A Just Peace Response to Syria

Some new ideas on how to address the crisis in Syria from Eli S. McCarthy, professor of Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University:

Is increasing violence, civil war, and covert support for armed revolution the only options left in Syria? Many analysts respond affirmatively. However, from a just peace 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 just peace plan.

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1. Send a team of 500-1000 international unarmed peacekeepers. Initially negotiate with Al-Assad for their entry, or work with civil society groups like religious leaders/organizations and the National Coordinating Committee to invite them into Syria. If need be, exercise the Responsibility to Protect principle to justify this move. 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.

2. 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 violence subsides.

3. 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, 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. Since violence 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 100 years. Instead, the new resistance would focus on social uplift by caring for the marginalized and poor in the community, as well as creating alternative/parallel institutions, such as schools, clinics and media outlets. Caring for the marginalized could include direct service, but would also help to improve relationships with the many minority groups that fear Al-Assad losing power because he appears to protect them.

Constructive programs would also work to address the fragmentation of the resistance movement, illustrated in part by the Syrian National Council and National Coordination Committee. I suspect that these practices 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 programs 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 hinder a resistance movement. Overall, this will build a stronger unity for resistance, allow space for reflection in all actors, defuse the interactions of hostility and more likely lead to a transformational, sustainable just peace.

Eli S. McCarthy


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