Rebuilding Trust Post-Conflict

Many respondents said that after the war ends, they feel they will still have the capacity to live in peace with neighbors or former neighbors who supported the opposing side, despite deep mutual distrust and even hatred. However, they expressed certain conditions for such reconciliation to be possible. For them, forgiveness is conceivable after accountability — the definition of which varies among respondents. Forgetting, however, is not an option for them. Others refused to consider forgiveness at all.

Nevertheless, opportunities to heal communities after the conflict seem to exist at the local level. Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms appealed to a broad swathe of respondents, at least in theory, as well as local committees for fact finding and revealing truth. Thus, demands for accountability remain strong, as we found last year. Efforts to bridge community divides through educational programs, economic development projects, and efforts to reintegrate former combatants were also supported.

Many Can Still Live With Neighbors

Many respondents on both sides said they could imagine living in peace with their neighbors, even if they had taken up arms for the other side, as long as they are Syrian and have not murdered innocents or committed other abuses. This was true even in Aleppo, where the conflict has been particularly intense and the displacement severe. Some kind of accountability in the form of trials or at least a formal apology is a prerequisite, however.

If they were not murderers, and if their hands were not stained with blood, [forgiveness] is possible. Other than that, definitely not.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 24, Tartous

Reconciliation with the people of this country, that would be ok, but not with criminals who have come from other countries; there is no reconciliation with them. This method is very well-known in the Arab world.
— Kurdish man (pro-regime), 32, Al-Hasakah

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?
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 29, Deir al-Zor

If the person who made a mistake confessed it, why would we not live with them as long as they confessed their fault? Because in the end, he is a son of this country even if he is at wrong, and if he realized his mistake and wants to retreat from it, we have no problem in reconciling with him.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 27, Aleppo

Forgiveness Is Too Much to Ask for Some

Many others, including refugees and regime supporters, took a particularly strong stand against forgiving those who took up arms against them. These respondents saw their opponents’ behavior as humiliating, criminal, and traitorous.

Of course not, even if they were my brothers. I would never forgive them because they held these weapons in our faces unjustly. — Sunni man (anti-regime), 35, refugee, Jordan

No, I wouldn’t forgive them. These people have betrayed us once, so they can possibly betray us a thousand times more. These people should be punished and banished in order for us to live in peace. These people are not to be trusted; we will still be afraid for our lives and for the lives of others. They may betray us again.— Alawi woman (pro-regime), 55, Damascus

Opposition to forgiveness for those who fought the state or killed for it was particularly strong among respondents in Damascus and Raqqah, the capital of the ISIS “caliphate.” For these participants, court trials that result in prison or exile are the only options.

They are villains and traitors who deserve punishment and to be held accountable for what they did. They should leave the country. It’s impossible for us to live with them. They should be killed or imprisoned for rest of their lives.
— Alawi woman (pro-regime), 55, Damascus

Forgiving such people would be a crime. Those who killed the innocent and destroyed the country don’t deserve to live. Syrians involved could be punished then given a second chance to repent.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

Traditional Dispute Resolution Mechanisms
of Sulha and Musalaha Embraced

Forms of conflict resolution which are traditional to the Levant, Sulha (negotiation and compensation) and Musalaha (reconciliation), are well-known to respondents and are the preferred methods of dispute resolution for both pro- and anti-regime respondents[1]. These processes’ elements – reconciliation, compensation, and avoiding vengeance among conflicting parties in a local community – appealed to respondents on both sides.

There’s a big possibility it will have a result here, especially since we have a lot of people that still live like clans. The people have a readiness for such a thing, because the people hated the war, and then they want to get it over with.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 25, Raqqah

It means to restore the relationship between two conflicting sides as well as a confession of their guilt. These terms belong to us as Arab people, and as Syrians; it is one of our customs. Yes, it will help people restore social relationships.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 28, Aleppo

Sulha fixes things between two persons in dispute. This thing will certainly keep a lot of troubles away. It is possible here because there are people here who owe each other favors. Sulha will certainly save a lot. It will end a lot of troubles.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 24, Tartous

Reconciliation is a good concept for everyone who loves their country and wants to dismiss the conflicts and reconnect the parties together. I am in favor of the reconciliation. In such cases, usually, the parties lean on the traditional means of settling the conflicts and enforcing the concept of reconciliation.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 37, Homs

However, many noted that Sulha and Musalaha are community-based approaches focused on local-level conflicts. They do not think it could resolve Syria’s complex national conflict or permit overall reconciliation given the scale of the crimes committed.

Such terms can work in villages or in the countryside, but I do not believe that it can work when it comes to the country as a whole; it is hard for it to affect the whole country in the same manner it affects villages.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 32, Aleppo

We all want reconciliation, but we can’t reconcile with those people (the opposition) because they destroyed this country. We should not reconcile with people who allowed terrorists to commit crimes against our people.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

Moreover, there was concern that this form of reconciliation requires good faith and repentance, something respondents on both sides feared would not be present.

This could be fruitful with good people, but in our case it won’t do any good with the terrorists. We all in this country want reconciliation and to go back to the way we were before. But unfortunately, we can’t reconcile with those people because they have crossed the lines, destroyed this great country, killed their own people, and on top of that allowed terrorists from foreign countries to come in and destroy the country.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

In order for such things to happen, the people would have to forgive each other. I wish that such reconciliation would happen, but what I will tell you is that I do not think that it will happen between the two parties. No Syrian would believe that the two sides would agree on a mutual settlement or even forgive each other and let go of each other’s mistakes. If there was a possibility for such reconciliation, the war would not have lasted this long.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 25, refugee, Jordan

Government Must Help With Compensation

In the event that such reconciliation processes are attempted, respondents were clear that local resources alone will not suffice. Whichever side of the current conflict they identify with, respondents felt it will be necessary for the post-war government to provide resources for compensation, a critical component of Sulha.

The government should compensate all the damages, and then the people can make the idea of the Sulha between the different categories of the people work.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 29, Deir al-Zor

The government should be in charge and sponsor conciliation, providing aid and compensation. Compensation is part of the answer to make conciliation work.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

Some among the opposition viewed government-funded compensation as punitive, arguing the government should pay compensation because it is responsible for the losses: “Of course the government needs to be involved in compensating people because they were the ones who committed violations against the people,” said a 35-year old Sunni woman in Homs who is anti-regime.

Local Committees for Fact Finding,
Truth Revealing Well-Received

After the conflict ends, local committees tasked with finding facts, revealing the truth on what occurred during the war, and recognizing local residents’ suffering would potentially have broad credibility and support. Many Syrians on both sides felt that local people would know best how to resolve local disputes and bring about reconciliation. They felt locals best understand the dynamics of the conflict at the local level and are best positioned to resolve them.

The existence of a local committee assigned to find out the truth would increase the credibility and the people’s trust in the country. It would facilitate the work, and after the country takes upon itself to provide compensations, that would lessen the gap between the conflicting perspectives, and reconciliation would be achieved.
— Kurdish man (pro-regime), 32, Al-Hasakah

If these committees are elected in a democratic manner and are established on bases of integrity, they will help people, recognize their suffering, and reunite the varying perspectives.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 32, Aleppo

Many respondents favored such local committees taking a leading role in several types of post-conflict transitional justice and reconciliation activities, listed below. Views on these activities lacked the harsh polarization evident on many other topics.

Public hearings — These were well-received by both sides for providing a mechanism for allowing people to talk about their experiences and explain their roles and offering opportunities to make accusations and defenses before the community. “Every person has the right to defend himself, and that can be done through such committees. What is really good about such hearings is that they are public, and therefore, there wouldn’t be room for deception or deforming facts,” said a Sunni man (anti-regime), 26, in Hamah. However, some feared they would re-open old wounds. A pro-regime, Christian IDP woman, 23, in Homs said, “This would rebuild the feelings of hatred between the people, and may encourage them to enforce their own concepts of justice however they may in order to attain revenge.”

Allocating compensation — Local committees’ assumption of this role was generally supported. “I think that there isn’t anyone of this victimized nation who hasn’t been damaged by this war and tyranny. Everyone needs aid especially during this standing siege. As to the type and quantity, there should be a committee that supervise these issues and conduct the suitable statistics,” said an anti-regime Sunni woman, 33, in Damascus. However, compensation raised questions about who is going to pay and how, if at all, certain losses can be compensated. I do not think that those who have lost a loved one care about compensation, because nothing could ever bring back what they have lost,” said an anti-regime Sunni man, 30, who is a refugee in Jordan.

Recommendations for war crimes trials — The idea that local committees could recommend which persons might face prosecution for war crimes was generally supported as providing a path to trials at the national level and thus a measure of accountability at the local level. “Certainly, you should investigate in the end, and everyone who did wrong should be punished,” said an Alawi man who is pro-regime, 24, in Tartous. “I think that is very reasonable, because it makes sure that whoever steals and robs the country during the conflict meets their punishment, since they have caused lots of destruction to the country,” agreed an anti-regime Sunni man, 32, in Aleppo.

Public apologies — These received mixed reactions. Some on both sides found them appealing. “That could also be very good as well because it is like apologizing to the people in front of everyone. This may actually help the efforts of reconciliation,” said an anti-regime Sunni man, 38, who was a refugee in Turkey.  Likewise, a pro-regime Christian woman, 21, in Tartous said, “Public apology is necessary so the minds of the wronged people can be put at ease. This gives a little comfort to the people.” These reactions were in line with those of people who considered apology as a condition for forgiveness. Others were unwilling to consider forgiveness, even after an apology. “If I slap you, rob your house, or cut off your arm, and then I came to apologize, what difference would that make? It wouldn’t give you back what you have lost, and therefore, such public apology solutions are a bunch of nonsense,” said an anti-regime Sunni woman, 35, an IDP in Homs.

Alternatives to trial — Many respondents said it was possible for local committees to prescribe alternatives to trials for those accused of lesser crimes, but they were adamant that those accused of major crimes should not escape prosecution. “This could be applied to those who committed minor crimes; the ideas of rehabilitation, paying compensations and others instead of going through trials could be applied to them,” said a Christian man supporting the regime, 28, in Damascus.

Post-Conflict Trust Building Widely Supported

Most respondents favored local community activities that rebuild trust post-conflict between people on different sides in the war. This includes ideas such as economic projects that bring people together and projects for youth from the opposing sides. Specifically, respondents found appeal in projects like the promotion of economic development, education, and community building. Most said they and their communities would participate in activities to build trust between opposing sides.

I would agree to participate in such projects because they are very important for the income of Syrians and their patriotism. It would provide them with an income that should help families to lead good lives. These projects would rebuild the trust between the opposing sides in Syria.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 23, refugee, Turkey

A really great idea, but we want it to be implemented here, with no nepotism, and this idea will end unemployment and the problems of the youth. And better for the youth than to remain unemployed, and run towards chaos. They benefit, and benefit the country.
— Christian woman (pro-regime), 21, Tartous

Some refugees in Jordan, whose suffering has been extreme, rejected the idea, citing the deep divisions in the country. “No, I do not think that such projects would be a success because we know that the sides of the conflict would never agree. They both want to take vengeance upon each other. As for me, I would not accept to participate in such projects because there is a touch of extremism and racism in the country, and I do not think that such projects would help eliminate any of that,” said an anti-regime Sunni man, 35, in Jordan. In contrast, refugees in Turkey said they would participate.

Reintegration Programs for Former Fighters Favored

Programs to promote the reintegration of former fighters through the provision of jobs and education were supported by many; few rejected the idea outright. Some wanted repentance or apology as a condition for acceptance.

Yes, I would. That way I’d be helping to keep these former fighters away from war and corruption.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 27, Hamah

Yes, after their repentance. We should stand by them so they can participate in good deeds instead of bad ones.
— Kurdish woman (pro-regime), 35, Al-Hasakah

However, some would restrict the offer of such aid to those on their side only, to the exclusion of ISIS fighters or “terrorists.” This may imply some sort of vetting process or criteria for eligibility.

Every honorable person who stood and defended this country deserves to have all his needs met; such as education, working opportunities, and others, and they should be a reward from the regime for their efforts and love to this country. Terrorists, on the other hand, should be held accountable for the destruction they caused to this country; there is no way we consider helping them.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

I support that this would happen; programs that offer job opportunities and education to the rebel fighters. Yes I support them, but for the fighters who were against us, no I do not support them in such a thing.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 25, Hamah

Judging by our findings, there may be openings for local-level, post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction efforts in Syria. Many Syrians retain a common sense of community and a desire to rebuild their war-shattered country, despite the harsh rhetoric and deepening polarization that we have noted. They voiced a willingness to forgive those on the other side, after an accountability process or a public apology, though forgiveness will be more difficult for the angriest, including some IDPs and refugees. The traditional processes of Sulha and Musalaha offer a framework within which the legacies of local-level disputes and struggles can be resolved, although this is not seen as a means or substitute for conflict resolution at the national level. There is also an expectation that state resources will be needed to grease the wheels of compensation, given the scale of the losses.

Summary of Findings on
Rebuilding Trust Post-Conflict

Within the local context, Syrians are also supportive of fact-finding committees that work with local residents to initiate reconciliation activities, including conducting public hearings, deciding compensation, making recommendations for war crimes prosecutions, and offering a venue for public apologies. They are divided, however, over whether such committees should also recommend alternatives to trials, particularly for major offenses. (Similarly, we were told last year that a national truth commission for perpetrators of major offenses would not be accepted as an accountability substitute for criminal prosecutions.) There was also broad support for efforts to re-establish a feeling of community through trust-building activities like economic and youth projects, consistent with our finding last year that Syrians wanted to come together again after the war. The issue of reintegration aid for former fighters was more contentious, however, with some respondents saying it should only go to those from their side. This is a reflection of the very real divide which the issues of the present conflict have generated. The divide is also reflected in public perceptions of the parties, to which we now turn.

  1. Kadayifci, Ayse S., Standing on an Isthmus: Islamic Narratives on War and Peace in Palestinian Territories, Chapter 8, offers a fairly comprehensive definition of these processes: “According to Islamic law, ‘the purpose of sulh is to end conflict and hostility among believers so that they may conduct their relationship in peace and amity…In Islamic law, sulh is a form of contract (‘aqd), legally binding on both at individual and community levels.’ Many verses in the Quran also refer to sulha and the establishment of peace among the members of the community.” (pg. 263) “[Sulha] claims to restore peace between individuals, families, tribes and villages.” (pg. 263) “[The final ritual of reconciliation (musalaha)] is done openly so that the whole community knows about it…The ritual itself is a complex and symbolic process, and the details differ according to the customs of the region and the community. Nevertheless, the basic principles of the sulha ritual are based on forgiveness (musamaha), shaking hands (musafaha), sharing a meal and bitter coffee (mumalaha) between the opponents. It is also important to note that the reconciliation is declared binding to those who are present and not present at the ritual, including those that are not yet born.” (pg. 265)


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Maybe We Can Reach A Solution: Syrian Perspectives on the Conflict and Local Initiatives for Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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