Settlement Prospects: “We have to stop the bloodshed”

The Syrian interviewees reflected the sentiment that they wanted the conflict devastating their homeland to end. For many, a negotiated settlement, even if flawed, was a satisfactory outcome. Some, however, still wanted the fighting to continue until their side won and its opponent was vanquished completely. Some in the opposition were willing to consider exile for President Assad if it meant an end to the fighting. Other respondents refused to consider it — either because they want him punished or because they view him as the country’s legitimate president.

Most respondents were open in principle to returning to the peaceful co-existence they enjoyed prior to the war. Regime supporters were more likely to say post-conflict co-existence is possible. But many on both sides added caveats, specifying the kinds of neighbors they could live among and those they could not. Some, on both sides of the conflict, insisted co-existence would be impossible or say they have nothing to return to.

Desire to Halt Killing Drives Settlement Wishes

Regime opponents and supporters alike were desperate for an end to the bloodshed. Many were open to the idea of a negotiated settlement if it would stop the killing and prevent the war from spreading. This view was found on both sides of the political fence.

Enough is enough. First we have to stop the bloodshed. Enough orphaned children, widows, and arrests. We cannot handle another day of killing. This is why I prefer settlement. I do not want another day of murder.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 28, IDP in Damascus

If the conflict continues, the war flames will grow and reach the entire region. The Syrian crisis is no longer a conflict. It became an international war that will eat whoever stands in its way. That is why I prefer a negotiated settlement to return love and peace to Syria and get rid of the terrorist mercenaries in our country.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 56, Damascus

However, some of those who favoured a negotiated settlement did so reluctantly, or skeptically, uncertain whether an accord is possible in the current environment. Both sides view other with deep distrust.

We hope for the first one [negotiated settlement and compromise] but it’s impossible.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 31, refugee in Turkey

Negotiation is better, because at least no one scores a victory and gains one hundred percent control. [But] if they negotiated, there will be some areas that are with and others against. They will remain fighting whether we wanted this or not. That’s why I don’t think [a settlement is possible].
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 25, Aleppo

One anti-regime Sunni man in Damascus argued rebel forces are outgunned by the regime and negotiation is the rebels’ only exit strategy. “There are no equal forces, as the regime forces are stronger than the opposition. I think a military solution will be settled in favour of the regime, but the rebels will not accept this, so I think negotiation is the best solution for all, especially Syrians.”

Displaced respondents, bitter over their sacrifices and skeptical about concessions, were more likely to advocate a fight to the end and less interested in a settlement. People in Raqqah, the only provincial capital under opposition control at the time of the study, also tended to want to fight until the regime is defeated.

For sure I prefer weapons. I lost my relatives and many of my beloved ones, so I don’t think that understanding is possible.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 31, refugee in Turkey

I prefer fighting. If the regime remained because [an accord with the] regime was negotiated and [it] returned, it will return to do more harm than what it did before.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 35, IDP in Aleppo

The country is destroyed because of Bashar. Decisive military victory is the best way to get rid of all [the] Assad’s regime pollutants.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 34, Raqqah

Some regime supporters also urged the Syrian Army to fight until the end. Since many insisted the war is a fight against foreign armies that have invaded Syria, they said fighting is the only reasonable option.

No, there should be a decisive victory for our army because these degraded mercenaries have to be eliminated. They do not want freedom for this country. They want to destroy it and implement foreign American projects.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 38, Raqqah

There should be a decisive victory for the Syrian Arab Army. The other side are mercenaries from all areas on earth who have been sent by America to die in Syria and destroy the country at the same time.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 42, Hama

Fighting could only be justified to some regime supporters if the opposition rejected talks:

If those who fight the government, I mean the opposition or terrorist groups, refuse peaceful solutions, discussions, and negotiation, or refuse to obey the people’s desire, the government shall use the military solution because there isn’t any other available solution for the country.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 25, Damascus

Opponents: Exile Assad if it Stops the Violence

Many regime opponents, even the displaced, saw exiling Bashar al-Assad as a possible solution to the problem of violence in Syria.

If he went into exile, in which killing, robbing, and stealing will disappear, then I will feel happy. I only want to feel relaxed and comfortable.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 34, Raqqah

I told you it is the lesser of two evils to have him leave now and save lives and avoid more destruction than continue with war where more people die and then run away.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 41, IDP in Hama

Views on exile were linked to views on accountability. Supporters recognized exile would mean Assad would not be judged or held accountable, and were willing to pay this price to end the conflict.

Those who should go into exile are the ones who should be held accountable. But conversely, if this would stop the killing, stop the bloodshed, and stop the destruction of what remains of Syria, I think Syrians should accept this solution.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Damascus

I would be happy, of course, because we got rid of him. Honestly I think we achieve victory, even if we couldn’t judge him on a trial, but at least we stopped or reduced the killing in this country, because in the time we are waiting to catch and judge Al-Assad he might kill another hundred thousand people.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Aleppo

Regime opponents who opposed exile — even if they supported a settlement — said they could not accept a scenario in which Assad was not held accountable for his crimes. (This factor re-emerged later in the conversations in connection with amnesty for confessions before a Truth Commission.)

It’s true I am for stopping the war and reaching a settlement because we’ve suffered enough. But for Bashar to go out of the country to Iran or Russia and continue his life as if he had done nothing, this won’t be acceptable. Bashar should be punished and be an example for everyone who thinks he can constrain his own people.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 37, al-Qamishli

Indeed, some took a very hard line against exile and would only accept Assad’s death.

I prefer the settlement and things to get back the way they were, but only with one condition: that Bashar gets killed, because there are people getting killed, slaughtered, and violated.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 40, Hama

Supporters: Exiling Assad is Unthinkable

Pro-regime respondents would not consider exile for President Assad even as a possibility. They were unanimous on this point.

If there is a settlement, we will not accept the president and those closest to him to be exiled outside Syria. As the president has said, he is the son of Syria and he will live and die in Syria.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 42, Tartous

I do not agree [with exile] because President Assad was elected by the people. He is affectionate, humane, young, and a symbol for the country.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 39, Hama

Some, on both sides, feared what would replace Assad. Regime supporters feared state collapse, opponents feared state fragmentation.

The departure of President Assad is the end of Syria. We won’t ever feel stability or safety. I don’t think that if this happened this could solve the crisis, but [it] will make it more complicated.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 27, Aleppo

We were suffering from only one tyrant and when he leaves we shall have many tyrants.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 31, refugee in Turkey

Christians, in particular, predicted violent chaos:

That would mean the total destruction of Syria. It will become like Libya and Iraq where murders are everywhere.
— Christian woman (pro-regime), 36, Damascus

Postwar Co-Existence Favoured But Potentially Difficult

Most interviewees said that after the conflict they would be able to live with neighbors who held differing political views during the fighting.

If they are from my country I can live with them, because they don’t impose anything on you from outside.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Aleppo.

Of course they have to [live together], because the country is for all of us. The country needs the unity of all the Syrian society’s components and people. It needs each person to take his role in order to rebuild the country, especially [because] it will become a phase of building and reconstructing.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 25, Damascus

Likewise, most respondents agreed, in principle, that Syrians who had left their homes as displaced people or exiles would be welcome to return to live in peace after the war ends. Pro-regime respondents were more likely to say all would be forgiven.

All will return. Everybody I know is waiting for a glimmer of hope to return to Syria. Nobody is happy outside, ever.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 25, Aleppo

Of course they will be able to return. If the crisis ends and life gets back to normal everyone who left will come back.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 56, Damascus

No I don’t care, each one is free to have his opinion. I have my own opinion and others do too. I don’t care about this and I don’t make them my enemies.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 48, IDP in Damascus

Many, however, made a distinction between neighbors and friends who held opposing views but were non-violent, with whom they could live, and those who had killed, with whom they would not.

I can live with them, there is no problem. If my friend was [a regime supporter] there would not be any problem; because at the end he is my friend. If the crisis ends and he (was) one of Al-Shabiha or one of the regime’s criminals, I will not be able to live with him.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 34, Damascus

We the followers of Jesus will not disagree with his teachings and we will give a hand of forgiveness to rebuild Syria. Any difference is legitimate, but in peaceful democratic ways. We will not accept living with them if they wanted destruction, killing, and discrimination.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 56, Damascus

Some Reject Coexistence

Some Syrians thought co-existence would be impossible. Those who were pro-regime could not see living among those they considered mercenaries and traitors working for foreign interests.

How can we live with those mercenaries, traitors, who have been bought by the Gulf countries with money, while we are dying here? We will not leave our land and president. As he has said, we were born here in our country Syria and we will die here.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 42, Tartous

Anti-regime skeptics about coexistence said they could not live among sectarian killers. IDPs and refugees tend to be more likely to hold these opinions.

We can’t return and live with them and tell them that they are welcome, after what they have done.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 29, refugee in Turkey

No. Because there are no houses nor security with killers. How could you feel safe with [someone] who is killing you today?
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 45, Raqqah

Refugees and IDPs: Nothing To Return To

Some, particularly refugees and displaced respondents, pointed out serious logistical challenges to returning. Many homes and job-providing businesses have been destroyed and their finances are depleted.

Why should they come back? Destroyed houses, no streets, no drainage, no water, no electricity, why should they come? It is impossible for them to come.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 35, IDP in Aleppo

I don’t think there would be anything that prevents them [from returning home], whether they were of the regime loyalists or of the opposition. But the problem will be money. For example, if I return to my country, will I take my pocket money from my father?
— Sunni man (anti-regime), refugee in Turkey

The path back to a peaceful, tolerant Syria is fraught, but many Syrians still hope that the days when Sunni, Alawite, Christian, and Kurd could live together will return. The desire to stop the bloodshed makes most respondents open to a negotiated settlement in principle. But there is no clear path towards this process — issues such as exile for Bashar al-Assad as part of a political deal remain deeply divisive. Likewise most respondents want to see those who left their homes return and co-existence among differing views and faiths. Yet many voice reservations or demand conditions that might make such coexistence impossible.

Prime among the concerns for coexistence is a reluctance among many to live alongside those who have killed with impunity. This anxiety is closely linked to the desire for postwar accountability for abuses on both sides of the conflict. A perception that some sort of justice has been done appears essential if the pieces of Syrian society are to be put back together again.

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He Who Did Wrong Should Be Accountable: Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice Copyright © 2014 by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license). All Rights Reserved.

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