I recently caught up with a friend of mine, Camille Otrakji, who is the founder of Creative Syria, Mideast Image, and was a longtime blogger for Syria Comment before some… artistic differences emerged, right around the spring of 2011. Camille has been working on something called “The Syrian Dialogue Project” and I thought some readers might be interested in checking it out.
One of Camille’s strengths is bringing Syrians with different backgrounds and political views together to discuss difficult subjects. He has been doing this for years, since before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. Have a look at some of the previous efforts below, and read on for a brief interview with Camille.
- The Syrian Think Tank: Established in 2006, and featuring commentaries by Patrick, Seale, Joshua Landis, Rime Allaf, Murhaf Jouejati, Ammar Abdulhamid, Imad Mustapha, Sami Moubayed, etc.
- Creative Forum: Including 40 of the top Syrian bloggers and activists
- OneMideast: Read about it here.
QN: Describe the overall concept of the Syrian Dialogue Project.
Otrakji: We started working on Phase 1 of the project in summer 2012. At the time we had a simple but significant objective: To better understand Syrian public opinion beyond the two dominant narratives (revolution’s and government’s) that were highly misleading in the manner the two sides tried to project them on the entire population. We recognized the highly complex makeup of the population and therefore felt the need to explore the various ways through which different Syrians aspired to move toward a better future.
We invited ten figures from the opposition and ten others from the supporters of the government. We welcomed anyone who did not support (at least not actively) foreign intervention in Syria. Their task was simple: tell us what, in their opinion, did the Syrian people want to change, and what they wanted to preserve. Participants provided us with 73 answers which we summarized in 20 (many were repetitive or very similar). So our end product in phase 1 was a list of “top 20 things the Syrian people have on their mind today”. (Arabic PDF here, English PDF here)
Our methodology did not exactly provide the reliability of conducting a scientific poll inside Syria and among Syrians in exile, but we still got a much more realistic, balanced and comprehensive list of answers, compared to the highly simplistic assumptions promoted by the politicians with agendas.
QN: Sounds like OneMideast.org, but focused on Syrian internal reform rather than Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. What happened after Phase 1?
Otrakji: In 2013 we started working on Phase 2. By that time Syria was deep into the conflict’s cycle of violence and destruction and all the Syria conferences and workshops were being held in various world capitals but they all left a lot to be desired. Many were sponsored by outside powers mostly interested in ensuring they will have the lion’s share of influence in post-conflict Syria: Qatar+Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, the US, and Iran. The conference in Iran was open to both opposition and government supporters. All other conferences wee strictly for opposition supporters.
Inside Syria the government called on the opposition to engage in dialogue but because of the general lack of trust in the intentions of the Syrian leadership and because they (opposition) had unrealistically high expectations regarding the near-certainty of an imminent toppling of the Syrian regime, no one accepted to talk to the government.
Conferences that were held usually ended in serious disagreements. At best they managed to issue at the end a generic half page communique that was a carbon copy of similar declarations from previous conferences stating participants’ commitment to a democratic Syria that respected minority rights and wanted peace and prosperity.
In phase 2 of our project we felt the need to move away from worn out slogans and from narrow interests of other groups. Syria needed solutions and not propaganda or utopian declarations. We invited Syrians who specialized in each of the 20 subjects/areas we identified in phase 1 (“Top 20 things on the mind of the Syrian people”). Our participants’ assignment was to write proposals for solutions in their area of interest. Solutions needed to be feasible and not very difficult to implement given the limitations of Syria’s challenging situation today. We recognized that at best we can hope to come up with ideas and proposals that might create a finite, positive momentum in various fields such as political reforms, educational reforms, fighting sectarianism, redefining Syria’s foreign policy objectives, humanitarian assistance, national reconciliation, and making Syria more secure.
QN: Who are some of the participants, and what have they written about?
Otrakji: Here’s a list of some of the contributors:
- Talal Atrache (a former AFP and RFI correspondent in Syria) has written about fighting sectarianism
- Omar Hallaj (former CEO of the Syria Trust, Asma Assad’s group of NGOs), on dialogue and conflict resolution.
- Barah Mikhail (senior research fellow, FRIDE), on regional and international strategic choices in Syria
- Munif Atassi (former senior program manager at Northrop Grumman; currently at Cognosante), on the role of education in Syria
- Nabil Mouchi is a Swedish economist of Syrian origin. He writes about political reform
- Khaldoun Khashanah is a US-based head of a financial engineering department and risk analysis specialist. He has written a complex essay on how to proceed gradually and safely toward democracy in Syria.
- And finally an article by myself about failures in communication by all political actors in Syria (including the two Assads)
All of these articles are in the process of being translated to English and will be available soon on the project website.
QN: How can these types of dialogue projects move beyond just talking to actually doing? And how can others get involved?
Otrakji: Everyone says they are ready for meaningful dialogue. But that has not happened yet. We have contacts among decision makers from both sides, inside and outside Syria. They now have access to analysis and proposals by highly qualified Syrians (doctors, lawyers, political and defense analysts, top academics, social scientists, engineers, journalists, authors and former political prisoners) who volunteered their time and energy without any financial backing from any party. Our group is made of talented and true patriots who knew there will be no personal reward for their hard work.
We invite anyone who is working on conflict resolution in Syria to take a look at the 25 detailed proposals we published so far. We expect more to be published in the future as many contacted us wanting to participate. We are open to proposals by those who expertise in one of the areas we listed on the site. We also welcome everyone’s participation by voting on the various topics and proposals for solutions. Provide us with comments and feedback that can help fine-tune each proposal where needed.