The human toll of Syria’s violent conflict is devastating, and national, regional, and international stakes in the conflict are high. As of this writing, of a pre-war population of 22.5 million, the war is estimated to have killed as many as 115,000, wounded tens of thousands more, displaced 6.5 million internally, and forced 2.2 million into exile. The conflict has also shattered the Syrian economy, heavily burdened the country’s neighbours with refugees, and drawn in outside, regional, and global actors.
Yet all wars end — and when they do, it is increasingly common that there is a reckoning for abuses committed during the conflict. Indeed, in the event of a negotiated settlement, provisions for transitional justice may be a crucial aspect of the accords. Even if one side ultimately prevails, the suffering inflicted upon all sides tends to produce demands for accountability and compensation. In the case of Syria, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) seeks to generate discussion and increase awareness about transitional justice issues among legal specialists and the Syrian public. As a first step, SJAC seeks to help make heard Syrians voices on these issues.
Charney Research, in cooperation with SJAC, conducted qualitative research on issues related to transitional justice with average Syrians inside and outside of their country in August 2013. Through 46 in-depth interviews in Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqah, Hama, Homs, and al-Qamishli and in Turkey and Jordan, interviewers spoke with both regime supporters and opponents, as well as the internally displaced and refugees, about how Syria can begin to address the abuses and losses due to the conflict.
The suffering in all communities, even those not directly affected by conflict, is striking. Anger, fear, and despair came through in interviews. Most respondents seemed to speak freely and were keen to have an outlet for their opinions, though some requested that interviewers not to reveal their identities. Pessimism about the future was tinged with shock about how far the country has fallen so quickly and the fear of increasing sectarianism. As dire as the situation is for many internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, many expressed regret that others had suffered far more than they had.
The research revealed a surprising degree of consensus regarding transitional justice, despite the deep polarization in perceptions of leaders and actors in Syria’s civil war. There was a strong desire for a negotiated settlement to end the violence, as well as for coexistence among people of different views and faiths and among refugees, IDPs, and those who remain in their home areas. There was a near-universal desire for accountability for abuses committed by both sides. Trials were the most popular form of accountability, while truth commissions, though unfamiliar, also received support. Compensation for wartime losses was seen as necessary on both sides as well — with considerable agreement on who should receive it.
Predictably, there is stark disagreement on the major political actors and forces, but also a degree of ambivalence among partisans on both sides (though more pronounced among opponents of the regime). There was also fear of Syria’s “culture of revenge” in the aftermath of the war.
The findings underline that though the path to a transition in Syria will undoubtedly be hard, transitional justice mechanisms may play a role. It is not too early to encourage and assist Syrians themselves to begin to discuss them.
Craig Charney & Christine Quirk