Syria, Lebanon, and the Middle East: Enabling a War-to-Peace Transition
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Mar 2015
Since its outbreak in 2011, the war in Syria has claimed over 190,000 lives (CNN, August 22, 2014). By January 2015, 10 million Syrians, or 56 percent of the total population of 18 million, have been displaced. (These and the other figures that follow are based on BBC, January 5, 2015.) While two thirds of these 10 million Syrians are internally displaced, the remaining one third has crossed the borders to become refugees. Of the 3.2 million Syrian refugees, 1.2 million are currently in Lebanon, 1.1 million in Turkey, 0.6 million in Jordan, and the remaining 0.4 million divided between Iraq and Egypt. Eleven million Syrians, or 61 percent of the country’s total population, are in need of humanitarian assistance.
This author’s focus-group meetings with Syrian refugees of diverse regional, age, and gender backgrounds in northern and southern Lebanon suggest the growing and widespread practices of domestic abuse, gender-based violence, unwanted pregnancies, unprocessed traumas, hopelessness among youths and children unable to continue their education, the loss of self-esteem on the part of adults who remain unemployed or underemployed, and deepening distrust in their host communities.
The existing conflicts in Syria and its broader regional context can escalate further if their root causes remain untouched. Discussions with informed local stakeholders suggest that the following worst-case scenarios cannot be ruled out from their future prospects:
- A further expansion of violent clashes in Syria between the Islamic State, the al-Nusra front, and other armed resistance movements, on the one hand, and the Syrian government forces and diverse local militias, on the other. Given the inability of the United States and its regional allies to sustain their commitment to military offensives indefinitely, as well as the steady flow of religiously motivated foreign fighters, the balance may eventually tilt more conspicuously in favor of these armed resistance groups.
- An outbreak of large-scale violence in Lebanon, most probably between Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, on the one hand, and the existing members and future recruits of the Islamic State and other armed groups, which are mostly funded by sympathizers in the Gulf nations, on the other. If such large-scale violence triggers or coincides with Israel’s military intervention in Lebanon, the Syrian government, which is currently preoccupied with its own internal war, may not be able to support Hezbollah effectively.
- A war over the Golan Heights between US-backed Israel, on the one hand, and the Syrian government forces, on the other hand, as a possible precursor to a much larger multi-national conflict.
In the face of these and other possible threats, all the conflict parties and stakeholders involved in the Syrian-Lebanese context must ask: What would happen to their future generations if they let the ever-growing cycle of violence and counter-violence escalate further? While reversing the destructive cycle of conflict is difficult, it must also be kept in mind that the costs of conflict escalation would far exceed political risks involved in the prevention of widespread violence.
Cumulative dialogues with Syrian, Lebanese, and other regional stakeholders with intimate knowledge of the realities on the ground suggest that there are still ways in which their societies can reverse the tides of violence. What follows is one way of synthesizing their views. These views are presented under three headings – global and regional contexts, Syria, and Lebanon – with significant overlaps in content. Each of the suggested visions is presented in the spirit of open-ended inquiry and invitation to dialogue, not as a definitive prescription.
Global and Regional Contexts
A sustained mechanism of consultation must be established between Russia, China, Iran, and other concerned members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), on the one hand, and the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, on the other. Its aim is to develop a mutually acceptable system of non-interference, energy security, and cultural respect. One way of realizing this vision is to start with negative assurances, which refrain from existing mutually destructive behavior, and then gradually move toward adopting more positive assurances, which proactively carry out joint projects. A Geneva III conference, if realized, should focus more on confidence-building between individual member states of NATO and SCO, respectively, than on intervening in the localized Syrian theater of their globalized conflicts.
With respect to the regional conflict parties and stakeholders, namely, the governments and influential sub-national groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Palestine, an important step that must be taken is a coordinated disengagement from their direct or indirect interventions in Syria. The United Nations special envoy and/or other mutually acceptable intermediaries can play an essential role in continuously meeting these parties one by one, weaving together their individual concerns and needs to arrive at an integrated whole, and keeping each party informed of the others’ intentions in order to reduce distrust and tension. The intermediaries must also keep Israel informed of this regional process and convey Israel’s concerns and needs to the other regional stakeholders.
When conditions are ripe for direct dialogue, senior representatives of these regional stakeholder nations, with observer status given to selected non-state groups, can initiate a UN-supported Middle East Conference for Peace and Security, which consists of multiple rounds of continuous negotiation. The proposed conference can model after the Helsinki Process of 1972-75, which brought together 35 countries from the polarized Europe and North America during the Cold War for confidence building. The main goal of the proposed Middle East conference is to develop a regional mechanism of mutual non-intervention, well-incentivized arms control, local and regional peace-keeping, humanitarian relief, livelihood development, refugee repatriation, and other subjects of mutual interest.
With respect to the conflicts inside Syria, concerted efforts must be made to organize as many safe and mutually acceptable spaces as possible for inclusive dialogues inside and outside Syria. The more low-key these dialogues are, the better for the time being. Local and national dialogues of this nature can identify the basic human needs of the advocates of the government, the opposition, and various other groups whose voices have been marginalized by the war. The deep-seated fear and hopelessness associated with an attempt to initiate such an apparently difficult process, yet again, must be overcome by reaffirming that in the end, there is no alternative to dialogue. Insights from these consultations can help shape concrete visions of local and national governance, peace-keeping, humanitarian relief, participatory development, human rights monitoring, psychosocial support, and possible reconciliation initiatives. At this highly advanced stage of the conflict, many small incremental steps, instead of a few drastic changes, can help.
One of the most fundamental challenges in today’s Syrian society is the ever-deepening polarization between Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, and other communities. While creating safe, mutually acceptable spaces for intercommunal dialogues among them is important, equally important are systematic intra-communal dialogues between increasingly frustrated, unemployed, and militarized youths, on the one hand, and their fellow community members who can help these youths overcome their grievances, on the other. In the long run, such intra-communal support networks can play an essential role in reaching out to the present and future militia members within each community, as well as in facilitating or co-facilitating inter-communal relationship-building. Preparation must start in earnest to seize such opportunities when they arise.
With respect to the Islamic State’s growing influence, the US-led war on terror must give way to sustained support for Iraqi and Syrian-led initiatives aimed at strengthening local governance in their respective governorates, towns, and villages. Such a major shift in the focus of intervention is supported by local stakeholders’ observation that local leaders’ acceptance, either willing or unwilling, of Islamic State fighters facilitates the latters’ entry, continuous presence, and expansion. Capacity-building of traditional and religious leaders inside and outside the Islamic State-controlled territories is urgently needed to support their local governance, strategic nonviolence, and community-based mediation and peace-keeping. Discreet, well-facilitated dialogues between prominent Iraqi and Syrian tribal and religious leaders, on the one hand, and willing local members and supporters of Islamic State and other armed resistance movements, on the other, are urgently needed. These dialogues should focus on sharing cumulative historical grievances that justify a cycle of revenge and explore mutually acceptable nonviolent ways of meeting the basic human needs of all sides. Moreover, increased local capacities must be mobilized to reach out to unemployed, frustrated, and radicalized youths who are sympathetic to the Islamic State’s cause so that they can enable these youths to find alternative means of livelihood development and self-actualization.
To support these locally led movements, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries must discontinue their airstrikes, which will undoubtedly multiply future generations of vengeful suicide bombers. They must also refrain from sending ground troops and military advisers, including cyber warfare experts. Their long-term national interests will be better served by reallocating part of their defense budgets to create politically impartial pools of resources under the United Nations, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and/or other mutually acceptable frameworks in support of the above-mentioned local governance initiatives. Taking such a seemingly “hands-off approach” to the Islamic State is entirely consistent with these countries’ continuous efforts to build defensive capabilities to protect their homelands.
Finally, with respect to the status of the Kurdish communities, the expansion of the Islamic State’s sphere of influence and the corresponding decline in the Syrian government’s control over Kurdish-populated northwestern regions have enabled Syrian Kurds to gain greater negotiating power over Damascus. Greater autonomy and cohesion among Kurds across Syria’s state boundaries also reflect Iraqi Kurds’ expanding negotiating power in the unstable Iraqi state, as well as the progress in the ongoing Turkish-Kurdish peace talks that have boosted Kurdish political legitimacy. These and other political dynamics surrounding the status of the Kurdish communities have made it possible for previously unthinkable approaches to their long-standing conflicts with Arabs and other stakeholder communities to become more feasible. Such approaches include a trans-national Kurdish confederation comprised of autonomous Kurdish regions across the existing state boundaries, with freedom of movement, the use of the Kurdish language at school, and a guaranteed equitable share of natural resources.
The first two general approaches to the conflict in Syria – namely, creating safe spaces for inter-communal exchange and initiating intra-communal dialogues – are relevant to the deeply polarized Lebanese society as well. In Lebanon, as in Syria, building and expanding networks of well-trained, well-experienced leaders, both formal and informal, who can skillfully hold and facilitate humanizing spaces for intra-communal and inter-communal dialogues is useful. In the long run, building on these and other cumulative steps, Lebanese society will need to develop sufficient capacity and readiness to discuss the future status of its historical consociational (communally-based proportional representation) system, inter-communal reconciliation after the civil war, Lebanese-Syrian reconciliation, greater stability in Lebanese-Israeli relations, and other fundamental issues that will define Lebanon’s future.
With the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, one out of four people living in Lebanon is currently a Syrian refugee. This unprecedented humanitarian crisis is simultaneously a political, economic, and security crisis as Lebanon’s unemployment rate has doubled since 2011 and a third of its young workforce remains unemployed (The Government of Lebanon and the United Nations, 2014, p. 3). However, in the absence of a functional peace process that can bring these Syrian refugees home, Lebanese society will need to accommodate their presence for some time to come. It must also work to prevent the rising tension between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities from escalating into systematic violence. To these ends, the Lebanese government and civil society must work with international donors and humanitarian agencies to find effective ways in which Syrian refugees can meet their basic human needs and feel included in Lebanese society. A systematic expansion of well-facilitated guest-host community dialogues for confidence-building, Syrian refugees’ meaningful participation in the administration of humanitarian relief and aid-for-work programs, and self-organized Syrian schools for instruction in Arabic (instead of French and English, the languages used at Lebanese schools) can serve these purposes. International funding for humanitarian aid must be allocated for these activities.
A key to realizing these measures is a sustained, systematic effort to build public awareness and capacity in support of these measures. This author’s experience as a trainer in the region suggests that both Lebanese and Syrian societies share a deep, genuine interest in learning about how to build peace. Developing Arabic instruction materials on peace building and using them to train capable trainers who can effectively disseminate relevant skills and knowledge are two of the most urgent immediate tasks to enable the rest of the suggested measures to unfold.
BBC. January 5, 2015. Syria: Mapping the conflict. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22798391>.
CNN. August 22, 2014. With more than 191,000 dead in Syria, U.N. rights chief slams global ‘paralysis.’ <http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/22/world/meast/syria-conflict/index.html?hpt=imi_c2>.
The Government of Lebanon and the United Nations. 2014. Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2015-16. <https://docs.unocha.org/sites/dms/CAP/2015-2016_Lebanon_CRP_EN.pdf>.
Dr Tatsushi Arai is a Japanese citizen, an independent peace researcher, and a conflict resolution practitioner with extensive international experience. He currently is Associate Professor of Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute, Fellow of the Center for Peacemaking Practice at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. email: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Mar 2015.
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