Civil society inside Syria
The Syrian conflict has waged for over three years and has resulted in unprecedented levels of violence, destruction, and fatalities. While the international community has attempted to assist in peace talks and humanitarian aid, Syrians have responded within their country through the creation of hundreds of independent civil society organizations (CSO’s). These organizations are both formal and informal and have come to range in purpose to address the most pressing needs of the shattered country. Many focus on civilian opposition goals, while others seek to provide humanitarian aid or social and psychological services to the victims of the conflict.
These CSO’s have adapted their purpose and strategies as the conflict has evolved over the past three years. They have been able to learn from each other and refine their approaches to operate most efficiently despite the lack of resources. Most of these groups are not politically affiliated and choose to address their priorities in a neutral and independent manner.
In response to Assad’s oppressive regime, many civilian opposition groups have arisen since 2011, such as Building the Syrian State and the Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change. These CSO’s work for a nonviolent, civil democratic state impartial towards all ideologies and doctrines. They advocate for equality through fundamental democratic change, dialogue, and national reconciliation. These civilian opposition groups operate both inside and outside of regime territory and are active on social media and other forms of communication to gain followers and spread awareness.
Other groups are more centered on human rights, such as the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, the Syrian Human Rights Organization, and the Centre for Syrian Freedoms. These CSO’s call for upholding inalienable human rights and equality in front of the law instead of participating in political activities. They have worked to document crimes against humanity, as well as issue statements, publications, and reports on human rights violations. Through this research, many CSO’s, such as the Damascus Center, have now proposed bills that fit with internationally agreed upon human rights legislations.
There also has been a large rise in the number of humanitarian aid oriented CSO’s as the violence and fatalities have escalated. Every Syrian, Najda Now, Syria Charity, and many others work to provide relief and social services for civilians throughout the country regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. They secure daily necessities and shelter for those affected by the loss of their families and homes.
Many of these humanitarian CSO’s partner with international organizations that are located outside of Syria, such as Paris-based Soriyat for Development. Syria Charity has worked to achieve strategic partnerships with various international institutions and organizations, while Every Syrian has pursued international funding to rebuild Syrian homes and businesses. Syrian humanitarian CSO’s have therefore sought to consolidate resources and strategies on an international level in order to provide aid to victims and reestablish civil society as effectively as possible.
There has been significant development within Syria in regards to the rise in CSO’s; however, these organizations have been severely hindered by fragmentation and a lack of coordination. Resources are limited and methods of communication are greatly restricted. Many of these groups are forced to work underground due to Assad’s oppressive regime, making it difficult to operate at a functional and effective level. This impedes coordination with similar Syrian and international civil society organizations, as well as defectors, in order to strengthen resources and maximize impact.
Syrian CSO’s have also had a limited role after being left out of the Geneva process. Many find fault in this exclusion because a peace agreement cannot be sustained without the help and existence of civil society. Syrian CSO’s have been addressing the fundamental needs and priorities of civilians at a local level for several years. They have been making progress towards peace and coalitions, as well as raising awareness and understanding about the conflict and regime on the ground. Thus, they should play a vital role in any future efforts to create lasting and sustainable peace.
Syrian CSO’s have played a significant part in the country’s evolution and in providing humanitarian aid in the face of the conflict. At some point, both Assad and the opposition will be pressured to accept a compromise. When that happens, Syrian CSO’s will have the experience and hopefully the resources to rebuild the country from the ground up.