Is increasing violence, civil war, and covert support for armed revolution the only options left in Syria? Many analysts respond affirmatively. However, from a justpeace lens I offer the following recommendations for us to consider as key elements toward a transformational political settlement. These can be taken together or separately. They do not represent a full plan, but rather potential key elements to a justpeace plan.
1. To help address the direct violence, send a team of 500-1000 international unarmed peacekeepers. They would be charged primarily with monitoring, documenting, reporting and training local civil society leaders, such as religious leaders, to participate as monitors. They could also provide protective accompaniment to human rights activists and army deserters who agree to put down their weapons. Annan’s present six-point plan includes a form of this element at this time with a lower number of “observers,” although this may soon increase.
2. To help address the mounting distrust and hostility, advocate clearly, strongly and consistently for implementing small-scale restorative justice practices now to attend to key social wounds toward stimulating initial levels of healing and transforming the interactions of hostility. Some of these wounds include distrust, fear, bitterness and vengefulness. Restorative practices could include family conferencing, peacemaking circles in neighborhoods, including relatives of security forces if not members of such forces themselves. There may be local versions of restorative practices that could be highlighted and encouraged. Supporting local civil society members in facilitating these practices would be best. These small-scale efforts today would provide the groundwork for larger-scale efforts later after the acute violence subsides, such as forms of accountability within a national reconciliation conference supported by Noe.
3. Many in the Syrian resistance have been incredibly courageous in risking or giving their lives, and truly creative in their tactics. In a spirit of humble solidarity, this recommendation is offered. Advocate for returning to nonviolent resistance but encourage even more diversification of tactics beyond protests, marches, general strikes, etc. For instance, include more of the recommendations listed in Gene Sharp’s 198 methods such as non-cooperation efforts like slow-downs, boycotting certain goods, short strikes, withdrawal of bank deposits, etc. Through various communication channels, provide materials from Gene Sharp and about Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was a Muslim leader in nonviolent resistance during the 1900s from what is today the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region.
4. To address the violence, which has entered into the resistance movement, consider Gandhi’s example in India by encouraging a shifting of resistance energy into constructive programs by at least some of the resistors. As Gandhi explained during his time when violence erupted, the “people have awakened to their power, but they have yet to control their desires.” If a transition happens with this influx of violence in the resistance movement, then the ongoing residue of bitterness, resentment, hostility and habits of violence will have seriously damaged their character and chances for a sustainable democracy, as one can see by studies of authoritarian power transitions over the last 35 years, and even the ongoing habits of violence in Libya.
Instead, constructive program entails that the new resistance focus would be social uplift by caring for the marginalized, poor, displaced, and wounded in the community, as well as creating alternative/parallel institutions, such as schools, clinics, media, etc. These institutions could help address the high youth jobless rate in Syria. Caring for the marginalized could include direct service but go further to building closer relationships with the many minority groups that fear al-Assad losing power because he appears to protect them. This would increase the likelihood of al-Assad losing internal support, a key pillar of his power. Further, constructive program would resonate with the strong international consensus at this point for humanitarian aid access, and thus, solidify the collective impact of the international community on al-Assad, which is another key pillar of his power. Constructive program would also work to indirectly and in some cases directly to address the fragmentation of the resistance movement, illustrated in part by the Syrian National Council (primarily outside Syria) and Local Coordination Committees.
I suspect that these practices of constructive program will build a stronger unity for resistance, and thus increase the pressure on al-Assad in a more sustainable and effective way. The people engaged in constructive program will also grow even more in compassion, which will likely defuse the tendency to get caught up in interactions of humiliation (from put downs to killing) that hinders a resistance movement. Overall, constructive program will not simply build a stronger unity for resistance, but also allow space for reflection in all actors, defuse the interactions of hostility, and more likely lead to a transformational, sustainable justpeace.
Eli S. McCarthy
Professor Justice and Peace Studies
(An earlier version of this blog was published Feb. 24, 2012: http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?entry_id=4951)