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Power-Sharing: Why is it still central in the efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen?

Article by Professor Simon Mabon and Professor Allison McCulloch

February 14, 2022

Power-Sharing: Why is it still central in the efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen?

As the war in Syria heads into its second decade, the search for a comprehensive peace settlement remains elusive. This is not for want of trying. The United Nations, backed by the United States and the European Union, have convened multiple rounds of peace talks, as have the Russians. All – so far – have come up empty handed. A key proposal floated at different stages of the process has been some kind of power-sharing, either between the country’s diverse range of ethno-sectarian communities – Alawites, Kurds, and Sunnis among them – or between the opposition and the Assad regime. In Yemen, too, power-sharing remains a central plank of attempts to build peace and end the country’s protracted war. According to the former UN special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, “power-sharing is the only way to end the war in Yemen.”[1]


Yet, a glance around the neighbourhood might suggest that power-sharing is not the quick fix it is often presumed to be. In Lebanon, where a power-sharing settlement helped to end that country’s civil war in 1989, citizens collectively took to the streets in record numbers in 2019, demanding greater accountability from a political elite notorious for its clientelistic and often corrupt style of political decision-making.[2] From an unprecedented financial crisis – characterised by hyperinflation, an exodus of young people, gas and electrical shortages, and the loss or dramatic devaluation of life savings – to the devasting Beirut Blasts, which killed more than 200 people in August 2020 and the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the country’s failing infrastructure, Lebanon seems a country on the brink.


Iraq is faring no better.[3] The agreement to share power amongst Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds, as per the terms of the 2005 constitution, remains contentious and the political situation unstable. Starting in 2019, widespread insecurity and unemployment, the failure to deliver basic public services, and ongoing endemic corruption gave rise to street protests and other forms of civil disobedience. The lack of government responsiveness in the face of such protests elicted calls from protesters to boycott the elections held in October 2021. In both Lebanon and Iraq, the political situation is more tenuous than at any other point in their post-war histories.


With power-sharing performing so poorly in the neighbourhood, why is it still a central plank in efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen?


In the years following the end of the Cold War, power-sharing came to be a go-to response of international actors, who positioned it as a mechanism by which to end deadly ethnic or sectarian violence. During this time, power-sharing processes have been implemented not just in Lebanon and Iraq, but in a diverse range of places around the world. Comprehensive power-sharing settlements helped to end protract conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Burundi. Temporary power-sharing pacts helped to mediated between political parties in the wake of contested elections, quelling outbursts of election-related violence, in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Afghanistan. It remains a core aspect of the negotiations to reunify Cyprus.


The prospect that power-sharing can bring about an immediate end to violence makes it a particularly desirable proposal in several hotspots around the world, not least of all Syria and Yemen. As the toll of human suffering continues to mount in these countries, power-sharing mechanisms are touted as the means by which to end their respective wars. Drawing lessons from Lebanon and Iraq, we argue that power-sharing continues to have a critical role to play in ending war and building peace in Syria and Yemen, but a number of challenges must first be addressed in order to facilitate a lasting peace.


Power-sharing in operation 

Power-sharing brings actors previously involved in conflict into coalition government with one another, often in direct proportion to the share of the population they purport to represent. Those same actors are given veto powers – thereby allowing them to thwart any proposed legislation that may harm their vital interests – and, often, a significant degree of autonomy, either territorially where they are tasked with heading up regional governments or by having sole decision-making powers in their own cultural affairs, including language, education, and religion. Such a system is designed to give voice to minority groups who may have previously lacked access to the political system and ensures that political power is not the sole domain of a single ethnic community. It is predicated on the ability to end communal violence by assuaging any grievances held by the different communities.


In Lebanon, armed groups involved in the fighting transformed into political parties. Many of those same militia leaders – or their kin – continue to head up the political system to this day, more than 30 years since the end of the war. In Iraq, ethno-sectarian divisions prompted international state builders to implement a system that distributed power across the three major communal groups (Arab Shi’a, Arab Sunni and Kurd). The nature of communal representation made have changed, but many of the underlying grievances did not.


While power-sharing had initial successes in granting political access to the different communal groups and encouraging groups to settle disputes through institutional channels rather than on the battlefield, the system of power-sharing in operation in Lebanon and Iraq have, of late, been met with vociferous opposition, most notably in the form sustained protest movements in both countries since 2019.[4] As it turns out, a system of government which brings together groups who remain distrustful of one another and requires their consensus to move policies forward, has a hard time getting things done. Public service provisions languish – as the 2015 You Stink protests in Lebanon over the government’s failure to adequately handle waste management contracts vividly detail – and corruption appears rife. A carve-up of power, rather than its sharing.


A central issue here pertains to ideas of peace. For Johan Galtung, the founding father of the discipline of Peace Studies, peace should not merely be viewed as the absence of war, a condition best thought of as ‘negative peace’ but rather the absence of all structural impediments which impact on an individual’s ability to achieve their full potential, what Galtung referred to as ‘positive peace’.[5] Whilst philosophically challenging, Galtung’s idea has merit, particularly in the context of power-sharing.


The systems in Lebanon and Iraq may have facilitated negative peace but they have struggled with creating the conditions of positive peace in which people can thrive and reach their ‘potential’. Herein lies the crux of the problem with power-sharing: the inability to secure positive peace jeopardises the gains of negative peace, risking political instability and even a lapse back into violence. If power-sharing is to stand a chance of not only ending war but also building (positive) peace in Yemen and Syria, there are three broad lessons constitutional designers may wish to learn from the experiences of Lebanon and Iraq.


Issue 1: Process design and power-sharing adoption

As experiences in Syria and Yemen suggest, power-sharing arrangements can be hard to adopt. They require a particular set of conditions for parties to even begin to entertain dialogue over power-sharing. Ethnic or sectarian majorities neither want – nor often need – to share power and any party gaining on the battlefield will be reluctant to make any kind of deal that might threaten those advances. Typically, then, the parties to a conflict must be roughly equal in terms of their relative power – neither able to govern on their own nor vanquish their enemies on the battlefield – otherwise there is little incentive for those in positions of strength to concede power. That is, the best hope for power-sharing comes at the moment at which parties reach a mutually hurting stalemate.[6] Assuming such conditions are met, the first set of issues emerges over the adoption, implementation, and perhaps, imposition of a deal. How that deal is struck will tell us something about its life chances, with decisions on process design having lasting repercussions for political, social and economic life through privileging particular groups over others.


War, of course, is messy. Who is invited to the peace table, when to hold talks, what issues to put on the agenda (and in what order), as well as any linkages between issues all require careful consideration and are not always adequately captured within power-sharing processes. This risks leaving key actors locked out of the negotiation room and underlying grievances kept outside of the system. A key question emerges here as to whether power-sharing is seen as a mechanism solely for ending war (getting combatants to lay down their arms) or as building peace (establishing a government system for all of society). While the first clause is essential for the enactment of the second, the second does not necessarily flow from the first.


In Lebanon, the Ta’if Accords brought about an end to the country’s 15 year civil war but enshrined erstwhile warlords – the zu’ama – in positions of power within the political fabric of the state. This provided them with both personal and political justifications for reproducing the sectarian status quo while weaving the logic of power-sharing into ‘every nook and cranny’ of state power.[7] In contrast, some political figures who refused to take up arms during the civil war were excluded from the political settlement due to their lack of involvement in the war. When protestors in the streets of Beirut and Tripoli chant “all of them means all of them” it is this sectarian status quo, first entrenched in the negotiations which led to the Ta’if Accords, which they hope to expunge.[8]


The constitution-making process in Iraq highlights the importance of getting the timing right.[9] The Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections meant that they were then severely underrepresented – holding initially only two of 55 seats – in the Temporary National Assembly tasked with writing a democratic constitution. The rushed timeline of that process – from elections in June to a referendum on a draft constitution in October – did little to assuage Sunni concerns. Starting out on such unstable footing, where one of the key constituencies meant to share power feels disconnected from the system, in turn sets the new agreement on a difficult course to functional politics.


For those advocating power-sharing as a a solution to conflict in Syria and Yemen, the lessons are stark: power-sharing must be designed in the most inclusive possible way, as a means of ending conflict but also addressing the structural factors preventing the emergence of positive peace.


Issue 2: Functionality/Evolution

A second major issue concerns the ability of power-sharing systems to adapt to changing political contexts. The establishment of short-term electoral pacts – while commendable in bringing an end to violent conflict – needs to be supported with institutional mechanisms to ensure oversight, accountability and a degree of flexibility to address future problems. Ending war is not the same thing as building peace.


Power-sharing agreements are negotiated in the fraught context of war, where distrust between the parties runs deep. In such conditions, parties will often seek strong guarantees of their share of power rather than leaving it to chance in democratic elections. Yet locking in a group’s share of power can complicate the implementation process.


Different models of power-sharing reflect the complexities and contingencies of identity and political life.[10] Corporate models of power-sharing suggest that identities are fixed, internally homogenous and externally bounded, guaranteeing the rights of communal groups. The risk of such models is that they may entrench the temporary power configuration present at the moment of power-sharing adoption and that they are resistant to fluctuations in demographic trends and evolving political party preferences over time. In contrast, liberal power-sharing rewards the emergence of salient political identities, both along ethnic and trans-communal lines, in free and fair elections. The liberal model is often heralded as helping society move beyond fixed communal cleavages and providing opportunities to ameliorate divisions.


In Lebanon, where sectarian quotas in the legislature and the reservation of the top posts of president, prime minister, and speaker of the house for Maronites, Sunnis, and Shi’as, respectively, the legitimacy and influence of elites has begun to wane, prompting calls for a shift towards a more ‘issue based’ approach to political engagement. Yet the rigidity of the power-sharing system has prevented this from occurring, mounting citizen frustrations with the state of politics. Despite the economic collapse coming after years of financial mismanagement and the Beirut Blast, elites maintain their position of influence beyond formal politics, (re)turning to service provision as a means of retaining support from their communities. Central to this, of course, is rampant corruption.


Similarly, in Iraq, the ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangement – described as a “light” form of consociationalism focussed on temporary measures – resulted in the dominance of Shi’a, Kurdish and Sunni elites, mapped onto a federal and decentralised state.[11] However the years that followed the establishment of Iraq’s power-sharing model were beset by state weakness, stemming institutionalised corruption, ongoing debate over the nature of decentralisation, and political inertia, prompting widespread protests in which hundreds have been killed. Frustration at the political system prompted a call to boycott the 2021 elections as a means of denying ruling elites of political legitimacy.[12]


What this means for Syria and Yemen is any negotiated power-sharing settlement needs to account both for the conditions in which it is agreed while simultaneously keeping an eye on the future. Introducing institutional reforms in the face of changing demographic, political and social conditions is necessary not only for keeping the deal alive between the original actors but also to ensure that those groups who may not be the main or original beneficiaries of power-sharing can also find a way into democratic politics.


Issue 3: The complicated role of international actors

Since the end of the Cold War, international actors have come to play a prominent role in mediating and implementing power-sharing agreements in a variety of divided settings, including Bosnia & Herzegovina, Burundi, Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In the contemporary Middle East, external actors, including neighbouring states, have also significantly shaped the course of domestic politics. Here, two issues emerge: penetration and oversight.


Power-sharing works best when local political actors have willingly agreed to work together for the good of the country. Ensuring that these local actors retain political autonomy is of paramount importance. Yet the penetration of political contexts by members of the international community seeking to propagate power-sharing agreements risks undermining and eroding the local credibility of the agreement. An agreement imposed on local actors by external actors is unlikely to lead to stable and functional politics. External actors can help to support power-sharing by exerting leverage, facilitating or mediating resolutions to power-sharing stalemates, convening or chairing inter-party talks, providing technical expertise, conducting shuttle diplomacy or even helping to draft the text of agreements.[13] Taking more assertive or coercive measures, superseding local decision-making in the process, may provide a quick fix but sets up long-term perverse consequences, sending a message to local actors that they need only wait out tough decisions until such time as the international community will make for them instead. This deprives power-sharing of one of its main benefits: the ability to induce inter-elite cooperation.


A secondary form of penetration stems from transnational relationships between local actors and regional (or international) states who previously offered material or ideational support.[14] The interplay of local, national and international issues adds an additional set of challenges for peace builders to address. In such conditions, local actors can be empowered by international actors when their interests coalesce, as is the case in Lebanon and Iraq, where Iranian support has given Hizballah and PMUs disproportional influence across national politics, much to the chagrin of others.


Oversight is key to these issues. Yet implementing a form of oversight that leaves political agreements accountable to the electorate rather than donors is a challenge in its own right. This issue is especially evident in Syria, where Bashar Assad was recently re-elected as President with 95% of the vote, prompting serious questions about electoral integrity and accountability.[15] With ongoing support from Russia and Iran, there is little opportunity of the President ceding any kind of accountability to the people.


In contrast, the absence of a centralised state in Yemen complicates peacebuilding efforts. Amid deep division and widespread fragmentation, there exist only pockets of peace building, which may be isolated from one another. While civil society actors continue to undertake important peace building work across these domains, the absence of an overarching state makes broader collaboration between these actors, as well as the distribution of international humanitarian assistance, increasingly difficult.


Moving forward, what can be done? 

The failure to bring an end to conflict in Syria and Yemen comes at a devastating price. In Syria, some estimates place the death toll at over 600,000 with 13.3 million people displaced. A power-sharing agreement will do little to assuage anger at those who lost loved ones or whose lives were decimated by the war. Similarly, it will do little to provide the necessary support for those displaced from their homes. In Yemen, the death toll is over 230,000 with over eight million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Power-sharing alone does little to address basis needs or human security. But what it does do is provide the launchpad from which human security can begin to be established and democratic politics can begin to take root.


As a consequence of shared histories, identities, ideologies, and religions, the actions of regional actors resonate deeply in the day to day politics of the state across the Middle East. In divided societies, this leaves the state open to the interference of others, as has been seen in Lebanon and Iraq and as continues to play out in Yemen and Syria. The residue of such penetration can exacerbate existing divisions, prolonging conflict or it can serve to create new grievances, threatening the gains of peace offered by power-sharing.


Ultimately, power-sharing agreements must be holistic in their approach. This necessitates avoiding ‘one size fits all’ templates and instead acknowledging the complexity and contingencies of local politics. Similarly, quick fixes such as the Stockholm Agreement must also be avoided, in favour of more considered – or creative – strategies. This may, in the short term, require an acknowledgement that a state-wide power-sharing agreement may not be viable and, instead, necessitate creating localised areas of peace and stability supported by humanitarian aid. Alternatively, this may involve supporting – or creating – localised forms of governance which may (not) include a state-wide power-sharing dimension. From these starting points, a carefully designed process of power-sharing on a larger scale can be crafted, one that not only helps to end war but also to build (positive) peace for all of society.


[1][1] Jamal Benomar, Power-sharing is the only way to end the war in Yemen – if the US supports it, The Guardian, March 2021,

[2] Ibrahim Halawi and Bassel F. Salloukh (2020) ‘ Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will after the 17 October Protests in Lebanon’, Middle East Law and Governance, 12:3, 322-334, doi: 10.1163/18763375-12030005

[3] Toby Dodge (2021) ‘The Failure of Peacebuilding in Iraq: The Role of Consociationalism and Political Settlements’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 15:4, 459-475, doi: 10.1080/17502977.2020.1850036

[4] Bassel F. Salloukh, Here’s what the protests in Lebanon and Iraq are really about, The Washington Post, October 2019,

[5] Johan Galtung (1969) ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, doi: 10.1177/002234336900600301

[6] Eric Brahm, Hurting Stalemate Stage, Beyond Intractability, September 2003,

[7] Bassel F. Salloukh (2020) ‘Consociational Power-Sharing in the Arab World: A Critical Stocktaking’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Volume 20, Issue 2, p. 100-108,

[8] Daniel Hilton, ‘All of them means all of mean’: Who are Lebanon’s political elite?, Middle East Eye, October 2019,

[9] Joanne McEvoy and Eduardo Wassim Aboultaif (2020) ‘Power-Sharing Challenges: From Weak Adoptability to Dysfunction in Iraq’, Ethnopolitics (formerly Global Review of Ethnopolitics), doi: 10.1080/17449057.2020.1739363

[10] Allison McCulloch (2014) ‘Consociational settlements in deeply divided societies: the liberal-corporate distinction’, Democraization, Volumer 21, Issue 3, doi: 10.1080/13510347.2012.748039

[11] Matthijs Bogaards (2019) ‘Iraq’s Constitution of 2005: The Case Against Consociationalism ‘Light’’, Ethnopolitics (formerly Global Review of Ethnopolitics), Volume 20, Issue 2, doi: 10.1080/17449057.2019.1654200

[12] Jassim Al-Helfi, The Case for Boycotting the Iraqi Elections, LSE, June 2021,

[13] Allison McCulloch and Joanne McEvoy (2018) ‘‘Bumps in the Road Ahead’: How External Actors Defuse Power-Sharing Crises’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Volume 13, Issue 2, doi: 10.1080/17502977.2018.1526994

[14] Simon Mabon (2019) ‘Sectarian Games: Sovereign Power, War Machines and Regional Order in the Middle East’, Middle East Law and Governance, 11: 3, 283-318, doi: 10.1163/18763375-01201001

[15] Ali Aljasem, Syrian election: Bashar al-Assad wins with 95% of votes as world watches in disbelief, The Conversation, May 2021,

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