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What Syrians actually think of a peace deal

Syrians living in Jordan and activists wave Syrian opposition flags as they shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration marking the first anniversary of the chemical attack on the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, near the Syrian embassy in Amman Aug. 21, 2014. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

After more than four years of violent conflict, international pressure is growing to revive a political process for Syria. This week, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will report to the Security Council on the results of his recent consultations with a wide range of parties to the Syrian conflict to determine whether conditions warrant reviving the Geneva peace process. In recent interviews, President Obama emphasized the need for a negotiated settlement of the conflict and suggested that Russia’s opposition to a negotiated post-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad transition may be easing.

The reason for this new emphasis on negotiations is not hard to find. Recent gains by the armed opposition — including groups unpalatable to the West like Jabhat al-Nusra — have led many to believe the regime is on the brink of collapse. The image of jihadists marching into Damascus has galvanized both opponents and supporters of the regime to push for a negotiated settlement while there is still time. Negotiations aim to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of regime collapse, such as massive displacement, revenge violence and the possibility of an extremist regime in power.

As world leaders ponder how to restart a political process, it is crucial to consider how ordinary Syrians view the possibility of a negotiated settlement to a conflict that has claimed more than 250,000 Syrian lives. Over the past three months, The Day After Association, a Syrian nongovernmental organization based in Istanbul, conducted a survey of 2,767 Syrians in opposition and regime-held areas in Syria as well as refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to determine their views on negotiations. The survey was carried out through in-person interviews by a team of 19 surveyors. Though not a scientifically representative sample of all Syrians, the survey nonetheless provides crucial insight into the perspectives of those caught up in the conflict and most profoundly affected by it.

The findings are deeply revealing and, in parts, quite troubling. They underscore the corrosive effects of years of violence and highlight the enormous gaps that must be bridged to build popular support for negotiations. However, the results also offer some reasons for hope, suggesting that Syrians have not turned their backs on negotiations or one another.

Political representation is at the heart of the issue. Who should participate in negotiations? What is the size of their presence and support on the ground in Syria? The findings show that together various opposition alternatives to the Assad regime receive support from almost half of Syrians across the country. Yet, disconcertingly, nearly one quarter of respondents say that either no party represents them or they do not know. Reflecting the failure of Syria’s external opposition to secure internal legitimacy, only 16.8 percent of Syrians across all surveyed areas believe that the National Coalition represents them in negotiations. Even in opposition-controlled areas, belief in the coalition is only slightly more favorable with 19 percent. The Assad regime fares little better. Only 16.1 percent of respondents nationwide support the regime, and it was viewed as representative by just 39.1 percent of the population in areas under its own control. These findings demonstrate a major crisis of political representation, whether in areas under regime or opposition control.

As always, one should be careful when interpreting polling results. The obstacles presented by the war make it almost impossible to assemble a fully representative sample. This is particularly challenging in areas controlled by the regime or the Islamic State, where polling cannot be undertaken openly in the streets. Nevertheless, we can identify some significant trends by comparing the views of critical demographic groups. The findings that emerge underscore the widespread lack of confidence among Syrians in negotiations.

Of the 2,767 Syrians sampled, just over half believe negotiations can bring a solution to the conflict. However, Sunnis, people younger than 25, and more Islamist-leaning respondents disproportionately oppose negotiations. Why these groups reject negotiations is not clear. Their distrust may be due to the lack of legitimacy of the actors participating in past negotiation attempts. As the findings show, neither the regime nor various opposition bodies have strong backing from Syrians on the ground. Another reason may be the disconnect between armed groups and political actors — how will the signatories to any political agreement ensure that the armed groups comply? More research is needed to better understand the dynamics and preferences of armed group members. Even more troubling from the perspective of those who insist there can be no military solution to the Syrian conflict, these findings may also reflect a growing confidence among key demographic groups about the prospects for a military victory over the Assad regime.

Survey results also show clearly how the weak international response to the conflict has diminished expectations among Syrians about the prospects for a negotiated settlement. Syrians have been repeatedly disappointed during their struggle, hoping for international support of their calls for democracy, a no-fly zone, or humanitarian corridors to protect civilians. When such support did not materialize, many thought that the Assad regime’s indiscriminate use of barbaric weapons, such as barrel bombs and chemical weapons, would finally force the international community to act. But it has not, and this inaction has shaped Syrian perspectives. Their disillusionment shows clearly when nearly half (49.1 percent) of Syrians surveyed perceive “a lack of international interest in ending the conflict” as the main reason for the failure of past negotiations.

In spite of these obstacles, there is near-consensus among respondents on the necessity for negotiations to be internationally guaranteed, with large support for the participation of European and Arab states, the United States and Turkey. The general stance on Russian and Iranian involvement was less enthusiastic. In order for negotiations to succeed, the United States should increase pressure on Russia and Iran to use their leverage with the regime to end the use of barrel bombs and even out the balance of power in negotiations. Failing this, the risk of “catastrophic success” for the opposition will only increase, while the support for negotiations declines further and military victory is viewed as the best bet to remove the Assad regime.

Annika Folkeson is deputy director of The Day After, an independent Syrian civil society organization. Steven Heydemann is the Ketcham Chair in Middle East Studies at Smith College.