Politics of Poverty

The Syrian stories rarely told: Local leaders and peace processes on the ground

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(L to R) Dr. Rim Turkmani, president and founder of Madani, Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, and Rajaa Altalli, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria at the US Institute of Peace on March 12th, 2014.

Syrian women visit Washington DC to highlight Syria’s emerging civil society.

Syrian women visit Washington DC to highlight Syria’s emerging civil society.

I was proud to represent Oxfam at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where we co-hosted the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Gutierrez and two prominent Syrian civil society activists to discuss, “Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis and the International Response” in Washington DC last week.

At the event, I sat down with Rajaa Altalli, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, and Dr. Rim Turkmani, president and founder of Madani, to discuss the role of Syrian civil society in peacebuilding. Below are excerpts from our discussion:

Ray Offenheiser: Take us inside Syria from your vantage point. Help those of us engaging from afar what Syrians are doing to try to bring about peace.

Rim Turkmani: It’s difficult to take you inside Syria. How people are surviving, the dynamics of the violence, the incentive for peace in every area can really vary dramatically.

However, one of the patterns we observed is that there is always a desire for peace coming from the civilians, translating into pressure on the warring parties to achieve peace. We did research on the home-grown peace initiatives inside Syria and we realized there is a [great] number of locally-brokered ceasefire deals and truces, much more than people think.

Rajaa Altalli: Localization is very important when you are going to analyze what’s happening in Syria. We cannot really find solutions for the whole country if we are not looking more locally.

There shouldn’t be a 4th anniversary of the Syrian crisis. It needs “thinking out of the box” to find a political solution for Syria.

RO: What will enable local civil society peace initiatives to succeed? What will allow them to build that foundation for peace?

RT: There has to be integrated model, where even the top level negotiations are guided by what’s happening on the ground.

When we looked at the local cases, when people themselves are taking the initiative to build peace, we found [one of] the biggest spoilers (besides the lack of political will of the [government]) was the regional and international interference. This is not just a civil war. This is a complex war where we have internal conflict, but we have regional and international conflict mapped over it.

The second spoiler was the war economy. The separate parties benefit from the continuation of the conflict, not from the end of the conflict. They’re making money out of it in all kinds of ways – selling arms, delivering goods.

The third important spoiler is the lack of any independent media or monitoring or peacekeeping forces in some areas, so often those local peace deals will be mediated by local people without any assistance at all [and deals] fall apart because there is nobody there to tell us who actually violated it and why, so just the fight carries on. But in many areas, you can achieve and maintain peace only by the help of mediators and monitors.

RO: What is it that the international community can do to support local and civil society initiatives and encourage a more granular view of the peacemaking process?

RA: What is the international community doing? Simplifying the situation in Syria, which will lead to simple solutions, which I think is a problem because most of the approach is coming from up-down. I think we need to distinguish between three layers – local, unofficial and the official peace agreements.

In my opinion, the best solution is to search for the organic growth and [peace] initiatives on the ground and to try to support it. I am not saying they are going to give the solution for the whole country, but…they will come together to have some pressure.

We work on identifying peace resources in Syria, and we mean three things: (1) individuals or groups who are trying to establish peace in their community or at the national level, or (2) different mechanisms that are created in order to develop peace in their community, or (3) feedback loops between different actors or initiatives.

When we did our research [a survey of Syrian women’s perspectives on the peace process], this was in December, the main absence was the feedback loops. Maybe many Syrians here would agree with me…we cannot really talk about deep peace, like lasting peace, if we’re not talking about [an] inclusive and consultative peace process.

RO: While it may seem premature, what are the discussions in the communities in which you work about what a transition process might look like? What kind of dialogue and architecture needs to be in place to enable that transition period to be successful?

RT: This started initially as a movement for rights and freedom. To translate these demands to reality, you need political parties, you need the civil society organizations. You don’t have these in Syria right now on the scale required for a stable transition, mainly because of the violence. So we really need to act very quickly on ending the violence to enable the growth of the civil society initiative, of the political groups to take things forward.

But talking to many Syrians, there is a clear headline that people want democracy, despite everything you hear what is coming from the fighting groups. A first step to enable the transition is the people and the institutions.

RA: When we are talking about mutual acceptance on both sides, we need to have creative solutions on who are the people who will be in the transitional government body. It’s very important that after three years of conflict, we need people who are committed to an approach that is based on human rights, democracy, [and] a secular state that respects all the different opinion and the diversity in Syria, which, if we take into consideration, will be enriching for the country in the future.

RO:  What, as you look forward, is giving you hope?

RT: What gives me hope is the emerging civil society. It’s simply not the usual kind of typical, internationally-recognized civil society, because it’s working in very difficult circumstances. But it’s those people who are interested in solving the problems around them in their community. They’re taking the initiatives. They’re mobilizing their community. They’re trying everything they can to bring peace and stability back to their areas, to provide services. I think they are the beacons of hope. We have to support them.

RA: So if I say I have hope every day, I would be lying. [Sometimes] I think what gives [our team] hope is sticking together and working together and trying to help each other, basically.

But it is never a waste of resources to invest locally.

RT: Every progress, every real progress I’ve seen in the Syria peace process was made by those [community leaders]. They are Syrians who are driven by the desire of bringing the best to their country.

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You can also watch the video of our entire event with USIP embedded below, as well as read another interview with Rajaa Altalli, Rim Turkmani, and Zeenat Rahman, Secretary Kerry’s Special Adviser on Global Youth Issues, here.

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