Peace Talks on Syria Should Include Nonviolent Civil Society Actors

“The eyes of the world are upon them.” This was the UN Secretary-General’s message to “all parties” in the Syrian civil war last week as the battles raged on. Indeed, the world has been “watching” the conflict in Syria for more than two years now, with little to show for it. Harrowing videos of bombs, massacres, and destruction have provided a visceral backdrop for detailed reports by UN investigators and others on ever-new levels of barbarity.

Yet, as international actors have finally taken steps towards peace talks in recent weeks, it is clear that a large piece of the puzzle is missing. With so many lenses focused on the belligerents and the violence, the fact that the vast majority of Syrians has not taken up arms is rarely noticed. While a variety of countries throw money and weapons at violent pro- and anti-government forces, peace activists on the ground have to fill out grant applications for their work building confidence between communities—for amounts that pale in comparison.

Key Conclusions

  • The vast majority of Syrians have not taken up arms. Yet, the voices of civil society actors who do not support violence are not being heard on the international stage.
  • A safe space needs to be created for these voices at this summer’s Geneva peace talks—this requires agreement from both sides that participants will not be at risk when they return to Syria.
  • In the interim, international actors should consider investing in nonviolent attempts to build peace on the ground.


Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have taken up arms on either side of the conflict. The rest of the population—more than 20 million people—has decided not to engage in violence. And while many surely support the government or elements of the fractured opposition, it may not be safe to assume that they support their methods, or that most feel represented by those invited to peace talks in Geneva.

“How come both sides speak on our behalf?” asks one civil society activist who recently visited New York but asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns—neither government nor opposition forces appreciate those trapped in the middle speaking out for peace, she says. As co-founders of a large and diverse network of activists across the country, Nour and her colleague Dalal (not their real names) work to prevent civilians from getting involved in the conflict and offer alternatives to violent extremism for youth in particular.

Many Syrians don’t care who wins or loses the war, say Nour and Dalal. They want to end the violence and return to some sort of normality in which Syrians live side by side again. “We need people to help us live with each other, not kill each other,” says Nour.

These activists are certainly not alone when they say that the future of Syria should be built on the basis of citizenship, not of majority and minority. As the Syrian conflict continues to be perceived by the belligerents as a zero-sum game, this may be the message both sides need to hear.

Indeed, focusing international attention almost exclusively on the government and the opposition for the last two years has not produced results. And as a variety of international actors up the military ante in advance of this summer’s Geneva peace talks, further escalation of violence looms large while the talks’ prospects look grim.

“There needs to be a safe space for independent voices from civil society who are committed to nonviolence at the peace talks,” says Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the US-based International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN). In addition to helping such Syrian voices reach the belligerents and the wider world, this could also change the tone of the talks entirely.

For the space to be “safe” would require a UN umbrella and guarantees from both government and opposition parties that participants will not be put at risk or harassed upon returning to Syria, according to Anderlini. If this agreement can be reached, these civil society actors should have a seat at the table that is not under the auspices of the opposition. Alternatively, a conference for civil society groups could take place parallel to the Geneva talks and feed into them.

“It’s fundamentally about stopping the weapons and starting the political process,” Anderlini says. Dalal is also adamant that no more weapons or aid should be delivered to the belligerents until they come to the table to talk, since supplying weapons and aid in advance undermines incentives to negotiate. Moreover, it could lead to the deaths of thousands more before negotiations even begin.

Instead, while preparing for the talks, international actors could broaden their focus and channel investments toward nonviolent actors working for peace on the ground. In this way, more moderate voices could prevail. “It might be more powerful than the sound of bullets,” says Nour.

Marie O’Reilly is the Associate Editor at the International Peace Institute.