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20:29 28 September 2015

OPINION: Time to talk about political settlement in Syria

By Yasuhiro Ueki
NEW YORK, Sept. 28, Kyodo

The time has come for major global and regional stakeholders in Syria to start discussing a political settlement with power-sharing as the main political objective of negotiations to end the civil war.

With U.S. efforts to bolster rebel forces going nowhere and its attention focused on fighting the "Islamic State," a greater perceived threat, the United States lacks a clear strategy to end the war in Syria.

Russia's recent maneuvers to bolster the Assad regime with increased military support and its attempt to establish a further foothold in Syria will only deepen the conflict and increase the danger of a military confrontation with other major powers in the region.

Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to vie for influence over Syria, as well as for supremacy in the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, which casts deep shadows in other ongoing conflicts, including in Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran face a new threat emanating from the "Islamic State."

The European Union is trying to deal with the daunting task of accommodating the massive flow of migrants, with most refugees trying to escape the horrors of war in Syria in the face of the international community's inability to assist them in their desperation.

Unless the major powers are serious about ending the civil war, the misery in Syria will continue and deepen, creating an even larger humanitarian crisis.

We have learned from cases like Iraq and Libya that the collapse of state institutions leads to chaos and that the transitional and subsequent governments are often unable to govern in an inclusive manner.

The ethnic and religious composition of Syria, where Sunnis constitute the majority, highlights the difficulty in relying solely on democratic processes to elect any new government.

The talks should focus on how to achieve power-sharing and how the major global and regional stakeholders can guarantee such arrangements. Leaving this to the former enemies would be a blueprint for disaster, as we have witnessed in cases like Iraq and South Sudan.

What kind of power-sharing can we then envisage? The powers of the government among the executive and legislative branches, as well as within the executive branch, will have to be divided, creating a rough balance among the major domestic constituents at the state as well as at the provincial and local levels.

The powers of the president will have to be diluted and more executive powers given to the prime minister; the major portfolio within the Cabinet should also be balanced out. The parliament, to be formed initially with representatives of all major ethnic and religious affiliations, should also be given some powers over the executive branch, particularly in approving the budget.

Once the power-sharing arrangements are agreed upon, they have to be guaranteed by the major powers and the overseeing mechanism created during the transition. The United Nations, which has some experience in overseeing transitional governments, may be given a role. At the same time, the major stakeholders should form a supervisory group and work closely with the United Nations.

A successful power arrangement in Syria may also help Saudi Arabia and Iran to seek peace in Yemen, and even Russia and the Western powers to give impetus to settling the conflict in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia have begun military-to-military contact with each other and are about to meet at the highest political level. The most fundamental point is to recognize that no military solution is possible, as four years of war have already demonstrated, and to agree on the clear political objective and process in ending the war. Only then can the international community address the even more serious challenge emanating from the violent extremists.

(Yasuhiro Ueki is a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. He served as U.N. spokesman in Baghdad prior to the 2003 Iraq War.)

==Kyodo

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