Women are the Bridges Across Syrian Communities, They Will be the Peacemakers

HuffPologoAs talks to bring an end to nearly five years of conflict in Syria continue, it is essential that we learn the lessons of Iraq, Libya and the Arab revolutions if there is to be lasting peace. To rebuild stable state institutions after conflict, you need to make sure that everyone is able to take part in the process, and to achieve that there must be a safe environment for participation.

The war in Syria has been the longest continuous conflict to come out of the Arab revolutions in 2011, but the recent history of Iraq and Libya shows that even ceasefires and the fall of dictators do not necessarily mean that peace has been achieved.

The Libyan experience is one to which the world should pay close attention when we consider the post-conflict transition that will start when hostilities end in Syria. Libya saw a much shorter though no less intense civil war, beginning with protests in Benghazi and apparently ending with the death of Gadaffi. This was, however, only a symbolic end of the first chapter of revolution.

The war drew in foreign fighters and unleashed factional and sectarian armed groups. The failure to implement proper disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of these fighters left thousands armed in the war’s chaotic aftermath. The new Libyan state then also failed to implement security sector reform (SRR) to ensure basic protection for its citizens.

By failing to provide safety and security, the new administration lost credibility and support. This led to a division that split Libya’s political and economic institutions, and ultimately to what is by any standards a second civil war. It was only last month, more than three years after Libya’s first democratic elections, that the different factions signed the Political Accord Agreement, the result of a year of a UN-led dialogue.

Many of the factors that drove instability in Libya are present in Syria, and if anything are of a greater magnitude. Syria has a far bigger problem with foreign fighters; it has larger, more well-established militant groups; and there more factions divided under political, ethnic, sectarian and religious lines.

In this context, the message from the regime has become that Assad and his allies are the only internal force that can deal with the rise of extremist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra. It says much about the extraordinary situation Syria finds itself in that the regime makes this claim when it is estimated to be responsible for killing nearly seven times as many Syrians as ISIS.

Sadly, the disparate and disorganised nature of the opposition has seen many Syrians lose faith in it, and the experiences of countries in the region under weak transitional institutions have thrown concerns about the opposition’s credibility into stark relief. As Mouna Ghanem, a co-founder of one of the first opposition movements – Building the Syrian State – notes:

The Syrian opposition has ignored the nature of the Syrian people’s demands and not put forward a serious democratic agenda, so unfortunately many Syrians have started to look to the regime as the least worst option in a scenario where all the options are bad.

Security is now a primary concern for many Syrians. ISIS managed to gain a regional foothold through the chaos of the civil war, but it made such dramatic gains in neighbouring Iraq through the weakness of the local Iraqi security forces. The fractured landscape of Syria will be even more vulnerable, whether to extremist militants or political groups trying to exact revenge on their opponents. With so many different armed factions involved, a ceasefire will be difficult if not impossible to enforce by internal forces alone – particularly when no side can be trusted to administer security fairly and without revenge in mind. It is then essential that the international community is involved in providing the security that will be crucial if Syrians are to build the new Syria.

This process of rebuilding and reconciliation is going to require all of Syrian society – men and women, those who stayed and those who have sought refuge outside the country – all of whom will need to be convinced of their fundamental safety to feel they can be a part of the process. Lasting peace in Syria will not be made at the negotiating table, it will be made in the communities, in the sand and on the floors of Syrian homes.

Syrians who fear a future of lawlessness, of reprisals, of political murder, cannot be expected to be full and active participants in peacebuilding. Women in particular are disproportionately affected by the indirect impacts of conflict, and the post-conflict chaos we have seen in countries like Libya has a devastating impact on the ability of women to participate in society. Syrian women have already been routinely ignored and marginalised in the peace efforts so far, the failure to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate the various forces and bring about security sector reform to ensure a level of safety for all citizens would leave women even more disadvantaged.

Mouna Ghanem took part in the recent Riyadh talks on Syria, where she was one of only ten women among the 108 participants. She has said that:

Women are the bridges across Syrian communities. They have a particular stake in peace discussions as it is only through Syria becoming a modern, democratic state that women can see their rights being respected under the law. This can only be achieved by unifying the efforts of Syrian democrats.

A ceasefire then is only the start of the process of bringing peace to Syria. Providing a secure and stable environment for reconciliation is every bit as important a priority for the international community. If Syrians can see that there is a convincing plan to keep them safe from violence and reprisals, they will know there is an alternative to armed struggle and can end their support for the various factions, then can they start to build a real and lasting peace.