Peacebuilding and Syria: What Hope?

Between 13-15 October 2018, the Global Justice Academy co-hosted a weekend of events joining Relief & Reconciliation for Syria with peacebuilding communities in Scotland. This post from Dr George R. Wilkes, reflects on the series of events that took place.

The prospect of an inclusive peacebuilding process in Syria looks bleak now. From the perspective of millions of Syrians who have fled regime controlled areas, atrocity, terror and armed extortion all confront attempts to straddle divisions to talk about peace. Refugees face daily existential pressures in the face of which peace talks appear distant and untimely. Critics of regime ‘reconciliations’ see the concept reduced to the mechanics of overpowering the regime’s outlaws. In regime territory, a more inclusive embrace of populations controlled by Islamist armed groups is undercut by the sense that violence and terror were the inevitable result of a religious fundamentalism shared widely within those populations, and by the international supporters of those forces.

These accounts of the conflict shape the work of today’s peacebuilders, according to members of Relief & Reconciliation for Syria (R&R), a community working with refugees in Akkar, Lebanon, near the northernmost border with Syria. R&R seeks to bring Syrian and Christian and Muslim communities together in Akkar through nurturing a shared commitment to the education of the next generation (for a film presenting the displaced Syrians involved in some of its work over recent years, see Lost in Lebanon). The sectarian divisions present in Syria are also marked in Akkar, heightened by civil war and occupation, but so too are the habits of interreligious cooperation and engagement that feature prominently in the self-descriptions of Syrians across the border. The work of R&R is directed less to peace talks and politics and more to common action across communities that have been marginalised politically, economically and educationally – indeed, communities whose marginality is central to their framing as a particularly fierce battleground in the civil wars in Syria and Lebanon. As the Syrian conflict changes with the shifts between the relative fortunes of the powers engaged there, R&R looks to develop its current trust building and educational work to meet the challenges ahead – bridging communities during a phase of reconstruction that may deepen sectarian narratives and the hold of hostile patronage networks. With reconstruction a key terrain for the next phase of political contest – a reconstruction that will have large implications for communities in North Lebanon as well – R&R envisages the creation of a School for Reconstruction designed to foster community-based development attentive to the potential for Syria to build inclusive or divisive futures. R&R activists came to Edinburgh full of ideas for academic, educational and practical cooperation.

While R&R volunteers presented their challenges and successes, they met in Edinburgh with a series of communities of peacebuilders interested in the scope and best means for a meaningful solidarity and cooperation. The University brings a range of relevant expertise to bear, from inclusive peacebuilding work (a focus of colleagues in the GJA and across the College of Humanities and Social Science) to Christian-Muslim engagement initiatives (in the Al Waleed Centre and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues); initiatives supporting Syrian refugee education were also at hand, bridging academic, chaplaincy, student, civil society and city council networks; vocational training for refugees in architecture and design is already well-established in the programming of Edinburgh World Heritage; and further support for peacebuilding skills and activities was offered by partners from a range of civil society and religious organisations, from the Church of Scotland to Edinburgh Peace & Justice, the Edinburgh Peace Initiative and the Edinburgh Interfaith Association.

To note interest in future activities in Edinburgh or in the Middle East, email Dr George R. Wilkes at