The war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people, uprooted 12 million—half of the population—and propelled a wave of refugees that threatens stability from the Middle East to Western Europe. But this war, seeded in the 2011 uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad, isn’t just one conflict: In addition to the involvement of major powers like Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the U.S., a complex knot of local and sectarian disputes among armed opposition groups, ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and government forces endangers the nation’s future, no matter who rules at the national level.

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

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