Islands of Peace created by local mediators in Syrian War

Taking sides in the Syrian conflict can get you killed. But not taking sides is just as dangerous.

Peace-builders all over the country face accusations of betrayal from all sides, but they haven't given up. 143 peace actors on the ground in Syria were interviewed for a report by research institute Swisspeace, and for security reasons, they had to stay anonymous.

"We noticed that in that the Syrian context, as in many other contexts of armed conflicts, the focus is very quickly on armed actors, and atrocities and violence, and we wanted to change that a little bit and say 'hey, while there is of course active violence and it's really terrible what's going on in Syria, there are also a lot of actors who through their everyday activities they contribute to very small island of stability, and peace,"

said Dr Sara Hellmüller, from Swisspeace.

Peace-builders face immense barriers, including the militarization for the conflict, and the polarization of society.

One respondent said: “after months of incidents, the society of Damascus has become divided between objectors and supporters [to the regime], traitors and collaborators, and even families have divided among each other.”

"Everyone, especially at the beginning of the conflict, everyone was quickly asked to really take sides and whoever didn't, they were under threat of both or of different sides, because they were accused by different sides of being with the other side," said Dr Hellmüller.

One of the hardest tasks of local peace builders is negotiating the release of prisoners, to diffuse a climate of fear.

"For instance in Daraa, where a respondent was involved in the exchange of detainees, between the government and an opposition group, and the negotiations lasted for weeks and weeks, and sometimes they nearly failed," said Dr Hellmüller.

"He told us that it was on the brink of a deadlock and at one point they really wanted to stop everything, and then an elders intervened and then everything changed and they could eventually facilitate the deal. The negotiations ended with the release of ten detainees form Da'ara and three form Damascus, so there there was a concrete success," she said.

These peace-builders aren't able to change the face of the whole conflict, but they do make a difference.

"I was quite impressed by the fact that even if agreements are not kept for a long time, there are a lot of negotiations and mediations, and conflict resolution ongoing at the local level, and different individuals mediate truces or mediate exchanges of detainees, be it with different opposition groups or with the government, and even if they just hold for 3 weeks or 4 weeks the people really say 'At least this gives the people who live in this small village, or in this small region, it gives them a breather from violence and the ongoing hostilities.' In the report we call it these 'islands of peace', and they are islands in the geographical sense, in the sense that it's not all over Syria, but also in a temporary sense that sometimes they don't last for long, but at least it's a temporary island that they create," said Dr Hellmüller.

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