year long civil war. If the opposing factions fight themselves to a standstill in Syria and Iraq through exhaustion, then a power-sharing deal might well be the result. But it would be a mistake to confuse this with an outbreak of peace and harmony.

The alternative to any power-sharing deal is divorce. This may yet come about in Belgium, though what stops it is the fact that Brussels cannot be easily placed in either Walloon or Flemish camp. It has to some extent already happened in Bosnia. It seems impracticable in Northern Ireland. It may well come about in Syria and Iraq thanks to the sort of ethnic cleansing that leads to what is euphemistically called “demographic rebalancing”. It may already have happened in Iraq in all but name.

One can understand Archbishop Caccia’s desire to talk up Lebanon as a beacon to the world. The overwhelming majority of Lebanese would love this to be so, I am sure. But there is a degree of wishful thinking in the nuncio’s words. Lebanon remains a deeply divided country. Each confessional group lives in its own clearly demarcated area; there is little socialisation across confessional lines; inter-marriage is unheard of, or when it does happen, traumatic. The return to civil war is always possible. The price that would entail, about which no one has any illusions, is perhaps what keeps things peaceful, and certainly spurs anyone who loves the country to pray fervently for its continued stability.

Syria was at peace in a sense under President Assad and his father, but that sort of peace, which is not much more than the absence of all out war, imposed by much state-sponsored violence, is not good enough. True peace, and any degree of power-sharing, must involve a change of heart.


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