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Researchers Investigate How Trust Collapsed in Syria

Trust, cooperation and shared values among Syrians have fallen sharply throughout the country since the civil war began. That’s according to a new report by the independent Syrian Center for Policy Research, which analyzed the influence of the armed conflict on social relations in the country.

Trust among individuals has fallen by as much as two thirds. Before the conflict, 64.8 percent of Syrians said they often trusted fellow Syrians; now that figure is just 26.7 percent.

The report is awash with other gloomy statistics, some of which may not be surprising, but the report’s authors say they hope readers will also focus on how its findings can help remedy the situation.

“We’re not trying to just keep repeating the negative aspects of war—it’s about rebuilding for the future,” says Rabie Nasser, co-founder of the Syrian Center for Policy research and one of the report’s authors. “We of course need the killing to stop, but this social degradation will also have a long-term impact long after Da’esh [the Islamic State] has been defeated. We’re building evidence-based research, which will help us in the future.”

The paper was written and reported by a team of Lebanese and Syrian researchers.

The report was published on June 1 and discussed at a launch event at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute. It is based on a survey of 2,100 people conducted in 2014 throughout Syria, including in Raqqah (which has been held by Da’esh since 2014). Questions were asked about trust; how secure people feel; and what their vision is for their country and their local community. The study also looked at the state of social networks and social interactions by measuring volunteerism, participation in public decision-making and women’s involvement in these processes. The social status of women in general was also studied.

The researchers combined all of these variables into a single metric called a social capital index.

Uniting this many measurements is a complex endeavor in the best of times, even without the additional challenges that war brings. “Data collection within conflicts is always problematic and therefore has an issue of reliability,” says Sari Hanafi, chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and media studies at the American University of Beirut. (See related article “Challenges of Academic Research in the Midst of War.”)

Hanafi was not involved with the research itself, though he did act as a reviewer for the report.

To get hold of the data, Nasser and his colleagues relied on a team of 250 technicians, data specialists and researchers on the ground in Syria. “I am sure we have a good methodology,” he says. He anticipated that the accuracy of his figures would be questioned, which is why each variable was measured in more than one way. “If the data for each metric didn’t match up, then it was an indication to investigate further. A huge variation would mean we would refuse to merge it into the results, or we would try again.”

Hanafi is satisfied that the researchers have taken the correct steps to minimize the risk of inaccurate results. “I think the team did great work by choosing this methodology,” he says.

Compared to Syria before the war, the report found that social capital has dropped by 30 percent.

The study is based on data collected three years ago, and much has changed on the ground since then as battle lines have moved, but that doesn’t mean the findings are irrelevant. If anything, it means social capital may be even lower, because while the practicalities of life in the country have changed, Syrians continue to face the challenges of war. (The number of data points produced and the complexity of the researchers’ model meant that time-consuming analysis was involved. The report is the second in a series. The first was “Forced Dispersion: A Demographic Report on Human Status in Syria.”)

“There are different findings that are important. The first is the huge collapse in trust, which deteriorated faster than networks and values. This is important, but what surprised me was that trust didn’t deteriorate at the same rate in different regions,” says Nasser.

That’s because Syria’s communities rallied together, often in opposition to other communities—Kurds versus Arabs, and Sunni versus Alawite. “That’s bad for social capital,” says Nasser.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it’s not the killing or the violence between these communities that is most responsible for degrading trust. “The discrimination of communities by institutions affects social capital more than direct deaths,” says Nasser. The discrimination can be by militias or government bureaucracies, but when institutions favor one group over the other, it fosters dangerous mistrust.

This finding has importance for a post-conflict Syria, says Nasser, because this distrust and discrimination may be preserved long after cities and towns are defeated or liberated. “We’re going to need to address this at some point,” he says.

Meanwhile the status and participation of women in Syrian society have declined. The number of participants who said women’s status was “bad” in Syria has almost doubled; meanwhile those who said it was “good” fell by more than a quarter. The report cites rape, military attacks, harsh labor conditions and incidents of underage marriage and the trafficking of women as factors that have driven down the status of women and girls.

While few observers can envision a successful peace process in Syria, the report calls for a number of conditions, when that eventually does unfold, to ensure that public trust and trust among communities is restored.

For example, the report says that the essential nature of women’s social, economic and political participation in the rebuilding of the country needs to be recognized. There also needs to be a guarantee of the general public’s right to be involved and consulted in the decisions made during the recovery process through democratic means.

On a basic and tangible level, the researchers say ordinary Syrians need the opportunity to make their views heard without the fear of reprisal; they need the right to hold peaceful demonstrations and to establish of opposing political parties. “All of this would help society to reach a public vision that establishes a future social contract,” reads the report.

The report also recommends a wholesale reform of government institutions to transform them from instruments of oppression into inclusive and accountable entities.

But Hanafi says the report’s recommendations could have been more detailed. “I wish the researchers had raised more specific questions about democracy and the type of governance wished for,” he says.

Programs are needed to help develop the qualifications and competencies of all Syrians after the war, to make sure society can begin to reintegrate, the report says. It concludes that leaving any particular community behind in the rebuilding process of Syria will only make existing divisions fester further.

“We hope our results and report can provide a better starting point for Syria’s social recovery,” Nasser says.


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