Though a potential humanitarian catastrophe in northwest Syria was averted after U.N. Security Council members recently voted to renew cross-border assistance, the region has been experiencing a resurgence of bombardment and attacks by the Assad regime and Russian air forces. Beyond the loss of Syrian lives, the worsening violence makes it far more difficult for civil society organizations to educate the local population on democratic values and civic engagement. Meanwhile, in regime-controlled areas, civil society groups operate completely differently than those in the northwest and consist of nonprofit organizations either managed or directed by the regime.
Recently, I spoke with actors on the ground in Syria engaging with people in the northwest about democracy, governance and human rights. For the past eight years, I have been working and meeting with Syrians displaced by the war, both in and out of Syria, to learn how communities mobilize around civic values despite the ongoing presence of the war. The organization leaders I spoke to attempted to paint a hopeful picture, but by the end of our conversations, most described frustration over the continuously evolving nature of campaigning for change in an area fraught with the consequences of war.
Yet, understanding the complexity of civil society in Syria is crucial for Syria’s future, especially with the frequently changing dynamics. As a Syrian leader working with the local aid organization Takaful Al Sham put it, “The situation on the ground changes so quickly it makes it difficult to form any longer-term strategies. Military, humanitarian, political and displacement changes — so many different factors are constantly changing.”
Evolution of Syrian civil society
Independent civil society in Syria prior to the start of the conflict in 2011 was strongly oppressed by the regime. Bashar Al-Assad, who came to power in 2000 following his father’s death, continued the same brutal practices from his father’s 30-year rule, imprisoning people for political dissent or human rights activism. The state’s massive security apparatus left Syrians fearful of engagement in civic and political affairs, aware that the “walls have ears,” and any attempt to organize would lead to their arrest or disappearance. Those who braved efforts tried concealing their identity, but many were imprisoned or exiled for their political activity. As a result, organizations that did publicly exist were strictly monitored by the government and only focused on restricted relief efforts.
The uprising created an opportunity to shift the power away from the Assad regime and allow the people to organize, protest and demand reforms. At the start of the revolution, the Local Coordination Committees emerged as a system to organize revolutionary movements across the country. Through this grassroots umbrella organization, local activists as well as Syrian expatriate activists formed 70 local coordination groups across Syria to support organizing anti-regime demonstrations. The goal of the network and groups was to reflect Syrian voices outside of traditional political parties.
The Assad regime has been attempting to discredit civil society organizations in the northwest by spreading a false narrative that they are they are all terrorist organizations.
At the outset, the network was clear on advocating a nonviolent approach. But as the situation on the ground changed, the nonviolent movement had to adapt to the regime’s brutal tactics and indiscriminate attacks. Many of the Syrians involved in establishing the network were forcibly disappeared, killed or forced to flee across the border. Though not all of the disparate groups resorted to armed resistance, the groups began to evolve as their ideologies and approach to responding to the regime’s tactics diverged. This led the networks to unravel and weaken.
The challenges and situation resulted in many of the local groups changing their focus to respond to the growing humanitarian needs, often partnering with international aid agencies. Additionally, with funding primarily available for aid related activities, local groups had to adjust their goals to receive funding. By 2017, the United Nations coordination platform consisted of 187 Syrian civil society organizations, almost all exclusively focused on aid delivery.
Meanwhile, through Russia and Iran’s support, the Assad regime regained the territory it had lost to the opposition forces. The few remaining civil society actors that focused on issues related to human rights protection, social cohesion and peacebuilding were pushed to the northwest territory. In regime areas, the same restrictions on civil society prior to the uprising continued but were expanded — through increased torture and disappearances — to instill greater fear in opposing the regime, leaving organizations solely focused on emergency relief and some programs to support job creation.
The Assad regime has been attempting to discredit these very same local actors and civil society organizations in the northwest, which are not under its control, by spreading a false narrative that they are they are all terrorist organizations. While the war has led to an increase in the number of extremist organizations, largely due to the Assad regime aiding the rise of ISIS to maintain the regime’s survival, initiatives mapping local governance and civil society organizations continue to identify civil society actors trusted by communities. Alongside these initiatives are local groups that partner with international organizations to deliver aid in the northwest. Yet the narrative promoted by the regime and its allies continues to resonate with many international actors, leaving them focused on limited military interventions over giving space, funding and guidance to actors working to empower their communities.
Civil society drives change
The few remaining civil society organizations that promote the protection of human rights, achieve social justice and reconciliation, and educate and empower local communities on the importance of civic engagement are in jeopardy. The conditions on the ground have made it difficult for local groups to stay focused on governance and civic engagement as the armed struggle in the northwest continues to engulf society, leaving them in a struggle for survival.
“There are some initiatives on democracy, peace and civic engagement,” said a leader in the local humanitarian organization, Masrrat, describing the situation in the northwest as the Syria regime and Russian air forces continue to bombard people. “But the problem is that during an emergency, this is a lower priority for people. We want to work on this, but the focus is on people’s survival.”
Despite the challenges of working under hostile conditions, civil society in the northwest has been essential for local conflict resolution and mediation.
Compounding this challenge is a lack of interest from geopolitical donors in funding local efforts to train and teach people about democratic values, social justice and accountability. “As organizations focused on governance and local groups, we are seeing a decline in international support,” said a leader from the northwest’s Local Development Organization, or LDO, a civil society organization predominately focused on working with local councils in northwest Syria to strengthen their governance, community service and human rights protection. “Prior to the revolution, people were not involved in governance. Understanding it is essential for our local areas. If we are not able to develop this, we will not see positive improvements in the short and long term for Syria’s future.”
As the Assad regime, and its allies, forced a shift in the dynamics of the armed struggle, many of the grassroots efforts across the country, including in opposition areas in the northwest, have essentially become nonexistent. But activists and local leaders are not giving up. Instead, they have had to change their strategies and priorities in order to account for these challenges. While lack of donor funding limits large-scale efforts, local groups remain focused on strategically supporting local development, including working with the local councils, which are the main administrative governing bodies in the northwest. As a form of collective punishment to the uprising, the regime cut off basic services to opposition areas resisting its control. Local councils were formed to fill in the critical gap by administering water, food, education and other basic functions.
These democratic structures have been working to meet people’s needs, and in theory, are supposed to be part of government structures in the area. But disjointed governance resulting from disagreements between two competing governments in the northwest — the Interim Government, overseen by the opposition forces, and the Salvation Government, run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate — along with the ongoing attacks by the regime and Russia has intensified mistrust of authority.
The other challenge with the local councils is that they do not include voices of displaced persons, who now make up the majority of the population in the northwest. To fill this gap, some local organizations work with displaced persons to form committees that include their voice so they can contribute to the work of the councils. The difficulty with changing the structure of the council results from the continuous change in displaced populations. With ongoing bombardment by the Assad regime, people are continually being forced to relocate in the northwest region, making it near impossible to keep a register or database of updated records to support the participation of displaced persons in the elections for the local councils.
Despite the challenges of working under hostile conditions, civil society in the northwest has been essential for local conflict resolution and mediation. Women have also been at the helm of ensuring their voices are included through representation as elected officials on the local council. They have also been leading informal civil initiatives and programming in education, rescue operations and campaigns to strengthen the role of women in communities. But, for them, the conflict remains an even greater barrier due to the insecurity. The war itself has left limited means of transportation, leaving families fearful for women’s physical safety.
As the northwest persists in organizing the region around democratic values, the rest of the country remains caught in Russia and Iran’s dreadful vision of restoring Syria to its pre-revolutionary era, with the horrifying dictator in power after displacing half the population, and forcibly disappearing and killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians. “Our biggest challenge as we work is that we don’t know what the future looks like,” added the leader from the aid organization, Masrrat. “Uncertainty remains high, and we hope that we are able to see Syria as a democracy.”
Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.
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