How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year, the violence shows no signs of abating. Yet another round of peace talks has concluded in Geneva without any significant progress. Throughout these talks, representatives from different sides in the conflict have repeatedly referred to the Syrian people as the ultimate authority on the way forward for the war-torn country. When asked recently about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future role, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared it “will be decided by Syrian people.” The Assad regime has made similar statements, as have the opposition groups, Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
Despite this public appreciation for Syrians’ views about how to bring an end to the conflict, there is surprisingly little hard evidence about what Syrians themselves actually think about the future of their country. A year ago, we set out to address this information gap, conducting face-to-face interviews with 1,120 Syrians in Turkey, a country that now hosts nearly three million Syrian refugees.
Our interviews took place in late summer and fall of 2016 in four Turkish provinces: Gaziantep, Hatay, Sanliurfa, which all share a border with Syria, and Istanbul, which is far from the border but hosts 500,000 Syrian refugees—more than any other province in Turkey. Together, the four provinces host more than half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. We conducted our interviews in urban neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Syrians by randomly selecting streets in these neighborhoods and then randomly selecting households on those streets. Our respondents were diverse in terms of age, profession, ethnicity, language, sect, and region of origin. There was also significant variation with respect to people’s time of departure from Syria, making our sample diverse in terms of their war experiences. Finally, despite the difficulty of interviewing Syrian women because of gender norms about contact with strangers, about 40 percent of our sample consisted of female Syrians.
An overwhelming majority of those we surveyed—close to 90 percent—embraced the idea of returning to Syria when the war is over. These interviews thus provide a rare glimpse into the views of those who consider themselves part of the country’s future. A number of lessons about how Syrians envision the future of their country stand out, many of which undermine the prevailing wisdom about the conflict and the peace process.
The first major takeaway is that despite enormous anxiety in Europe about Syrian refugees coming in from Turkey—and a range of policies such as the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU designed to stop it—most of our respondents had no interest in getting to the continent. We asked our respondents where, ideally, they would like to be living five years from now. The vast majority (90 percent) hoped to return to Syria, whereas only six percent wanted to remain in Europe. When asked for their second choice, the number who wanted to stay in Turkey rose to about 85 percent, but only nine percent reported they would like to be in Europe.
In other words, those who have not left Turkey already—e.g. during the massive 2015-2016 wave of migration to Europe—have little intention of doing so. A great majority of our respondents also reported an interest in learning Turkish, suggesting they expect to stay in Turkey if unable to return home. This underscores the urgent need to design and implement policies to help integrate Syrians into the Turkish economy and Turkish society. Despite the laudable efforts of the Turkish government, municipalities, and NGOs, larger-scale integration projects such as schooling for Syrian children, Turkish language education for Syrians, and formal labor force inclusion on a wider scale are desperately needed.
Syrian refugees who have not left Turkey already have little intention of doing so today.
Next, a significant minority of those interviewed did not feel represented by any of the parties to the conflict. Sixty percent of the participants in our sample came from areas around Aleppo that were long considered opposition territory, and hence were expected to hold pro-opposition views. Indeed, when asked which party most closely represents their interests—and allowed to choose between opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army, the Assad government, others, or “nobody”—the largest group (68 percent) chose “opposition groups.” More interesting, however, is that nearly a third of the respondents (28 percent) answered “nobody.” This does not reflect indifference—by comparison, only 0.5 percent of people said they supported Assad. Rather, this appears to reflect a genuine feeling that no party to the conflict represents this segment of the civilian population.
This finding highlights the importance of including representatives of civil society in the peace talks to more accurately represent Syrians’ views. Fortunately, since the third round of talks in Geneva, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has consulted groups such as the Women’s Advisory Board, the Civil Society Support Room, and the Experts Room. Beyond such a consultative role, however, our findings suggest that civilians require a true voice at the negotiating table, as they are not represented there by political or armed groups. Rather, civilian spokespeople chosen from civil society, religious institutions and, local leadership councils—selected from all sides of the conflict and currently residing both inside and outside Syria—should have a true voice (and vote) at the table.
The ongoing civil war in Syria has produced enormous human suffering. The total number of casualties due to the war is estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000, and more than 11 million Syrians have left their homes because of the fighting. Over a third of our respondents report that people from their neighborhood were injured or killed due to war-related violence, and 17 percent had immediate family members injured or killed. A large proportion (40 percent) also reported that their neighborhood had been barrel bombed by the Assad regime, an especially horrific and indiscriminate form of violence. As a result, half of the civilians we spoke to saw the Assad regime as the greatest threat to their personal safety in a future Syria. In line with this threat perception, about 80 percent of our respondents also wanted to see Assad removed from power. Of course, because most of our respondents hail from opposition territories, their views likely differ from those of more pro-Assad refugees surveyed in other locations such as Lebanon.
Further, many of the civilians interviewed wanted to punish perpetrators of violence—on all sides. An overwhelming majority of Syrians in our study wanted regime members and individuals who fought for the regime to be punished. When given different options for punishments, 20 percent chose execution as the appropriate punishment for individuals who have killed civilians while fighting for the regime. Even more (50 percent) called for execution of ISIS fighters who have killed civilians. Despite coming from largely opposition-held areas, 40 percent would choose to execute opposition soldiers who killed civilians rather than some lighter form of punishment. In short, our respondents showed a strong desire to punish perpetrators of violence against civilians, regardless of what side they fall on. Any plans for reintegration, reconciliation, and post-conflict justice must take these feelings into account.
Finally, Syrians we spoke to want their country to survive this war by removing the regime, not by dividing it up through partition or even federalism. Throughout the conflict, policy makers have called for partitioning or creating a federal Syria. For instance, former Secretary of State John Kerry had proposed partition as part of a ”Plan B” should peace negotiations fail. Meanwhile, Russian negotiators have suggested federalism as a possible solution. This is not what the Syrians we spoke with want: only four percent support a federal system, and less than one percent endorse partition.
In short, the Syrian civilians we spoke with overwhelmingly want their country to remain united, but they also demand that perpetrators of violence against civilians be held accountable. Achieving a durable solution to the conflict will require both a political resolution that civilians approve, and a means of addressing their intense demands for justice. Although striking agreements between elites might be an important first step to halt the fighting, imposing civilian demands on the political and military actors at the negotiating table will take more than reporting survey results. Rather, civilians must be able to speak for themselves, wielding real power at the negotiating table, if the resulting settlement is going to satisfy their needs and bring about a lasting peace.