A Perspective on the Syrian Conflict

A Structural and Cultural Approach

At the last meeting of the representatives of Group of Friends of the Syrian People, I had the pleasure to present my views on the Syrian conflict.  I used that opportunity to suggest a new approach to deal with the Syrian wicked issues. My main focus was public and civil society organizations instead of the usual disproportionate focus given to international stakes.

This approach depends on attacking root causes at the paradigmatic and philosophical (or cultural) level through a well-planned intervention at the societal level using educational rather than political institutions.


 I would like to thank the Group of Friends of the Syrian People for inviting me to speak at this meeting.

I would like to especially thank Ambassador Stefan van Werch for believing that I have something to say regarding the conflict in Syria.

As a Syrian and on behalf of all Syrians, I would like to thank the Group for their continuing support of the Syrian people in their darkest moment and most trying ordeal.

In the past four years, I was a part of many organizations in Syria, Turkey, and Germany.  We basically tried to replace the state: we did aid programs, political representation, and Local Councils. In this rich  experience my approach was managerial due to my background as an engineer and a project manager.

But I also learned that the Syrian problem needs, in addition to good management, strategic thinking and structural change to attack the root causes of the problem.

In the next fifteen minutes I would like to talk about how the the international community currently deals with the Syrian conflict , and what future scenarios we could expect. Then, I will propose a new perspective on the conflict and a set of practical steps to reshape its future outcome.

1) Current approach

In my opinion, current approaches to the conflict have two main characteristics:

  1. First, at the international level, the conflict is seen as a foreign policy problem either to be contained and its effects reduced, or to be played well against opponents.  Viewed as such, only the consequences of the conflict such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the plight of refugees are addressed and not its root causes. Furthermore, according to many observers, key international players consider Syria as a battlefield for bleeding out enemies.

  2. Second, at the Syrian level, the crisis is seen as that of a failing central government to be replaced with a well-trained and a well-intentioned one.  Viewed as such, the issue of state-building is addressed mainly at the central level. At the more local level, however, essential and basic issues, such as the lack of a political culture or of the lack of viable local governing bodies, are not addressed.

2) Scenarios for the future

If the current approaches to the conflict are maintained, my predictions for the Syrian conflict will be grim. Should the current internal and external dynamics continue, the last study by Max Fisher projected that the conflict can last another ten or fifteen years before reaching the ripe phase that can be followed by a natural resolution.

Meanwhile, the international community can expect to deal with the cost of:

  • first, helping additional millions of refugees living in camps in neighbouring countries;

  • second, resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighboring countries, Europe, and north America;

  • third, facing rogue non-state entities that grow within failing countries, such as al-Qaeda and other local warlords turned international terrorists;

  • fourth, rebuilding a country devoid of infrastructure and educated middle class. The similar case of Bosnia, for example, has demonstrated that less than 15% percent of the refugees, especially among the educated, will ever return.

As for Syrians they can expect

  • first, additional millions to suffer the hardships of refugee camps and internal displacement;

  • second, additional hundreds of thousands of victims and permanently impaired persons;

  • third, the increased radicalization of political and military groups;

  • And fourth, in the best case, a response grown in camps similar to the Taliban model.

3) New Approach

What I am suggesting as a new approach to the conflict will intentionally ignore international stakes, but will focus instead on perspective and solution:

  • Perspective-wise, we need to see the conflict as a structural one;

  • Solution-wise, we need long term solutions through an international intervention that targets both the central and the very local levels, and the institutional and the cultural levels.

The Syrian conflict is not simply a revolution of a well-organized opposition against a tyrannical regime, it is a case of state and societal failure. We are witnessing today the process of disintegration of an old order that could not work. It is a structural problem that needs structural solutions.

The current Syrian state, albeit modern in appearance and institutions, has deep and structural flaws. The presidency, for example, is not an executive position but an autocratic monarchy. The state under Assad the father was a welfare machine distributing handouts to certain clients in return for loyalty. Under Assad the son, it became the private property of a small clique, a company that employs some lucky citizens but leaves the rest of them to unemployment and poverty.

As for the political culture of society, it is one of extreme dependency on the state and lack of political and economic initiative, of idle civil society, and ignorance in civic rights and duties.

Since the late 19th century the focus in Syria has been on the central institutions of the state such as the army, the ministries, and the parliament. Any change is believed to come through the state and by controlling its central institutions; hence the constant coup d’etats and mortal political competition. Unfortunately, the authoritarian state used the central institutions to impose a culture of communal isolation, sectarianism, tribalism, and clientelism.

In what follows, the practical steps I am going to suggest do not concern the state and its central institutions but will focus on the political culture. The aforementioned structural perspective implies that change, and hence a solution to the current crisis, could not be brought about only by political decisions and high-level bureaucrats. It demands a cultural change.

We need to energize society, first, as a political entity through local politics and local government based on the principles of good governance; second, as a civil entity through effective civil society organizations; and third as an economic entity through liberalization, private initiative, and market economy. In other words, we need to educate rather than  transplant preconceived, ready-to-install structures. We need to educate about the philosophy of the modern state, both central and local, and about the ability and skills to adopt that knowledge to Syrian needs.


The slide indicates that the problems at the issues level are generated by the organizations and institutions in the second level. The second, institutional, level is considered here to be constituted of tools transforming mentalities into consequences. A real change can only be achieved by education and training, in order to affect the bottom, philosophical, level. This is realized by building enabling structures through a well-planned intervention on societal level.

4) Practical Suggestions

As practical steps, and in order to effectuate the aforementioned cultural change, I suggest the establishment of various educational venues.

  1. The first venue is a School for Public Administration:  This institution aims to achieve the cultural change at the local service group level through education and training. It could grant six months certificates, one year diplomas, or two-year master’s degrees. It is a venue where the current and future cadres of local service groups and local councils could learn essential skills such as planning, managing and executing projects, and the ability to communicate with foreign donors and international agencies. Local councils, for example, have achieved many successes, but they face the chronic problem of legitimacy and capacity. Like any institution with public pretentions, they are constantly challenged because they are non-representative bodies. They provide essential services but often lack good governance skills and practices. The need for academic training, done at a large scale, has become apparent and pressing.

  2. The second venue is an independent Research Center: This center should support the aforementioned school with education and training material related to the Syrian reality. It should focus on

    • first, understanding the problems faced by local service groups and local councils;

    • second, presenting practical and tested solutions to these problems;

    • third, testing preconceived institutional models for adaptability to Syrian needs and culture;

    • and fourth, collecting and analyzing data about the different aspects of the Syrian economy, society, population, and government.

  3. The third venue is A Syrian Political Forum: This institution is different from entitiessuch as the National Council, a Government in Exile, or the Coalition in that it does not strive for representation.  Its aim is to realize changes in mentalities through allowing ordinary people to express their opinions, to lead the debate on key issues, to measure and shape Syrian public opinion, and to manufacture consensus without making any final political decisions. There are many national issues that generated great public attention, but that did not reach maturity through public debate because of the fast militarization of the Syrian uprising. Amongst such topics we count:

    • First, the role of Islam in the state: How to incorporate Islamic morality and ideals of social justice in the workings and goals of the state, while at the same time preventing the politicization of religion and preserving the sovereignty of the people as the ultimate decision maker;
    • second adopting a constitution: Should a constitution be adopted wholesale through a referendum or piecemeal through an elected parliament in order to postpone the decision on certain divisive clauses;
    • and third, Strategies and mechanisms for social reconciliation: There is a lot of hate in Syria today. Healing is not a political decision but a process that involves dialogue, recognition of grievances, building of trust, and a new social covenant between the different segments of society. 

The Syrian Coalition, the Syrian Interim Government, and the Group of Friends of the Syrian People can play a key role in starting the process of change and in enabling the aforementioned practical steps through

  1. first, legitimizing the newly created private businesses, non-profits, NGOs, political parties, and local governments by registering them. There are currently over a thousand active Syrian NGOs, many of them do not have any legal cover because they are not registered anywhere.

  2. second, creating the unified legal framework that governs the working of these entities, and that enables their smooth insertion in any future Syrian state and society.

  3. and third, channeling funding for these entities and facilitating their connection with foreign donors and international agencies

To sum up what has been just said, Syrians need, in addition to ministries and central institutions, a cultural change through the infusion of new knowledge that can energize the Syrian society at the political, civil, and economic levels. Such change can only be achieved by education, training, and by building enabling structures.

Thank you for listening.