Feedback Loop – Syrian Political Process
After another year of little progress towards a durable solution to the Syrian crisis, Syrians are deeply disappointed with all aspects of the political process as well as the major convening parties involved. To gauge the extent of Syrians’ dissatisfaction with the political process, ETANA conducted surveys and focus group sessions both inside and outside the country, ultimately reaching some 1,500 Syrians from 12 of Syria’s provinces. The findings were stark: as many as 80% of those surveyed by ETANA expressed dissatisfaction with the political process in general, with pessimism also aimed at the UN-led constitutional committee as well as the UN special envoy’s so-called “steps-for-steps” approach. This paper aims to take stock of Syrians’ views of the political process and hopes to provoke new approaches. While 76% of Syrians surveyed wish to see new ideas for a political solution in Syria, what those new ideas might constitute will be the subject of the next paper in this series.
Summary: Key Findings
- Political Process: 80% of Syrians are dissatisfied with the current political process.
- Constitutional Committee: 76% think the constitutional committee is not a meaningful process to realise the goals for their country.
- Steps-for-Steps Approach: 67% believe that the steps-for-steps approach will not bring a satisfactory solution to the Syrian conflict.
- Actors: Syrians participating in the ETANA survey and focus group sessions were scathing of all actors involved in the Syrian political process—especially the official opposition, who many believe does not represent them or their interests.
- New Ideas: Syrians across the board want to explore new approaches for the political process: in fact, 76% of Syrians inside Syria responded that they wish to see new ideas for the political process.
“…The only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
– UN Resolution 2254, December 2015.
2022 offered little progress on Syria’s political process. The last round of the UN-led constitutional committee was cancelled in July following Russia’s rejection of Geneva as a location for the talks. Since the committee’s inception in September 2019, each round of talks has offered little progress to meet the mandate of the committee “to prepare and draft for popular approval a constitutional reform, as a contribution to the political settlement.”
The UN special envoy has also been exploring a so-called “steps-for-steps” approach that aims to offer confidence-building measures between the regime and the international community. While the regime announced a surprise amnesty in April 2022, it was viewed as disappointment by many Syrians and was seen by the international community as falling short of offering a potential step within this framework.
At this juncture, ETANA wishes to offer some reflection on the political process. This paper hopes to act as a feedback loop between Syrians and the international community to present the views of Syrians around the different elements of the political process.
The contents of this paper are limited to providing an assessment of Syrians on the political process in general. The task of exploring recommendations will be the subject of the following paper in this series.
To generate the following findings, ETANA reached around 1,500 Syrians inside and outside the country through surveys, focus groups as well as targeted individuals and informal outreach (See – Appendix I: Methodology, for details).
- Surveys: A survey was completed inside Syria reaching around 1,160 Syrians in 12 provinces across Syria.
- Focus groups: Focus groups were conducted inside and outside the country to explore the view of Syrians on the political process. Around 300 Syrians were engaged through in-country focus groups that were held in north-east Syria, north-west Syria and south Syria. Dozens of Syrians were also engaged in the diaspora to contribute to this process.
Unsurprisingly, Syrians’ disappointment and pessimism regarding the political process was evident both through the surveys and focus group sessions. As many as 80% of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with the current political process.
The vast majority were highly dissatisfied with all parts of the political process as well as those actors involved—including the UN special envoy, his steps-for-steps approach, the constitutional committee, and the international community more broadly. In response to this despondence, 76% of Syrians inside the country wish to see new ideas for a political solution in Syria. This point came across clearly within diaspora focus groups and other informal conversations. Despite the pessimism, those Syrians engaged had a range of ideas as to what was missing within the political process, and many had fresh ideas on new approaches. An exploration of these new ideas will be considered within the second paper within this series.
- In-country feedback
While the steps-for-steps (SFS) initiative was widely unheard of by Syrians who engaged in focus groups inside Syria, when the convener described the initiative, many expressed that this was merely a way to give concessions to the regime “step-by-step.” There was concern that it was a way of allowing states to normalise with the regime without embarrassment. Many expressed concerns that the UN was not upholding a position of impartiality in this endeavour. Those who had heard of this initiative believed that the concept of SFS indicated that Pederson and his team did not adequately understand the nature of the regime. The idea that the regime can change its behaviour and be incentivised by steps from other parties is based on an erroneous starting premise since the regime never offers concessions in this vein. One Syrian analyst commented on this point that this widespread Syrian viewpoint can be summarised by the phrase, “a leopard cannot change its spots.” Participants expressed concern that this focus of the international community risks wasting valuable time. They suggested a strict timeframe or timetable should be put on this process, so it does not drift like the constitutional committee. Some involved expressed that the political process being downgraded to such “time-wasting exercises” only give the regime and Russia more time to focus on their military ambitions.
- Diaspora feedback
Those political leaders within the opposition and Kurdish spheres expressed concern that a focus on this initiative removes a focus on intra-Syrian dialogue and focuses the conversation between the regime and the international community as well as regional actors. This was thought to be dangerous in itself. While the regime is not viewed to represent the Syrian people, a political approach is being pursued that cuts out Syrians on the ground as well as those that represent them, who will ultimately be paying the price for the outcome of this approach. Other opposition figures expressed their concerns that the envoy’s pursuit of the SFS approach was not his specific mandate.
Many expressed that this initiative illustrates how western states have lowered their expectations and ambitions away from the goal of finding a durable solution to the conflict through supporting transition in Syria to aiming only for behaviour change. This change in emphasis will lead to rescuing the Assad regime. Many expressed a high degree of scepticism that the international community will find success with this endeavour. While the approach is aimed at building confidence, a major Syrian constituency seems to be losing its already fragile confidence in the international community’s ability to find a durable solution to the Syrian crisis.
- In-country feedback:
Within the survey, 76% of Syrians said that the constitutional committee was not a meaningful process to realize the goals they have for their country.
This negative sentiment was reflected in focus groups held in south, north-west and north-east Syria. Many held that the constitution should be visited as a last step in negotiations, not the primary process, since the problems in Syria are bigger than the constitution. In this way, many ruled that the constitutional committee will not practically solve any of the fundamental problems that caused the Syrian crisis, since the problem was never with the constitution but with its implementation. Many expressed frustrations at how much time it has taken with no results, and with no clear timetable.
Negative views on steps-for-steps and the constitutional committee also translated into dissatisfaction over the role of the UN special envoy for Syria, with 87% of Syrians saying they were dissatisfied with the role and work of the UN special envoy in Syria.
- Diaspora feedback
Some leaders within opposition circles said they thought that the disruption of the constitutional committee by Russia was accidently convenient and timely since it might allow western states to consider other approaches to the Syrian political process. Indeed, some participants stressed that the focus on the constitution has been to the detriment of other baskets, which must now be turned to. Another senior member within the constitutional committee said that the basic formula for the constitutional committee was wrong from the start, since a political agreement is required before reform of the constitution can be considered. In sum: by going straight to the constitution, a fundamental step has been missed and this has created a fundamental flaw in the political process.
One participant in diaspora focus groups said it was the “last nail in the coffin of the political process,” another exclaimed the need to “topple the constitutional committee and all of its parties.” A number of participants criticised the constitutional committee for being too focused on process rather than results. One person compared it to the Palestinian Oslo process saying that its parties were more interested in protecting the process itself rather than focusing on the quality of its contents or results. Other criticisms focused on the need for a stricter timeline, that meetings needed to be shorter and that there needed to be more pressure on the regime for anything even minor to be achieved.
Criticism of the Syrian opposition in outreach conducted was widespread. Several themes emerged in this criticism, a primary one of which was its lack of independence.
Syrians in north-west Syria have come out in their thousands in recent weeks to protest the movement against the reproachment between Turkey and Syria. During these recent protests, Salem Muslet, leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (Etilaf), visited Azaz in northern Aleppo province and was aggressively mobbed by protesters who shouted that he was shabiha—a term used for regime henchmen—while others shouted “traitor!” at him.
Over the years, official opposition bodies have become increasingly beholden to the positioning of Turkey, at the expense of any genuine representation of the views of Syrians inside and outside the country. This even extended to the leader of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), Abdul Rahman Mustafa, recently supporting Turkey’s positioning on normalisation with the regime in an interview with a Turkish news channel.
- In-country feedback
Disparagement of official opposition bodies was ubiquitous within focus groups inside and outside Syria. Inside Syria, criticism focused on the bodies’ lack of independence in that they worked according to their foreign backers rather than adhering to the demands of the Syrian people. Criticism also focused on the bodies’ incompetence.
In north-east Syria in particular, many had a very negative view over the role of external interference within the opposition—in particular, how Turkish dominance and control over these bodies directly correlated with the lack of representation of the Kurds within official opposition bodies. While the Kurdish National Council (KNC) does hold some representation within the SOC, many in north-east Syria do not consider that this party represents the issues of the Kurds. One participant stressed that this was highly problematic when a third of Syria was essentially held by the Kurds. A prominent Kurdish leader inside Syria stressed that it was a fatal fault within the foundations of the Syrian political landscape that led to its failure: the fact that the opposition did not include all sides of the Syrian landscape meant that those excluded would work on something different to achieve their goals.
Many on all sides called for the opposition’s dismantlement and reconstruction. Indeed, the call for the downfall of official opposition bodies has been growing louder in recent months in response to Turkey’s engagement with the regime.
- Diaspora feedback
Outside Syria, this criticism was also widespread. Many stressed that the opposition cares more about their positions than about the interests of their country. One participant commented: “They are merely a small gang controlled by Turkish intelligence that are occupying the place of something useful.” Other participants who themselves played a role within opposition bodies were also critical, saying that the opposition needs reform.
- In-country feedback
Inside Syria most were disappointed with the international communities’ role on Syria. Within the survey, 87% respondents said they were unhappy with the role of the international community in Syria. In focus groups, many lamented the absence of a strong Arab role in finding a solution to the crisis.
This was particularly evident in those areas that are concerned with Iran’s role in their communities and the instability it brings. In south Syria, for example, where many are concerned over the spread of Hezbollah-backed drugs smuggling networks, participants stressed the need for the Gulf to take a stronger role to counter Iran’s hegemony in the region. Similarly, in the north-east where Iran is actively working to co-opt local actors, participants here also willed for more participation from Arab states. Participants in north-west Syria wanted a stronger role for western states as well as Arab countries, with a primary emphasis on Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
- Diaspora feedback
Syrians in the diaspora were more likely to request a greater role for the West. In particular, it was often mentioned how a lack of US leadership or involvement in Syria policy has given space for Russia to dominate the international agenda as well as influence and usurp traditional western allies. There was a widespread view in diaspora circles that the Syrian political process would benefit from more US involvement.
Recommendations & Conclusions
Syrians engaged had a range of recommendations on the different components of the political process, as well as new ideas on alternative approached that they believed should be considered. Some 76% of Syrians inside the country said they would like to see new ideas for a political solution in Syria. It is this mandate that forms the basis of the second paper in this series that aims to set out some of those recommendations.
There is urgency behind these findings. Economic deprivation has reached new depths across Syria, provoking widespread popular anger that has spilled over into protests in different areas of the country. Syria is demonstrating many signs of state failure and the regime is looking increasingly fragile with rumblings of discontent even within its Alawite base. The urgent need for scenario planning around durable solutions to the Syrian crisis is therefore crucial and highly pertinent within this current context.