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:
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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.