Syrian civil society leader and astrophysicist Rim Turkmani may live in the UK, where she is raising her young children while juggling her academic duties with her peacebuilding activities, but a good chunk of her heart is with her family and friends struggling to survive in her native Syria. They are living day to day, uncertain about what the next one will bring.
In the part of Syria in which they are, “they often have to walk everywhere. There’s no transport or it’s extremely slow because of the checkpoints,” says Turkmani. “There’s hardly any electricity, water. It’s freezing, difficult to get food. They don’t have any prospects.”
Nearly four years of bloody civil war have torn the country apart, driving more than 11 million people from their homes and leaving about half of Syria’s 22 million citizens in need of humanitarian assistance. So it’s no wonder that Turkmani has been pouring every spare moment into a campaign to promote greater support to civil society actors engaging in local negotiations for ceasefires that could help reduce the violence and ease the suffering of families.
Such ceasefires and truces have caught international attention in recent months, and the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has presented a plan to establish local freezes, starting in Aleppo. Many of the past deals that have been negotiated between the Syrian government and opposition groups have been problematic—in some cases driven by massive violations of human rights. The absence of independent monitors and a limited role for civilians and civil society groups has also contributed to the fragility of truces between conflict parties. With de Mistura’s initiative, there is a chance to draw lessons from past cases to make to make local ceasefires more sustainable and link to renewed efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
In a report she co-authored last fall, “Hungry for Peace,” Turkmani and her fellow researchers explored how local ceasefires, even in one area at a time, can offer a glimmer of hope in a dire situation—especially if the ceasefires can be linked to a broader peace process.
For Syrians enduring the endless conflict, what does that glimmer of hope look like?
“A better day than the day before because now every day that comes is worse than the day before,” said Turkmani recently. “This dream [is] to be more secure. The people will be able to go back to their houses. This bleeding of people having to leave the country will stop. Having water, electricity, or food—having hope that this thing is going to end someday.”
For Samah, a 37-year-old mother of six children whose story is recounted in Failing Syria: assessing the impact of UN Security Council Resolutions in protecting and assisting civilians in Syria, that day can’t come soon enough. The threat of bombing forced her family to flee from their home for the safety of some caves in the mountains.
“When we were in the caves, we used to go to nearby farms to collect anything we find, sometimes grass or bark, to feed to our six children,” she said. Occasionally, she would meet a farmer too afraid to go into the field to harvest because of aerial bombardment, so she would harvest in exchange for a bit of money and some food.
A few months ago, Samah’s family got a tent so they can now live on their own.
“Can you imagine that our dream had become just to have our own tent?” she asked. “I still think that living under shelling and airstrikes is more dignified than this kind of life. If a shell hits you, then you will die instantly, but here we are dying every day a thousand times over. We are dying from cold, illness, and hunger."
Pressure from basic needs
Rim Turkmani and her co-authors of Hungry for Peace found that local ceasefires can help communities regain a degree of security, allowing the people who live there to return to at least a semblance of their former lives. Often what makes these local deals possible is when citizens, desperate for food and water or for services such as electricity, put pressure on the armed factions that control the area.
One good example, says Turkmani, is in Barzeh, a rebel-held neighborhood in northeast Damascus, where the front-line divided it from Esh Alwarwar, an area of government loyalists. Barzeh, from which many civilians fled, sits on a main road that leads to central Damascus and winds past loyalist neighborhoods and a military hospital. Barzeh rebels were blocking that road, which meant that everyone else had to take a much longer route around, including government military officials. So, they had some incentive to engage in negotiations, Turkmani notes.
“The [Barzeh] civilians who left, most of them were still living in Damascus with friends or neighbors or renting houses. [They were] also adding pressure; they wanted to go back. So they initiated negotiations—cutting a very good deal where the regime and the opposition agreed to stop fighting,” Turkmani says. The opposition, while still keeping armed checkpoints, opened the road so the regime could use it.
“So thousands—the figure has been given as 30,000—many people went back to their areas after that. They settled back in their houses. They’re not IDPs anymore. There was a revival of modest economic activities. There was some progress,” Turkmani says. “The ceasefire has been holding out for more than a year now.”
Deals like that in Barzeh can be hard to achieve, acknowledges Turkmani. And maintaining them is equally challenging, especially as regional and international powers—with a stake in the fate of Syria—continue to arm the fighters, she adds. In fact, in Turkmani’s opinion, in addition to the lack of political will, regional interference is the biggest obstacle to local ceasefires.
“The regional actors are supporting different conflict parties,” she says, naming Iran and Turkey among those feeding the fight. “These conflict parties are fighting each other. So if you don’t resolve the regional conflict, it is hard to resolve the local ones.”
For peace-minded citizens trapped inside Syria, this regional power play has left many feeling hopeless and abandoned by the world at large—by the Russians, the Americans, Iranians, and those in the Gulf countries, Turkmani says.
“They [Syrians] feel they [those countries] are also behind their misery, that they just helped keep the conflict going. They had the power. They had the leverage. And they were not interested in presenting a solution for them and as a result they are paying the price while these people are safe in their countries,” Turkmani says.
Still, Turkmani has a deep belief in the power of talk to end the strife and bring peace to a place she loves so much. And she takes inspiration from her 9-year-old son.
“He was asked [along with others] in school to write a message to someone else in the world,” Turkmani says. His message was for the people suffering in Syria: you have to believe war will end, and talks are the way to get there.
“I thought this is absolutely right,” Turkmani says. “This is going to end. We have to keep working on this.”
Building hope out of shattered lives:
Approximately 12.2 million people are in need in Syria. Oxfam has reached over 1.5 million people affected by the Syria crisis, across Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Women and children have been particularly affected by the violence.