The Syrian Transition: Towards a More Pragmatic Approach

Tharwa Foundation
Istanbul Policy Center, Sabanci University
Center for Peacemaking Practice, George Mason University
School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Rockefeller Brothers Foundation
Dutch Consulate in Istanbul
July 1 – 3, 2013
Workshop Report


Under the direction of The Tharwa Foundation and with the generous support of the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul, fifteen Syrian activists representing most Syrian constituent groups and a wide range of professions met to identify challenges that will be encountered in the short, midrange, and long term as Syria transitions through peacemaking and toward democracy. As part of their discussions, outlined further below, the group developed a series of next steps that the participants can implement in the short term and also explored ways to continue communication and relationship building begun during the workshop.

The workshop process emphasized the participants as the experts with the facilitation team from partner organizations (Tharwa Foundation, Center for Peacemaking Practice and the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University) moderating and guiding the dialogue. In truth, the team probably learned more from the participants than the participants did from the team – which was the workshop concept from the planning stages. This aspect, a shift in the placement of knowledge as power and influence from outsider to insider, gave the workshop a unique character, one that the participants acknowledged and appreciated. In the final debrief, the workshop attendees expressed overwhelming support for a series of meetings to build upon the groundwork laid during the July workshop. The report continues by exploring three aspects of the workshop focus: (1) current situational assessment; (2) key challenges to moving forward; and (3) strategies, goals, and visions for the future.


Prior to the beginning of the workshop participants, the facilitation team, expert panel members, and Sabanci University representatives met for dinner to ‘eat sweet, talk sweet’ and begin the journey of understanding and relationship building. The following morning, the first session of the workshop explored the current state of affairs in Syria, namely is the current situation a revolution or civil war? The lively discussion that followed examined past grievances, political inequalities, and the emotional, physical, and social costs of tyranny and oppression. The trajectory of the Syrian conflict from revolutionary beginnings to the current movement toward civil war with the expansion of parties both inside and outside of Syria wove throughout the individual narratives. Participants also noted the important role of the media, how people have changed after two years of war, and the gap between the opposition political movement and the movement on the ground. There were also questions about the justification for the use of weapons and the identification of decision-makers. Other comments noted that the revolution served as a changing point, destroying the point of fear [of the regime] and allowing a space for overcoming regional and class differences. The comments during this workshop session indicated a general consensus that the situation is complex, dangerous, and changeable.

The second session, expanding upon the earlier discussion, explored specific internal and external factors that influenced the movement from revolution to civil war. Overall, the discussion focused to a large extent on internal rather than external factors. The effects of a one-party, authoritarian, securitized state were related to the difficulties inherent in the present struggle to articulate and maintain a coherent political challenge. All aspects of life in Syria – political, economic, cultural, educational, social, media – have been shaped by regime policies and participants highlighted the difficulties to organize, connect to legitimate media, find leadership with a strategic view, and to overcome a crisis of trust between constituent groups. The discussions throughout the first day of the workshop served to prepare participants as they begin to think about how they might work together to address some of these challenges conceptually and practically.


Day two began with a special panel presentation sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation that allowed participants to hear how other countries dealt with war to peace transition. Scholars from Cyprus, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Kosovo discussed their experiences of war and conflict in their home countries, detailed their transition processes, and explored how these processes might relate to the Syria conflict. The session that followed the panel allowed the participants to work in small groups and, based on the discussions from the previous day as well as from the panel presentation, develop transition strategies for social, economic, and political challenges in the short term (from 6 months to a year with the survival of Assad), midterm (after the fall of Assad), and long term (reconstruction). The groups, made up of members from different constituent groups, worked together to outline transition visions along lines of topic areas over time. The chart below gives a sample of group responses.

Goals & Visions 

The participant vision, as indicated above, focused on inclusion of all constituent groups, democratic process, and greater social, political, and economic equity. Earlier in the workshop, someone asked the question, “Are we intelligent enough to manage compromise?” underlining the necessity of compromise as an integral part of any goal or vision for a peaceful Syria. In the workshop’s final visioning and wrap up session, attendees proposed projects and ideas that could prove focal points for group action beginning in the short term. One idea proposed, developing an Office of Civil Peace, would gather information that can be given to the media – information from all sides – to assist civil society in establishing itself and acknowledging that civil society needs to include and represent all segments of the population. Another idea posited the organization of research centers to study the Syria situation, provide details, highlight social aspects, suggest solutions, spread education, and stop rumors, in essence building a collaborative network between citizen groups, media, and specialists to begin to solve the leadership dilemma, mentioned in the assessment section. As individuals and groups engage together, whether in the Office of Civil Peace, a research center, or a lawyer project to begin work on justice and reconciliation – or a two day workshop – distrust can lessen, understanding can increase, and trust build.


The workshop, The Syrian Transition: Towards a More Pragmatic Approach, proved successful from a process standpoint but also from a personal standpoint. When asked in the evaluation, “what was the most useful aspect of this workshop for you?” comments referred to developed understanding of different points of view and perspectives, the workshop format helping to bring all Syrians together again and reinforcing abilities for teamwork. In terms of changes in perspective as a result of the workshop, statements focused on increased trust of ‘my people’ and their ability to rebuild Syria for themselves and the value of small groups of varied constituents as important for change in perspective and building hope for the future. Participants expressed a very positive response to having more facilitated thematically focused dialogue workshops among Syrians, highlighting themes such as legal issues, transitional justice, post-war affects on individuals, conflict resolution, and politics.

The attendees proved themselves experts in all aspects of their workshop participation. They demonstrated keen insight into dilemmas, constraints, and opportunities presently facing the Syrian people, allowed themselves to experience changes in perspective and increased understanding of other groups, and developed a series of strategies and proposals upon which further collaboration and even compromise can be built. The facilitation team, as well as the participants, look forward to the opportunity to provide additional support that will assist the transition of workshop-developed ideas to more pragmatic forms.