Tag: Civil society

Reconciliation Syrian style

At a roundtable discussion in Washington DC earlier this week, knowledgeable people discussed the local reconciliation and evacuation strategies applied to besieged areas of Syria, including the recent evacuation of the Damascene suburb of Darayya.

On August 28, the Syrian government took full control over Darayya following negotiations with the Darayya Reconciliation Committee and evacuated its civilian population to makeshift centers in Damascus and its fighters to Idlib in northern Syria. This manner of ‘reconciliation’ with Damascus has occurred in a number of cities and towns in Syria. The government uses this approach to establish its authority in opposition held areas.

The process is essentially a negotiation between the Syrian government and an appointed body within the besieged area called the reconciliation committee and composed of local elites. Often local Sharia courts or local councils are repurposed to serve as reconciliation committees. The committee negotiates with the government on behalf of the area that it represents. So long as the reconciliation process is occurring, the Syrian government will provide supplies and minimal services to civilians in the besieged area.

By sending convoys of food and other supplies to the besieged areas, the Syrian government effectively prevents local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from providing substantial humanitarian aid to these areas. If local NGOs, which are usually backed by international NGOs, do provide aid and services, Damascus considers it a violation of the reconciliation process and will cease negotiations and recommence airstrikes. Thus, local NGOs are unable to carry out their missions and often lose the support of the international NGOs as a result.

Once an agreement is reached, the government will transfer all the “unreconciliables” in the area out to either Idlib or Damascus.  These unreconciliables usually consist of fighters, humanitarian workers and political activists, though in the case of Darayya the entire population was transferred. This practice of population transfer allows opposition fighters who were fighting losing battles to move north where they can join the fight for Aleppo, one of the most hotly contested areas in Syria.

While it appears that Damascus has the upper hand in these negotiations, the besieged communities hold considerable leverage. The Syrian army has a manpower problem. An effective siege requires a significant number of troops. The longer the besieged area can hold out, the weaker the army will get. Additionally, areas are often targeted because they hold a strategic resource or infrastructure that the government desires. The reconciliation council can leverage that resource to get a better deal out of the negotiations.

An analyst recommended that local NGOs should consider embedding in existing bodies (such as a religious charity or a local business) in order to operate in besieged areas. He also recommended that when considering how to assist besieged areas, we shouldn’t only look at whether the people in these areas are having their day-to-day needs met, but also whether they can sustainably provide for themselves once the government convoys stop coming.

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Beware the monopoly of power

To many in the West, the Kurds have long seemed the sanest group left in Syria, as well as the safest and most effective option as an ally in the fight against ISIS. They appear organized, united, secular, and pluralist, standing out against the backdrop of the fragmented factions of the Syrian opposition, including Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

However, the political situation within this community, and their ties to the rest of Syrian society, are more complex than this image suggests. Their dominance of the new ‘coalition’ of the Syrian Democratic Forces engaged in the offensive against Raqqa makes it important to elucidate this complexity.

The Syrian Kurdish party PYD (Democratic Union Party) is the entity that makes the news. It is running the show throughout the north and northeast of the country. Their affiliated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG, and the women’s equivalent, the YPJ), made headlines last summer in their battle for Kobani against ISIS, and then again in another border town, Tel Abyad, this summer.

The YPG is also leading the fight against ISIS in Raqqa now, with grudging cooperation from Sunni Arab groups. After the US decided to suspend its train and equip program, it airdropped ammunition with the intention of supporting an offensive against Raqqa, but the Sunni Arab groups participating in the newly-formed coalition, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), say they have seen none of this material aid. The YPG dominates the SDF.

Taking advantage of their military successes, the PYD established the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan (i.e. within Syria, as opposed to the well-established Kurdistan Regional Government inside Iraq) in January 2014, consisting of three cantons under a federated ‘Rojava’ government. Afrin canton lies to the northwest of Aleppo, Kobani on the Turkish border east of the Euphrates, and the third canton, Qamishli, falls in the northeast corner of Syria, bordering Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. The PYD in addition claims towns in the region between Afrin and Kobani, including A’zaz, Manbij, al-Bab, and Jarablus, as parts of historical Kurdistan.

The PYD administers health, education, security, and the judiciary within their cantons. They operate under an umbrella coalition TEV-DEM (Movement for a Democratic Society), which runs civil society organizations and ‘peace councils’ – civil courts – in Kurdish population centers, and aids local poor. The ‘peoples’ courts’ in the cantons are staffed by PYD members and take an eclectic approach to established and codified law, like other opposition groups, selecting from Syrian criminal law, Swiss or German legal codes and customary law.

Though the PYD has been consolidating its control of these cantons, they deny that they are seeking an independent Kurdish state, stating their aim of remaining within a whole and united Syria, though one with a higher degree of regional autonomy than before. They have publicly expressed tolerance and inclusion of other ethnicities and sects.

Bassam Barabadi and Faysal Itani reported in August that both ‘Kurdish and Arab senior sources in northern Syria’ confirmed ‘joint or divided Arab-Kurdish rule’ in liberated territories, evidencing some degree of cooperation, which is crucial for stability. The recent move to annex Tel Abyad reflects the PYD’s intentions to unite the three cantons and maintain control throughout the contiguous territories along the Turkish border.

Divisions in the Kurdish community and antagonisms with other Syrians remain. TEV-DEM is not the only coalition on the Syrian Kurdish political scene. Other less militant or nationalist parties have combined to form the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which has joined the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and is politically closer to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq than the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The PYD accepts the PKK’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan, as their ideological leader.

One of the more prominent of the KNC parties is Yekiti (Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in Syria), which has often criticized the PYD. In May, for instance, the PYD are alleged to have told two Yekiti members to leave their homes in Qamishli canton because they had criticized the PYD on TV.

In addition to earlier allegations of press intimidation and aggression against other Kurdish parties, last month the Rojava Student and Youth Union, also in Qamishli, raised concerns to local and international human rights organizations about the PYD using Kurdish-language instruction in primary schools for political and ideological indoctrination. Indeed, on Tuesday the KNC called for demonstrations in Hasaka governorate against PYD educational policies. The resulting turnout in Malikiyya (Derek) was forcefully dispersed by PYD’s internal security arm, the Asayış, which also made several arrests.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arabs and Syrian Turkmen have levelled accusations of ethnic cleansing and property confiscation directed at the YPG, after their battles with ISIS in the Kobani and Tel Abyad countryside and their consequent control of new territories. An investigation conducted by Amnesty International affirmed war crimes committed by the PYD in razing Sunni Arab villages.

Cooperation between the Kurdish cantons and rebel-held territories, or the YPG and rebel militant forces, is generally low. Rebel groups distrust the PYD and YPG because their primary goal is driving ISIS out of their territories – showing, in the rebels’ view, lack of dedication to the revolution. The YPG command has stated that they would work with Russia to combat ISIS if Russia were to present the opportunity, which garners further distrust from other opposition groups.

Kader Sheikhmous is the co-founder of an NGO, Shar for Development, which focuses on enhancing civil society, governance, and economic development in Kurdish areas of Syria. Much of its work promotes the unity and good relations of the Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities, including a bilingual magazine that is distributed in the towns of Hasaka.

Sheikhmous highlights the dangers of the international and regional actors offering support exclusively to armed groups, such as the YPG, without investing in civil society actors and economic development. USAID, for example, in 2014 sharply diminished support to Kurdish NGOs in Syria. That risks creating dependence on the YPG not just for security but for other services, in the absence of civil society, will increase the YPG’s tendency toward authoritarian behavior.

These concerns raise the question of the viability of PYD-run autonomous cantons, their suitability as a military or security ally for the US, and their role in a future Syrian state. Exclusive or excessive support for one party in the Syrian Kurdish regions will allow it to consolidate its monopoly on power and violence.

Syrians generally endorse the unity of their country and its people, regardless of ethnic or sectarian background. Kurds, Turkmen, Alawis, Sunnis, and others want to regain their normal lives and continue living together. Though the Kurdish autonomous regions have provided measures of stability and security for the civilians of the north, it will be counterproductive if it comes at the price of single-party rule and exacerbated social divisions.

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Syrian civil society in wartime

On Friday, the Atlantic Council hosted Syrian civil society activist Raed Fares to discuss ‘Fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda through Syrian Civil Society’. Fares is the founder and president of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB) in Kafranbel and neighboring towns in Idlib province. The URB employs over 400 people, providing services to civilians and operating local media outlets. It has also established women’s and children’s centers. Fares talked with the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani and was introduced by Frederic Hof.

Kafranbel is famous for its often witty protest banners, which can be viewed on the Kafranbel Syrian Revolution Facebook page.

Fares gave an overview of the start of the revolution through peaceful protests in 2011, describing civil society as caught between two different types of terrorism. On the one hand, Assad and his regime have been oppressing civil society for the past five years (as well as muting it before). On the other hand, civil society finds itself set upon by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), and others such as the newer jihadi group, Jund al-Aqsa.

Despite these challenges, Fares remains defiant and confident. He and his group have managed to accomplish much since the URB was founded in January 2013. Despite abduction and assassination attempts, as well as intimidation, Fares is confident that public support for civil society leaders and groups like his is more powerful than ISIS and al-Qaeda. While last year ISIS had more influence around Kafranbel, in Idlib, their influence has retracted, in part because of the strength of civil society there. The URB provides essential services, is secular and independent (they refused an offer of protection from Ahrar al-Sham), and knits the community together.

Over three years and with only $2 million, the URB has been able to accomplish more than the international coalition has in a year with far greater resources. URB is also more effective than the Syrian National Coalition and the Interim Government in Gaziantep, with whom they do not have a strong relationship. It would be ideal for them if donors came straight to them rather than operating through either of those bodies.

Fares also highlighted the innovative solutions Syrian civilians invent in order to get around the complications arising from shortages of communications infrastructure and other resources as well as the daily realities of aerial bombardment. Russian airstrikes, which are more devastating than regime airstrikes, have worsened conditions. Both the regime and the Russians target civilians and civil society in general.

The URB also cooperates with the Free Syrian Army and other moderate groups. Fares insists that average Syrians now hate the Assad regime and everything to do with it, but also Islamic extremists and jihadists, and they hate violence and bloodshed. Syrians want to return to a reality with ‘love stories and flowers’.

They therefore ask for American help to stop Russian airstrikes and Assad’s bombing: a no-fly zone, even a small one, is essential. Fares also remarked that, in the medium term, Syrians will not stand for a solution that includes Assad. He must go.

The URB and civil society organizations in other Syrian cities, such as Aleppo, have persevered in providing services and maintaining institutions. Increasing support to such organizations ensures civilians have options other than the regime and extremist groups, or fleeing continually. The endurance of Fares and the URB is testament to that.

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Yesterday, today, tomorrow

SAIS Syria

Johns Hopkins SAIS last Wednesday hosted a panel on Syrian civil society as part of a conference on “Escaping the Cycle of Stagnation in the Middle East.” The panel, moderated by Peacefare’s own Yael Mizrahi, featured a broad cross-section of Syrian activists. While accepting past failures and current challenges facing Syrian civil society, the panel also highlighted the important contributions that civil activists have made throughout the conflict. The takeaways of this work will be decisive to any future reconstruction effort of Syria’s damaged society.

Kicking off the panel, Mohammad Ghanem (Syrian American Council) pointed out that prior to the 2011 revolution there was no real civil society in Syria. All civil institutions in the country were monopolized by the Baathist regime, which saw any opening space for civil society as a potential danger. This was best seen in 2005, when a group of youth from Daraya organized to clean up their neighborhood. Although they had no political message, a number of the participants were promptly arrested.

This changed after the revolution however. In the summer of 2012, when the regime had lost significant territory to the opposition (including 40% of Aleppo), civil society grew rapidly. First organizing around the organization of basic services, civil society also began holding the newly developed local councils to account.

Similarly, Ibrahim al-Assil (Syrian Nonviolence Movement) argued that civil society will play a critical role in any legitimate bottom-up solution to the Syrian conflict. In particular, al-Assil saw civil society as important in reconciling an increasingly divided Syrian society. By keeping channels of dialogue open between different sectors of the Syrian population, civil society can help Syrians make sense of an incredibly complex and multilayered conflict. Civil society also plays a role in de-radicalization, through providing counter-messaging. At the same time, the increasing violence of the Syrian civil war has made it increasingly difficult for civil society to operate. The fact that Syrian civil society needed to be built from scratch in the midst of heavy fighting has limited its capacity.

Al-Assil presented the Syrian Nonviolence Movement as an illustration of both the importance and limits of Syrian civil society. The organization was started in 2011 and has worked on educating Syrians about the methods of nonviolent resistance. Their work has been greatly curtailed by the war however, and is now limited to humanitarian assistance, including psycho-social support, as well as education for children, many of who have not known a Syria without conflict.

The establishment of Syrian civil society following the 2011 revolution has also been an important enabler for Syrian women. According to Hind Kabawat (Syrian lawyer and activist, now at USIP), women were marginalized in Syrian society prior to the revolution. However, they have since taken on important roles in the resistance. Their role in the revolution is sadly testified by the regime’s response: Syrian prisons are full of women. Women have been particularly important in refugee and IDP camps. During a recent visit to an IDP camp in Idlib province, Kabawat interviewed women who had assumed leadership roles in the running of the camp. Women are also filling important roles in the Local Councils, even if not adequately represented in their leadership.

Mohammed al-Abdallah (Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre) provided a critical appraisal of Syrian civil society in the decade prior to the revolution. Al-Abdallah had himself been part of early efforts to build a civil society in Syria. In retrospect, the civil society movement was too self-centered. Between 2000 and 2011, Syrian CSOs had been narrowly focused on political rights, and had not been unable to reach out to the wider population.

Looking ahead, al-Abdallah pointed to radicalism as a fundamental challenge to civil society in Syria. How can women play a role in society when they are unable to cross checkpoints without the accompaniment of a male relative? Al-Abdallah also made reference to the “Douma Four”: human rights activists Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wael Hamadeh and Nazem Hammadi, who remain in the hands of Islamist rebels. Echoing the point made by al-Assil, he also pointed to the violence and the current humanitarian disaster as clear limits on the capacity of civil society. As long as Syrians do not even have access to essential services, messages of democratization as well as civil and political rights are unlikely to penetrate society.

On the other hand, Nidal Bitari (Syrian-Palestinian activist and writer) argued that Syrian civil society was not as weak as commonly described. Lack of international support to Syria has meant that civil society activists have been at the forefront of governance and humanitarian efforts within Syria. Bitari also pointed out that there had been a wave of civil society activism beginning in 2008 which became the core of the 2011 revolution. The Assad regime realized the danger of these groups and has sought to repress them. Meanwhile, the political leadership of the Syrian opposition has largely neglected these activists.

Bitari particularly pointed out the importance of the Palestinian civil society in Syria. It had initially been given some space to organize, as the government perceived the Palestinians to be aligned with the regime in their opposition to Israel. However Palestinian opposition activists have subsequently been severely punished for their perceived disobedience to the regime. Nonetheless, Palestinian activists have been important in reaching out to the international community, not least in their effort to convey the situation in Yarmouk refugee camp to the outside world. Despite the disintegration of Palestinian society in Syria, including the complete destruction of 14 refugee camps, Palestinian activists have remained active and adaptive, continuing to remind the world of their cause.

Finally, Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff (People Demand Change) lauded Syrian civil activists for their resilience in spite of incredible challenges. Ghosh-Siminoff pointed to the continued provision of services by such activists in areas under control of radical Islamists. One example is the Civic Education Center in Idlib, which continues to function despite the city mostly being controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. This stems in part from these civil society organizations also providing some concrete services, winning them public favor and consequently protecting them from reprisals by Nusra or other opposition fighters.

Ghosh-Siminoff also pointed to significant shortcomings in the way in which donors perceive of Syrian civil society. Calling for donors to take a long view, he argued that support to activists is a generational project. Progress should therefore be measured not in terms of short term project execution but rather in terms of capacity building. Donors should also act in a coordinated way that does not create an atmosphere of competition among activists, but rather one of information sharing and cooperation.

The issue of donor support was also picked up on by a number of the panelists. Mohammed al-Abdallah warned that a number of Syrian CSOs had already picked up on donor language, producing ‘sexy’ grant applications that appeal to donor sensibilities but that might not reflect the genuine needs of Syrians. Going forward, Ibrahim al-Assil argued that donors will need to empower Syrians rather than simply funding their projects. To do this, donors will need to target core activities, helping to build capacity in the longer term.

Mohammed al-Ghanem called for greater input from Syrians, allowing them a greater say in how the funds are allocated. Meanwhile, donors should not be lenient on issues of corruption and graft among their CSO partners. Al-Ghanem warned that high salaries and benefits undermined these organizations’ standing among the Syrian public. Concluding the panel, Ghosh-Siminoff argued that donors will need to consider their funding of Syrian civil society as a long term investment. As the panel made clear, these groups will be essential to any final settlement of the Syrian conflict.

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