On February 19th, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) launched its new report, Maybe We Can Reach a Solution: Syrian Perspectives on the Conflict and Local Initiatives for Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation , examining the perspectives of Syrians from a diverse array of political persuasions and ethnic and religious backgrounds on locally-based conflict resolution initiatives. A panel conversation hosted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and moderated by Ellen Laipson (President and CEO, The Stimson Center) discussed the implications of the report for initiatives such as the faltering Aleppo ceasefire proposal sponsored by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and how SJAC’s research may illuminate a way forward as the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year.
Mohammad Al Abdallah (Executive Director, SJAC) introduced major findings of the research, which included increased polarization among Syrians after another year of conflict, especially when compared to SJAC’s original 2014 report. “Syrians increasingly demand total victory and only envision the conflict ending once their own side prevails,” said Al Abdallah. The research also shows, he said, that despite their heightened antagonism almost no respondents support the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or envision a future in which it can exist in a post-conflict future Syria.
Craig Charney (President, Charney Research) reviewed the research methodology and explained how the increasingly violent conflict poses significant logistical challenges to conducting survey research. Nonetheless, interviewees provided nuanced and reflective answers to questions about local reconciliations initiatives, demonstrating their deep desire to end four years’ worth of violence and destruction. Charney noted that the locus of the conflict has shifted to the local level, such that local processes may be the only feasible options. “If local initiatives are responsive to local conditions,” said Charney, “it may be possible to wind down the violence in a way that makes national processes more viable.”
Al Abdallah and Charney noted that an encouraging degree of interest for inclusive, local-level negotiations designed to de-escalate the conflict and allow for humanitarian intervention does exist. Support for local-level initiatives is based on a desire for normality and stability, which all Syrians want and believe should extend to all Syrians. Respondents showed an openness to considering local-level conflict resolution and reconciliation measures, but they also displayed a strong sense of grievance and desire for accountability. As one Syrian respondent said:
“We cannot live with them unless we forgive them. But how can we accept the presence of people who helped kill and destroy our country, and let them live with us without them even asking for forgiveness?”
Doubt and mistrust is also pervasive, particularly among anti-regime respondents, who question the capacity of local ceasefires to quell the fighting or, worse yet, merely disguise truces as surrender to regime authorities. “It is very important that such local initiatives should not become a way to enforce ‘starve-or-surrender’ models,” said Al Abdallah. “Moreover, such initiatives cannot succeed in the long term without further measures, including transitional justice and reconciliation programs, although they might supplement and catalyze them.”
Daniel Serwer (Senior Professor of Conflict Management, SAIS) stressed that in addition to making a nationally negotiated settlement untenable at the moment, the deep mistrust underlying growing ethno-sectarian and political divisions in Syria calls into question the viability of local ceasefires as well. “Local ceasefires that amount to surrenders could look more like Srebrenica (in Bosnia) more than any of us would like to admit,” said Server. “The most important factor is security for both sides.” Any sustainable ceasefire followed by reconciliation requires acknowledgement of harm and willingness to compensate, factors conspicuously missing in the Syrian conflict. As sustainable ceasefires are likely to be tenuous, even at the local level, Serwer proposed the idea of ‘protected zones’ in small areas where some Syrians could begin to establish local governance.
Joseph Bahout (Visiting Scholar, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) explained that, to date, local ceasefires negotiated entirely by Syrians have repeatedly failed to meet their objectives, emphasizing “modesty in the approach” to the Syrian conflict. Bahout noted that discussions of local initiatives are more realistic when perceived as “conflict management” measures, rather than conflict-resolution strategies. Implemented as such, local initiatives have the power to force the regime to accept the reality that a moderate opposition does in fact exist as a viable negotiation partner, countering the Assad narrative expressed in recent interviews. However, Bahout said, internationally-brokered ‘freeze’ plans also run the risk of “shifting focus from the internal Syrian civil war to the international proxy war, effectively stealing the conflict from the hands of Syrians and putting it in the hands of regional powers.”
Echoing the study, panelists expressed doubt as to whether local ‘freeze’ initiatives could be effective or lead to national peace. Uniformly acknowledging that such measures would be far from ideal, panelists debated the ethical question posed by Laipson: could local ceasefires, whether freezes or other models, shift perceptions of the conflict dynamic to create more space for resolution, or turn into just another dead end? “If a ceasefire is a disguised surrender, it is not a ceasefire,” said Charney. “The real question is how true local ceasefires would fit into a broader strategy aimed at securing a negotiated political solution and opposing groups like ISIS.”
Though the consensus for a comprehensive settlement that existed a year ago has dissipated, research indicates that Syrians on both sides may support an approach that begins to mediate the conflict and quell the violence from the bottom-up, particularly if such initiatives serve as a prerequisite for broader national processes that promote accountability and a transition towards democracy. Furthermore, many Syrians expressed a desire to reconcile after the fighting has ended and, according to Charney, “emphatically rejected partition regardless of their political orientation.” Al Abdallah also noted the positivity expressed towards possible mediators and mechanisms, despite doubts as to whether such efforts are even possible. Crucially, however, support for these local level initiatives depends on them being Syrian-led and implemented, as hostility towards foreign intervention remains high.
SJAC is committed to promoting justice and accountability for all Syrians. Based upon the findings of Maybe We Can Reach a Solution, SJAC will continue its work to support and sustain discourse on local initiatives and their implications for accountability and reconciliation, focused on meeting the needs of Syrians inside and outside the country and laying the groundwork for a sustainable peace based on justice and dignity.