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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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