Creating a Foundation for Peace in Syria

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Mar. 25, 2013

Creating a Foundation for Peace in Syria

History Professor David Lesch is the leader of an independent project interviewing the major players in the Syrian conflict looking for common ground that can help end the violence

Creating a Foundation for Peace in Syria

By Russell Guerrero '83

David LeschLast December, just a week before Christmas, Trinity University History Professor David Lesch traveled to Turkey to embark upon a remarkable mission.  As founder and director of the Harvard-NUPI-Trinity Syria Research Project, Lesch and his group met with opposition leaders from inside Syria to talk in-depth about the on-going conflict.

The meetings had been quickly arranged and Lesch was hoping the project would at least be able to draw eight or nine opposition members. Much to his great satisfaction, 27 leaders showed up. "We could have stayed longer and met with more leaders," remembered Lesch, who added that some of the opposition members drove five hours through dangerous conditions in Syria just to talk to the project team, which conducted a series of continuous 2-3 hour interviews for five straight days.

The trip to Turkey proved to be a successful launch for a project working to contribute to a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict.

Birth of a Plan

Lesch came up with the idea for the project in April 2012 when asked by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to review a six-point peace plan for Syria.  Annan had been named the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria and his plan had received a great deal of attention from the media.

Lesch, however, was skeptical. In his review, he raised a number of questions and proposed a different strategy at the end of his report.

"I remember sitting at home and thinking no one has gone around to all the players invested in this conflict and really tried to listen, understand, and assess their views on the conflict from their own particular perspective," said Lesch.    

Lesch believed an independent group should be formed to interview to all those involved in the conflict including the Syrian government, opposition leaders inside Syria, and those in exile.  The group also needed to talk to nations with interests in the Syrian conflict, including the United States, Russia, Iran, France, Great Britain, Israel, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. 

From these interviews a database could be created that would identify points of convergence and divergence and areas of common ground which could be potential starting points for resolving the conflict.  

Annan's peace plan went forward anyway, but it ultimately failed to end the violence.

Pitching a Plan for Peace

In August 2012, Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan's successor as the Special Envoy for Syria, invited Lesch to share his thoughts on the current situation at the United Nations. After the meeting, Lesch saw that there was no new initiative pending and therefore decided to operationalize his idea of forming an independent group.

David Lesch speaking to House of CommonsAfter receiving a positive response from Brahimi, Lesch contacted two close friends to help launch the project: William Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, joined Lesch, and brought Harvard's support with him.

George Saghir, a well-known Middle East economist and a hedge fund portfolio manager with a long history of international finance, also agreed to take a leading role. Saghir holds dual Syrian-American citizenship and has extensive personal contacts within Syria.

The core group met in October in New York to organize the project and look for funding. High on their list of potential donors were the Norwegian and Swiss governments, both with reputations for being objective and interested in peace.

As the project began to take shape, Lesch briefed Trinity President Dennis A. Ahlburg, who understood right away the importance of the project. Ahlburg threw in his support and released Lesch from teaching for the spring 2013 semester.

Help from Norway and Switzerland

Lesch then returned to New York in early December to meet with Swiss and Norwegian ambassadors to the U.N. about funding.

"The night before my meeting with the Norwegian ambassador, I gave a talk at the International Peace Institute at the U.N., and the ambassador was in the audience.  He loved my talk and when I met him the next morning he was totally on board and promised to put forth a positive recommendation to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry," said Lesch.

Later, Lesch would pitch his proposal in person in Oslo, where he succeeded in getting funding from the Foreign Ministry - and an NGO in Oslo with strong ties to the Foreign Ministry, the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (or NUPI in the Norwegian acronym) became associated with the project.

After his initial meeting with the Norwegian ambassador, Lesch met with the Swiss ambassador.  The Swiss official not only agreed to fund the project but said money was available immediately. The catch was that the money had to be used before the end of December. The project planned their first interviews within a matter weeks.

A Critical First Meeting

In mid-December, Lesch and members of the project went to Gaziantep, Turkey, just north of the Syrian border, to meet with opposition leaders from inside Syria.  Lesch said that this was particularly important to the project because the leaders have power and credibility inside Syria. There would be no chance for conflict resolution without their support.

The meetings were successful for two reasons.  For one, intermediaries convinced opposition leaders that project members had international backing and were credible in their own right. Lesch said many of the opposition members were already familiar with his books on Syria and one leading member had been sharing with a number of other Syrian opposition groups YouTube videos of Lesch's talks on Syria he had given over the past year in various parts of the United States and Europe. The opposition understood the meetings were worth their time and effort.

Another major reason for the success was that no one in the international community had paid much attention to the opposition groups inside Syria. "As they told us, we were really the first group to give them the time of day; to spend time with them and listen to what they had to say," said Lesch.

Since the beginning of 2013, the project has interviewed high level Syrian officials in Damascus, exiled Syrian opposition leaders in Istanbul, Paris and London, and government representatives in London and Paris.

Lesch conceded that, at times, the project has faced danger. In February, he and two other members of the project traveled in Syrian government cars with security in a potentially hazardous trip from Beirut to Damascus to interview top Syrian government officials at the Presidential Palace.

Help from Trinity

Lesch said he is grateful for the support he has received from Trinity, including Professor Carey Latimore, chair of the history department, and Eunice Herrington, the department's office administrator.  He also said the office of Mark Brodl, associate vice president for Budget and Research, had been helpful in managing the money funding the project.

And Lesch has received a great deal of help from senior Jacob Uzman, who is working as his research assistant as part of an independent study course. Uzman has joined the project on many of the trips taking notes and transcribing interviews. "He's been fantastic," said Lesch.

Uzman plans to write about his experience for the summer issue of the Trinity Magazine.

The Future of the Project

In mid-March, Lesch received word from the Russian Foreign Ministry that top Russian officials will meet with him on a trip to Moscow planned for late April. Members of his team have already fanned out to countries such as Egypt and Qatar to conduct interviews, although Lesch has to travel on most of the trips in order to secure the level of access to top officials that is needed. In the coming months, the project plans to interview leaders from Iran, Israel and the Persian Gulf.

This summer, Lesch will author a publication for the Norwegian government that will include data taken from the interview sessions as well as analysis of the information.  In the fall, he intends to make presentations to officials in Norway, Switzerland, and the U.N. 

During this whole time of travel and research, the project team is constantly exploring potential conflict resolution outcomes, and recommendations have already been made to relevant parties that could act as a foundation for peace in the near or long term.

"Having said all this, the road to resolve the conflict is terribly complicated with so many obstacles that the chances for success are limited in the near term," said Lesch.  "But we have gone so much further than I thought we would at this point and so very quickly.  As one top official told me, we are the only ones out there doing this, and he was somewhat embarrassed that none of the powers or organizations one would expect to be doing this are, in fact, doing so.  So I'm an optimist by heart, and we will be pushing forward as far as we can."

-Russell Guerrero '83 is the public information officer at Trinity. He can be reached at