Dayton: Bosnia to Syria

The Syrian War is entering its fourth year, and a new year with promises that negotiations for peace are on the way, and action against the Islamic State is coming. The challenges of such negotiations will be manifold, but primarily will consider how to piece together a broken state, with groups whose antagonism towards each other has spurred escalation of the crisis. Policymakers have been promising that destroying ISIS and the departure of Assad are preconditions for peace in Syria, and the institution of free elections in a reconstituted Syria will proceed following. The politics of ethnic conflict and the history behind similar case studies tell a different story. Ultimately, negotiators in Vienna are faced with a huge task of national reconciliation that might or might not end with a reconstituted Syrian state.Thankfully, a model exists for peace that many policymakers are overlooking: the successful conclusion and implementation of the Dayton Accords of 1996, which concluded the Bosnian Civil War and the breakup of Yugoslavia. The lessons of Bosnia provide a roadmap for reconciliation, avoiding the quick, more perilous path proposed under the current negotiation regime set to begin in Vienna next year.

Ethnic and religious divisions of the country

The principle obstacle to a peace deal is heterogenous make-up of Syria, whose ethno-religious groups, whose experience is that rule under various empires, are united only in their desire to overthrow the government. According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, the country is 65% Sunni-Arab, 13% Alawite Shias, 10% Christians, and other various ethno-religious groups. The Alawites, long the rulers of the Syrian government and the force behind the Assad family’s hold over the country, have been victims of persecution by the largely alienated Sunnis. Thrown from power after 1970, the Sunnis have largely been sidelined from political participation, while the government has received the support of Iran and its political proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Asian Institute for Policy Studies claimed Arab Spring in Syria was largely driven by those outside the government, because the government and the military were dominated by one group, the Alawites, and the Assad clan as the undisputed leader of that group. Furthermore, rebellion among these various groups was isolated to the countryside and towns largely, because no leadership emerged within the quasi-socialist private or government sector run by the government elites. In its concluding remarks, the institute asserted the only time unity existed in Syria’s opposition was in the peaceful demonstrations that, not for Assad’s violent crackdown, would have generated a united front against the state elite.

The Missed Lesson of Bosnia

The conditions of violence and civil war, followed by the emergence of ISIS has provided  little incentive to stop fighting, because the likely result is destruction and subjugation to radical jihadist ideologies. The track record of peacemaking by the United States in the 21st century has been marred by misunderstanding over how peacemaking is actually accomplished, twisted by the logic of nation building, introducing democracy to societies that have little exposure to it, and reduced attention spans to countries affected by the War on Terror. The stark lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan is that the introduction of a central government with a democratic model, without systemic and sustained education in how to govern democratically or build a system reflecting cultural and historical values does not work.

The Dayton model of peace building, discussed in Dayton Annex IV, introduced a central government with an understanding of slow, gradual confidence building that empowered groups to work together in a quasi-democratic process still new to the country. First, it assumes peace building and reconstruction are not easy or quick processes, but take years, even decades, to complete. Second, Dayton’s structure does not assume the everlasting existence of the state, even though the treaty maintains its relative unity between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs. This new lesson provides a practical lesson for Syria: with changes in the Middle East breaking down the structure of states along ethnic and religious lines, a similar arrangement could allow for the slow reconciliation of Syria’s people, or the voluntary dismantling of the state altogether in favor future arrangements with neighbors. Dayton ties the responsibility of the international community to the future of the country just as when European Community failed to act in the wake of Srebrenica Massacre in 1996.

The United States remains committed to the principle of upholding the opportunity for a free people to choose their own destiny, a value shared amongst many participants from the west in the conflict. A crucial aim for US foreign policy, it frames the entire endgame scenario for the conflict that the people and parties involved in the conflict (excluding the Islamic State) be given a chance to decide the future of their country (CNAS, 13). This value is not shared by the Assad regime, nor is it willingly shared by either the Gulf States,  Iran, or Russia who see Syria as a game in a greater geopolitical struggle for regional dominance. Without it, the policy aims of the Obama Administration are simply about containment rather than proactive restoration of law and order that allow for Syrians to choose their own destiny. Any agreement among the westerns states involved would be unacceptable without this condition, whether or not Bashar Al-Assad is still President when the war ends.

What’s at Stake? Among Parties

The path to a Dayton-style peace is both attainable and desirable by all parties, and necessary to secure the future of the people of Syria.Negotiating the end of the conflict has been a long and arduous process of negotiations, rooted in the Geneva II agreements and endorsed by the Security Council, has agreed on the necessity of a secular, democratic Syria. While the parties have agreed upon the scope negotiations, including organizing the opposition, and that a cease fire will accompany the talks in January, the parties can only agree to discuss whether the democratic transition will include Assad or not, and in what capacity he will be involved. The regime has played a strong role through its response to violence by cracking down on dissidents, use of chemical weapons, and forceful expulsion of communities that long settled roots in the countries cities, including ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Homs and Aleppo.  Conditions such as these constitute many of the criteria  for genocide. 

Given these conditions and the narrow interests of the parties, the crucial questions regarding the future of the country in the post-war period have yet to be outlined, and no one has offered a vision of what it will look like. The most crucial questions involved are 1) how to reconcile the parties together across ethnic and religious lines who have fought each other for nearly five years, 2) the geostrategic interests of the Saudis and Iranians and their respective political patrons, and 3) the Kurdish Question that reflect both the rising power and influence of the Kurds and various other groups forced to look after their own in the absence of government protection. Only the first principle will be prescribed here, as it is essential provide domestic solutions to a civil war before we can talk about the geopolitical environment necessary for peace. For now, here are the following domestic solutions that should be implemented in a peace agreement in Syria:

Implementation of a Presidency Council and Reserved Seats in National Parliament for recognized stakeholder groups.

A proposal for a federal system of government, where powers of local control are divided between regional government is necessary, with their own political representation. This should be addressed based on the distribution of ethnic groups, where local representatives can be elected to address the problems of specific constituencies. On the national level, a parliament and presidency council should be established, where regional blocs elect one representative to serve on a five member council, which embodies executive authority. The Presidency will rotate between each member every year, with terms of membership set at five years.

General Amnesty for all parties that lay down their arms and commit to Reconciliation on the basis of experience in Rwanda and Liberia

The lessons from the US experience in Iraq are clear in respect to addressing wars over political questions, especially when ethnic, religious, and economic questions are at the heart. Both Iraq and the post-Rwanda policies of reconciliation are informative on how to address who participates and who does not in the post-war government and civic society. The parties should agree to offer amnesty to all parties who will lay down their arms and take part in national reconciliation on a voluntary basis. Not participating in reconciliation should constitute being prosecuted to the full extent of international law and the laws and principles of internationally recognized customs and treaties, as well as those agreed upon by the six participants.

Overall, these domestic policy prescription have to be implemented in within a regional and international framework to uphold its principles, arbitrate disputes that go beyond the governing structure of the post war state, and assist Syrians in deciding their future in a non-violent, diplomatic fashion. It is these considerations that we must turn to in future writings.

Outside Source: Steven A. Cook, et al. “The Contest for Regional Leadership in the New Middle East.” Center for New American Security. June 2014.


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