Recognising the potential of a bottom-up Syrian peace process

Recognising the potential of a bottom-up Syrian peace process
6 min read
31 May, 2016
Comment: Grassroots movements help reduce violence, prevent the frustration that facilitates recruitment to extremist groups and build resilience. Their work is crucial for reaching sustainable peace, writes Sophia Akram.
Local ceasefires and peace agreements should be part of international efforts in Syria [Getty]

Three flailing Geneva peace conventions down the line, the possibility of peace in Syria is a weary and distant dream. The lack of political will from the various axes and their proxies sees ceasefire agreements regularly violated in order for the regime to continue a war of attrition.

These top-level highlights do not provide much hope for the political observer but local actors, civil society organisations and non-violent civilians have not stopped in their attempts at reducing violence, brokering access to humanitarian aid and looking ahead to lasting peace in Syria.

This grassroots movement can help reduce violence and prevent the frustration that may lead current non-combatants to join violent extremist groups such as IS or al-Nusra. It is this type of bottom up approach that is needed - along with high level negotiations - in order for the conflict to come to a permanent end.

Civilian protection

The five year war in Syria has had some profound effects on civilians, which have been noted and condemned repeatedly by human rights observers. The use of wide area impact weapons in sieges and on densely populated areas aimed to starve the rebels of resources, but actually affected those who have not taken up arms.

The greater the impact, the greater the pressure civilians place on opposition fighters or committees to negotiate an end to the fighting or access to humanitarian aid.

Several examples illustrate the effectiveness of local negotiations, which in some cases - where the conditions have been right - have been successful as highlighted by an LSE study.

the local approach can have a significant impact on the humanitarian conditions of an area

This is particularly true in an area where there is a high ratio of civilians to fighters and the presence of civic structures such as a Local Administrative Council (LAC) or civil society actors and leaders. Civilians can exercise pressure through these mechanisms, especially if there is a medical and humanitarian aid committee as part of the LAC.

Those representing these committees know the local challenges and the council can then pressure armed on groups to engage in talks. The cessation in fighting would then enable the delivery of humanitarian aid or medical evacuation at the least.

Balance of power

Barzeh is one such success story. A previous hotbed of tensions where adjacent Alawaite and Sunni neighbourhoods were caught in military deadlock, a ceasefire was negotiated by the Barzeh Local Coordination Committee on 5 January 2014.

It included the cessation of hostilities, the end of the siege, the release of detainees, the permission for FSA fighters to maintain positions and the return of civilians, infrastructure and services among other terms.

The negotiating committee was made up of the opposition, the government and locally respected figures, but the balance of power is probably what distinguishes this from other ceasefire attempts. There was no 'winner' and more than one party to the conflict ultimately became responsible for security in the area.

Local agreements will not stand up when the terms clearly work in favour of the regime and are swayed by regional influences. This was the case of al-Waar and Homs where Iran became a mediator and the Alawaite popular committees - shown to have had a negative role in such negotiations - touted terms that were tipped heavily in favour of the regime.

Research conducted by International Alert (IA), for example uncovered a lack of economic opportunity as the primary vulnerability factor that drives local recruitment to IS

Many other obstacles often disrupt negotiations even if they do make promising starts, however, where good will, trust, a balanced negotiation and humanitarian intentions can convene, the local approach can have a significant impact on the humanitarian conditions of an area.

Lessons from Iraq

Local level negotiation was something that contributed significantly to a reduction in violence in Iraq in 2007. Emerging from Anbar, the Americans managed to issue 200 contracts to what were known as Concerned Local Citizen Councils (CLCs).

These contracts ensured local fighters that they would not be turned on by the Americans and that they could keep their arms if they were to join and fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Combining forces, they used their efforts against AQI instead of against each other. This greatly reduced violence around that time.

Building resilience

It is fair to say that there were always questions over the long-term implications of the mostly Sunni CLCs that remained armed. Some feared they may form their own militias unless integrated into local Iraqi police. While that lies a little beyond the scope of this article, long-term considerations are also key to ensuring that peace endures.

IS, a major player in the Syrian conflict does not just benefit from foreign fighters but also increased local recruitment. The drivers for this are completely different and centre around social and economic conditions that make young Syrians feel that fighting for IS is their only viable option.

Research conducted by International Alert (IA), for example uncovered a lack of economic opportunity as the primary vulnerability factor that drives local recruitment to IS. Other vulnerability factors were also found to be present such as lack of education, personal loss (and the desire for revenge) and stable social structures.

Interventions to mitigate these drivers therefore, must focus on enhancing resilience to these vulnerabilities. Such interventions then, work to change the mindset of young people who would otherwise join IS, and provide them with the skills and livelihoods that will take away those vulnerabilities once peace finally arrives in Syria.

...they found that it positively built the capacity of children to make sense of the conflict, manage powerful emotions and adapt

IA's peace education programme is one example of such an intervention. Peace education aims to integrate peace-building approaches and skills into education curricula stimulating students' desires for peace while understanding the consequences of violence.

Having integrated it into 15 schools in Aleppo and Idlib, they found that it positively built the capacity of children to make sense of the conflict, manage powerful emotions and adapt. The development of critical thinking and self-reflection also seemed to enhance relationships and reconciliation between themselves and other students.

Various civil society groups such as Syria Relief, work on the ground in a similar way. They recognise the risk to children who lose the education structure as a support mechanism, as well as the need for alternative livelihoods for those whose daily bread and butter vanished with the war.

Agricultural skills programmes therefore, work to pre-empt challenges that may be encountered in the future, thereby increasing resilience to economic vulnerability that can lead people to seek retribution for their suffering.

A combined model

In addition to the examples cited above, education and livelihood programmes as well as local peace deals, are being brokered on a regular basis. These may be the best hope for providing safe havens and alleviating the suffering of civilians.

Such initiatives may interact with top level action through support and observation, and as an all-inclusive solution, given that local actors are absolutely fundamental to lasting peace.

Education and livelihood programmes as well as local peace deals, are being brokered on a regular basis

That said, Syria will not see peace through local agreements alone, and these local contexts, which vary across the country, should therefore be considered within the regional and international landscape.

It is ultimately the wider context and external forces that make brokering peace so hard. The lack of political will and political economy of war (money that can be made through pursuing conflict) are the biggest obstacles. 

However, while these high level negotiations are taking place, progression on the ground at local level that enables civilians to pursue normal lives when their time out of the war zone finally comes, is a necessary component for sustainable peace.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.