The void in governance created by the ongoing Syrian conflict has been capitalized upon by warlords, militias and extremist groups to expand and consolidate their power – but has also helped to generate activism, with new leaders born as a reaction to authoritarian governance and conflict limitations.
As public social services have been taken over as war tools, local coordination committees, Local Councils, humanitarian support groups, citizen journalist networks, women’s groups, and more, have mushroomed across all of Syria. But this new civil society continues to be threatened by many challenges.
It remains hindered by structural weakness and limited capacity - largely as a result of the legacy of Ba’athist policies, which did not allow civil society to exist in the so-called Damascus Spring, but only under the umbrella of the Government, First Lady Asma al-Assad and business NGOs (GoNGOs, FLNGOs and BoNGOs). Beyond this, civil society was limited to purely charitable and religious causes, known as “moujtamaa ahli”.
In addition, Syrian civil society is often a victim of counter-terrorism legislation, with laws and regulations across many countries and institutions prohibiting Syrians from registering an organization and opening bank accounts. This makes it difficult to secure financial support in an environment where funding has already been dwindling due to a “Syria fatigue” among potential donors, and where any money available is mainly directed at large, often international, NGOs.
Trust, hope and legitimacy
To reach funds, many organizations have to submit to this “NGOization” process. But even this rarely allows for civil society to foster its own interests through core funding. Civil society in Syria is treated more as a “project” with strict indicators, deals and deadlines, when working under conflict necessitates building relationships of trust with a community over time and often has to cover the direct needs on the ground to gain local legitimacy and increase effectiveness. Trust, hope and legitimacy are not aspects you can report against or cover in a sophisticated proposal.
But despite such obstacles, activists and civil society groups continue to volunteer for various causes, ensuring many have not had to seek refuge elsewhere. And their work has included challenging authoritarian and extremist governance.
In Aleppo in 2014, it was civil society with the support of a military faction of Jaish Al Mujahideen that helped expel ISIS. Local councils have since been providing services ranging from humanitarian aid and garbage collection to re-establishing order and resolving local conflicts, thus challenging the legitimacy of jihadist institutions.
NGOs such as the Civil Defense Forces (known as the White Helmets) continually risk their lives to save others by rescuing people from bombed out buildings. On September 19, when a UN sanctioned aid convoy was attacked in Aleppo – reportedly by Russian aircraft – it was the White Helmets that responded, before then coming under attack themselves.
Human rights activists, meanwhile, persist in documenting human rights abuses in the hope that the perpetrators will eventually be held accountable.
However, a Syrian civil society tragedy is unfolding as their work is struggling to survive. To give but one example, Kesh Malek, one of the biggest groups running home-based schooling for children, has already had to close some of its schools.
Lacking international protection, the fate of these children in relation to arms and radicalization is all the more alarming. Several local councils have also been much weakened, especially vis-à-vis warlords, authoritarian and/or extremists actors.
At its best, the current bombing campaign serves to kill any potential alternatives to an authoritarian regime, and only boosts human suffering, radicalization and displacement.
If this situation is to be reversed, international actors need to ensure security at the local Syrian level, showing that Syrian security is as important as that of Europe. This means financial security through a deeper and more sustainable capacity building and funding to civil society, and it means protecting civilians and civil society groups though the creation of a safe haven.
Rana Khalaf was an Academy senior fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme in 2016.