Hilary Smith

Dr. Marc Gopin

CONF 695: Approaches to Conflict Management & Resolution: Field Work with Syrian Refugees

23 April 2016



In my first reflection, I explored the human impact of the crisis in Syria, particularly the resilience of refugees and how they piece their lives back together in their changed circumstances. I reflected on child marriages, the need for hope and reassurance that they are remembered, and what roles citizen diplomacy, narrative, and positive psychology play in dealing with this crisis on a personal level. In this reflection, I would like to widen the scope and look at the landscape affecting these people on the ground. What geopolitical involvement is affecting this civil war and its attendant suffering? What can be done to resolve the conflict so refugees can build lives in their homeland again?

In researching this topic and reflecting on my own experiences in Jordan, I found a few ideas and questions that I believe connect to a wider resolution of the conflict and pave the way for restoring refugee families to Syria and rebuilding Syria itself. First, I think the US would do well to have a clear goal or goals and a smart strategy that takes into account the international environment as well as Assad’s strategies. Second, expanding foreign policy priorities to include humanitarian priorities will pave the way for peace over time and increase the likelihood of successfully rebuilding Syria. Finally, I want to reflect on the work of concerned Syrians, especially Nousha, Hind, and Soulaima, and how the work of citizens is connected to ending the civil war in Syria.

The humanitarian issues surrounding the Syrian civil war are both heart-wrenching and frustrating when one thinks how the powerless are the most affected but least able to end the conflict on a large scale. In researching this topic, I maintained the perspective of a US citizen and thought what role my country plays and how we can play it better, especially in relation to the overall situation. In the current cocktail of international actors in the Syrian conflict, the US proposes a negotiated solution, backs moderate rebel groups with weapons and training, and wants a transitional government where Assad has no place. Russia wants to protect its military bases on the Syrian coast and continues to prop up militarily and shield diplomatically their longtime ally. Russia has ever held this conflict requires a negotiated solution. Saudi Arabia takes the hardest military line against Assad in calling to remove him from power, through force or negotiations. It funds and arms Islamist militant groups operating against the Syrians regime. Iran officially calls for a transition in Syria to an elected, multi-party system, however, continues to prop up Assad with billions of dollars, military support, and influencing their client group, Hezbollah, to enter the fight on Assad’s side. Finally, Turkey calls for the removal of President Assad and has tended toward divisive, sectarian language in recent years (“Syria Crisis” 2015; Johnson 2014). This is a sampling of the international context the Syrian civil war plays out in and the environment the US has to work in.

In addition to acting in a complex international context, the US will need to act in anticipation of President Assad, his goals, strategies and habits, in order to accomplish its foreign policy goals. Bashar al-Assad is a man in his father’s and brother’s shadow, never meant to rule, and has worked carefully to get out from under that limitation (Ciezadlo 2013). Like many dictators, he cultivates his persona. To his international interlocutors, he has cultivated an image of pliancy and willingness to agree and work together. However, he more often than not, is unreliable and finds ways to not follow through on his promises. A former aid described Assad that, before entering a negotiation, he would advise his team to, “‘Give them always nice words, nice meetings, nice phrases…They will be happy, they will say good things about us, and they cannot withdraw from it later,’” and would later withdraw from his concession, finding a reason for delivering on it being out of his control (Ciezadlo 2013).

In dealing in such an international environment with a prevaricating and insecure dictator like Assad, I thought the US needs to set clear goals and adopt creative strategies. At first, I thought of ways the US can counter Assad’s moves, but then I remembered my narrative training and realized this gave power to Assad to dictate our actions as we base our actions and strategy on his rather than having an independent agenda. Coming to this realization followed a natural process of inquiry where I began thinking, ‘What does Assad want? Why is he holding onto power and resistant to foreign powers? He wants to stay in power and not have other people’s fingers in his pie. He wins that by being pliant and then doing what he wants, he gives the impression he will concede and looks reasonable, but he’s prevaricating, he will not follow through. So one method to counter balance that is to force or coerce him, or to make a covenant deal, one where if he does a thing you want, you do a thing he wants, or you can pull your own strings in ways that limit or hurt him (and others) – i.e. halt his bank transactions, let his power grid go down, allow or deny supplies detrimental or beneficial to him, respectively, to come across the border. Or you can have his big brothers and vital supporters in Iran or Hezbollah work with him, tell him what to do, brother to brother. Assad stops at nothing. He drives the conflict to the extreme in order to keep outsiders out. Can we influence events on the inside? He has an intelligence service, a mukhabarat, set up to defend against that.’ This was when I realized I was letting Assad dictate the narrative and also potential US actions. Seeking to counter an enemy is not a strategy, it’s a reaction. Strategy should be based in specific goals so it can adapt in case your adversary’s goals or strategies change. I think we need a goal first, then we need to understand Assad’s goals and strategy, then we need a strategy based on principles that allows us to accomplish our goals in light of his strategy (placating) and the international environment.

So, the US foreign policy goals should include regional stability, empowerment of democratic ideals (not necessarily radical Islamist ideals), a cessation of hot conflict, and alleviating the refugee crisis that is destabilizing the region and Europe, sowing the seeds of future conflict. These are goals. We now need plans and a strategy for carrying them out.

In speaking about strategy, my second point comes into play, expanding foreign policy to deal with the humanitarian crisis of refugees. Alleviating the humanitarian crisis protects American interests and makes her safer because it reduces likelihood of refugees being radicalized and atomizing into foreign countries to perpetuate terrorist attacks. It invests in a population that will later bring a return. The US invested in Germany and Japan in the wake of WWII by providing humanitarian relief. Today, both are strong allies of the US, economic powerhouses in their regions, and they increase economic prosperity and global security for Americans. A similar investment in Syrians will not only garner the gratitude of a troubled people, but investments in education prevent an entire generation being lost and provides opportunity for Syrians themselves to gain the skills needed to rebuild their country in the future, making it less reliant on future foreign aid. A former CDRC student, Andrew Overton, suggested three things for how the US can contribute to the humanitarian crisis even before the fighting is over. He suggests training activists in human rights and conflict resolution, educating children and young people, and amping up and diversifying humanitarian aid (Overton 2014). Likewise, David Miliband, as a former foreign secretary for the UK, suggests nations involved in the Syrian crisis focus on offering humanitarian relief as a large part of their foreign policy. He suggests each country appointing an envoy solely dedicated to the humanitarian crisis, greater efforts in reaching besieged areas, facilitating relief support in crossing the borders, staying in dialogue with other nations on the progress of humanitarian relief, lending financial assistance to NGOs over the border, and improving resettlement in third countries (Miliband 2014). This focus on humanitarian intervention is possible only through accepting that relieving the humanitarian crisis is imperative. The by-products of providing relief helps the US achieve its other goals. If Syrians know, in their time of greatest need, the US and other countries came to their aid, they will likely see us as friends and be more willing to listen to our advisors at ceasefire negotiations or when drafting a new government. Relieving the humanitarian crisis will also reduce the influence radical groups hostile to the US have over these vulnerable populations. This will, in the long run, keep America more secure from violent, non-state actors. Alleviating the humanitarian crisis serves US foreign policy goals in tangible ways and does so based on a strategy that is actionable and effective in the present environment.

Finally, I want to reflect on how I saw our three Syrian teachers contributing to alleviating the humanitarian crisis and working toward a broader peace in the future. Nousha’s schools in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Aleppo are her contribution to the Syrian revolution. Amal ou Salam emphasizes perspectives that will bring peace. She does not focus on perspectives or policies that encourage sectarian division or grudge-holding in students, which would be seeds of future conflict. I was also impressed that she’s not an expert educator. She’s done a few summer camps but is otherwise self-taught and decided what she had to offer is enough. She was right. She is able to reach kids in hard to reach places and is making a difference in so many lives and families. And that is the work of just one person.

Hind is also doing the work of one person but having an impact on many. She has remained active in creating a ceasefire and helped form a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, civil society council that is an active partner in ceasefire negotiations (Kabawat 2015). She had a lot of interesting insights into negotiation dynamics. She said that just as important as food and shelter, letting these refugees know they are not forgotten or abandoned is vital. Everywhere we went, she was inclusive, connecting people, and holding hands or putting her arm around people, letting them know they are remembered. Before walking into the negotiations in Geneva, she told us she prays to represent those people, not her ego. That internal commitment leading to beneficial external action was inspiring to me and elevates my expectations of what I can do in my own community.

Soulaima lives among enemies and yet has a heart oriented to peace. I asked her if she will be friends with her current friends supporting the other side after the war. Without hesitation she responded, “Of course, Syria needs them.” That struck me deeply. She is a witness to the destruction and suffering that has come from this war. She knows exactly what will happen to her if she is found out by the wrong side. She could easily approach this conflict and the people on the other side as her friends are, with fear, with self-protection, or with focusing on herself at the sacrifice of focusing on her country. However, she has not surrendered the common humanity they all possess and the fundamental fact that they are all people, not objects, and all Syrians. She is one of the greatest reasons to hope for a better future in Syria. She is proof of the kind of people who are so indefatigably sustaining Syria now and are getting ready to rebuild it when the guns stop firing. She is amazing and the essence of building peace, even in the midst of war.




Ciezadlo, A. (2013, December 19). Bashar Al Assad: An Intimate Profile of a Mass Murderer. Retrieved April 16, 2016, from

Johnson, G. (2014, April 15). Syria’s conflict raises Turkey tension. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from

Kabawat, H. (2015, December 16). Riyadh Conference: What Makes It Different? Retrieved April 18, 2016, from

Miliband, D. (2014, March 26). Syria’s Latest Victim: International Law. Retrieved April 16, 2016, from

Overton, A. (2014, April 14). Media narrative that Syria is a hopeless debacle ignores helpful non-violent steps US can take. Retrieved April 21, 2016, from

Padnos, T. (2014, October 29). My Captivity. Retrieved April 16, 2016, from

Syria crisis: Where key countries stand – BBC News. (2015, October 30). Retrieved April 21, 2016, from