On 15 March 2019, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘The Future of Syria: Towards Inclusive Peacebuilding’.
Organized in four thematic panels, this conference brought together policymakers, experts, academics and civil society leaders to identify the main institutional and socioeconomic challenges to stabilization in Syria, and to offer policy recommendations in support of an inclusive peacebuilding process.
Session 3: Challenges for Social Cohesion
- Ruwan Al-Rejoleh, Independent Researcher
- Allaa Barri, Chatham House
- Zaki Mehchy, Chatham House
Moderator: Sara Kayyali, Human Rights Watch
This session focused on the challenges of social cohesion in Syria and how to overcome them, and highlighted the role of external actors in any potential agreement and how they can support Syrian civil society to achieve sustainable peace.
As shown by Zaki Mehchy, Syria is witnessing a significant deterioration in its social cohesion due to the crisis, which reflects polarization as well as the investment in identity politics made by multiple actors in exacerbating this polarization. In terms of the social capital index, a tool which helps to quantify the concept of social cohesion, a decrease of social cohesion at national level can be seen clearly in Syria with a huge degradation in social capital.
It is important to note that there are two types of social capital: bonding social capital and bridging social capital. The first, in which people resort to traditional social institutions in times of crisis, has increased in Syria and eventually increased polarization, while the second, which links communities together, has been negatively affected.
The social capital index is estimated to have decreased by 30% since 2015. This has its roots in previous decades of oppression exerted to dominate the Syrian society, including through systematic indoctrination of Baathist ideology, as discussed by Rawan Al-Rejoleh, who highlighted that there has been no place for civil society to operate and given the dominance of a single ideology.
What is worrying, added Al-Rejoleh, is that some of the new emerging territorial and political powers are replicating this kind of authoritarian ideology and distrust in communities they control, which is a challenging situation for inclusive peacebuilding. It is therefore important for INGOs and policymakers to figure out how to bridge these highly polarized areas.
Also, it is not just the regime that needs to be consider when discussing social cohesion and reconstruction. There are a number of non-state actors that play an important role in impacting social cohesion, as the panel discussed.
With nearly half of the population displaced, Allaa Barri demonstrated how this drive is causing fragmentation in the Syrian social structure and severely affecting social capital. This impact is more evident in communities which have been subject to a large-scale displacement such as Idlib, Raqqa and Al-Hasakah.
The consequences on these communities, argued Barri, can be traced in three major ways. First, there is a disappearance of whole communities and emergence of new ones, as shown in Raqqa. Second, a systematic reshaping of Syria’s demographics is being implemented by the regime to remake the country in its favour. Third, new social dynamics are emerging, especially between internally displaced people and hosting communities, which are exacerbating social tensions.
In addition to population movement, which is one of the key determinants of the social capital index, education and health care are also elements that play an important role in maintaining social cohesion. Therefore, low school enrolment rates correlate with a low social index as young people get involved in violence and conflict-related activities instead of education. This is why inclusive development in Syria is desperately needed in order to restore social cohesion, argued Zaki Mehchy.
While some of the refugees have started to return home, it is crucial for the UN and the EU to monitor this process and to involve civil society and community leaders to make sure no one is being forced to return and to secure the physical safety of those who chose to return, remarked Barri. She added that communities need to be brought back before reconstruction is initiated and that work on inclusive social development that assures justice and rights of all Syrian individuals is needed. Developing social policies that are flexible and tailored to the circumstances of each community would be vital for the restoration of social cohesion in Syria.
Summing up some recommendations to INGOs and policymakers, the panel reiterated that any reconstruction process would be meaningless unless it takes into account how to enhance the trust between society and dominant institutions, namely the state. Importantly, it should be noted that what is happening in Syria is more ‘construction’ projects in favour of a minority of regime cronies rather than reconstruction initiatives that aim at achieving social justice and social cohesion. It is equally important for INGOs to create an incentive to push the authoritarian government to let them create a space for Syrians to have an open dialogue about their future in terms of health, economy, culture and development.