An expert's point of view on a current event.

Preparing for the New Syria

Sooner or later, the war will end, and Syrians will have to sit down and talk about the future of their state. Here's a roadmap.

Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The situation in Syria is deteriorating. The viciousness of the Assad regime, the rising sectarian divisions, and the lack of coherence among the opposition make the task seem overwhelming. Yet the history of past civil wars offers many practical lessons for defining post-war settlement.

The situation in Syria is deteriorating. The viciousness of the Assad regime, the rising sectarian divisions, and the lack of coherence among the opposition make the task seem overwhelming. Yet the history of past civil wars offers many practical lessons for defining post-war settlement.

Civil wars are manifestations of failed politics, as existing institutions and processes have been unable to provide common ground. Significant portions of the population feel sufficiently oppressed that they take up arms against their government and, faced with the choice of cracking down or losing power, those in control apply force or outright violence to maintain the existing order.

Peace becomes possible when one side wins clearly and can dominate and impose its agenda; or when a stalemate has developed and sufficient consensus on a political solution has emerged; or when peace is imposed externally. Peace agreements usually take place when a framework is mutually acknowledged and agreement on a final goal and process has been reached by a sufficient number of actors. These goals usually follow at least one of four patterns:

Creation of an inclusive state. In this scenario the government recognizes the rights of all citizens and the repression of a particular group (or groups) is acknowledged as the source of conflict. Parties agree to restructure state institutions, change their relationships with one another, and transform the relationship between the citizen and the state through the rule of law. This was done in many Central and Latin American peace agreements, including those in Colombia, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Decentralization. Here stakeholders craft a response to demands for local autonomy or greater representation. Success in decentralization demands attention to detail: Which decision-making rights are to be reallocated to which level? This was the central focus of conflicts in Indonesia (Aceh and East Timor) and the Philippines (Mindanao) as well as in the European cases of Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Decentralization can be further broken down into three possible models: recognition of territorial unity of the state (Macedonia); a transitional phase followed by decision on unity or separation (Serbia and Montenegro, as well as Sudan); or a ceasefire ending the conflict and a broad commitment to a future political solution (Indonesia and Abkhazia in Georgia). In the cases of Mexico and the Philippines, insurgent communities achieved significant degrees of autonomy. In Sudan and the case of East Timor in Indonesia, conflicts led to full secession.

A fresh start. In some cases, any consensus on the form and function of authority breaks down and new rules need to be put in place. When the existing constitution seems beyond salvaging, it can be completely rewritten. In Sudan and Nepal, large portions of the population experienced the state as an instrument of repression. Major military and social movements eventually forced far-reaching renegotiation of the basic understanding between the government and the people. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan illustrates the complexity of such negotiations. It involved a new national constitution, a constitution for South Sudan, and constitutions for ten southern Sudanese states, plus agreements on power-sharing, wealth sharing, land and security. Experience shows that mentoring and implementing such complex agreements are vital and very difficult tasks. Syria may eventually find itself in need of such facilitation.

Creating a legitimate center. In Afghanistan, Cambodia, and East Timor, genocidal, despotic, and destructive regimes that inspired decades of violence left warring parties unable to find a legitimate middle ground. In all these cases, the United Nations facilitated the creation of states with some legitimacy at home, and which also appeared legitimate, at least for a time, both to regional powers (who could act as "spoilers" if they chose) and to the international community.

The role of mediators is particularly important as prolonged conflicts usually become internationalized and regional or other major international powers take sides. A mediator’s credibility therefore depends not only on the willingness of warring parties to agree but also on outside support. When all national, regional and international actors are aligned, there is a greater likelihood of fashioning relatively enduring agreements. By contrast, when regional players have been divided or actively hostile to peace agreements (as in 1990s Afghanistan), they often fail. Mediators, however, can be taken more seriously if they can back up the process with credible threats including: use of force, ending sanctions, recognizing sovereignty or marshalling reconstruction resources.

When framing peace agreements, lessons from the past have shown that balancing operational objectives are integral to failure or success. Tensions exist between efforts to promote short- and long-term stability. Violence needs to be stopped as soon as possible, and this will take the cooperation of warring parties. In the long term, however, parties will have to create a constitution that creates an enduring framework for order and stability. This is best accomplished through institutions and organizations that privilege principles of accountability, even-handedness, and citizenship. When a peace agreement fails to address underlying causes of conflict and continues to uphold contending elites, the likelihood of return to conflict within five years is high.

How to Apply the Lessons to Syria

The key political challenge in Syria is twofold: first, to avoid the deepening and broadening of the civil war, and second, to prepare Syria to be governed differently in the future. Achieving both tasks requires aligning different Syrian groups, regional actors, and key international players around a minimum common agenda.

The most significant item on the agenda is establishing the nature of the regime. One option might be for Syria to become a secular republic like Turkey, where a Muslim majority unites around ties of citizenship. Another possibility might involve a sectarian compact like Lebanon’s, which ensures different ethnic and religious groups participation in the state. A third could entail a Sunni-dominated regime where sectarian and ethnic minorities become marginalized, persecuted, or forced into exile.

As important is the fate of the current leadership. No one wants to repeat the experience of Iraq, where de-Ba’athification and the dissolution of the army created a class of disgruntled ex-regime supporters. At the same time, exiled leaders need to assure the population that they are committed to a democratic process and will not attempt to take power by fiat, as Ahmed Chalabi tried to do in Baghdad.

More broadly, the key question is the fate of the Alawites and other groups who had tied their fortunes to the Assad regime. The opposition has a choice: If it wants to fight to impose its will on the pillars of the regime, then it has to accept a prolonged conflict. Alternatively, it can offer a vision of a political process and a political system that allows all parts of Syrian society to reach an understanding on the future, guarantees all identity groups safety and assured avenues for participation, and substitutes politics for violent confrontation. The more clearly and credibly a post-Assad agenda can be articulated (and the broader the consensus around it), the more likely the transition is to succeed.

If the focus lies on accommodating elites by apportioning the government through a spoils system, rather than creating a political consensus by building a citizen-centered state over the medium term, Syria will face the prospect of repeated instability. When elite accommodations are frozen, corruption gets consolidated and new tensions emerge. If a stable order is to be the outcome, then the political process has to allow for emergence of new forces through democratic processes and the participation of constituencies of citizens in the decision making process, including women, youth, and business communities. Chile, Spain, Finland, and Eastern Europe all allowed for such an inclusive democratizing path.

Given the suffering imposed by the Assad regime on Syria’s citizens in general, and on members of the opposition in particular, the demand for a culture of political tolerance will be hard to satisfy. Without it, however, a descent into a vicious circle of revenge and instability is highly likely. The Syrian people need a sense of hope and confidence in the future. This hope can be best engendered by articulating a vision and program of action that can create a consensus among all stakeholders on the necessity of peace, and a pathway for creation of an inclusive order. Speed is required to secure a consensus on key questions, while participation is critical to building consensus on the answers. South Africa, Colombia, and the Philippines provide some examples of broader citizen dialogues on an inclusive future.

Depending on the choices made about this agenda, working groups could and should be formed to address each of the issues listed below.

The Rule of Law

The absence of rule of law has been a distinctive marker of the Assad regime. A clear legal framework is an important precondition for any successful transition. Among the issues to be addressed:

  • Establishing a basic legal model for the new regime. (Should the current constitution be modified? Should the pre-Ba’ath constitution be revived? Or should a specific legal framework be adopted for the transitional period?)
  • Specifiying a process and timeline for a new constitution, including the basic direction a constitution should take.
  • Defining the powers of the transitional government. (Should it have executive and legislative powers, or will there be both an executive and a legislative body? How will the checks and balances be maintained?)
  • Setting up a transitional justice mechanism to address and redress grievances.
  • Defining how laws should be made during the transitional period: how are laws to be amended, healed, or promulgated, and what is the validity of any laws made during this period?

Provision of Security

During the transitional period, security must be provided. At the same time, existing security institutions need to be immediately reformed in order to make them accountable to the public and to the civilian leadership. Although the army must be immediately removed from politics and internal affairs, and although its finances must be made transparent, it cannot be disbanded: Soldiers employed by the army are less likely to be recruited to a new insurgency. Using the army as a large reconstruction force is one option.

A series of Latin and Central American countries dealt with this challenge by shifting the balance between the army and the police and institutionalizing civilian control of the security sector. The army was made responsible for defending the nation against external threats. The police were exclusively responsible for internal security. It is important to establish a police force that earns the community’s trust. The experience of these countries also demonstrates the importance of maintaining the peace, with the enormous benefits of violence avoided and reducing costs of providing security.

Internal Reorganization of the State

The Assad regime was created to serve the Assad family. If a new regime is to serve the citizens of Syria, then government must be re-organized. The restructuring can either be part of a coherent vision, adapted to changing circumstances, or reactive and piecemeal. The region has significant capability in organizational development, including Turkey, Lebanon, and the Gulf.

A good starting point, and one with successful precedents elsewhere, would be an institutional inventory of Syria’s existing government institutions, both in Damascus but also at various levels of government and local organizations. Such a survey would encompass rules, process, organizational capacity, personnel, and culture. Any re-organization should build on existing capacity rather than assuming a blank slate.

Access to Information

The Syrian regime’s monopoly on information and media must be replaced by a framework for media freedom, open information, and a culture of accountability. The new regime must immediately begin to discuss the legal and regulatory framework needed to guarantee free access to information and media, including laws on libel and hate speech as well as guarantees of press freedom. Special attention must be paid to the provision of resources for nationwide media so that it can resist becoming captive to ethnic or ideological factions that would threaten Syrian unity.

Public Finance

People and their loyalties follow money. Getting public finance right is the key to establishing authority. Afghanistan and Iraq both paid a high price for failing to pay salaries and pensions to key personnel. A working group should examine Syria’s current redistribution system and work out in advance how to keep making critical payments to civil servants and security officials during a transition period, and how to procure and provide basic goods and services.

The budget is the central instrument of policy making in any organization. Any transition regime must write one as soon as possible and not wait for longer-term constitutional change. Syria, now under pressure from sanctions and suffering from a dwindling oil supply, will not have the internal resources of Iraq or Libya and will have to look for international financial support.

It would make sense to move early to establish a Trust Fund (along the lines of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF)), which could pool foreign funding under unified rules for transparency and accountability, thus avoiding debilitating issues of coordination and domestic corruption. The World Bank, though it often works slowly, is far better than the United Nations at managing such funds with accountability and cost-effectiveness. An interim trust fund would have to balance flexibility and speed with requirements for accountability. Trust funds tend to work well when accompanied by well-designed and run coordination or reconstruction offices, and well-designed large scale programs that provide a framework for projects, rather than thousands of disparate projects.

Social and Economic Development

The Assad regime will leave behind a legacy of physical destruction as well as a record of fomenting division, hatred, and exclusion. It is also responsible for a large number of refugees and widespread psychological trauma. Even before the insurgency began, the economy was built around a corrupt political relationship between the regime and a merchant class. It was not designed to allow ordinary Syrians to create or accumulate wealth.

Economic governance will pose significant challenges to any new regime. The lower and middle ranks of the bureaucracy in particular are unprepared to meet contemporary standards of economic governance. At the same time, the large numbers of unemployed young people will put enormous pressure on the government to create rapid economic growth. Criminal networks will be a special challenge, given the role of smuggling and the informal economy in Syria over the last three decades as well as the insurgency’s use of illicit networks to obtain arms. The current high level of extortion and kidnapping in areas where police have withdrawn indicate the kind of problems to come. In many post-conflict environments, the impunity with which fighters, strongmen, or warlords have continued to operate (whether in Afghanistan, Congo, or Liberia) has jeopardized the process.

In its first months, the transitional government will face several economic tests that may determine whether or not it is accepted as legitimate: how it compensates for destroyed assets; how it resettles people; how it provides key goods and services, from food and water to electricity, housing, health and education; how quickly it creates jobs for young people; how rapidly it establishes (or fails to establish) an open and inclusive market. The mechanism of starting a limited number of large-scale, well-designed national programs could be very relevant for Syria. There are regional examples of what works and what does not. Hezbollah gained credibility in Lebanon by moving quickly to supply housing to those displaced by war. On the other hand, the Iraqi government’s legitimacy has been undermined by its failure to provide reliable electricity.

Immediate Humanitarian and Stabilization Measures

Regardless of the type of political process that eventually ends the violence, immediate humanitarian relief and stabilization measures will be essential to avoiding further deterioration and suffering. Typically, peace agreements are accompanied by a needs assessment, usually carried out by international organizations. But such groups often lack sufficient appreciation of context, have trouble setting priorities, and do not always deliver good value. Differences of opinion on relief priorities among established organizations and constituencies can also result in considerable wrangling, ultimately leading to the creation of parallel organizations that compete with the government, the domestic private sector, and civil society organizations. In some contexts, the way that aid is organized has contributed to a culture of corruption and waste and complicated the task of improving governance. This syndrome has been particularly notable in Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, and Southern Sudan. Since the economic stabilization of Syria is likely to reinforce political stabilization, it is imperative that Syria’s recovery, reconstruction, and development not be taken hostage by existing orthodoxies among international organizations.

Relations with the Region and the International Community

Syria’s geography means that any transitional regime needs to start thinking immediately about diplomacy and international relations. What relations will a post-Assad Syria have with Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, or Israel? Developments in Syria will inevitably impact Lebanon’s fragile political ecosystem with risks to both countries’ stability.

But there are also opportunities. A new Syrian regime could create a positive alliance with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The European Union’s Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative could provide resources, market access, and a range of experiences. The United States would have the opportunity to work with P5 members at the United Nations, especially Russia and China, to attempt to define a new consensus on a global peace and security agenda.

Because Syria has such complicated relationships with its neighbors, additional legitimacy for the process could come from international organizations. Given the stasis at the United Nations, Gulf countries that have already taken a strong stance could each or in combination address the humanitarian and reconstruction needs. For example, a Humanitarian and Reconstruction Conference could be convened by Arab countries. Holding such a conference sooner rather than later could provide a venue and platform to provide important signals about the commitment of the outside world to a transitional process, and the conditions under which their support would be forthcoming. Such conditions could provide incentives for increasing coherence among the opposition; for the standards of accountability that reconstruction and peace-building commitments would demand; and rules and approaches to the type of programs — including inclusivity and avoidance of discrimination — that would be underwritten by external support. A conference would provide an opportunity to agree and establish a Trust Fund as described above.


Whatever happens next in Syria, the current conflict has already changed the country forever. Assad’s reliance on naked violence has stripped him of any remaining legitimacy he might have once derived from the rhetoric of Arab nationalism or from paternalistic guarantees of stability. The scale of the destruction already inflicted on the society and the physical infrastructure of the country will require tremendous effort, social imagination, political vision, and leadership to heal.

Although the insurgency is clear and united in the goal of overthrowing both Assad and his regime, its members have yet to reach a clearly articulated consensus on a coherent vision for the state, economy, and society in a post-Assad world. Serious attention to these issues could prevent extended conflict, the splintering of the state, or the hardening of a regime intent on counter-revolution. A plan to create institutions capable of bringing genuine structural change must lie at the heart of any peace-making process. The pace and sequencing of change must be planned in advance. In the past, the economic and social dimensions of transitions and peace-building have often been neglected or postponed, with terrible consequences for the chances of success.

Both internal rivals and external brokers must agree upon an agenda for transition that is inclusive and address the insecurities and interests of the Alawites now in power as well as other minority groups, members and leaders of the insurgency, and the citizenry in general. The more the opposition can agree on such an agenda, the more likely that the transition will succeed.

Those international actors who are concerned about the long term stability of Syria, as well as the Syrian internal opposition and the external diaspora, therefore have the responsibility to articulate a future for the country that is credible and feasible, and not just desirable. By gaining a better understanding of the Syrian economy and bureaucracy, and by beginning to discuss, now, the implications of different institutional and political changes, both outsiders and insiders can help to ensure a smoother and more productive transition.

Regardless of the duration and intensity of conflict in Syria, peace will eventually have to be made. Making enduring peace, however, requires drawing lessons from the successes and failures of other efforts. By presenting both the probable outcomes of the current conflict and lessons of transitions in the past, we hope to contribute to a focused discussion that can help the people of Syria reach a consensus on their future.

Ashraf Ghani is Chairman of the Transition Commission in Afghanistan, and Chair of ISE. Clare Lockhart is Director of ISE and of the Market Building Initiative at Aspen Institute. This article is a short version of a paper originally published on the Legatum Institute website. The proposals described here are based on the authors' comparative study of peace agreements at the Institute for State Effectiveness. 
Clare Lockhart is co-founder and director of the Institute for State Effectiveness and co-author of Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. Her Twitter handle is @clarelockhart.

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