March 14, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

Qualitative Interviews with Syrians on Transitional Justice

By Dina Smeltz and Nabeel Khoury

Today’s post is based on qualitative in-depth interviews among Syrians that were conducted by Charney Research in partnership with the The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), a Syrian-led and multilaterally-supported nonprofit. The SJAC seeks to generate discussion and increase awareness about transitional justice issues among legal specialists and the Syrian public. Qualitative results are not representative of the population as a whole, but they offer some anecdotal insights into the views of these particular participants. (Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.)

In August 2013, SJAC and Charney commissioned 46 in-depth interviews with Syrian adults living within and outside Syria on issues related to transitional justice.  Locations included Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqah, Hama, Homs, al-Qamishli, Turkey and Jordan. Interviewers spoke with both regime supporters and opponents, as well as some internally displaced and refugees, about how Syria can begin to address the abuses and losses due to the conflict.

The project report notes that all wars eventually end — “and when they do, it is increasingly common that there is a reckoning for abuses committed during the conflict.” Provisions for transitional justice can be a crucial aspect to negotiated settlement, even if one side ultimately prevails.

The analysis showed that most of those interviewed preferred a negotiated settlement as the only way to stop the fighting, but they were skeptical that such an agreement is possible. Their skepticism was borne out by other interview findings: many regime opponents would accept exile for President Assad as part of a negotiated end to the violence, while other regime opponents rejected this and insisted that he should be held accountable. By contrast, regime supporters would not consider exile for Assad, even as part of a settlement.

There is some hope for peaceful coexistence between regime supporters and opponents after the war.  Most respondents  said that post-conflict they would be willing to live with neighbors who had different political views or who had left their homes during the conflict, except for violent or armed groups.  But some also rejected coexistence outright.

Transitional Justice Options: While most agreed that the rule of law should prevail in post-war Syria, participants disagreed on whether due process currently exists. Most support prosecution of human rights violators on both sides of the conflict. Of the options presented - trials, truth commissions, and compensation - trials were the most popular approach. While there was some disagreement on whether new courts were needed or existing courts would suffice, most of those interviewed wanted violators brought before Syrian courts, without international participation. Compensation was seen as a means of redressing economic damage. Those who lost earners, property, jobs, or businesses were seen as the highest priorities for compensation.

Very few among those interviewed had heard of truth commissions, but they were receptive to the idea — particularly to the evidence gathering and compensation components. Despite this receptivity, the report notes that many found the suggestion of a truth commission offering amnesty for confession, as in the case of South Africa, unacceptable, and said it was essential that offenders be prosecuted.

At this point, Geneva I and II have produced not even created a hint of agreement, and there is still no end game in sight.  In fact, the regime of Bashar al-Assad (and its supporters) may believe the war is ultimately winnable. We caution that these interviews were conducted as fighting raged, emotions ran high and fears on both sides were - and still are - abundant. And these individual interviews also do not represent the Syrian population at large. But we find it interesting that these participants revealed some contradictions between desires to end the fighting and mend the rifts in Syrian society and an urge to see accountability via the Syrian court system.  Given the complexity of the tragedy, attempts to prosecute all the criminals involved once the guns fall silent will be a traumatic reckoning for Syrian society.  Our best guess is that feelings and opinions may look a little different if the military balance on the ground changes, or if both sides exhaust themselves on the battlefields and finally come to terms.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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