In Syria, support for an internationally negotiated settlement to the conflict has collapsed as continued instability and violence have further polarized the country’s warring factions.
This is one of the key findings of the latest survey of the troubled country from conflict zone polling specialists Charney Research, prepared for the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre in The Hague.
“Another year of brutality, violence, and dashed hopes has hardened hearts on both sides of the conflict,” said Charney Research President Craig Charney of the report’s findings.
These harsh realities include one-third of the population being displaced either inside or outside the country and the failure of peace talks in Geneva to provide any resolution. The findings contrast with a more hopeful vision of the country expressed by Syrians in a similar survey by Charney Research released last year.
“The result, it seems, is that on both sides people are less willing to compromise, are less willing to express the sorts of nuances that they did, and are more committed to a victory,” Mr. Charney, who is also a Non-resident Senior Adviser to the International Peace Institute, said.
On a more positive note, the 2015 survey found quite strong support for inclusive, local-level negotiations designed to deescalate the conflict, as has been proposed by the United Nations special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura. Many Syrians also maintain a desire to cease the fighting and live together again.
“Despite the blood that has been shed, after the war Syrians still want theirs to be one state and one people,” Mr. Charney said. “But coexistence, many said, requires repentance, accountability, and justice as well as reconciliation.”
The survey relied on qualitative rather than quantitative analysis due to the difficulties of surveying in Syria. It focused on interviewing a limited number of respondents who were nonetheless representative of the diversity of ethnic, religious, and political persuasions in the country, as well as age and gender.
Charney discussed the findings with Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview:
With me in the Global Observatory today is Craig Charney, president of Charney Research, a survey research firm with a specialty in assessing opinions in countries in crisis and conflict. Craig has conducted surveys in places like Iran and Lebanon for IPI, and today we want to talk about a new survey he has just done for the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre on what people within Syria are thinking. As I uttered that last phrase, Craig, I thought, “Wait a minute. How can you get reliable information from a place that is so dangerous that most news organizations have ceased sending reporters there?” How did you do it, Craig? What was the methodology, and how are you able to be confident that your findings are trustworthy?
Warren, that’s a good question. What we try to do is to make sure that we have a scientific approach, and a broadly representative sample, although we certainly can’t pretend that this is a random poll. It’s not. You can’t do a poll in the current conditions of Syria because you can’t walk around randomly knocking on doors. What it is, is a qualitative survey where we tap most of the major currents of opinion—religious, ethnic, and political groups; both sexes; and the like.
In order to do this we set quota—the different groups are represented in rough proportion to the population. We also specified that roughly half the respondents had to be either pro- or anti-government. We distributed them around seven different population centers. We worked with a professional Syrian interviewing organization to get the interviews done. This was important because it meant that we were dealing with people who understood the risks and also understood how to get their job done. We also used what you would call a “modified snowball sampling technique,” where contacts who met the quotas were sought out not through the first-order acquaintances of individuals but through other people they knew at a second- or third-order range. So there could be some assurance that the interviewer and interviewee were both in confidence.
Craig, you conducted a similar survey in Syria last year and you discussed then what you found with me here in the Global Observatory, so I’m able to compare and contrast, and the contrast that jumped out at me was a highly disturbing one. Last year you reported that there was broad support for negotiated settlement of the conflict. Now you find little interest or hope in such an outcome, you find instead expectations and demands for total victory. What over the past year has led to this extreme polarization?
Another year of brutality, violence, and dashed hopes has hardened hearts on both sides of the conflict. The figures, including those released just recently by the UN I believe, are staggering: a third of a nation displaced at home or abroad, the lights going out all over the country, suffering on a scale that is difficult for those who are not involved in the conflict to imagine. All this happened in the context where the Geneva talks yielded no result, and where the only reality lived was a continued conflict. The result, it seems, is that on both sides people are less willing to compromise, are less willing to express the sorts of nuances that they did, and are more committed to a victory.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s envoy in Syria, has come up with a plan to first establish ceasefires in localities—the place he specifically proposed was Aleppo. Is this idea of trying to produce calm in one locality and then spreading it outward viewed with any hope by Syrians?
De Mistura’s plan is consistent with our findings, which is that there is more hope in Syria now for local initiatives and local ceasefires than there is for talks at the national level. Almost all Syrians we found crave more normality in their lives, greater freedom of movement, and the ability to access aid, education, and the other things that make up an existence like theirs. What this means is that many, though not all, think that negotiating local ceasefires of the sort that de Mistura suggests would be a good idea. It’s still a controversial idea on both sides. Many people fear that either they cannot trust the other side or that it would be disguised as surrender to the regime. Nevertheless, it does seem more hopeful than trying to push a Geneva-type settlement at this point.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has successfully resisted calls for him to give up power and leave Syria, and he may be even more secure than ever in Damascus now. Is there any way his backers will give him up in the hope of reaching an accord, or, on the contrary, his enemies, as part of a peace settlement, would accept him staying in Syria?
Last year we saw some evidence that the opponents of Assad were willing to consider the possibility of exile for him, at least. This year, as I’ve said, hearts have hardened and the middle ground is much scarcer. Thus, the idea of an acceptance of Assad’s departure, or his staying in the case of opponents, seems less likely than before. In their comments on Assad, respondents were much less nuanced this year than they were last year. This is suggestive of the sort of hardening of positions that we found, and ones that make compromise all the more difficult.
Craig, what views do people have of ISIS, and does it get support from any part of the Syrian public? And in that connection were you able to get the views of residents of the ISIS stronghold city of Raqqa?
We were quite struck by how strong the opposition to ISIS was both among regime supporters and regime opponents. This was true even in Raqqa where, because our colleagues were dispersed around the country, it was possible to conduct a number of interviews. The experience of ISIS among Syrians is by and large a negative one. It’s quite striking in fact that Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, gets at least more positive or perhaps less negative comments than does ISIS.
Though it may be wishful thinking, there’s an emerging narrative now that ISIS, which must hold on to land in order to build its “caliphate,” is actually disaffecting people living under its rule and therefore may be unable to keep control of the land it has conquered. Did you find any sentiments in support of that narrative?
Yes, our interviews would suggest that. In Raqqa and also in Deir ez-Zor the comments about ISIS were extremely negative. People talked about the fact that they monopolized not merely political power, but also electrical power, and food, and water, and simply gave the leftovers to the local population. The notion that ISIS is building support because it provides services more effectively I think is something of a myth. Certainly what we saw was great discontent with living standards and quality [of life] under ISIS.
Craig, despite the effective disappearance of national borders in much of Syria and northern Iraq, do Syrians still feel a national identity? Do they want Syria to emerge from the current conflict intact?
One of our most striking findings was that across the board Syrians reject the notion of partition, which is sometimes advocated by outsiders. They want their country to remain united. This is very strong, and there is a very strong sentiment that there is a Syrian entity or national community. In a word, there’s a “there” there.
Do you think there can be any reconciliation between people who have assailed each other with such extraordinary violence? Is there a wish for reconciliation, and, if there is, are there any ideas of how it can be achieved?
There is a desire for reconciliation, although the wounds of last year mean that it is more qualified. People on both sides do talk about the idea of living together after the conflict. However, they also mention conditions and concerns—the refugees’ fear of those who displaced them, for example, or fear among regime supporters of armed groups on the other side who killed.
That said, there was also a surprising degree of interest in traditional ceremonies of reconciliation at the local level, sulha and musalaha, ceremonies which involve apology, compensation, and the re-establishment of relations among neighbors. If the national conflict can be worked out there may be ways for people to use these kinds of local and traditional ceremonies to coexist, if not live in harmony. Something similar was done in Rwanda after the genocide there.
I think in your questions to people you proposed the possibility of the two sides working together, like in joint regime-rebel cooperation, like in shared checkpoints. What kind of response did you get to such a suggestion?
At this point that’s a step too far, on neither side was there much support for that. The mistrust is simply too great.
And finally, this is a depressing finding a year later; it was depressing enough last year. Do you see any way of reversing this deterioration? Do you really hold out any hope in the near future for Syria and for the Syrians?
The key I think is to begin to find a way to wind down the conflict as Mr. de Mistura is suggesting, locality by locality, step by step. This means, however, not just relying on the UN, but rather on creating a totality of pressures—economic, humanitarian, diplomatic, and dare I say military, in order to change the calculus of the actors involved, particularly the Syrian regime. If it’s possible to wind down the intensity of the conflict, it may be possible to enable Syrians to begin to think about how to resolve their conflict nationally. At this stage, though, if there is a peace to be built in Syria it is a peace that will be built piece by piece.
Craig, this is a significant piece of work, as your past surveys have been. Congratulations on that, and thanks as always for discussing it with us here in the Global Observatory.
Many thanks, Warren. It’s a pleasure.
Warren Hoge is Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.