The Syrian uprising is increasingly portrayed as a conflict with significant ethnic dimensions. The LA Times recently featured a story about Sunni rebels targeting their Shiite neighbors. Other divides exist along political, regional, and class lines. Avoiding future sectarian conflict and fostering inclusive national unity are goals best achieved through transitional justice mechanisms that have evolved into recognized tools for good.
Ethnic determinism is a dangerous and counterproductive way to view the Syrian conflict. To assume that all fault lines mirror ethnic divisions misses opportunities for cooperation and exacerbates existing tensions. As Bashar Al Assad is all too familiar, invoking ethnic narratives can even create ethnic divides on issues where none exist and generate self-fulfilling prophecies. But however ethnic tensions have been constructed and manipulated, they do exist in Syria today. Some Shiites fear their Sunni neighbors just as some Alawites fear retribution for perceived loyalty to Al Assad.
Given the prominence of ethnic divisions, some see transitional justice efforts as naively irrelevant right now. How can anyone imagine accountability processes at a time when rebel groups compete for influence and factionionalism plagues opposition unity? Admittedly, the particulars of any processes hinge on the post-conflict power structure and the desires of the Syrian people. Nonetheless, there is work to be done now. Syrian groups can outline their commitments to accountability, articulate support for potential transitional justice mechanisms, and emphasize their adherence to wartime codes of conduct. When words are backed up with actions, it helps groups to signal early on to the Syrian people what kind of leaders they might be.
But how can such efforts help dampen sectarian divides? First, it’s critical to recognize that past transitional justice efforts have been uniquely positioned to promote harmony across ethnic and religious lines. While not always successful, evidence-based inquiries such as truth commissions can dispel exclusivist ethnic narratives by offering a formal venue for airing a variety of discourses in a national forum.
In Liberia, ethnic and religious factions figured prominently in political life well before the country’s decade long civil war. Nonetheless, in 2009 the post-civil war Truth and Reconciliation Commission arrived at distinctly non-ethnocentric conclusions. This is all the more impressive given that Liberia is made up of 85% Christians living alongside 12% Muslims, and that even the largest ethnic group accounts for only 20% of the total population. Accordingly, the Commission recognized ethnic and cultural identities without engendering schisms.
The Commission’s two year effort collected 20,000 statements, and included mechanisms to embrace a wide range of Liberian experiences. Deliberate steps were taken to include the views of women, civil society, the Liberian diaspora, and youth and children. An Advisory Council was established comprising 36 chiefs and elders from the 15 counties to represent the voices of traditional Liberian society. Pro-peace religious leaders also numbered among the official commissioners.
The commission’s final report noted that “[t]he fabric of the nation and its people is deeply carved along cultural and traditional values, systems and practices… A truly integrated reconciliation process must engage these institutions for sustainable and genuine results.” The findings repeatedly affirmed that “all factions” were responsible for many of the crimes. To be sure, Liberia is no model case; it has hosted UN peacekeepers since 2003 and still suffers from factional and religious violence. Nonetheless, its transitional justice mechanisms provided a particularly rich space for promoting inter ethnic acceptance and cooperation. It’s not hard to imagine how such results might contrast with those of a more politicized and top-down post-war decree.
In Syria, ethnic politics and factional jockeying will likely compete for influence in any transitional government. On top of ethnic fault lines, add debates about majoritarianism, minority rights, religious legitimacy, and liberal values. All views can be constructive, but not in any arrangement where one dominates all others. At a time when political instability and factionalism will be at their most venomous, transitional justice mechanisms that take an inclusive approach offer unique opportunities to promote national unity.
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