Syria’s war is not only a humanitarian catastrophe but a threat to stability in countries as distant as Europe. The warfare has killed perhaps 400,000 people, according to U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, and uprooted as many as 12 million, half of the population. It is the main cause of the massive refugee flight to Europe. Critical roots of this violence, often overlooked in public discussion of the war, lie in a complex knot of local and sectarian conflicts that remained unresolved beneath Syria’s decades of authoritarian rule. In recent years, the violence has been amplified by the brutality of ISIS and other extremist groups, and by the military intervention of foreign forces.
Whatever the military outcome of the war or Syria’s future governance, achieving a peaceful Syria will require reconciliation among the communal groups that are fighting the country’s underlying, often local, conflicts. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) works in Syria, and in neighboring countries where Syrians have taken refuge, to strengthen Syrians’ efforts to overcome these communal conflicts. It has piloted dialogues among opposed tribal or sectarian groups. USIP works with Syrian civil society organizations to strengthen them for long-term efforts to resolve conflicts and advocate for better governance in their country following generations of authoritarian rule. USIP’s work on Syria includes:
Engaging Community Leaders to Promote Social Cohesion. USIP gathers religious, tribal and civic leaders to solve problems facing their communities—an effort that reduces tensions that could lead to violence. In 2015, USIP organized such a project in al-Qahtaniyah, a locality of northeast Syria divided among ethnic Kurds and Arabs, plus Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and other groups. USIP gathered local leaders from these groups at Erbil in neighboring Iraq, where they agreed to cooperate in opening a vital local road and in returning displaced families to their homes. Through this dialogue and workshop, the leaders built skills in conflict prevention and managing relationships. The al-Qahtaniyah process offers a model that can be scaled up nationwide to lay foundations for a more peaceful Syria. USIP also provides training and mentoring for two communities (in areas beyond government control) to help local councils, civil society organizations and activist networks resolve and manage community conflicts and improve governance.
Building Relations Among Religious Leaders. Throughout the Syrian civil war, USIP has supported initiatives for dialogue across sectarian divides, understanding that religious leaders help shape their constituencies’ lasting narratives of the multi-faceted conflict. They can help build peace—or spur conflict. And faith leaders have the credibility to counter extremist interpretations of religion. USIP convened conferences of Syrian faith leaders in 2014 and 2015 to explore ways that they can promote a peaceful future for Syria, and to prepare their next steps for doing so.
Reducing Tensions Between Refugees and Host Communities. In countries neighboring Syria, USIP works to reduce rising frictions between refugee populations and their host communities. This effort will counter extremists’ efforts to radicalize Syrian refugee children and youth—a risk that is a concern of the host countries. USIP’s work also will encourage the building of positive relationships between refugee and host communities.
Dialogue for a Future Democratic Transition. In 2012, USIP helped convene dozens of Syrian political and local community activists, in a project called The Day After, to develop a shared vision for a democratic future for Syria. The dialogue included guidance from international experts on economic and social reforms, strengthening the rule of law, constitution-making, and other elements of political transitions. USIP encourages the continuation and broadening of such dialogues, which can build a basis for a more peaceful, democratic future.
Institute staff and experts publish in-depth PeaceWorks reports, timely Policy Briefs and other articles that distill expert research, lessons learned and problem-solving solutions to advance peacebuilding. Recent publications on Syria include:
- USIP Website: ISIS Makes Sex Slavery a Key Tactic of Terrorism (October 2016)
- Peace Channel: Beating the Islamic State Won’t Fix Iraq (July 2015)
- USIP Website: Women and Violent Extremism: A Growing Threat Demands Concerted Action (August 2015)
- Congressional Testimony: Next Steps for U.S. Foreign Policy on Syria and Iraq (November 2014)
- PeaceWorks: Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War (January 2014)
USIP hosts conferences, panel discussions, off-record roundtables and other events that gather policymakers, elected officials, scholars and others to discuss peacebuilding and analyze its challenges. Events on Syria include those below.
ISIS and Sex Slavery: How to Move From Condemnation to Action. The world has condemned ISIS’ brutality against women, but has done little to act against it. USIP hosted experts, including Zainab Bangura, the United Nations’ chief campaigner against sexual violence, to frame a strategy for action.
Middle East Strategy Task Force: Beyond Refugees. The 12 million-plus Syrians uprooted from their homes are driving the flood of refugees into Europe. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley led a discussion in September 2015 of how the United States and its partners should respond to the greatest displacement of people since World War II. They were joined by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, USIP President Nancy Lindborg and others.
Film Screening: Syria’s “Red Lines”. USIP hosted a screening of “Red Lines,” the story of two young, unlikely Syrian activists who, after the Arab Spring revolts, launched a radical plan to bring democracy to their country. The film is a searing exposé of Syria’s war, and the tactical starvation, barrel bombs and other assaults on civilians by the regime.
Meet Syria’s Rescue Workers: Saving Lives, Building Peace. Amid the bombing and shelling of Syria’s war, hundreds of volunteers formed rescue squads on the principles of the Geneva Convention. These “White Helmets” pull their compatriots from rubble and danger without regard for sect or creed. USIP hosted two leaders of this movement to discuss ways to build peace in Syria. One of them, Khalid Harah, was tragically killed while conducting rescue work in 2016.