North Africa, West Asia

Syrian civil society

The third annual meeting of the Syrian Civil Coalition was held in Beirut on January 27-30 2017. Could a new understanding have come too late?

Mary Kaldor
4 March 2017

Italian art conservationist shows a badly damaged funerary bust from the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria that is being painstakingly restored in Rome, February 16, 2017. Vandeville Eric/Press Assocation. All rights reserved.The third annual meeting of the Syrian Civil Coalition was held in Beirut on January 27-30 2017. Compared with the first meeting of this group of people three years ago, it was a much a sadder occasion. In the summer of 2013, civil society activists were able to reach Beirut from all parts of Syria (government-controlled areas, opposition-controlled areas, and Kurdish majority areas) and the energy and enthusiasm, despite the terrible odds, that had its origins in the 2011 demonstrations was palpable.

Civil society has been battered by this war. There are huge difficulties of communication. It was very difficult for the groups in opposition-controlled areas to get the necessary travel documents to reach Beirut via Turkey. The groups in the Kurdish majority areas could not leave Syria because of new controls on the Turkish border. ‘Civil society’ said several speakers ’has been split up’ and they described tensions between those inside Syria and those outside, those in different parts of Syria, and those in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan and even in Europe. Many groups reported members who were missing, who had been arrested, or who had been forced to flee and now are refugees in Europe and elsewhere. One of them was assassinated by ISIS last year.

Nevertheless, as the different groups described what they do, it became evident that civil society remains almost the only source of social cohesion and that it undertakes most of the activities needed for survival. The range of issues, roles, campaigns and services remains impressive. They include:

-        Help for victims of war, including children, the war injured, the handicapped, the elderly, displaced persons; one group that calls itself the ‘Smile makers’ focuses on social integration.

-        Economic empowerment, especially employment for both displaced persons and host communities.

-        Education, especially help for those children who have been unable to go to school or whose schools were disrupted by bombing

-        Peace negotiations, mediation and conflict resolution. One group in a Damascus suburb organises a Global Café and interactive theatre where people with different viewpoints can engage with each other.

-        Documentation and evidence collection on prisoners, human rights violations and justice monitoring.

-        Campaigns against sexual violence including male rape.

-        Work on the future constitution as well as increasing awareness of citizenship rights, political equality, and the role of the ICC

-        Capacity-building for local councils and civil society activists.

What was striking was the way that almost all groups emphasised gender equality and women’s empowerment. Indeed, several people stressed the importance of the feminist movement as a source of the democratic movement. One group of women who are religious activists explained that they promote an understanding of Islam in which the core meaning is about a fair life for both men and women and in which ‘crimes of honour’ are completely excluded. 

Also striking was the emphasis on evidence and data. The participants were very diverse, young and old, urban intellectuals and people from villages, secular and religious, with a noteworthy respect for each other. They came from all different parts of Syria. Major discussions were held to think through areas of activity: how to improve relations between host communities and displaced people; the problem of the status of refugees in Lebanon and Turkey and their treatment as ‘visitors’ or ‘tourists’; the problems of health and education.

Compared with three years ago, civil society is much better funded. The coalition now has offices in Beirut, Damascus and Gazientep. Many activists have become much more professional. At the same time there was a lot of discussion about the problems of outside funding; the way international NGOs take most of the money intended for civil society and sub-contract activities to locally-based civil society to undertake tasks that are not necessarily the most useful. There was a sense that this kind of funding can often undermine dignity and commitment and divert efforts from what is really needed.

Diplomatic openings?

Present at the first two days of the meeting were diplomats from the UK and Germany, the EU, and representatives from the UN Office of the Special Envoy to Syria, particularly the ones that are in charge of communicating with civil society and liaising with them to ensure that their views are represented at the negotiation table.  What has changed since the beginning of the conflict is an understanding by some of the international players that outside approaches to peace-building must involve civil society and not just armed groups, must be bottom-up as well as top-down, and must deal with economic and social issues and not just politics; this is reflected in several recent reports from the UN on peace-building as well as the new EU Global Strategy.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy to Syria, in charge of the negotiations, is experimenting with the involvement of civil society and has introduced some significant innovations. He has set up a Syrian Women Advisory Board (WAB) which includes in its membership 12 women from very diverse political backgrounds, and a mechanism for involving civil society which they call the Civil Society Room (CSR). The membership of the CSR is wider than the WAB. Both the WAB and the CSR get invited to Geneva when there are talks.  One of the members of the WAB described their work; the board includes women from all the different political backgrounds including opposition and pro-regime, and they discuss their vision for a democratic Syria, scenarios for democratic transition, as well as making suggestions for the negotiations, including the Istana process initiated by Russia and Turkey; they also try to arrange meetings with both the regime and the opposition.

A lively and sophisticated discussion about the CSR included the problem of representation, how to include people from all different areas and not just those who are well connected to the international community and speak English; the problem that many of the most dedicated activists do not have passports or are concerned about the security risk of participation in such a high level process; and the appropriate channels of influence and whether a focus on the negotiations is the best use of advocacy efforts.

Most importantly civil society activists demanded to be treated as equals, not just subsidiary or track two, but as a party to the negotiations. The conflict started as a conflict between  democracy versus authoritarianism not between the regime and the armed groups. While the regime and the armed groups have to end the violence, it is civil society that is needed when it comes to discussing Syria’s political future. Without them there will be no truly inclusive solution that is responsive to the real issues on the ground.

So can this new understanding between civil society and international actors such as the UN and the EU lead to a new approach? It may have come too late. It is Russia, Turkey and Iran that are calling the tune, and the UN and the EU have been increasingly sidelined. A Trump Administration in the US and a May government in Britain will further weaken international organisations and openness to the role of civil society.

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