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“He who did wrong should be accountable” Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice

As Syrian opposition and government leaders meet in Geneva, it is critical to consider the opinions of Syrians on the ground, particularly concerning political settlements and transitional justice mechanisms.   Research commissioned by the SJAC does just this—uncovering promising results. The research,  which is detailed in the report “He who did wrong should be accountable,” gathered opinions of Syrians from diverse geographic and political backgrounds, and found considerable appetite for negotiated settlements and formalized accountability processes. While this report provides a snapshot of experiences of a wide range of Syrians, it is not comprehensive – and is not meant to be so.  Nonetheless, it offers valuable insight into the opinions of Syrians who are living with this conflict on a daily basis. Given the recent uncovering of large-scale prisoner abuse, and the political opportunity at Geneva, it would be wise for stakeholders to turn special attention to negotiated settlements and well-designed accountability mechanisms.

The opinions embodied in the report reveal a shared desire for a cessation of killing, and they suggest that negotiated settlements may well have significant support among the population.  An anti-regime Sunni woman, for example, insists, “[e]nough is enough. First we have to stop the bloodshed. Enough orphaned children, widows, and arrests. We cannot handle another day of killing. This is why I prefer settlement. I do not want another day of murder.” A pro-regime Christian man agrees, “[t]he Syrian crisis is no longer a conflict. It became an international war that will eat whoever stands in the way. That is why I prefer a negotiated settlement to return love and peace to Syria.” Although many respondents were pessimistic about the feasibility of a negotiated settlement, they supported the goal in theory.

Similarly, respondents voiced wide support for processes to hold perpetrators of crimes accountable. The human rights abuses perpetrated during the conflict have been staggering. Over the last week, more evidence has emerged in the form of 5,500 photos of prisoners subject to grave maltreatment. The Syrians surveyed in the SJAC research consistently indicated that they believe perpetrators of such crimes should be held accountable. An anti-regime Sunni man, for example, explained “[for] any of the sides, whoever committed a crime should be held accountable. It should be through the judiciary. . . Everyone is supposed to be held accountable for what they did–there are rebels who should be held accountable, as well as regime fighters and civilians.” A pro-regime Christian woman agreed “[a]nybody who committed war crimes during this conflict from any party should be prosecuted.”

Overall, the interviewees preferred legal prosecution through Syrian-run courts, but there was little awareness of alternative forms of pursuing accountability, such as truth commissions.  When informed about truth commissions, many interviewees responded favorably, but were opposed to any forms of amnesty. Regardless, accountability processes were seen as critical to Syria’s future, for the sake of justice and to prevent the possibility of revenge killings in the future.

Of course, a challenge is that while palatable in the abstract, the reality of such settlements and accountability mechanisms are generally more difficult for a population to accept in a post-conflict context.  Respondents were far less enthusiastic when discussing specific and tangible examples of negotiated settlements or accountability mechanisms.   As the report illustrates, the opinions of the interviewees were not as positive when asked about negotiated settlements that would leave their opponents in power, or accountability mechanisms that scrutinize the actions of actors whom the respondent might support.  Specifically, regime supporters expressed an unwillingness to accept a settlement which would exile Assad. A pro-regime Alawite man, for example, asserted “[i]f there is a settlement, we will not accept the president and those closest to him to be exiled outside of Syria.” Regime opponents, on the other hand, insisted that Assad be held accountable in some capacity. An anti-regime Sunni woman, for example, maintained “Bashar should be punished and be an example for everyone who thinks he can constrain his own people.”

Nonetheless, such for negotiated settlements and accountability processes cannot be ignored, and is a positive indicator that there may be more commonalities among Syrian citizens than expected given the circumstances of the current conflict. The parties to the conflict and the international community would therefore be wise to take this into account in Geneva, but also in considering the options for a negotiated settlement and transitional justice mechanisms to help support the country’s eventual recovery from the conflict.

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