Peace in Syria: Why the Local Matters

Peaceful change in Syria is not possible without a genuine inclusion of local actors. However, in order for this to have positive effects, it should be based on needs and abilities of actors, rather than norms.

Speak to us please, don’t speak only about us”: these were the words of Dr. Rouba Mhaissen in her speech during the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference that took place in London in February 2016. Dr. Mhaissen criticized that Syrians were invited on an ad-hoc last minute basis and not as partners. The conference aimed at raising pledges for humanitarian aid, but also included discussions of long-term strategies of civilian protection and process support.

As the conflict continues, Syrians on the ground are the first to bear the humanitarian and political repercussions. And while most narratives refer to Syrians as the primary victims of the conflict, local actors continue to be side-lined as “agents of change” whether in humanitarian planning or peacebuilding processes. It would be delusional not to acknowledge the internationalized nature of this conflict, but it is also unrealistic to believe that change will happen without a genuine inclusion of Syrian local actors. However, in order for these actors to have a real effect, inclusion should be based on needs and abilities, not merely on normative standards or cosmetic approaches.

Findings from “Inside Syria: What Local Actors Are Doing For Peace”, a recent study conducted by swisspeace, FarikBeirut.net, Conflict Dynamics International, and commissioned by Finn Church Aid, show that a number of local actors are still engaged in significant peacebuilding activities despite the persistence of high levels of violence. This includes community leaders, women’s initiatives, youth groups, non-governmental and community-based organizations (NGOs and CBOs), local councils, and reconciliation committees. These actors are involved in various activities including negotiations for the release and exchange of detained and abducted individuals, conflict resolution and mediation, the promotion of peaceful values and countering sectarian rhetoric, relief work and development, as well as human rights activism. Stemming from these activities, local Syrian actors are indispensable for any process because of their networks and influence, their legitimacy on the ground, and their monitoring abilities.

First, all local actors in the research have important networks that could be drawn from for any process. For example, community leaders identified have a major influence in conflict resolution, negotiations, and mediation at a local level; with varying influence from one area to the other. In Sweida, they played a significant role in calming a situation with a neighboring town that could have escalated into an armed standoff. Therefore, if a cessation of hostilities would take place as was discussed in the recent security conference in Munich, community leaders could be a vital asset due to their strong network and influence on the ground, both with civilians and armed groups. They are considered one of the influencing pillars either due to traditional position, resources, or access to particular groups. Nevertheless, as with all actors, at other instances community leaders are referred to as having a negative or conflict-inciting role. Therefore it is important to carefully analyze each case rather than to assume a collective savior or culprit role.

Second, in a time where locals are getting more cynical and untrusting of international and national actors, there are those on the ground who are providing services granting them trust and legitimacy within their communities. This is especially the case for actors involved in relief and development work, whether they are youth groups, women’s initiatives, or organizations. These groups have an intimate understanding of the needs and priorities on the ground, which is important for designing any international programs. By securing basic needs, they are also engaging in peacebuilding, as one actor in Rif Damascus explained how some people “are carrying arms as a means to secure food for their children”. The same goes for those engaged in education as a method of protection against joining ISIS. Others use relief work as an entry point after which they work on other peacebuilding activities such as mediation. The intertwining of humanitarian and peacebuilding work must be taken into account, especially given the fluidity of the context. However, it should be approached in a conflict sensitive manner as to not hamper the work of local actors.

Finally, local actors remain involved in human rights monitoring and documentation despite the overarching security threats that they face. These organizations and individuals are essential for providing accounts of what is going on the ground and whether it mirrors stated agreements. In the case of cessation of hostilities or humanitarian agreements, their work as monitoring organizations and documenters is vital.

As recently declared by the Office of the Special Envoy to Syria during the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, the general approach is moving more towards the inclusion of a broad range of members from Syrian society in processes. However, several points need to be taken into account in regards to any engagement. First is to allow for local actors to have room to produce their own definitions and narratives of what peacebuilding means for different Syrians rather than work with them using pre-defined concepts. Second, rather than normative approaches that are sometimes coupled with romanticizing, international actors should adopt a pragmatic approach in regards to the inclusion of different local actors. Third, the international community should not limit its civil society engagement in Syria with only established organizations but should expand to include informal actors such as community leaders or grassroots organizations. Finally, Syrian local actors should continue to enhance efforts of collaborating and building networks with one another to facilitate partnerships and visibility.

swisspeace, Yosra Nagui
About the author: Yosra Nagui is Program Officer at the Mediation Program at swisspeace.

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