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Is Syria ready for peace? [Commentary]

With mounting casualties estimated at over 100,000, millions more displaced internally and abroad, rampant and egregious human rights violations — including horrific chemical weapons attacks on civilians — bringing peace to Syria is an urgent security and humanitarian concern. However, past efforts to secure a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict have been unsuccessful, and a new round of Geneva talks is scheduled to begin next week.

Based on original survey data from rebel-controlled territory in Syria, we find that civilians are war-weary and looking for a settlement to end the war, but rebel fighters appear entrenched in the belief that Syrian President Bashar Assad must be defeated, no matter the costs. A major challenge for Geneva will be to convince rebel forces to forgo the pursuit of victory and vengeance against Mr. Assad's regime. Though rebels may balk at a peace deal, there is growing distance between those groups and the views of ordinary Syrians.

After the first round of Geneva peace talks broke down in June, we began to track public opinion from inside the conflict, focusing on Syrian civilians and Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers on the front lines of Aleppo and Idlib. We conducted survey interviews with civilians and FSA soldiers on a broad range of issues, including their views on democracy, attitudes toward the United States and any possible Western military intervention, support for the FSA, willingness to negotiate peace with Assad and prospects for Syrian unity after the war. To our knowledge, this is the first public opinion data collection effort to be made publicly available since the beginning of the conflict.

The majority of people we interviewed have been dislocated and displaced from their homes. Virtually everyone has been exposed to scenes of horrific violence. About half indicate that they have been personally injured during the war, and as many have family members who have been injured or killed in the fighting or are currently missing and unaccounted for. Only a small minority say they have sufficient access to food, clean water, permanent shelter, health care/medical supplies, fuel or electricity.

Nearly three years of unrelenting war have also taken a toll on trust and confidence in rebel forces. Most civilians now say they rely on kinship and friendship networks for their safety and security, rather than rebel groups. Only about half of the civilians say they feel personally close to rebels in the FSA or fighters from other rebel groups, and even fewer feel close to foreign fighters. So it comes as no surprise that they want the war to be over as soon as possible and look to Geneva for resolution. Our study shows that they would accept any resolution that could stop the fighting and lead to the re-normalization of life.

"It will be as impossible for the FSA to defeat the Assad forces as it is for the Assad forces to defeat the FSA. So the war could last for another five or even more years," says Muhannad Ghabash, a student from Aleppo who was detained by the Assad government for 17 months. "Can you imagine how many people will die? And the civilians are the only people who are paying the price."

But rebel fighters are committed to a military victory. A large majority believe they should keep fighting until Assad is defeated rather than negotiate, and most consider absolute victory their top priority among foreseeable options. Our data suggest that the most important reason that they are fighting is to take revenge against Assad and his forces. The fighters we interviewed are neither mercenaries nor conscripts but committed volunteers on a mission to defeat Assad and to exact revenge on his supporters. The very idea of negotiations contradicts their primary reason for fighting.

According to Abo Maen, an FSA fighter from Aleppo, "The Syrian revolution did not come about in order to achieve transitional justice. It did not rise up to tell Assad, 'Let's sit at the [negotiating] table.' No, he is a criminal, and you don't sit down at the table with a criminal."

Such strong divisions between civilian and rebel fighter views could lead to mounting civil-military tensions over a possible negotiated settlement in Geneva. In addition, rebel opposition forces are highly factionalized, many groups will likely eschew peace talks and those that attend may find little common ground upon which to negotiate with the Assad regime and each other. The state of disarray of the Syrian opposition is being addressed this week at a conference in Qurtba in advance of the Geneva talks.

According to Mohammad Ahmad Barmo, head of the Preparatory Committee for the Qurtba negotiations, the goal is to "find a new political body to represent the principles of the revolution." In the absence of such a coalition and given the fractured, rival interests of opposition forces, it is unclear who can answer the Syrian public's call for peace in Geneva.

Vera Mironova is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland and a contractor for the World Bank on fragile states, and Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University. Their emails are vmironov@umd.edu and swhitt@highpoint.edu. Journalist Loubna Mrie, based in Syria , contributed to the article.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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