Conclusions and Implications

Greater Polarization and Bitterness Have Undermined Support for National Negotiations

In several respects, the willingness of domestic Syrian public opinion to support a negotiated, national settlement of the country’s conflict has diminished compared to a year ago. After another year marked by continued fighting and atrocities, the rise of ISIS, and the failure of international peace efforts, Syrians have become more sharply polarized and have lost their faith in a nationally-brokered compromise. The broad consensus we found last year on the desirability of a negotiated outcome is gone. Syrians want to see their side win and want to believe it will. The negativity that respondents displayed is likely tied to dashed hopes and disappointment with previous negotiations which they view as failures, as well as the suffering from another year of war. It suggests that respondents neither believe such efforts could succeed nor desire further abortive attempts.

Opportunities for Progress Exist at
the Local Level, If Locally Led

Despite widespread rejection of any national-level negotiated settlement, respondents were more amendable to the idea of local ceasefires and reconciliation efforts, indicating that efforts to advance peace and justice in Syria might begin locally. Syrians of every stripe are war-weary and have a tremendous desire for greater freedom, more normality, and less fear in their daily lives. Although they are divided about negotiations to end fighting and sieges in their localities, such efforts receive considerably more support than externally-brokered, top-down national initiatives. Syrians interviewed seem to support very specific, targeted, and local activities more than abstract or notions like “national negotiations.” This indicates that taking concrete steps locally might be a positive approach overall to create buy-in for peace and reconciliation. On both sides, respondents expressed deep mistrust and negativity towards foreign interventions and influences in the conflict, but reacted positively to the idea of local initiatives brokered among and implemented by Syrians themselves. Moreover, respondents easily envisaged how such talks could occur under the mediation of widely trusted local elites.

Mistrust and Doubts as to Follow-Through
Make Local Initiatives Tenuous

Although locally-brokered steps towards peace are likely possible, they would also be tenuous and fragile. Many respondents reacted positively to the idea of local ceasefires based on their interests in greater normality and stopping the killing. However, their responses also indicate a doubt that opposing parties would uphold their end of agreements, or that agreements would lead to lasting benefits. Responses indicate that local initiatives could be positive if they represent first steps towards meeting local Syrians’ needs and also building blocks for further peace efforts. However, they could also have very negative impacts on the potential for long-term, national peace if they easily fall apart, lead nowhere, or are merely disguises for surrenders to the regime. Syrians and those who seek to help them can examine whether and how islands of peace and freedom might emerge under current circumstances. If the barriers of mutual mistrust could be reduced, perhaps by one or more conspicuous successes, it is possible others would soon follow. In this situation, initiatives such as the UN proposal for a ceasefire in Aleppo led by Steffan de Mistura are timely and potentially significant, but should include mechanisms that will generate sufficient local buy-in and lead to effective results — not only sustainable results at the local level, but also results that serve as first steps to be followed by other initiatives, rather than ends in themselves.

Local Initiatives May Be Building Blocks
for Broader “Bottom-Up” Processes

Syrian responses to this study seem to show a tension: on one hand, rejection of a national negotiated solution; but on the other, when pressed on shows of support for local-level ceasefires, a preference for a national solution rather than islands of indefinite calm while the conflict rages. Respondents seem not to trust a nationally-brokered process given the current situation, and express preference for an outright victory for their side. They also showed mistrust at the local level, but were more positive about the possibility of local progress for certain reasons: such initiatives would be Syrian led, based on interests, and therefore more achievable. Respondents also broadly shared a desire for a more normal life and the reconstruction of their communities. Although study participants may not have expressly voiced it, a possible implication of the apparent contradiction in their responses is that local ceasefires that help to wind down the intensity and virulence of the conflict may be a necessary, “bottom-up” prerequisite for a national process — as opposed to a Geneva-style ‘top-down’ negotiation which focuses first on political issues that are insurmountable in the current climate of intense violence and polarization.

Local Initiatives Should Promote Accountability, Rebuilding, and Democracy to Build Long-Term Peace

If efforts are made to build peace at the local level, they must also strengthen the process of long-term change instead of simply freezing the situation or restoring the pre-conflict status quo. In this study, Syrians expressly communicated that local ceasefires and other initiatives must not be a whitewash for victories by any party that has committed violations – or else any ‘peace’ they achieve will be neither true nor lasting. In fact, this study shows that regime opponents fear local truces are mere camouflage for the restoration of regime control, and experiences to date in certain areas, such as Homs, offer some support for this view. Such efforts are most likely to avoid becoming disguised surrenders in areas where there is a balance of forces or where the opposition controls some territory, giving each side a degree of bargaining power. A flow of resources from sources outside regime control, including international assistance, could offer a basis for providing services and accountability for abuses. This could include humanitarian and subsistence resources as well as technical assistance in governance, services, and justice. Useful contributions could also be made via broad participation in discussions on the establishment of new, democratic local government structures, which experience elsewhere has shown need not wait for the conclusion of the national struggle.

Of course, one major issue with which Syrians will need to grapple in these efforts is what roles can be played by those on both sides who bear varying degrees of responsibility for past or ongoing violence. Responses to this study — as with last year’s — show widespread desire that those who have committed violations be held accountable, especially at high levels. Just as with any national settlement, local peace initiatives could actually promote revenge attempts and renewed conflict if they bandage over grievances or further entrench injustices, highlighting the need for such efforts to include justice and reform alongside reconciliation measures.

Rejection of ISIS Provides Some Common Ground

One striking finding of this research was the near-absence of support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), either in its “capital” of Raqqah or elsewhere in the country. Indeed, among both government supporters and opponents, rejection of extremism was strong and vociferous. Thus far, however, their shared opinion on this issues has not formed the basis for joint cooperation, nor is it likely to as the factions remain more interested in fighting each other than in subduing extremists. In this regard, local conflict resolution processes may provide a key to building local coalitions that can make it more feasible to keep extremists out of given areas or perhaps offer an attractive alternative to extremist ideology that will help to attract the populace currently under their control. At present, ISIS presents itself as the only alternative to the regime; the creation of others would be a step to convincing Syrians that a different outcome is possible.

Syrians Want to Come Together Again
After the Conflict, With Conditions

Despite the blood that has been shed, after the war Syrians still want theirs to be one state and one people. But coexistence, many said, requires repentance, accountability, and justice as well as reconciliation. Most Syrians in this study want and expect their side to prevail in the conflict, and are willing to come together, as long as reconciliation is on their terms — often, for example, citing apology or punishment as prerequisites. Many also doubt that reconciliation measures will be possible or effective, but at least express a willingness and openness to considering and attempting such efforts. The mood is particularly harsh among refugees, terrified by the ISIS phenomenon back in the country but also despairing of reconciliation and forgiveness, understandable in light of the particularly painful reality many have lived.

Fortunately there are some resources and ideas for reconciliation measures that could win ready acceptance from the Syrian public. The traditional concepts of Sulha and Musalaha, which involve the taking of responsibility and compensation, offer a framework for the resolution and conclusion of local-level conflicts and disputes. Even if they are not substitutes for a national accord, they can help to wind down bitterness and conflict before or after such a country-wide settlement. Participants also responded positively to the idea of local committees for fact-finding and revealing truth, as such bodies could potentially conduct public hearings, make recommendations for compensation, and feed into prosecutions in some way. Traditional proceedings and conversations on mechanisms for accountability locally could proceed in parallel with efforts to establish new local government structures now, or could follow a conclusion of hostilities.

Outsiders Can Support Syrians by Promoting
Local Discourse and Initiatives

The path to a postwar Syria will be a difficult one, but this is an apt time to encourage efforts to promote peace, accountability, and reconciliation at the local level. Syrians want to see their society and their lives return to normal, even if many cannot yet imagine how this might happen. A task for those outside the country who hope to facilitate such change is to promote discourse around local initiatives that can meet the expectations of those on the ground while also creating the groundwork for a sustainable peace based on justice and dignity. However, the legitimacy of such efforts requires that the task of rebuilding a new country from the grassroots up be undertaken by Syrians themselves.

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