Co-authored by Brian Dooley & Dareen Khalifa
Everyone seems to think they know what’s best for Syria. The major powers invest months in senior negotiations over ceasefires and international agreements, but experience shows that solutions imposed from the outside without meaningful involvement from Syria’s civil society are unlikely to work.
Even President Obama conceded in his September 20 2016 speech to UNGA – as another internationally-brokered agreement fell apart – that “Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully”. But Syrians in Syria are rarely part of the conversation about ceasefires and political negotiations, and what they think of these international agreements is mostly unaccounted for.
So the Syrian NGO The Day After asked them.
During March and April, in more than 3,000 face to face interviews with 2113 men and 1070 women across Syria in regime and opposition-controlled areas, the organisation canvassed their views on the short-lived ceasefire that began at the end of February 2016, on the Geneva talks generally and a range of other issues.
The Day After researchers asked people if they thought the achievement of peace in Syria was possible by means of the cessation of hostilities announced on February 26. About half (47 per cent) said that it was impossible and 37 per cent said possible. Hopes for a successful ceasefire being the beginning of the end of the war was higher in areas under regime control, possibly because their experiences of the ceasefire were significantly better than those living in opposition areas who were still being attacked despite the ceasefire. Around 39 per cent of people in regime areas expressed a pessimistic view to the ceasefire compared to 47 per cent of those in opposition-controlled territory and 51 per cent of those in besieged areas.
Opinion was split on who would most likely benefit from the ceasefire, although the largest percentage (41 per cent) said it would be to the regime’s advantage, enabling a shift of power in favour of President Assad’s government
The researchers also asked people about their views on the chances of success of the Geneva III negotiations. Less than a third of the respondents had much hope for the success of the talks. Only 8.5 per cent of them are convinced that the talks will lead to a democratic transition, and the greatest percentage of them (around half) see that things would either remain the same, become worse, or lead to partition.
Whether in regime or opposition-controlled areas or those under siege, around two-thirds said they were not optimistic or not optimistic at all, although women were generally a bit more hopeful about the chances of success (38 per cent compared to 29 per cent of men).
When people were asked who was responsible for such a bleak future, the regime was blamed by 69 per cent of respondents, Russia by 49 per cent and the US by 38 per cent.
A large percentage of Alawites – traditionally supportive of Assad – assign partial responsibility to the regime, whereas 45.7 per cent said that all are responsible. 3 per cent directly blamed the regime, and 45.7 per cent blamed the regime among others.
Reaction to the plan backed by the UN and the major international powers that Syria will see a “democratic presidential election” 18 months after the talks was also underwhelming. When people were asked if they intended to participate in such elections, 48 per cent of said that they would, and more than a third say they would not, with marked differences in responses between sects – 71 per cent of Alawites said they would participate compared to only 46 per cent of Sunnis. There was a marked generational difference too, where 41 per cent of under 25s rejected participation, compared to 10 per cent of those aged over 56.
(For comparison, Obama was elected in the last US presidential election on a turnout of around 57 per cent; in last year’s UK’s general election the turnout was 66 per cent, and the German federal elections of 2013 had 62 per cent.)
When we asked those who said they intended not to participate why, the most popular answer (44 per cent) was that the elections would be aimed at “maintaining the current regime and quelling the revolution,” while 33 per cent cited the lack of any political force representing them. This crisis of political representation was particularly acute among women respondents, 46 per cent of whom said they had no-one to represent their views.
Overall the survey suggests a massive loss of confidence in the international community’s efforts at ending the conflict. Many see proposed elections as a UN tool to preserve the regime and smother the revolution, and don’t see any candidates likely to represent their views.
Syria’s political opposition should be worried about the alienation of women from the political process and meaningfully involve women’s representatives in the negotiation process.
A similarly large, locally-based survey produced by The Day After researchers earlier this year on views towards sectarianism offered a similar mix of optimism and pessimism about the prospects for a new politics in Syria.
The views of in-country Syrians living through the war are rarely considered or even heard in the rarified world of major power diplomacy. But unless local concerns are addressed in international negotiations any future deals look certain to fail.
Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First, based in Washington, DC. Dareen Khalifa is Interim Director of The Day After, a Syrian organisation working to support democratic transition in Syria.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.