A waiting game – Syria through the lens of conflict transformation

Looking at Syria through the lenses of a few selected Principles of Conflict Transformation can offer new suggestions for peaceful actions as the fatigue of violence continues to grow. 

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Conflict Background


By Kirra Hughes

With our eyes on Damascus, Hama and elsewhere in Syria for the past several weeks, many of us have undoubtedly suffered from feelings of desperation. Desperation to help, desperation as I watch my government make the same mistake over and over again, desperation to understand the root causes. One human ‘flaw’ kept coming to the forefront of my mind – greed.

The greed of the Assads and the Alawis who do not want to give up their positions of power. Greed of the Western governments who are interested in – as Johan Galtung, the father of the discipline of peace studies, proffers – “Redesigning the region and rewriting its map – that is the Western agenda in the Middle East.” Greed of the US which wants “control over oil, gas, pipelines” and “above all of that – protection of expansionist Israel”, both of which are masked in the media by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Russia’s greed in acquiring a naval base in the region. The list continues. In all this confusion, perhaps a break from the government’s ‘go-to’ conflict management approach is needed? Conflict management and conflict transformation are two different animals.

In the words of John Paul Lederach, conflict transformation asserts a better understanding of the nature of the conflict itself. Conflict management implies that conflict is a negative, isolated event that can be managed and resolved. Transformation does not assume that conflict is negative. It assumes that conflicts operate within the realm of human beings’ relationships. Conflict, therefore, is social. If we think of conflict as a social phenomenon,  it is no longer isolated and distinct from society, but rather a part of society.  Conflict transformation does not suppose that conflict is not destructive; but it asserts that the situation can be modified so that self-images, relationships, and social structures improve as a result of conflict instead of being harmed by it. We humans then remain the most important and crucial element. Let’s look at Syria through the lenses of a few selected Principles of Conflict Transformation.

1. Conflict should not be understood solely as an inherently negative and destructive occurrence, but rather as a potentially positive and productive force for change if harnessed constructively.

Syria has recently been ruled by a small Alawi Islamic sect. This leaves the Sunni majority and other groups unstable and in an ongoing power play. Galtung suggests that Syria become a decentralized federation, akin to Switzerland, which would equalize representation and ease ethnic divides.

2. Conflict transformation goes beyond merely seeking to contain and manage conflict, instead seeking to transform the root causes themselves – or the perceptions of the root causes – of a particular conflict.

In a conflict, everyone has needs – something they want before the conflict can wind down and peacebuilding process can begin. Conflict transformation stresses this human dimension by reminding the parties of the compatible nature of their needs, instead of emphasizing their opposing interests. In Syria’s case, Galtung has identified the various goals of all parties, internal and external, involved here.  Conflict transformation is not just a set of techniques, but a way of thinking about and understanding conflict itself. If we realize that there are issues deeper than those we see on the surface, i.e., the violence, the attacks, then we can approach the conflict differently. We search for deeper, hidden root causes which, if identified and transformed, have the power to dampen the conflict and begin the move toward peace.

3. Conflict transformation is particularly suited for intractable conflicts, where deep-rooted issues fuel protracted violence.

Protracted violence, when conflicts last for a long time, is also a possibility for Syria. NATO would pick a side, drop bombs and declare victory. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar would enter the war. More bombs, more missiles, more deaths. If governments adopted conflict transformation, there would be no predetermined set of approaches or actions and it would be understood that a non-violent process is a top priority. The reality in Syria changes daily; any approach to conflict there needs to be able to respond and adapt as swiftly, since there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to peacebuilding.

There have been various attempts to de-escalate the Syrian conflict. Last year, former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, offered a mediation plan. It was agreed upon briefly before, but as Annan believes, the western countries’ insistence on seeking a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution (which allow for military and non-military action to promote peace and security) halted the agreement.  A Chapter 7 resolution was opposed by Russia and China due to NATO actions which took place in Libya. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, offered a mediation plan just days ago. A member of the Syrian opposition coalition, Kamal Al-Lubani, reminded the president that “Iranian officers are directing military operations…” for the Assad regime. He added that “instead of the nice words, Rouhani should withdraw his fighters from Syria.” The current Russia-US deal was drawn up under Chapter 5, which states that U.N. members “agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present charter.” In essence, enforcement is left to Russia, who is still opposed to any threat of military action.

Galtung offers this approach: why not search for multiple solutions, with evidence-based dialogues in villages, cities and state departments? Send in 1,000 mediators, have 1,000 dialogues that spark 1,000 solutions. Reference the UN’s Post 2015 Development Agenda and develop a peace goal and peace structures that go beyond defining peace as simply the absence of violence. Search for a sustainable peace based on critically thinking and examining “what are the elements of just and sustainable peace?”.

As Syria has submitted a “full list” of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), we’ll wait and hope that people’s fatigue with violence will swell the tide of conflict transformation and peaceful actions.

Kirra Hughes holds a Masters Degree in Conflict Transformation from SIT Graduate Institute.  Kirra has a diverse experience in working with women’s movement in Nepal, peacebuilding in Southeast Asia, traditional medicine in Tibet and environmental education in the US. She can be reached at KirraLHughes@gmail.com.

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

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



15 Responses

  1. Hem lal Pun

    Dictatorship always leads to violent conflict ( Civil war). Assad’s Photograph in Damascus can be seen around 360 degree .

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