Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Political settlement scenarios for Arab conflicts

Millions of refugees from the Arab conflicts want to return to their countries, rebuild their homes and get their lives back – but what kind of political settlements might support that prospect? This column explores types of political settlements, what happened in the past after conflicts in Algeria and Lebanon, and scenarios for future political settlement in Syria.

In a nutshell

The whole process of reaching a political settlement and starting reconstruction plans has one objective: the safe return of the refugees to their homes.

The best scenario for Syria would involve inclusive power-sharing that is coordinated around a common goal, which is the future of the country: that might lead to the return of up to 80% of refugees.

But many refugees fear the return of war, worry about the state of destruction and insecurity of their country and question whether the state can fulfil their basic needs.

Political settlement is a complex process but in essence, it comprises the means by which different elite groups from both state and society negotiate an agreement to end a conflict and help the country concerned to move on.

The complexity of the process comes from the multiple dimensions of the negotiations, the multiple players and the multiple results to which the process can lead. The negotiation process goes beyond having a concrete contract between state and society, as it is an evolving process encompassing the different pressure groups (elites), their followers and their societies, and it can be affected by external factors (such as external pressures, potential donors, etc.)

Moreover, the type of political settlement achieved will very much dictate the magnitude of the reconstruction plans to rebuild the country, the nature of donors (international community, etc.) and the type of their involvement. The whole process of reaching a political settlement and starting reconstruction plans has one objective: the safe return of the refugees to their homes.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has undergone an overwhelming share of inter-related conflicts in the past decade. While solutions and settlements seem, at times, over-optimistic, it is believed that one way to resolve these conflicts is to start looking into possible political settlements and reconstruction scenarios.

That is what the 2019 Euromed report aims to achieve (FEMISE-ERF, 2019). We look at different political settlement scenarios and build a typology addressing the relationship between three complex post-war or conflict resolution issues:

  • The type of political settlement that could be set up;
  • how the reconstruction plans have responded to this settlement, particularly the international community and donors;
  • and how this will affect (or is affecting) repatriation of the refugees to their countries.

We apply this typology to the political settlements in two MENA countries, Lebanon and Algeria, following their civil wars (in 1990 and 2002, respectively) and how it affected their reconstruction and repatriation plans. Based on this knowledge, we infer the possible political settlement scenarios in Syria and their implications for both reconstruction and repatriation.

Types of political settlements

To understand the types of political settlements, we follow Kelsall (2016). This approach is based on answering three diagnostic questions and building a three-dimensional relationship between the different aspects of political settlements.

How inclusive or exclusive is the political settlement?

While this mainly reflects the degree of inclusiveness of all political powers/elites in the political settlement, it can be broadened to social inclusion. We have witnessed the power of excluded social groups (youth, women, farmers, etc.) in many of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Inclusiveness means stability and the less inclusive a political settlement is the more violence it can generate.

What motivates elites to accept a political settlement?

The answer to this question would give an idea of the quality of inclusion: is it a common understanding and a real coordination to achieve inclusive development and stability? Or is it based on a buy-in process and spoils with shallow inclusion to serve elites and their powers?

By what norms is bureaucracy governed?

This question is intended to highlight the type of bureaucracy that is adopted within the settlement and whether it is based on meritocratic rules or rather based on personalised links and clientelism (patronage, nepotism and personal relations).

Algeria and Lebanon

We apply this approach to Lebanon and Algeria, both currently witnessing a surge of protests for change.

Political settlement in Lebanon after the civil war is leaning towards an inclusive model of ‘confessionalism’, a governing system that is a de jure mix of religion and politics and entails distributing political and institutional power proportionally among different confessional communities (those with the same beliefs). But what was meant to be a temporary settlement has perpetuated, bringing unsustainability to the system.

Moreover, the settlement was based on ‘spoils of truce’ and ‘clientelism’, which were mixed with corruption leading to a fragile relationship and tension between the elites and their followers from one side and society from the other. The country’s political system often suffered deadlocks, resignations, etc.

Consequently, reconstruction plans focused on building elite’s residences in the capital, leaving behind the rest of the territories in poverty and poor public services. Only a few Lebanese emigrants returned and the country has one of the highest emigration rates in MENA.

In these conditions, it comes as no surprise that in the past few weeks, the Lebanese people have revolted against their political leaders, demanding stability, an end to corruption, solutions to the economic crisis (with public debt in 2019 accounting for 140% of GDP) and the provision of reliable public services.

In Algeria, the settlement after the civil war was exclusive with a strong grip by the group of elites from the security and military service (tracing legitimacy to the revolution), coupled with weak institutions. The settlement was based on the elites’ powerful lobbies with a clientele structure and a fragile relationship with society. The settlement was only credible because it ended the civil war, but the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed.

The fragile system did not lead to a real reconstruction and corruption prevailed across the country. While thousands of Algerians fled the war (mainly to Europe) only a few returned. In recent months, Algerians found themselves in a system that will repeat itself and hence decided to revolt against the autocracy of the regime, calling for democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

Scenarios for political settlement in Syria

From these past experiences, though many differences exist, we envisage different political settlement scenarios for Syria and how they might affect the country’s reconstruction plans and the repatriation of its refugees. We present three different scenarios – best, middle and worst – but in between, there is a wide spectrum of possibilities.

The best scenario would involve inclusive power-sharing that is coordinated around a common goal, which is the future of the country, and that is based on an impersonal bureaucratic governance. This scenario would ensure the full engagement of the international community in reconstruction plans (the UN estimates the cost to be $250 billion) with the participation of the EU and other international donors who made it clear when they approved the UN Security Council Resolution, that their involvement is conditional on a ‘credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance’.

In this best scenario, the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) estimates that 76-80% of the refugees will return to Syria.

The worst scenario would be to establish a political settlement that includes only elites and excludes other groups with a poor balance of power. In this scenario, the involvement of the international community would be limited (estimates around $30 billion) with limited donors (possibly China). In this case, Syrians will have to rely on their own funding for reconstruction.

In this scenario and given the huge instability, it is expected that only 19% of the refugees will return.

Between these two scenarios, a middle scenario would witness a political settlement that is based on the inclusion of the majority of elites but that excludes other groups. The settlement could be based on spoils but a common vision could be reached. The relationship between state and society will be based on some kind of clientelism.

This scenario can bring back about 50% of the refugees.

While the war in Syria is entering a new phase, there is no doubt that the majority of Syrians’ only hope for a return to their countries, rebuilding their homes and getting their lives back. In fact, convoys from Lebanon started to carry refugees back to Syria.

But many fear the return of war, worry about the state of destruction and insecurity of their country and question whether the state can fulfil their basic needs. So far, only 3% of the Syrian refugees returned. Turkey on the other hand (hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees) is currently discussing voluntary reparation with the UNHCR.

A clear reconstruction plan can encourage more refugees to return, provided their safety and needs are guaranteed. This is completely dependent on the political settlement that will be undertaken and the response of the international community.

Further reading

FEMISE-ERF (2019) ‘Repatriation of Refugees from Arab Conflicts: Conditions, Costs and Scenarios for Reconstruction’, Euromed report.

Kelsall, T (2016) ‘Thinking and Working with Political Settle­ments. Shaping Policy for De­velopment’, Overseas Devel­opment Institute.


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