Current focus: Our Perspectives

Mediation Perspectives: the Need for a New Syrian Narrative

A Syrian man runs for cover during heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, on December 3, 2012. Image: Freedom House/Flickr

The conflict in Syria is entering its fifth year, and the Syrian suffering continues. In the last week it was reported that the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) had attacked the Khabur region in the northeast of the country, kidnapped more than two hundred Assyrian Christians, including women and children, destroyed churches and provoked a mass exodus from these communities.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres,  the Syrian situation is “the most dramatic humanitarian crisis the world has faced in a very long time.” Syrians are now the largest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate. Further, more than 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced persons (IDPs). Together, refugees and IDPs account for 40 per cent of the country’s pre-conflict population, and at least half of that number is children.

The humanitarian tragedy and the security crisis created by IS and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are the most visible and least contested aspects of the conflict narrative in Syria.

However, from the outset, different and competing narratives about the nature of the conflict were circulated by the international media.  These narratives have increased polarization among Syrians and undermined attempts to resolve the conflict.

As the conflict escalated, for instance, the media promoted a narrative of “sectarianism” and a “Sunni and Shi’a divide”.  This narrative has obscured the role of global and regional geopolitical divisions and conflicting state interests in causing and sustaining the conflict. The sectarian narrative as well as other competing narratives have helped to create a version of history that, although “comforting” for its proponents, draws on a) overly-simplistic binaries of good versus evil, b) notions of ‘victimhood’ and c) exaggerated claims to represent “the Syrian people”.

The role of the media in shaping narratives

The media has played a key role in the formation of the various narratives that have shaped public opinion and the international community’s perception of the drivers and dynamics of the conflict. In general, the media often focuses on extreme positions while rarely covering more moderate discourse. Moreover, because of the proliferation of online digital content produced by activists from both inside and outside Syria, the social media has tended to amplify the views of those with an interest in conflict while neglecting more conciliatory views.

The amplification in the media of extreme narratives has clearly influenced the international community’s understanding of the conflict and some of the solutions that were suggested for resolving it.  Marc Lynch, for example, has shown how assumptions derived from social media could be “reproducing very misleading analytical conclusions, creating artificial certainty, embedding false narratives, and encouraging counterproductive interventions”  such as the call for military action against Syria in August 2013.  Another example is the exaggerated assumption that the conflict is mainly sectarian and that the solution should be based on a kind of confessional power-sharing formula.  In fact, the media has rarely covered Syrian voices that challenge the narrative of sectarianism or that emphasize a shared Syrian identity, equal citizenship or the possibility of national reconciliation.

The need for a unifying narrative

To work toward a political solution, a counter-narrative must be developed that focuses on what brings Syrians together. The approach to conflict resolution proposed by Johan Galtung suggests that conflicts should not be seen in simplistic ‘good versus evil’ terms. Instead, conflict narratives must acknowledge the existence of difficult and unresolved issues which lead to frustration, aggression, and violence; and approach resolution efforts with empathy, nonviolence and creativity.

Successful conflict resolution processes in South Africa and Kenya can provide inspiration for addressing these critical issues at the start of the peace process by emphasizing the importance of developing an alternative narrative. In South Africa, full and equal ownership of one national narrative and of the process of change was an essential step towards peace and reconciliation. In Kenya, the national dialogue and reconciliation process (KNDR) following the post-election violence in 2007-08 sought to “anchor the idea of peaceful co-existence on bonds of citizenship,” creating a national narrative that was seen as “a key prerequisite for the maintenance of a cohesive nation and for ensuring grounded long-term political stability and viability of the state.”  In both of these cases, people took responsibility for the past and promoted a unifying narrative.

A UN Security Council open debate in January 2014 recognized that divergent memories of war are often passed down in communities, where they can remain latent until stirred into violence. This suggests a need to bypass “zero-sum thinking” and to accept “shared national narratives” which help to repair trust and foster genuine reconciliation.

In Syria, stories about the war have developed in a way that harms national identity and obscures the history of peaceful co-existence. To counter this, there needs to be an honest and thoughtful process for writing a national narrative aimed at reconciliation, which  integrates ‘enough of the truth’ of the conflict for Syrians to feel that their suffering has been recognized, while emphasizing social resilience and solidarity in order to instil confidence in who Syrians are and what brings them together. This national narrative should provide the basis for any potential solution to end the conflict in Syria.  By loosening the foundations upon which supposedly intractable issues are built, it can pave the way to the long process of reconciliation.

Rima Barsoum is a Syrian researcher and consultant for peace-building and dialogue projects, based in Geneva.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent those of the International Relations and Security Network, the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, or any other relevant institutions.

Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit ISN Security Watch or browse our resources.

Prior focus: Partner Insights

Debacle at Debaltsevo Calls For a New Approach to Ukraine

Anti-Putin grafitti in Debaltsevo. Image: Pryshutova Viktoria/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) on 18 February, 2015.

Before coming up with solutions it is first advisable to determine the nature of the problem. Right now the United States is considering sending arms to Ukraine, while here in Canada the Defence Minister, Jason Kenney, has been mulling the deployment of Canadian soldiers to train the Ukrainian Army. But is a lack of arms or training the real reason for the Ukrainian Army’s defeats?

To answer that question, it is worth looking at what has been happening in the town of Debaltsevo, where a large Ukrainian contingent, possibly several thousand strong, was encircled by rebel forces. The government in Kiev has repeatedly denied that its troops were surrounded, but even Ukrainian military journalists acknowledge that the main road out of Debaltsevo is in rebel hands and that troops of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have captured most of the town, as well as a substantial number of prisoners. On the night of February 17-18, a large part of the garrison escaped through gaps in rebel lines, but Ukrainian sources report heavy casualties in the process. Substantial quantities of equipment have been destroyed or have fallen into rebel hands. Ukraine has suffered a serious defeat. » More

Prior focus: Global Views

A Vulnerable Peace: What’s at Stake in the Upcoming Burundian Elections

Flag of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD); a political party and former rebel group in Burundi. Image: MrPenguin20/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 20 February, 2015.

Starting in May, Burundians are scheduled to go to the polls for the third time since the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and subsequent cease-fire agreements ended the Burundian civil war in 2003. These are important elections with significant consequences for the consolidation of peace and economic recovery in the country, as well as for democracy in the wider Great Lakes region.

The ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, is a former rebel movement that belatedly signed a cease-fire agreement in 2003 and then went on to win the first post-war democratic elections in 2005, and the second ones in 2010. Complex power-sharing provisions were agreed upon during the Arusha peace negotiations and enshrined in the Burundian Constitution, which intended to ensure a certain degree of inclusivity in governance. While the civil war was fought partly over the issue of ethnic exclusion, the Burundian Constitution requires that executive and legislative organs are multiethnic. » More

Prior focus: Academic Perspectives

The Push and Pull of the World’s Most Dangerous Migration Route – What’s Really Behind The Flock of Thousands to Europe These Days?

Migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa in August 2007. Image: Sara Prestianni/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by Politics in Spires on 22 February, 2015.

The  Mediterranean Sea is today’s most dangerous border between countries not at war with each other. Just last week, 300 persons departing Libya on four rubber dinghies have gone missing at sea, after drifting for days without food and water. News reports in the past six months have regularly commented upon the rising number of persons disembarking on Italy’s coastline – benefiting from its search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum. Despite the increase in new arrivals from 33,000 to 200,000, the life-saving mission has now been discarded. Italian policy makers believe Mare Nostrum is as responsible for overcrowded reception centres as it is for the rising number of persons risking their lives at sea. But is it truly to blame for the surge? Because more than 50 per cent of arrivals are either Syrian or Eritrean, news commentators have provided some other potential explanations. Some point to the protracted conflict in the Middle East, whilst others highlight the strain on neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq in continuing to receive thousands of Syrian refugees. “Poverty in Africa” is mentioned occasionally, and for the better informed, an oppressive military regime and indefinite conscription in Eritrea are to blame. Yet these supposed  ‘causes’ of the latest wave in irregular migration to Europe are speculative at most and have in fact been ongoing for many years now. » More

Prior focus: Global Views

Ten Reasons Why China Will Have Trouble Fighting a Modern War

PLA soldiers in training. Image: Myles Cullen/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 18 February, 2015.

The introduction of new weapons and platforms into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has captured the attention of much of the world for well over a decade. However, new equipment is only one element of the PLA’s long-term, multi-dimensional modernization process. There is much to be done and no one understands this better than the Chinese themselves. Based on what PLA commanders and staff officers write in their internal newspapers and journals, the force faces a multitude of challenges in order to close the perceived gaps between its capabilities and those of advanced militaries. » More

Page 1 of 314