Solving the Syrian conflict starts by building trust

A locally-focused, bottom-up approach which puts Syrian interests first offers a prospective path for transition and a peaceful settlement to the conflict.   

What are the principles of conflict transformation?

By Wim Roffel

In June 2012, a preliminary agreement was reached in Geneva on how the conflict in Syria should be solved. The plan foresees an armistice, a transitional government and finally elections. Although Russia later withdrew its consent, the plan has served as the framework for mediation by Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, respectively. Unfortunately, this plan is not suitable for the Syrian situation, as it fails to adequately address the question of distrust. Both sides fear massive retaliation when they lose and, as a consequence, both have proposed mutually-incompatible conditions that should prevent such retaliation. Opposition demands that Assad resign are just as senseless as Assad’s demands that the rebels surrender: they fail to address the prevailing fears on the other side. Elections won’t help: they are just another way to declare a winner and a loser, and the loser might still face retaliation. As we have seen in the Ivory Coast, elections under such tense circumstances tend to descend into fraud and accusations of fraud.

The wrong model

The Geneva plan sees Assad as a lonely dictator who has lost support and should now leave. Assad, however, has considerable support – particularly from religious minorities, plus those in Aleppo and Damascus. Several journalists – for example, Nir Rosen – have estimated that he and the opposition have about the same levels of support, while a large number remain neutral and only want peace. The job of any peacemaker, therefore, is not to get rid of Assad but to reconcile these two segments; a complicated task after two years of violence. South Africa took three years from the 1991 National Peace Agreement to hold its first inclusive elections; whilst elections took place two-years after El Salvador ended its guerrilla war. For Syria, a comparable period will be needed.

Interestingly, in both South Africa and El Salvador the old government largely stayed until the elections, whilst reforms were initiated and overseen by special committees. Whilst this allowed the reforms to become universally-accepted, thereby contributing to stability later on, it also gave the government extra leverage that bred frustration within the opposition. For this reason, it is advisable to have an early agreement on the general principles of reform. It is also important to remember that excessive demands can lead to problems later on: a good example is the fate of Zimbabwe’s white farmers following the independence negotiations.

A transitional government, as foreseen in the Geneva model, is more suitable for the case of an isolated dictator who suddenly departs, such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali. In such instances, there is no alternative but to start from scratch – though this can be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. Nor is a transitional government a good place to negotiate and reconcile; instead tending to become a place where each minister follows his own preferences, resulting in a lack of policy-coherence and the continuation of hostilities.

The role of the mediator

Assad has called the rebel fighters “murderous criminals”, while the rebels have called for Assad’s unconditional resignation because he “has too much blood on his hands”. In Northern Ireland, this stalemate was termed the “politics of the latest atrocity”; one that provides a perfect excuse not to negotiate. One of the main tasks of mediators, therefore, is to convince both sides that negotiating is not about who is right or wrong, but about serving the interests of the country. There is, however, a big difference between encouraging and forcing negotiations. The task of the mediator is to convince people of the benefit of negotiations, but often this is insufficiently understood. Annan asked for sanctions to force Assad to follow his plans, thereby becoming a party to the conflict. Pushed by the Geneva framework, Brahimi is operating perilously close to the same edge.

What handicaps Brahimi is an “international community” that is disunited; in some cases wanting regime change for its own end. Brahimi should do more to expose the hypocrisy of those who say that they want peace in Syria, whilst simultaneously refusing to renounce their own interests. Brahimi should openly talk about the need to build trust. He or a deputy might even have televised roundtable discussions with ordinary Syrians. Bringing peace means convincing people about the possibility of peaceful coexistence; a vision that cannot be built in closed negotiating rooms. This is particularly pertinent given the lack of strong leadership among the rebels and Assad’s rumoured dependence on a close circle of advisors.

Brahimi should openly encourage Assad to assert that those who have participated in the uprising have a place in Syria’s future, and cannot just be driven into exile or imprisoned. Assad should also be encouraged to reach out to, and attempt to reconcile with, often hostile, long-term exiles. Brahimi should similarly encourage the rebels – and the countries supporting them – to appoint representatives, to propose concrete changes and to embrace negotiations. Both parties need to be told that a military victory will only come at the cost of many more Syrian lives, making negotiations the preferred path – no matter how much each side may despise the other.

Brahimi might also address the past, encouraging Assad to discuss why stifled the 2001 Syrian Spring; arresting many  despite having first encouraged them to speak out. This issue is at the root of opposition distrust and their apprehension about negotiating with Assad. On the other hand, Brahimi could encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to apologize for its murderous campaign against Alawite officials around 1980 which still fuels fears on the Assad side.

Implementing an armistice

As Annan and Brahimi have already discovered, implementing an armistice in Syria is difficult. There are many different rebel groups, some of whom openly-boycotted the last armistice. In addition, much of the front-line is in urban areas where the parties are very close to each other and observation is difficult. In such circumstances, violations occur easily and the culprits are difficult to identify. The rise in the number of Islamists among the rebels doesn’t bode well: some Islamists see a prolonged conflict as being in their interest, as it radicalized the populace and brings more support for their goal of an Islamist state.

For an armistice to work there needs to be regularly scheduled talks between the two sides so that the inevitable violations can be isolated and dealt with. One possible solution is to make a separate agreement for each city and region about which group controls which territory. Each local armistice should be overseen by a local council, composed of members of both sides. The parties at the national level should only deal with problems when they can’t be solved locally. Those groups who don’t want to participate in the armistice should initially be assigned a territory where they will be tolerated. As in South Africa, they should be allowed to become part of the peace process later on.

There also needs to be an agreement on the localization of conflicts: if a renegade rebel group attacks the army at one point, the army should be justified to counterattack – but only to a certain extent – and the other rebel groups in the region remain out of the conflict. Something similar should apply when a renegade Shabiha group attacks a rebel held area. Ultimately, once the renegades are under control there should be negotiations on stabilizing the situation and preventing a repeat.

Disarming and disbanding the rebels will be a long process. Many will go home but some – mostly previous deserters – will be (re)integrated into the army or police. In the meantime, the government might have to provide local rebel units with food in order to prevent pilfering. Violence by extremist groups may remain a problem, making it imperative that all those supporting the uprising also support the peace effort.

It is also important that both sides agree on a framework for how the conflict should be solved. One reason previous armistice agreements failed was that neither side believed that it would lead to peace. Harassment should be prevented, whilst refugee returns should be permitted. As in Western countries, demonstrations should only be allowed with local government permission, but freedom of expression must be upheld. The government, however, should be free to place restrictions on the location of demonstrations. Central squares are for the general public – so they should be used for demonstrations only on special occasions. In addition, hate speech on protest banners should not be tolerated.

The basis for peace might well be an amnesty for both sides – for fighters, activists and decision-makers. Only where representatives from both parties agree should war crimes be prosecuted. This will mean that some go free; an inevitability of war. More important is that the persecution of war crimes will not be tainted by alleged and real partisan motives. As both sides fight under the assumption that they will win this might have more of a deterring effect than victor’s justice. Too often in the past war crime tribunals have become efforts to prove that one side waged an immoral war –seriously harming their effectiveness and credibility. Later on both sides might agree on a neutral judge to handle war crimes.

Towards reform

Once the nuts and bolts of an armistice are in place, it would be time to take the next step: discussing reforms. This phase should be about concrete reforms and not about constitutional issues. Working together on shaping the future of Syria can lay the basis for future trust and cooperation. In contrast, focusing on people and positions is bound to be divisive and should initially be avoided. To arrive at a new national consensus it is important to give public opinion a voice. Given the presence of extremists, it is important that foreign mediators and parties have a clear vision about what is reasonable and what not.

The uprising is to a large extent an uprising of the countryside. It would, therefore, make sense to address complaints about agricultural imports, a lack of agricultural development programs and the lack of government support in periods of adverse weather. Another complaint concerns sectarian favoritism, requiring an ombudsman (probably best a commission where both sides are represented) to handle complaints. This ombudsman should not concern himself with favoritism in the case of civil service appointments – discussions about those are better left to politicians. Democracy itself is no guarantee against discrimination. As such, there should be an effort to formulate universal principles of fairness and respect. Crony capitalism is an issue that is partially related with discrimination. However, there is also a regulatory aspect to it; legislation should be adapted to end import and other monopolies. Security sector reform should focus on professionalization (i.e. of counter-terrorism methods) and not on sectarian issues.

Political reform and the position of Assad

Asking Assad to leave now is likely not a good idea given that he represents a large group of Syrians; though the opposition might demand that lower level officials be replaced. Sidelining Assad means sidelining that group, thereby undermining the possibility of compromise. Whilst Assad would like to forbid the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition would like to forbid Assad’s Baath Party. If a lasting peace is to be achieved, however, both must be allowed to participate. This should be made conditional, however, on them publicly renouncing violence and other unlawful means to secure power. The definition of violence needs to include the kind of Salafist gangs that imposed their extremist views in Tunisia by, for instance, destroying alcohol shops and Sufi shrines.

Furthermore, building peace requires a network of institutions, such as:

  • A Negotiation Council on the national level – should consist of a broad selection of participants (20 to 30 people): about a third should represent Assad; another third the rebels and the remaining third neutral groups. Both warring parties (that is, the majority of representatives) should have veto power.  The neutral groups role is give voice to this section of the population, whilst preventing the warring parties from extremism and deadlock. In doing so, they could assume the role of the UN mediator. The Council would be the place where the future of Syria is determined.
  • Local councils for local problems – should play a major role in maintaining the armistice locally. Although initially they might play some role restoring basic services, their main role should be like that of the Negotiation Council at the national level – implementing peace. This would include both mediating and overseeing the armistice, initiating reforms, critically following the municipal government and overseeing elections. In composing local councils, pragmatism should play a major role. Initially council members might be appointed by the warring parties. Later, civil society should have greater influence. The territory that they control should be determined by the needs of the situation and not be limited by Syria’s administrative boundaries.
  • Mediation Council – the Negotiation Council should appoint a three-to-six person Mediation Council to initiate and mediate local armistice agreements and local government. The Council would monitor developments all over Syria, particularly hate crimes and discrimination. Its members would be capable negotiators, with respect from and access to both sides.

Getting Syria functioning at the local level first is important because local successes can serve as a model for cooperation at the national level. The local level allows for experimentation and offers space to build trust between the warring factions. It may also serve as an arena where opposition politicians can prove themselves capable – solving the problem of the opposition’s lack of respected leaders. Local government should build on what is. In rebel-controlled areas, the local government might initially be the rebel institution. Where there is controversy, local government elections should provide some basis for acceptance; though these should be repeated after a year given that it cannot be expected that all elections will be fair so soon after a war.

Central government, meanwhile, should concentrate on restoring normal life – the supply of food, medicine and fuel, repair of infrastructure, and property reconstruction – and fulfilling demands from the Negotiation Council. In this configuration, Assad would still formally wield power but he would hardly use it. As the opposition would only gradually disarm there would be time to work out how the local transition towards democracy should look like.


Initiating such a transition such as that sketched above requires only a very basic framework agreement. The scenario above is only a sketch. It will take some negotiations to work out the model that best fits the Syrian situation. Crucial to the success will be foreign support. The locally-focused, bottom-up approach will put Syrian interests first; something those countries pushing geopolitical goals may find that unattractive. Yet if more Syrian lives are not to be lost, the path to a peaceful settlement must quickly be found.

Wim Roffel is the owner of the blog, Conflict and Compromise.

If you are interested in contributing to the debate on the conflict in Syria, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.


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