The survey’s main takeaways are that there is broad support on the ground for a negotiated settlement (but, like the diplomats meeting this week in Geneva, no consensus on the future role of Assad), strong support on both the pro-regime and pro-opposition sides for postwar accountability for abuses, and weak support for the Syrian National Coalition, with mixed views of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Craig Charney and his firm Charney Research presented the results at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here, he weighs in on the difficulties of ground research in today’s Syria, and how the findings surprised his team.
Syria Deeply: What went into this?
Craig Charney: This was a qualitative survey: we did 45 interviews, in depth, one on one, with people all around Syria. We talked to men and women supporting both sides of the conflict, from all they key ethnic groups. In the circumstance of Syria, you obviously can’t do a representative national poll where you’re knocking on random doors around the country: it wouldn’t be safe for the interviewers or the respondents.
We’re trying to do a large-scale qualitative study that gives us a POV of the mindsets of Syrians at this stage. The interviews were all conducted in Arabic by experienced local interviewers.
SD: What were the major findings?
CC: First, that Syrians care deeply about trying to end their country’s conflict. They showed a surprising degree of consensus in a desire for negotiated settlement. There was also a consensus on the need for accountability for abuses on all sides, and a very strong desire to see the rule of law in Syria after the conflict.
Second, there was a strong desire among Syrians to see the return of refugees and internally displaced people to their homes, and for sects to live together in peace after the war. We found a real Syrian national identity and a strong desire to co-exist.
Third, there was a strong interest in transitional justice mechanisms, including trials and truth commissions and compensation for losses, which people saw as potentially part of a transition. There are still big divides in Syrian society along predictable lines regarding the regime and opposition, or issues like the fairness of the current Syrian courts. Still on both sides, there was a degree of ambivalence towards the parties and a recognition that abuses had been committed by both sides.
SD: Was any of this surprising to you?
CC: The first three were all rather surprising. Before the research, I was afraid that most Syrians’ attitude towards transitional justice would be “hang the other guys and hang them high.” This was in line with much of the media coverage and the prevailing stereotypes of Syria as a society that is fragmented and falling apart. To my surprise, this was wrong.
We [originally] reported for the Syria Justice and Accountability Center. We hope it reaches audiences within Syria. One of the key things [the interviewees] were explicit about was that accountability is a key to reconciliation. Several interviewees referred specifically to Syria’s culture of revenge and said the only way to avoid people taking the law into their own hands was to have mechanisms for accountability in place.