May 22, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

A Democratic Model for a Post-al-Asad Syria

 While the uprising in Syria goes on, discussions about a likely transition are bursting all over the place in DC and other political centers far removed from the battlefield. Assuming the revolt succeeds, the next decade will present enormous challenges for a transition that may or may not be democratic in shape. The topic was recently addressed in detail by my colleague Daniel Steiman, a recent graduate of the Democracy and Governance MA program in Georgetown, in a great final paper that advocates a consensual democracy model for a post-Asad Syria. Daniel was kind enough to share his thoughts on what Syria should look like in an ideal post-conflict scenario with this blog:

“For those who believe that the al-Asad regime has no chance of surviving the current uprising against it, it would appear to be wise and pertinent for the Syrian opposition, as well as outside observers, to begin making concrete proposals for what the institutions for a future democratic Syria will look like. This is of utmost importance given that the chance for chaos and civil war after the regime’s demise seems very high. No one should confuse the eventual fall of Bashar al-Asad with the fall of Mubarak and Ben-Ali. The president of Syria represents more than interests of his family and the ruling party; he represents the entire Alawite community, an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam, whose members have dominated for more than forty years a majority Sunni-Muslim country.

In some ways, the situation has more similarity with the transition process in Apartheid South Africa than anything so far seen in the Arab Spring (with the exception of Bahrain which has a similar sectarian divide). Just as the South African whites, who represented 10% of the population, agreed to give up total power, so will the Alawites, who also make up 10% of the population, have to agree to such a compromise in order for there to be true democracy in Syria. Similarly, just as the whites feared domination and retaliation from South Africa’s majority blacks, so today do Syria’s Alawites (along with Syria’s 10% Christian population, and Syria’s non-Alawite Shiite minorities) fear Sunni-dominance (Sunnis are 70% of the country) and religious-based violence if the regime were to give up power.

Add to the mix the non-Arab Kurdish population in north-east Syria, who represent 10% of the population, and have long suffered under Arab domination, the 3% Druze population in the south who have historically faced discrimination by the Sunni-majority, and the almost assured rise of anti-Shia Salafist factions that will attempt to gain political influence after fall of the regime, and one has all the elements of vicious sectarian conflict among numerous groups.

With that in mind, the ideal democratic system for a post-al-Asad Syria is the consensus model advocated by political scientist Arend Lijphart, which allows for minorities to have real representation in the government, as opposed to a majoritarian form of democracy in which the majority group dominates the government. In Syria’s case, this should require the implementation of a federal system in which the country is divided into autonomous sub-units. Fortunately, the major sectarian groups are generally confined to certain regions of the country, thus enabling the Alawites, Druze, and Kurds to each have control over their own groups.

The type of government in Syria should be a form of parliamentarism, and not a presidential system, as having a president directly elected by the majority of the people will almost assuredly lead to a Sunni president who will only feel the need to represent Sunni interests. The parliament should be divided into two houses: The upper house will have one or two representatives who are directly elected by the citizens of each federal unit, thereby ensuring minority representation. Similar to Lebanon’s confessional model, the lower house should be required apportion seats based on the sectarian demographics of the country, i.e. 10% of the seats to be filled by Shiites, 10% to be Christian, 10% to Kurdish, and 3% to be Druze. Lastly, the electoral system should be a form of proportional representation to prevent two or three political parties from dominating the parliament.

I am of course arguing for the implementation of an ideal system under ideal conditions. This means ignoring how the power of religious and ethnic extremism tends to overcome rational decision-making. I’m also not taking into account how Syria is at the center of intense geo-political rivalries between the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries, who will likely manipulate events on the ground in Syria for their own national interests. Yet, if leaders among the Syrian opposition begin articulating plans for a future Syrian system of government that ensures representation for all Syrians, perhaps more Syrians may begin to believe in the prospect of a peaceful, democratic Syria, and not simply see the near-term future as a zero-sum fight for control of the state.”

 All of this makes perfect sense, but my question for Dan is this: how can we hope that a consensus model would work in such a dire context, when there are practically no examples of success elsewhere? But then again, I suppose stalemate and fractured politics are the better option when civil war is the alternative.



1 Comment

  • I think your question to Daniel is a little unfair – how can we be sure that any system will work? I think what he proposed makes a lot of sense. I don’t know if we have any good models for Syria, but it strikes me that Iraq might be one and it’s system is very similar to the one Daniel proposes.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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