Around 500,000 people have died during the Syrian war. Another 13 million have fled their homes, with nearly 6 million seeking refuge in other states in the Middle East and beyond. As the Syrian regime and opposition struggled for influence, the war evolved into a complex conflict. Factions and forces—including the Syrian regime and associated militias, rebel groups, ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and Hezbollah—have since competed to control terrain, institutions, resources, and indeed people. International support to these competing groups from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States has further complicated these dynamics. Syrians will struggle to live their lives in a radically reshaped country for generations to come.

USIP’s Work

The U.S. Institute of Peace works in Syria and neighboring countries to increase the knowledge and skills needed by civic, religious, and tribal leaders who are trying to resolve their own conflicts without violence. Through convening, training, and facilitating dialogues, USIP helps Syrians develop practical solutions to their underlying disputes and design a peaceful postwar future. USIP’s recent work includes:

Resolving Communal Conflicts. When ISIS captured the city of al-Qahtaniya in northeastern Syria, more than 100 families were forced to flee their homes. Military operations to combat ISIS prompted the closure of a road that connected Arab villages to a vital market. Without swift action, tensions between local authorities and communities cut off from key economic markets, namely Arab Sunni Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, threatened to deteriorate further, with the possibility of violence arising.

USIP took the initiative to ease tensions by bringing together 14 religious, tribal, and civic leaders in 2015 for unprecedented talks. After four months of discussions and negotiations, the diverse group of stakeholders eased the tensions. The result:

  • Ensured the return of the displaced families
  • Reopened a key market road, connecting surrounding communities to necessary goods
  • Increased local capacity for conflict mitigation
  • Encouraged sustained cooperation among local leaders

The next stage of the project aims to build on this impact in 2017, with additional conflict-mitigation training and dialogues in Northeast Syria, in the areas of Tal Hamees, Ras al-Ayn, and Tal Abyad.

map of al-Qahtaniya

Reducing Tensions Between Refugees and Hosts. When refugees flee for neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, the resulting strain on security forces, schools, and social services can threaten the stability and safety of host communities and vital U.S. allies. It also risks exposing refugees to additional violence.

In countries bordering Syria, USIP cultivates more cooperative relationships and reduces friction between refugee populations and their hosts. Through small grants, the Institute enables local and international organizations to:

  • Train and facilitate dialogues among young refugees and their host communities in Jordan and Lebanon—enhancing their abilities to resolve conflict peacefully, address community needs, and become local leaders
  • Educate journalists in Lebanon on avoiding charged language that risks exacerbating existing problems

Preparing for a Democratic Transition. USIP began work on Syria when the revolution started in 2011. In 2012, USIP helped convene dozens of peacebuilding experts and community activists to develop a shared vision for a democratic future for Syria. The project, called The Day After, was a partnership with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Leading international experts provided guidance on:

  • Implementing economic and social reforms
  • Strengthening the rule of law
  • Crafting a constitution
  • Guiding vital elements of political transitions

The project culminated in the establishment of The Day After Association, a Syrian-led NGO based in Istanbul that connects the diaspora with activists in Syria, works to strengthen local councils inside the country, and influences policy thinking on the conflict, including testimony in the U.S. Congress.

Promoting Interfaith Cooperation. Faith leaders play a pivotal role in bringing a nation together: They can use their influence to guide followers, advocate for peace, and provide counter-narratives to extremist interpretations of religion. That’s why USIP supports initiatives that encourage interfaith cooperation and inclusion of minority and moderate voices.

In 2014, USIP convened a cross-section of the most influential faith leaders from Syria and the diaspora. In Istanbul and Washington, D.C., they adopted core principles such as tolerance, equality (of ethnicity, gender, and religion, for example), shared national identity, inclusivity, human rights, acceptance, and accountability. As ISIS gained its foothold, they condemned “religious fanatic sectarianism and hatred,” providing an important alternative view.

The model of facilitated dialogue that USIP applies in Syria and Iraq can be expanded: 'Small cases can be used in larger circumstances. It’s a way to illustrate the cycle of violence and its cost, and to promote a social transformation that shifts the thinking from praise of violence as a solution—a pattern that plagues this region—to pursuing a culture of compromise.'

Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East and North Africa programs

Related Publications

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Thursday, May 23, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar; James Rupert

Amid the traumas of Syria’s war, women like Ghalia Rahal are building an unprecedented role in peace talks over their country’s future. Rahal—the founder of a network of women’s centers in northwest Syria—has helped energize a Syrian women’s movement despite threats from extremists, attacks on her workplaces, and the assassination of her son, a journalist. Now, Rahal and her women’s network in Syria’s Idlib Province face an extreme threat—the Syrian government military offensive against the province that has killed hundreds and displaced nearly 200,000 people.

Type: Analysis and Commentary


A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By: Robin Wright

After losing its last territory in Syria on March 23, 2019, the Islamic State quickly reclaimed global attention with the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 and a video tape of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on April 29. The jihadi movement is now shifting focus to its ISIS branches, or “provinces,” in Africa, Asia and Europe. Baghdadi signaled ISIS’s expansion by formally embracing two Sunni extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. But the Islamic State’s human core—more than 100,000 fighters and their families, including children—remains clustered in the rubble of its former “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they are detained in makeshift prisons, a hospital and refugee-style camps in the desert of northeastern Syria. USIP Senior Fellow Robin Wright made a rare tour of northeastern Syria to interview men and women who were part of the ISIS caliphate and to assess the risks posed by the post-caliphate crisis.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Ahmad Shuja Jamal

Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Type: Special Report

Civilian-Military Relations; Fragility & Resilience

View All Publications