Connect to share and comment

Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

Syrian peace civil war July 2013
Soldiers of the Syrian government forces patrol in a devastated street on July 31, 2013 in the district of al-Khalidiyah in the central Syrian city of Homs. The Syrian government announced the capture of Khalidiyah, a key rebel district in Homs, Syria's third city and a symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Do Lebanon's Taif Accords offer lessons for Syrian peace?

With a skyrocketing death toll and neither side willing to negotiate peace, Syria might to well to look at how its neighbor solved its own civil war.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian peace has proven illusory, and simply getting the opposing sides to the negotiation table has so far proven impossible.

Over the past two years, two UN envoys and the Arab League have tried to negotiate a peace settlement. Most recently the US and Russia have called for a Geneva peace conference, but they keep postponing a meeting date in the face of shifting military developments.

But Syrians need not look to outside powers to solve their differences, according to some Lebanese leaders. They suggest that the Lebanese peace agreement that ended this country's brutal 15-year civil war might offer an effective approach to peace.

In 1989 the warring factions in Lebanon's civil war came together to sign a groundbreaking agreement in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The Taif Accords, as they became known, codified a ceasefire, called for disarming all militias, and provided for parliamentary elections and mutual recognition of the rights of all religious and ethnic groups.

"The principles of Taif certainly can be applied in Syria," Hussein al Husseini told GlobalPost. "The ethnic and cultural makeup of Syria and Lebanon are quite similar."

“The ethnic and cultural makeup of Syria and Lebanon are quite similar.”
~Hussein al Husseini

Husseini, now 76, was speaker of the Lebanese parliament in 1989 and is known as the father of the Taif Accords. He is a Shia Muslim.

Husseini's opinion is sharply contested by Lebanese leaders supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ali Fodda is a top leader of the pro-Assad Lebanese Arab Democratic Party, which is composed mostly of Alawites, a minority religious group to which the Assads belong.

"The Taif principles can't be applied in Syria at all," he said. "The Syrian government wouldn't accept such an agreement with divisions by sects."

Just as in Syria, Lebanese continue to debate how to build a multi-religious society with a parliamentary system that fairly represents all groups. Lebanon still struggles with that question because, at least in part, the Taif Accords were never fully implemented.

The Lebanese civil war began in 1975 as a battle of the country's poor and underrepresented Muslims against wealthy Christians. The French had favored a Maronite Christian elite during colonial times, and the political and economic conditions hadn't changed a lot since.

In 1975, politically conservative Maronites dominated the government, holding 40 percent of the best jobs. Sunni Muslims held 27 percent and Shias 3.3 percent. In the early stages, the war pitted leftist Muslim groups against right-wing Christian parties.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had also made its headquarters in Beirut and eventually joined the fighting on the leftist side. The Israelis allied with the right-wing Christians and invaded Lebanon in 1978. In 1982 Israel invaded again and occupied a stretch of southern Lebanon until forced out by Hezbollah in 2000.

To make the situation even more complicated, the Arab League authorized Syria to send peace keeping troops to Lebanon to quell the fighting. Syrian troops arrived in 1976, but didn't depart until 2005 in response to mass demonstrations in Beirut.

Many Lebanese and Syrians supported Syria's initial peacekeeping goal but soured on the troop deployment when it lasted for decades, according to Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, a Syrian opposition leader interviewed earlier.

"If a sick man invites a doctor to treat him, does that mean the doctor should come live in the same house?" asked Bashir with a smile.

By the end of 1989 all the factions were exhausted. Different religious and ethnic groups had consolidated military and political power is various regions of the country. The Syrian occupation had brought some stability. No side thought it could win militarily. So the time was ripe for compromise and rebuilding the shattered country.

Lebanese leaders convened a series of meetings in Taif aimed at addressing the civil war's underlying problems. Lebanon had functioned under a confessional system in which Christians, Sunni, Shia and various minorities were allocated power. The parliament was elected strictly along confessional lines, with Shia Muslims in south Beirut, for example, only able to vote for Shia parties.

The Taif Accords replaced the confessional system that favored Christians with one that gave equal power to both Christians and Muslims. The Accords mandated a transitional period