How can we build peace in Syria before a deal is signed?

by Harriet Lamb, CEO, International Alert | International Alert - UK
Thursday, 4 February 2016 10:21 GMT

A young migrant pulls a trolley in a muddy field at a camp of makeshift shelters for migrants and asylum-seekers from Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran and Syria, called the Grande Synthe jungle, near Calais, France, Feb. 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman

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Donors must think about how aid for vital services can reinforce peace, and does not potentially add to tensions

As world leaders and other high-profile delegates will hear at today’s ‘Supporting Syria and the Region’ conference, hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, billions of dollars are needed to deal with what has become the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

In the run up to the event, we have also had a call from International Development Secretary Justine Greening for jobs and schooling to be provided in Syria to give people who have no other choice but to flee the Middle East the option to stay there. While David Miliband, who heads the New York based International Rescue Committee, has talked of the need for work permits for one million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries to help them head off desperation and starvation.

Undoubtedly much does need to be done to help Syria, indeed billions of dollars are needed to deal with a crisis that is destroying so many lives. We hear these personal accounts daily.

Personally I am haunted by the 13 year old boy, his hair shaved close, talking with all the dignity in the world to BBC journalist Lyse Doucet in Yarmouk. He suddenly can’t hold it together a second longer. Desperately wiping his eyes, wiping his nose, he sobbed that they hadn’t had any bread. Most recently, the tragic low point of people in Madaya made the extent of the suffering in the country clear. Again and again, the sheer scale and intensity of this protracted and hideously complex conflict underscores the depth of need.

As with all such conferences (and there have already been a few), London’s focus will primarily be on how much aid will be pledged and who will give what. But with so many donor states, aid agencies and Syrian civil society organisations in the room, this must also be a chance to consider how aid will be delivered, in a way that already starts down the long, slow road of building the conditions for long-term stability.

Our experience tells us that participating governments and the United Nations must ensure that agreed aid delivery does not create more divisions in this extremely polarised region, but is used in a way that contributes to lasting peace.   

March will mark the fifth anniversary of the Syrian uprisings. Uprisings that started peacefully, with people asking for their rights to be respected, but have since turned to violence, and have seen widened divides between people of different communities. People’s mistrust of each other is off the scale, with a large part of the population scattered across the Middle East and beyond, nursing deep psychological wounds.

The peace talks in Geneva were highly anticipated but have already been suspended, and no-one can imagine a quick turn-around. Even if a peace agreement is signed, it will take decades to re-build trust. As one of our Syrian partners in Lebanon said: “The divides between Syrians are now so strong, there may be another civil war after this one ends and people start returning to live side by side.”

So what does ‘building peace’ in Syria mean in practice? Education is rightly one of the pillars of the London conference. Indeed, right now, inside Syria and in refugee communities elsewhere, local organisations are laying the foundations by running ‘peace education’ classes alongside the mainstream curriculum.

These classes create a safe space for children and young people affected by violent conflict, and help them deal with trauma, develop empathy and respect for diversity, and critically analyse the world around them. A 17-year old boy attending these sessions, run by International Alert’s partners in Lebanon, told us: “Without your guidance and what you tell us in these sessions, I would have returned to Syria and joined ISIS”.


The international donor community must therefore think carefully about how aid for vital services like education may reinforce peace – and ensure that it does not potentially add to tensions. This is particularly important within neighbouring countries.

In Lebanon, where refugees now make up 25 percent of the total population, it has been shown that education classes for both Syrian refugees and Lebanese children break down barriers of mistrust and defuse tensions. Segregated classes instead deepen them. Getting more Syrian children into education can prevent a ‘lost generation’.

Also high on the conference agenda are discussions about people’s livelihoods and the economy. The need to generate livelihood opportunities is clear, with millions of Syrians living as refugees and unemployment in Syria estimated as high as 80 per cent.

Even where basic schooling is available, young Syrians have few opportunities to gain higher qualifications, so limiting their chances of securing a stable career and increasing a sense of frustration and hopelessness. They would far rather make money than make war. But sometimes, to feed their families, they have to join the fight.

Beyond ensuring basic survival, generating economic opportunities, if facilitated carefully, can help provide young Syrians with a sense of purpose, keeping them away from armed groups and bringing divided communities together around common goals. As one of the Syrian facilitators of the ‘peace education’ classes put it: “If not for this job I would be on the frontline with a Kalashnikov”.

Jobs are also the top cause of tensions between refugees and host communities in Lebanon and Jordan. Governments in these countries are themselves dealing with unprecedented levels of unemployment and an increasingly restless youth bulge. The stringent restrictions placed on the right of refugees to work stem from this reality. So if the international community want to invest in creating the badly needed jobs for Syrians, they must navigate carefully.

It is yet another challenge that will be far from easy but cannot be ignored by those coming to London today. So we know just how tough it is going to be.


We surely all want to back the tenacious hope of all those in Syria who are already backing peace. While an official peace agreement is certainly essential for peace in Syria, we do not have to wait for the ink on those pages to start building peace. That is work we can start now, to build peace between communities – as peace in the end must always also come from the ‘bottom up’, as well as from the ‘top down’.

That is why the London conference is a vital chance to galvanise a coordinated global response to the crisis, raise the funds so desperately needed and revive our determination to build on the possible ways out of the morass.

Success at the conference, organised by the United Nations and the governments of Britain, Germany, Norway and Kuwait, must not only be measured by the funds generated, but also by the opportunities created for sustainable peace, from the ground up. Only then can there be realistic hope for ending the suffering of Syrians.

Amazingly, at International Alert, it is our Syrian colleagues who have the most hope. Despite the muffling of a bad Skype line with the region, they talk enthusiastically of the networks of civilians working with people in Syria, volunteers, people creating social networks online or using arts or poetry or education.

One of our colleagues, for example, had the option to emigrate to the United States but chose to stay and work for peace. His reasoning: “I want to tell my children that I was doing something when the country was in need.” 

Harriet Lamb is CEO of International Alert, one of the world’s leading peacebuilding organisations.