When we completed our first study on Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice in January 2014, the costs of Syria’s conflict and the resulting human tragedies were staggering – yet one year later, the situation is even grimmer. Since the start of the conflict, an estimated 191,369 have been killed, 7.6 million have been internally displaced, and 3.2 million are refugees in neighboring countries.The conflict itself has become more complex and violent, with the conquest of much of eastern Syria by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the engagement of Kurdish fighters from Iraq and Syria, and the fragmentation of some moderate rebel formations, along with the brutality of the Assad regime. The country’s infrastructure and economy have been further battered and neighboring countries put under even more stress. To add to the complexity, the international community is more deeply enmeshed in the conflict, actively engaging militarily in the fight against ISIS, as well as through diplomatic and humanitarian channels.
The worsening conflict makes it difficult to imagine how the hostilities might be wound down, let alone ended with a measure of justice and reconciliation – yet the growing humanitarian crisis makes it all the more imperative to seek potential options for doing so. To this end, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) encourages both Syrians and members of the international community to consider how to promote accountability and reconcile communities, with the goals of ending the conflict and creating stable and lasting peace. These types of impacts will require that those concerned with Syria carefully consider the perspectives of Syrians on the ground, who are directly affected by the conflict and will be vital stakeholders in forging a sustainable peace.
SJAC commissioned Charney Research to conduct qualitative research on views of the conflict and local initiatives for peace, accountability, and reconciliation with ordinary Syrians inside and outside the country. From August through October 2014, we conducted 40 in-depth interviews in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hamah, Deir al-Zor, Al-Hasakah, and Raqqah, and among refugees in Jordan and Turkey. To achieve comparable results, the locations we chose are the same as our 2014 study. Our professional Syrian interviewers spoke with both regime supporters and opponents, and members of all major demographic, ethnic, and confessional groups, to explore their perceptions of how local communities in Syria might begin to heal from the wounds inflicted by all parties to the conflict.
Our most striking finding is how much more polarized and fragmented the situation in Syria has become in the past year. The experiences of people on the pro- and anti-regime sides have diverged, with some government supporters reporting improvements in security and services and regime opponents generally saying conditions have deteriorated in their areas. This polarization is also evident in views on national negotiations: on both sides, expectations and demands for total victory have replaced the broad support for a formally negotiated national settlement we found last year. The results indicate that Syrians’ hearts have hardened following disappointment in the Geneva talks, unrealized expectations of the international community, and another year of death, destruction, and confusion.
The news is somewhat more encouraging regarding local initiatives. Many Syrians interviewed were in favor of local-level ceasefires and ending local sieges, and while many others were not, the division was not along pro- and anti-regime lines. Moreover, almost all respondents we interviewed longed for the greater freedom of movement and normality of life such accords would allow. However, suspicion and mistrust may make such efforts difficult, with particular concern among the opposition that truces have proved to be disguised surrenders to the regime. However, we found an encouraging degree of interest in inclusive, local-level negotiations mediated by local notables, intended to diminish the conflict and lay the groundwork for new local government structures.
Other hopeful signs included the will among many to reconcile after the war and the broad interest in traditional methods of conflict resolution. Many participants voiced the desire to live in peace with those on the opposite side, though fewer than last year. There was also broad acceptance of the traditional processes of reconciliation and compensation (Sulha and Musalaha), though respondents recognized that these mechanisms are local in scope and that state resources would be needed to help with compensation. Local fact-finding committees to help expose abuses, allocate compensation, make recommendations for prosecutions, and provide a forum for public apologies also appealed to participants, as did post-conflict trust-building activities.
Unfortunately, perceptions of most of the key actors in the conflict are more polarized than they were last year. They also lack much of the nuance or ambivalence we observed then. About major actors, the only common ground expressed by regime supporters and opponents concerned ISIS, to which they were uniformly opposed, and other extreme groups such as Jabhat-al-Nusrah, which aroused some hostility among anti-regime participants and was hated by pro-regime respondents.
Our findings indicate that resolving the Syrian conflict has become even more difficult, but the findings are not without hope. They suggest that, currently, the best starting place for a resolution is at the local level. They offer encouragement for initiatives such as the local Aleppo truce efforts of Steffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria. The results strongly indicate, however, that local initiatives which merely transfer control to the regime and generate misinformation about Assad’s victories will not be an acceptable or sustainable solution for those in opposition-held areas. Thus, this finding carries a warning against imbuing local ceasefires with a legitimacy they do not merit, or whitewashing “starvation or surrender” tactics as positive solutions. Moreover, such measures cannot replace a national process of negotiations, including transitional justice and reconciliation programs, although they might be a catalyst for and supplement national effects at the grassroots level.
Nevertheless, this may be a good time to encourage Syrians to think about what can be done in their own communities to advance the causes of peace, justice, and reconciliation. If reconciliation is to be achieved in Syria, it may need to be built piece by piece.
- Our prior study is Charney, C., & Quirk, C. (2014), “He who did wrong should be accountable”: Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice. The Hague: Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. ↵
- United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Syria, http://www.unocha.org/syria ↵
- Terms indicating relative support for or opposition to viewpoints, such as “many,” “most,” etc., are defined in the Methodology section on p. XX ↵