What might have been: a decade of civil activism in Syria

The Syria Trust for Development was beginning to play an important role in Syria, when the Syrian uprising took place: an excerpt from a study of Syrian civil society on the eve of revolution that helps us to understand some of the deeper changes that were under way.

Salam Kawakibi
11 March 2013

During the first decade of the new millennium, Syria underwent a number of significant social and economic changes that profoundly affected its social structures. These changes, particularly evident in the economic realm, took place with the leadership’s stated intention to transfer large parts of the state-controlled economy to the market, in a radical ideological shift from previous decades of economic management. According to Bashar al-Assad and his team of advisers, economic reforms were to be the building block for the gradual process of political liberalization that would see Syria slowly move away from its strict brand of political authoritarianism.

Over that decade significant legislative changes were introduced to improve the climate for private investment through both Arab and other foreign investors. These reforms had a considerable impact on Syrian social structures, with new spheres of activity opening for the Syrian private sector, leading to hybrid economic patterns that mixed private enterprise with state intervention. Despite the continued presence of the state in the sphere of economic activities, ten years of market-oriented reforms led to state structures being progressively weakened in the economic arena, with the role of the state as direct producer declining significantly.

But early hopes that the progressive withdrawal of the state from direct economic activities would spill over to the political and social domain were shattered however, as state structures continued to maintain complete control of the public sphere and of social and political action. The violent repression of the Spring 2011 demonstrations indicated clearly that the regime was not ready to relinquish control of the state and weaken its authoritarian nature. The spate of economic reforms came to look more like part of a larger process of authoritarian upgrading. Together with the introduction of market-oriented reforms, the incumbent regime had espoused the notion that Syrian civil society should have a prominent role in transforming the state, without altering its nature or challenging the pillars of the political system.

Syria’s big society

The emphasis on civil society activism and development was due to two factors. First, as a result of its withdrawal from the economy and the decline in the standard of living of low-wage earners and even of many members of the free professions, the Syrian government was unable to fully pursue its declared liberal economic policy. Economic reforms remained piecemeal and selective, prompting the regime, hesitantly at first, to allow greater room for manoeuvre to civil society organizations that would substitute the state for the delivery of services involving health, social affairs, and culture. Second, President Bashar al-Assad, in order to consolidate his position, needed to move away from his reliance on Baath party structures and corporatism. To begin relying on different social constituencies from the ones that supported his father, he used the device of civil society. For civil society to serve the state’s latest modernization project without challenging its political structures, licenses were granted to nonprofit organizations engaged in development, health, and social affairs, but not to associations engaged in advancing citizens’ political and civil rights. So, for example, religious nongovernmental associations benefited only if they did not get involved directly in political matters.

 The state went as far as setting up NGOs in order to stimulate civil activism, and it is one of these government organised nongovernmental organisations (GONGOs) - the Syrian Trust - that I want to look at in detail, to show how the creation of such organizations could have unintended consequences, creating semi-autonomous dynamics within society that did have political repercussions. Understanding the way in which civil society operated not so long ago in Syria gives us an insight into developments in a country ready for change that have been so tragically overtaken by war.

The different organizations coordinated under the umbrella of the Syria Trust for Development tick all the boxes in the literature in terms of the nature and role of GONGOs. First, they were all established in the 2000s to accompany economic transformations that reduced the welfare provisions of the state. In order not to let Islamic charities monopolize the nonprofit service-providing sector and in order to foster values such as “entrepreneurship”, the state set up government-organized associations. At the same time, these associations allowed the regime to begin to move away from the traditional structures of mobilization of the Baath party, providing the new president with alternative constituencies for support in his efforts to modernize (though not democratize Syria). These GONGOs were able to operate freely and therefore increase social capital under the patronage of First Lady Asma al-Assad, giving them the opportunity to become significant actors in a short period of time. Their ability to “get things done” attracted both domestic and international donors from the private and public sector, guaranteeing a degree of legitimacy for both the al-Assad regime and for its modernization project. The rhetoric of empowerment, individual responsibility, education, and citizenship that these organizations deployed also contributed to legitimizing their role with the international community and potential donors. Since they were in fact devoid of autonomy and independence, however, they soon became tools of increased social control. But it is worth looking at the ways that nevertheless, their activities and impacts might diverge from the intentions of the agents who created them.

Unintended consequences: the Syria Trust

The Syria Trust for Development, according to its mission statement, was aimed at achieving, “a Syrian society in which its members can realize their potential for the sake of themselves and their families, their society, and their homeland.” In its publications, the trust supported NGOs not operating under its umbrella. It offered help in preparing applications for funding and for grants and loans, a task considered a weak link in civil society organizations active in the area of development in Syria. The trust described itself as an information and coordination source, and as a builder of a cooperative network that assisted in the advancement of Syrian society. In this context, trust officials spoke of creating a communal stage for NGOs for the distribution of knowledge and for capacity building.

By early 2011, the trust employed 190 persons, but had encountered problems in attracting skilled personnel due to the small number of educational programmes in Syrian universities in fields concerned with growth and development. It became necessary to woo Syrian experts living outside the country and to offer advanced courses to train a local cadre of skilled personnel. This need became critical when the Trust sought

to expand operations into new areas of the country. Its five-year plan called for expanding the total number of staff, in all the projects, to 700. This ambitious goal demanded great efforts in building professional teams and retaining them, since many staff left after gaining the requisite experience.

A number of aspects related to the workings of this umbrella organization could be seen to go beyond the official rhetoric of the various projects and programmes. The trust might have been preparing the terrain, at least in the longer term, for the development of a concept of citizenship at odds with the intentions of its creators, in so far as it offered critical tools of engagement that might transfer from service provision to more politicized issues.

When it comes to Firdos’s work, for example, inevitably its success raised questions about why state structures designed development plans without taking into account local circumstances and needs. Firdos (the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria) was set up in 2001 to promote socioeconomic development in the Syrian countryside. Much of the economic development plans drawn up in Syria gave precedence to urban areas and ignored rural areas, despite the importance of the agricultural sector and the fact that most of the decision makers came from rural areas. A number of local and regional development reports noted the need for investment in the rural sector and the necessity of preventing its massive deterioration. From this arose the vision of the Firdos project: “Improving the living conditions in rural areas by empowering individuals and communities to enhance their self-reliance and create equal opportunities for its members.” Firdos provides a wide range of social services such as rural crèches for children, scholarships for underprivileged students, mobile libraries, and mobile information centres. Crucially, however, it also attempted to jump-start rural-based economic activities by providing microcredit to small businesses and entrepreneurship training. The organization was active in developing local expertise and creating work opportunities in forty villages in six different governorates, and received significant donations for specific projects from private Syrian businesses, international private companies operating in Syria, the Syrian state, and international organizations such as United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF.

Firdos established local committees or labour committees which it trained to build assessment and intervention programmes in order to increase the committees’ autonomous decision-making power, making them aware of the necessity of designing their own economic future. The committees were then connected to existing resources to enable them to work independently. The assumption that Syria needed to maximize its economic potential by investing in the skills of its rural labour force fit with the duty of the Firdos as a GONGO, and might seem innocent enough. But the idea of challenging ministerial directives in order to follow an alternative path of development autonomously worked out within the local community was rather revolutionary in Syria.

This example is interesting for two reasons. First, it pointed to a deepseated contradiction and a power struggle between the president's programme of modernization, based on entrepreneurship and personal initiative, in order to strengthen Syria’s integration in the global economy, and a Baath-based bureaucracy that was not entirely convinced about the whole idea. The minister of agriculture before the 2011 reshuffle, for example, was opposed to the involvement of Firdos. The directors of the projects in the rural communities reported obstacles that made advance difficult, in addition to bureaucratic problems and the institutionalised opposition of government ministries, in particular the ministry of agriculture. Secondly, because the association’s patron was the first lady, it was simplest for the director of Firdos to “lift the phone” and use the patronage network available to him to make things happen more quickly. However, this was not done because both Firdos and the trust were attempting to break the patronage and wasta cycle that plagued Syrians’ interactions with the state. This refusal to follow the traditional solutions might be detrimental to the workings of the organization in the short term, because of its inability to complete projects or have more impact, but in the longer term this “political” statement demonstrated a very different approach to solving problems of this nature.

In general, Firdos attempted to create confidence at the local level by means of the development of civil society. It also aided in the enactment of legislation and in amending existing legislation in a way that supported its objectives. It networked with government, community, regional, and international entities engaged in the same areas of activity.

Massar and the concept of citizenship

Another of the development programmes established at the initiative of the Syrian First Lady was Massar, set up in 2005, to focus on providing a foundation for the concept of citizenship among the country’s young people. Massar’s activities aimed at, “turning children and young people into active citizens, to enable them, through education, to acquire the understanding and ability to change the world around them, and to gain control over their present and future.” According to the organization itself, 40,000 pupils a year took part in a range of activities that included the opening of “discovery centres,” the first of which was established in Latakia in 2007, with the main centre scheduled to be opened in Damascus, in 2013. The goal of these centres was to create interactive opportunities, train teachers, and develop school curricula. They also engaged in civic affairs, strengthening voluntarism, development, and the use of dialogue in dealing with social issues. By means of its interactive website, Massar worked with marginalised groups unable to take a direct part in its activities. Although the central government was involved in the project, Massar officials mainly sought regional and international partners.

The projects implemented were highly politically sensitive because they dealt directly with the young generation, traditionally mobilized by the youth wing of the Baath party, and addressed many social issues that might have resulted in the development of civic concepts and dialogue. For decades, these civic concepts and dialogue had been sorely lacking in Syrian society and in its political lexicon. So, Massar was not necessarily operating outside its mandate but it was exposing younger generations to educational concepts such as individual responsibility, dialogue, and critical thinking, which ran counter to what the regime actually required from its citizens. In this case, the association had a good working relationship with primary and secondary schools across the country. Massar officials were to claim that the Ministry of Education opened the school doors for them, enabling them to expose teachers and pupils to new pedagogic methods, such as simulation methods and interactive theatre, and that this cooperative effort was endorsed by the positive and open approach taken by the minister of education himself.Again we can see how GONGO’s going about their statutory duties, nevertheless pushed the  boundaries that more independent organizations could not push, leaving them paradoxically, much better placed to engender what might be described as a “subversive discourse.”

In short, the work of the GONGOs in Syria, while certainly fulfilling the role given to them by the agents that created them, also had an influence on the type of civil activism present in the country, which did not conform to what the literature expects of them. First of all, to establish its credibility, these GONGOs did not necessarily rely on political patronage to get things done. While it was obviously important to be seen to be connected to the first lady, avoiding patronage in the name of credibility and professionalism demonstrated that a sense of autonomy was developing among the staff of these organisations. Secondly, the critical and independent professional staff that these organizations attracted, inspired high expectations of genuine service. Such professionalism in the long run increases the chances that organizational loyalty and needs will prevail over political considerations. Third, interaction with foreign partners, including UN agencies and a host of development agencies from western countries, contributed by osmosis not only to increased professionalism but exposed the staff and the targeted users to ideas of accountability and empowerment that could have been transferred to other more politicized forms of organisation.


The way in which GONGOs in Syria were set up and designed led analysts, following the mainstream literature on the topic, to dismiss them as a new attempt by the regime to substitute the old “people’s organizations” (the Young Revolutionaries Union, the Baath

Pioneers Union, and so forth) with more modern forms of social control, aimed at seeking a different path toward modernization without including political rights.

The establishment of the five GONGOs that would later come under the umbrella of the Syrian Trust for Development was certainly part of a process that sought to create new, state-led social structures, divorced from the conventional bureaucracy, in order to build a separate power base for the younger generation in power at the moment. In many ways they reflected the same dynamics that affected previous popular organizations in so far as those involved needed patronage networks to access the available jobs and resources. Overall, as such, they tended to reproduce similarly authoritarian patterns of interaction, and the criticism laid at the door of GONGOs is certainly justified, given the highly repressive Syrian environment and the leading role that the al-Assad family had in such repression.

Nevertheless, while their resources might still be small compared to that of more established corporatist organizations, the sorts of GONGOs described above began to play an important role in Syria, up until the Syrian uprising. First, the rhetoric they employed was radically different from the past, as the mobilization of activism revolved around ideas of individual initiative, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, empowerment, and accountability. Once that rhetoric was in place, unintended consequences began to emerge, and instances of GONGO behaviour began to point to their increased autonomy from their creators.

More specifically, the Syria Trust for Development managed to draw and absorb many skilled professionals engaged in a variety of activities, and trained new personnel and channelled them into civic work. Some of these people moved on to work with NGOs outside the confines of the trust. Their skills and values have been channelled into a type of activism that is more independent, and crucial if a genuine civil society is ever to emerge in Syria. Such people provided a great mid- and long-term service for the foundation of a new, nonideological culture that could spill over from welfare-service provision - the focus of most of the Trust’s work - to the workings of the polity at large, instilling new practices in the public sphere in Syria with respect to governance, monitoring, assessment, and accountability, that could have pointed the way to a very different future Syria.


For the full version of this paper see Chapter 8 of Civil society in Syria and Iran: activism in authoritarian contexts, Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta (eds.)
Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2012.

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