How to stop Syria's warring factions tearing the country apart

The likely failure of special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan reflects a dire situation in Syria. To avert a dramatic escalation, the country needs a structured transition that will first halt the terrible bloodshed and then pave the way for a political process.

Any solution should be tailored to the intricacies of Syria's diverse social tapestry, effectively address the claims of both the government and the insurgency, and heed the lessons of past regional political agreements.

At first glance, the Yemeni transition plan might appear to be a model for Syria. The Gulf Co-operation Council brokered a compromise that transferred power in Yemen from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice-president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and averted – at least temporarily – widespread civil conflict in a country fractured along tribal and ethnic lines.

However, Saleh's resignation was largely a defeat for himself rather than his supporters. The same cannot be said of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, who still enjoys staunch support from his Alawite sect, as well as members of the Christian and Druze minorities. If Assad is suddenly and unceremoniously deposed, it will be a dramatic loss for Alawites and other minorities, and may unleash sectarian conflict on an even larger scale.

Lebanon, despite its chronic sectarian instability, contains some lessons for Syria. During a period of transition the initial goal should be to build trust among the various sectarian groups. And while free and fair elections are necessary for democratic government, they are insufficient on their own to establish trust and defuse tensions.

In fact, given the intricate socio-economic and political structure, an early election could aggravate sectarian tensions that have emerged with the current conflict.

Therefore, prior to any meaningful political development, the transition in Syria must start with an exercise in building trust. Looking at Lebanon's years of trial and error – relative failures and successes dealing with sectarian divides within a confessional system – some of these experiences are worth heeding.

Ultimately, the Lebanese system has come to rely on a delicate balance that remains in place only when there is confidence that no one particular group is dominating the system. Syria needs exactly that; a modus vivendi by which, at least initially, assurances are presented to Alawites, Christians, and Druze that whichever system replaces the current one, it will not be dominated by the majority.

The process should be based on a clear roadmap: stipulate the return of the army to its barracks, remove weapons from the hands of insurgents, allow the presence of international monitors, and open a national debate under the auspices of regional and international forums.

Mokhtar Benabdallaoui is a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington and a professor of Islamic studies at Hassan II University in Casablanca. He studied and lived in Syria for 10 year.

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