Whatever the political outcome, transitioning from violence to peace is not just about the removal of violence. How can this future be achieved and who will do this work?
As the conflict in Syria enters its seventh year, there are two widespread assumptions about the future of the country. The first is that a peace deal will involve a transition of power from the government of President Bashar al-Assad to someone else. The second is that such a transition will lead to peace.
Indeed, the focus of the latest round of peace talks in Geneva has been on preparing the ground for an eventual transition of power from Assad’s government. This outcome may be desired by many parties, including the UK government, but it is not guaranteed. There is a chance the current regime will remain in power, if not indefinitely, then for some time to come.
Whilst many people will find this abhorrent, others will see it as the best option, or at least the ‘least bad’ one. Let’s remember that the Assad regime does have support, and not only from outsiders such as the governments of Russia and Iran, but from many Syrians, too - including the army. There are others who do not necessarily support the Assad regime, but are not actively opposed to it either. For them, it is a case of better the devil you know. They are fearful of the alternatives, fearful of other groups who may be just as violent or repressive coming into power.
If Assad – or a version of his regime – does stay in power, it will be highly unlikely that the root causes of the war and the conflicts that have been created by the war, such as those over resources, territory and identity, will be resolved. Whilst we may see an end to the current extreme levels of widespread violence, the underlying tensions will remain dormant and likely to reappear in the future. As research in other countries shows, many peace deals collapse within five years precisely for this reason.
Whatever the political outcome, transitioning from violence to peace is not just about the removal of violence
The second assumption that Assad’s removal will lead to peace is also tenuous. What will come next if Assad does go? Will a new authoritarian leadership rise-up on the backs of the old? How will a new leadership ensure sustainable peace in a country so deeply divided and wounded? What will all this mean for Syrian people who are still inside Syria, and those who have fled across borders and seas? There is so much uncertainty, but one thing is clear: even if the negotiating parties in Geneva can get to a deal that leads to a transition, this will not in itself lead to peaceful coexistence. There will be a very long road and a lot of challenging work ahead.
In either case - whether Assad stays or goes - there are likely to be millions of Syrians unable or unwilling to return home. This is a possibility that the states hosting Syrians need to prepare for in policy, practice and rhetoric. Whether or not you believe in the concepts of a common humanity, global citizenship, or moral duty towards strangers in need, the reality is that there are millions of Syrians who are unlikely to be able to go home. There are more than 4 million Syrian children out of school, and millions of people in need of healthcare, psychological support, and jobs. Of course, there are many constraints on the governments now hosting refugees, but political rhetoric and action now needs to reflect the likelihood that the refugee crisis is not a temporary issue.
Whatever the political outcome, transitioning from violence to peace is not just about the removal of violence, but also about improving relationships and building structures and institutions that enable equality, justice, and opportunity. In a country torn apart by war, how can this future be achieved and who will do this work?
Part of the answer lies with the many Syrians who are already working every day in the hope that the future of Syria will be built on firm, peaceful foundations.
If a better future is to be achieved, Assad or no Assad, it will be built by Syrian people
For all the violence, tragedy and bloodshed that the war has spawned, it has also given rise to and enabled a plethora of civil society organisations and community activists. It has also awakened many hundreds of people to the fact that they have a role in shaping Syria’s future.
Despite all the devastation, there is extraordinary, visionary and creative work going on in many communities inside Syria and in the surrounding countries – and in fact, in every place around the world where Syrians now reside.
Out of the view of the international media, there are initiatives underway to build the leadership and peace building potential of young people, to support them within their communities and in their networks around the world so that their voices are heard and their ideas for positive action can be made into reality.
There are dialogue processes going on between people from all sides of the conflict who are trying to open themselves up to hear other people’s experiences and ideas. There are people who have been directly involved in fighting and who are now working in communities to discourage others from joining in the violence as well as helping them to think of alternative ways to use their energy and their voices.
These people – be they teachers, artists, doctors or others - have their feet on the ground and their eyes on the future. They know that the task of building peace in Syria will be a herculean endeavour that will last for decades, but they believe in a better future for themselves and for the next generation.
If a better future is to be achieved, Assad or no Assad, it will be built by Syrian people; if they are enabled to continue their work in the long term, it will be they who will be rebuilding Syria and helping to heal the injuries caused by the war.