The role of civil society in Syria
Following ethnically polarized armed conflicts like the Bosnian War and the Sri Lankan civil war, academics, politicians, and practitioners have widely debated the role of civil society in conflict prevention, peacemaking, and post-conflict regeneration (Belloni, 2001; Orjuela, 2003). Some argue (Rood, 2005) civil society groups in conflict areas have had an indirect, limited, and inconsequential impact on the macro-political process. Other scholars argue (Fischer, 2006; Paffenholz, 2010) that insufficient research has been undertaken to support any assumptions, positive or negative, about the effects of civil society.
For the past two months I have been part of a larger project to compile data on over 150 Syrian-led civil society organizations both inside and outside the country. The insights I gained from this research suggest that Syrian civil society is playing an important, supportive role in advancing conflict resolution and peace building.
Prior to the revolution, Syrian civil society generally consisted of state-controlled organizations. This was a result of the emergency law, which was enforced since the Baath party came to power in 1963. Between the 1960s and the late 1990s, little independent civil society activity existed in Syria. Most charities during that period consisted of community-based organizations and informal associations (Wael, 2012, 10).
By the time of the uprising, about 1,000 NGOs were registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Most of these organizations focused on welfare service provision, health, and women and children. One of the most prominent organizations was the Syria Trust for Development. Under the patronage of the First Lady Asma Assad, it included three distinct divisions: the Syrian Foundation for the Development of the Countryside (FIRDOs), the Youth and Early Childhood Division, and the Culture and Heritage Division. Its programs focused on economic growth, youth empowerment, and socio-cultural development, but they ceased operating in 2011 (Wael, 2012, 10). The Trust does, however, continue to organize small-scale relief and humanitarian work in regime-controlled areas (Syria Trust for Development).
Since the crisis, hundreds of non-state-sanctioned civil society organizations have sprung up across the country, initially to support the uprising. With increased violence, these organizations have restructured themselves to meet humanitarian relief needs such as food security, medical treatment, and refugee work (Brandenburg, 2014). As the conflict progresses, Syrian civil society has further developed with local coordinating committees emerging in towns and cities. These committees act as local-level governance structures in the absence of a functioning government.
At first glance, Syrian civil society seems largely disorganized, overlapping and uncoordinated. This is not the full picture. Syrian civil society is also slowly consolidating itself into more stable entities, strengthening its ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis (Brandenburg, 2014). Organizations such as Every Syrian and Najda Now International provide crucial aid to displaced Syrians through financial support, food distribution, and medical aid. Other organizations are positioning themselves to promote and facilitate participatory politics and peace building by educating Syrians about human rights, advocating interfaith dialogue, and fostering youth activism. Based in Beirut, Nuon raises community awareness and teaches Syrian youth about conflict resolution and negotiation techniques. Similarly, Relief and Reconciliation for Syria combines practical help with reconciliation and peace building. Syrian civil society is trying hard to mitigate the detrimental effects of the conflict.
Nonetheless, the challenges civil society organizations and local committees face are real. In addition to the absence of basic security, they suffer from a paucity of resources, the curtailment of utilities run from government-held zones, and often a lack of administrative capacity.
One of the biggest struggles for organizations inside and outside Syria is lack of coordination. Although each organization may function effectively in a localized context, fighting has fragmented the environment (Brandenburg, 2014). More steps are needed to create larger alliances between civil society organizations. Doing so would then facilitate relief distribution and the implementation of projects promoting conflict resolution and transitional justice.
The other major challenge Syrian civil society faces is exclusion from formal negotiations. The Geneva talks largely ignored and marginalized Syria’s civil society (Oxfam, 2014). Future talks need to be more inclusive (WILPF International 2014). By documenting violence, helping refugees, and raising awareness about the conflict through citizen journalism, Syrian civil society organizations have become experts about the realities on the ground (Brandenburg, 2014). From the beginning, they have been proactive participants in the uprising.
Any agreement reached through negotiations would be tenuous at best. Syrian civil society are the ones who will play a crucial role in implementing long-term decisions and establishing peace.
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Brandenburg, Rachel. 2014. “Syria’s Civil Society: Wael Sawah on the Push for Influence.” February 27. http://www.usip.org/olivebranch/syria-s-civil-society-wael-sawah-the-push-influence (accessed March 23, 2014).
Fischer, Martina. 2006. “Civil Society in Conflict Transformation: Ambivalence, Potentials and Challenges.” Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management. http://edoc.vifapol.de/opus/volltexte/2011/2566/pdf/fischer_cso_handbook.pdf (accessed March 23, 2014).
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The Syria Trust for Development. “Ongoing Projects.” Accessed March 23, 2014. http://syriatrust.sy/en/our-work/ongoing-projects
WILPF International. 2014. “Press release: Absence of women at Syria talks could jeopardize future peace.” January 22. http://www.wilpfinternational.org/press-release-absence-of-women-at-syria-talks-could-jeopardize-future-peace/ (accessed March 23, 2014).
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