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Look beyond power-sharing to start building peace in Syria

Article by Bilal Sukkar

June 18, 2021

Look beyond power-sharing to start building peace in Syria

Ten years on since Syrians rose up against the oppressive Assad regime, a resolution to the devastating conflict that followed does not seem near. The US and the EU continue to back the UN-led political process bringing about a power-sharing settlement as the primary way out of the crisis. This approach has not worked to date; and even if it should bear fruit, it carries dangerous implications. A new way forward is needed to break the deadlock and address the urgent humanitarian, economic and security crises being intensified by the conflict’s continuation.


Power-sharing amid the status quo in Syria

In 2012, responding to growing protests and violence, the US, Russia and other major world powers agreed on a roadmap for a political transition to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Final Communiqué of the Action Group for Syria (Geneva Communiqué) stipulated a negotiated settlement under the UN’s auspices between the regime and the opposition to establish a transitional governing body that would pave the way for a national dialogue, followed by a new constitution and elections.[1] Endorsed later in UNSCR 2254, this roadmap clearly committed to the “non-sectarian” character of Syria’s future and stressed that any solution be the result of a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process.


Almost a decade on, this vision for a transition to a new democratic political system seems more distant than ever. The Assad regime, emboldened by the gains it has made with help from its Russian and Iranian backers, has continuously obstructed the UN-led process. Refusing to concede political ground, it is instead promoting a deluded victory narrative in its efforts to re-legitimise itself internationally, including with its latest staged presidential elections.[2] Even if it does eventually agree to share power, including through the latest workings of the UN-led Constitutional Committee, it is likely to be symbolic and will fail to achieve just, inclusive and sustainable peace.[3]


The interventions of the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Gulf countries have significantly complicated the search for a solution. Through funding, mainstream media coverage, arms supplies and sponsorship of certain political groups and proxy militias, these powers have stolen the will of the Syrian people to determine their future.


To further their agendas, they have actively exploited identity tensions in Syria, effecting political, social and economic transformations in their respective spheres of influence that have contributed to the sectarianisation of the conflict.[4] Russia has propagated the Syrian regime’s discourse of a ‘war on terror’, playing on the fear of minorities.[5] It is pulling all the strings and has complete control over political matters and economic sectors in regime-controlled Syria. Iran has mobilised its sectarian militias on the same grounds, gaining significant social presence and economic interests in various parts of the country. Turkish, Qatari and Saudi support strengthened the conservative and Islamist elements of the opposition, encouraging an anti-Iran (and, more broadly, anti-Shia) discourse. Turkish-supported armed opposition groups are now concentrated in Northern Aleppo, an area under de facto Turkish administration and growing closer socio-economically to Turkey. Turkey’s instrumentalisation of these groups in its conflict with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (branded “terrorist separatists”[6]) has also aggravated Arab/Kurdish tensions in oil-rich North-East Syria where the US military is present.


In order to retain their influence and maintain identity tensions that serve their geopolitical objectives, these countries, as sponsors of any future power-sharing arrangement, share an interest in preserving this sectarianised context. Their official discourses point in that direction. Russian President Putin ignored the cross-sectarian uprising against Assad’s rule and instead suggested a sectarian framing in his diagnosis of the Syrian conflict in 2013: “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country.”[7] In recent interviews with Saudi-owned media outlets, former US special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, justified his disapproval of Arab countries’ possible readmittance of the Assad regime back to the Arab League by emphasising Assad’s violence against the Sunni population, again connecting sectarian dynamics in Syria to Arab Gulf countries’ geopolitical rivalry with Iran which the US supports.[8] A US State Department official was also quoted saying Syria’s post-conflict political system would be “a power sharing arrangement just like we ended up with in Iraq […] there’s going to be Alawite presence, there’s going to be Sunni representation […]”.[9]


While an outright ethno-religious power-sharing system as in Lebanon or Iraq is unlikely, power-sharing for Syria will probably carry some ethno-religious elements that risk cementing the politicisation of such identities. An example of what this might look like is contained in Russia’s suggested constitution for Syria that it drafted in 2017 which allocated ministerial positions based on proportionate ethnic/religious representation.[10]


A new approach

Given the survival of the authoritarian Assad regime, the sectarianisation of the conflict and the hegemony of external interests, it is hard to see how any power-sharing arrangement for Syria could address the root causes and drivers of conflict. Power-sharing systems in Lebanon and Iraq offer stark warnings. The recent uprisings in both countries have highlighted how their power-sharing systems have upheld the class interests of the ruling sectarian elites over the cross-sectarian interests of the general population.[11]


Despite the flaws of such a power-sharing settlement, and the dim prospects of a breakthrough, the US and Europe continue to go along with Russia on achieving it. Russia has proved to be either unable or unwilling to persuade the Assad regime to cooperate with the political process. Western countries’ preferred strategies of imposing sanctions and withholding reconstruction funds are unlikely alone to force the regime to negotiate or destabilise it from within, let alone instigate another uprising against it. And competing interests from the Arab world, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Russia and the US remain stumbling blocks to a common international supporting role.


Meanwhile, the country has been devastated. Around half a million Syrians have been unjustly killed, tens of thousands of Syrians remain detained or have been forcibly disappeared, and half the population are displaced from their homes. The whole country is exhausted, the current economic crisis and the impact of COVID-19 has only added to the suffering of the Syrian people. Absent of any new tools or initiatives to break the deadlock, the scale of the humanitarian crisis and the risk of resurging violence will only intensify.


‘More of the same’ of waiting for a political solution to materialise is simply not good enough – it’s time for the US and Europe to adopt a new approach. One that jettisons the top-down method and instead actively interacts with existing realities to shape new alternatives, transform power dynamics and open up more ground for a viable solution. But what could that approach look like?


First, instead of rushing to launch formal negotiations for a final settlement, a new approach could start by addressing the most pressing causes of continued suffering. The West has always maintained conditions for the relief of sanctions and economic support on the Syrian regime’s cooperation with the political process, yet that ‘cooperation’ has always remained vaguely defined. They could instead stagger sanctions relief and economic support based on tangible steps that the regime can take to alleviate the current economic crisis; such as the release of detainees, a mechanism for the safe return of refugees in neighbouring countries, and allowing aid agencies and local civil society organisations to independently distribute aid without obstruction.


Second, the US and Europe could explore how to support spaces for civil society and political dissent inside regime areas. They could offer economic recovery support to regime-held areas under the condition that it goes through local civil society organisations and community-based groups. They could also remove sanctions obstacles for diasporas to support community initiatives and forms of organising in places like Dara’a, al-Tal and Suweida among others. These communities have been relying on themselves to address essential governance services, such as repairing infrastructure and rehabilitating schools, which challenges the regime’s authority.[12] Supporting decentralised governance structures and civil society spaces in non-regime-controlled areas could also serve as an added source of pressure against the regime if people living under Assad start to see living conditions, political freedoms, spaces for youth and women, and access to public services improve for those living outside the regime’s control.


Third, with its military presence inside Syria, the US could develop a mechanism with Russia and Turkey for facilitating the movement of goods and people internally across different areas of control. Reopening the country in this way could have many benefits: reconnecting communities across conflict lines, rebuilding economic interdependence, encouraging civil society cooperation and exchanges of lived experiences, and linking coordination of governance services in different areas of control. Currently, smuggling goods and people through internal crossings at checkpoints generates huge income for warlords. Disrupting this could undermine the interests of powerful figures in both the regime and its opposing parties. This would weaken them and allow space for new power dynamics to emerge within the opposing camps.


Fourth, instead of watching Arab countries slowly readmit the Assad regime back to the Arab League (with Russian backing) in return for nothing, the US and Europe could incentivise Arab countries to link that process with wider regional security understandings between Arab countries and Iran as part of the renegotiation of the nuclear deal with the latter. This could encourage regional agreements on Syria involving Iran’s withdrawal of its funded militias, and it can build on the recent de-escalation talks in Iraq between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the conflict in Yemen.[13] It can also open doors for constructive cooperation between the US and Russia in the Middle East if done within the framework of the P5+1.


These measures combined could create new local, national and international realities that establish a framework for a political process based on those transformed dynamics. Ultimately, the solution will not come simply from a peace deal, a new constitution or some new institutional arrangement (power-sharing or otherwise). A transformation must first take place that re-establishes people’s rights to go back home and live in safety, rebuilds trust and confidence between people, gives space to heal and recover from trauma, and recovers people’s livelihoods. There also needs to be space for Syrian political actors, within and across conflict camps, to have dialogues that are connected to the needs of local communities that could then shape an inclusive political process. Formal negotiations on new governance arrangements can build on such transformations. But change cannot come from a select group of actors and international powers, each with their own vested interests. Instead, to honour the commitments that the US, Europe, Russia and other countries have made towards a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, they must explore tools that transform the dynamics of power and generate a sustainable political solution that is more relevant to people’s lived realities. In endorsing the Geneva Communiqué and UNSCR 2254, these countries must remember they did not commit to just any political settlement, but one that meets “the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”.


Bilal Sukkar is a Project Manager at the UK-based conflict prevention and peacebuilding organisation Saferworld. His work involves supporting civil society organisations and communities in Yemen and Sudan to build inclusive and just peace. Previously, he worked with an international NGO on the humanitarian response in Syria, and with Syrian campaign groups on formulating policy and advocacy on Syria in the UK. He has conducted research on Syria looking at the UN-mediated political process and the role of youth in the uprising. Bilal has an MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies from King’s College London with a scholarship from Chevening.


Image by Beshr Abdulhadi under (CC).


[1] Action Group for Syria, Final Communiqué of the Action Group for Syria, UN Peacemaker, June 2012,

[2] Bethan McKernan, Civil war, ruin, raging poverty… but Assad is guaranteed to win Syria’s fake election, The Guardian, May 2021,

[3] Syrians for Truth & Justice, The Formation and Responsibilities of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, May 2021,; Steven Heydemann, The Syrian Conflict: Proxy War, Pyrrhic Victory, and Power-Sharing Agreements, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 20, no. 2: 153-160, October 2020,

[4] Sami Hadaya, Sectarianisation in Syria: the disintegration of a popular struggle, Conflict, Security & Development 20, no. 5: 607-629, January 2021,

[5] Yomn Al-Kaisi, Yara Al Najjar and Miriam Puttick, In the Name of Protection:

Minorities and identity in the Syrian conflict, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, June 2021,

[6] Andrew Parasiliti, The Takeaway: Syrian-Kurdish fault line intensifies as Erdogan vows to crush ‘separatist terror’, Al-Monitor, December 2020,

[7] Vladimir V Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” The New York Times, September 11, 2013,

[8] James Jeffrey, Russia Is Aware What Kind of Ally It Has in Syria, interview by Ibrahim Hamidi, Asharq Al-Awsat, May 2020,; ibid., interview, Al Hadath, YouTube, April 12, 2021,

[9] AFP, IS in fierce fightback to rescue last Syrian urban bastion, France 24, November 2017,

[10] Syrian Arab Republic’s Draft Constitution of 2017, Presented by Russian officials at Syrian peace negotiations, Draft of January 2017,

[11] Ibrahim Halawi, Consociational Power-Sharing in the Arab World as Counter-Revolution, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism 20, no.2: 128-136, October 2020,

[12] Reem Salahi, Bridging the Gap: Local Governance Committees in ‘Reconciled’ Areas of Syria, Chatham House, April 2020,; For more examples of supporting local community structures, see PAX’s program supporting local peace committees in Iraq: Mosul: Peacebuilding After ISIS, PAX Iraq Alert IV, October 2016,; and Saferworld’s program supporting community action groups in Yemen: Yemeni civil society organisations support peacebuilding work of community groups, Saferworld, April 2020,

[13] Suadad al-Salhy, Iran-Saudi Arabia talks: Lebanon and Yemen are top priorities, Middle East Eye, April 2021,

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