The recent move by the Syrian regime to hold elections and be reconfirmed as a legitimate authority was highly successful, alongside the Ukrainian crisis, the recent Israeli-Palestinian war, and the uprising of “Islamic State” in Iraq, in distracting any remaining attention from the ongoing civil war in Syria. The very high and mounting number of refugees and ongoing atrocities have now become accepted as an exceptional new state of war reality. And the international community seems to be preparing to reconcile itself to Bashar al-Assad’s de facto power, due to the threat posed by “Islamic State”.
In these times where hope for peace in Syria is an idea for utopians at best, I would like to tell you about the initiative, Peace in Syria, founded in 2012 by a Vienna-based group around the famous Austrian civil society icon, Leo Gabriel. Being well connected due to his important role within the World Social Forum, Gabriel’s initiative gained traction with the help of former Syrian opposition politician and intellectual Michel Kilo. And in 2013, a delegation was invited to see Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in person.
Assad found the idea interesting and promised to support it by sending some government representatives. In addition to that, he agreed not to hinder Syrian-based opposition groups from leaving Syria. In fact, the presence of opposition representatives was a precondition for the regime’s participation. The conference aimed at bringing together all conflict parties which were ready to talk: the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish Worker party and many more opposition representatives based in Syria and elsewhere.
However, the date approached, the talks about the Geneva peace negotiations went into top gear. At that moment, the initiative Peace in Syria was plunged into difficulty over diplomatic boundaries as it was two things at once: it was a forum for civil society put together by inviting critical Syrian intellectuals or humanitarian aid workers on the one hand, and on the other, it was a peace conference comprised of official representatives from all the crucial conflict parties.
In the end, the initiative had to be postponed in order not to interfere with the Geneva conference. Geneva II finally took place in February 2014 without any results or hopes for a continuation of the talks. The civil society peace initiative finally took place from March 8 to 10 at Schlaining Castle in Stadtschlaining, eastern Austria. However, the Syrian regime’s representatives and the Syrian-based conflict-parties were absent. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood nominated two Vienna-based members as participants.
Talking politics used to be severely constrained by the regime – the regime’s eyes and ears were everywhere. There was no Syrian civil society. And there is no civil society in Syria today. The people who finally came to the conference were Syrian intellectuals and humanitarian workers who fled the country in 2011, people such as for example Aref Dalila, the former dean of the Faculty of Economics of Damascus University and a prominent opposition figure who was imprisoned from 2002 to 2008. Nevertheless, two participants came from Syria: a young film maker and Ayman Kahef, the editor-in-chief of a regime-friendly online newspaper.
Thanks to this conference, all those participants representing different religious, ethnic and political affiliations had the opportunity for the first time to share their divergent opinions towards the regime, the national army, the war, the opposition groups and sectarianism.
One participant told the story of a woman friend who had two sons: one had fought for the national army, one on the other side for the Free Syrian Army. Both died. The cleavage in Syrian society even divides families. A young filmmaker put it this way: “Some parties blame others about committing violence. But everyone is to blame. And those who suffer are the people. Stop blaming sectarianism and admit that we too are responsible!” In very loud and intense discussion, most participants agreed that every one of them shares a bit of the responsibility for the current state of war: either by having taken action or by not having taken action.
However, the conference was not immune to mutual suspicion among its members: suspicions about the Kurdish role in a future Syria given their ambitions for autonomy, and above all suspicions against the Muslim Brotherhood. What happened towards the end of conference was a Syrian version of the failed Egyptian revolution in fast forward: the Brotherhood’s representatives demanded a political role in a future Syria and other participants argued that this role was too influential. As a consequence, the Brotherhood was denounced as “worse than Assad” and the current regime was preferred to the Brotherhood in any future Syrian polity.
Still, by the end the mood was positive, as all the participants agreed not to agree. Nowadays, in an era when there is no indication of détente or any peace initiative at all, the outcome of this conference in March 2014 is considerable in two ways:
1. The consensus on the dissent between the regime and the opposition parties still offers a sort of national consensus which could serve as the basis for a future reconciliation process. Not only the regime, but also the opposition has to learn that. But this has to be done in a better way than in Egypt and has to overcome the secular and religious cleavages.
2. Bashar was ready to allow an explicit civil-society Initiative. Mixing up representatives of war parties and quasi-civil society representatives may have confused the regime. But still, if an Austria-based initiative can achieve that much, another one can go further. There are also other civil society initiatives for peace in Syria like the UK-based Maidan.
Thus, if high-level diplomacy is in a state of impasse, there still remain opportunities for civil society – even in the protracted Syrian war. Many months later in late October 2014, another meeting comprising many of the same participants of that March conference was held in Vienna. At a time when the international community sees the solution of the Syrian crises almost solely as a means to put an end to ISIS, those Syrian activists and politicians targeted the actual cause of the conflict: Bashar al-Assad’s Baath regime. The October meeting paved the way for the creation of a Syrian national assembly.