Feature Articles: Emerging from the war: The Syrian Civil Society.

By Margherita Distrotti

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, international media have tended to portray the Syrian population as a helpless victim of the conflict between the regime, rebel groups, and the jihadist groups in the region. In this framework, the international actors have been represented as protectors or harmers of the people, depending on the perspective taken on the conflict. Still, the Syrian civil population, despite being devastated by seven years of war, is far from acting as a passive victim of the conflict, waiting to be saved. Since the beginning of the war, the Syrian civil society has much developed, and it has been central not only in protecting the people affected by the conflict but also in forming the political basis of a future Syria. For this reason, consultations with the Syrian people are necessary for any actor who genuinely wishes to act for a transformation of Syria.

The Syrian civil society had seen a period of emergence and prosperous activity after the death of President Hafiz al-Assad in the summer of 2000. This period, known as the “Damascus Spring”, lasted until the autumn of 2001 and it was characterised by the development and formulation of intense political, legal and economic demands. Growing opposition to the regime accompanied these requests. However, the political and social mobilisations did not last long. The new president Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafiz, quickly re-established strict governmental control and censure over any form of dissent. In the following years, Assad adopted the strategy, familiar to authoritarian leaders in the region, of allowing the creation of NGOs and civil societies administered by people close to the government. The aim was showing that the government was providing room for freedom of expression and association, while in reality, the actions of these groups were under direct control of regime affiliates.

However, since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the Assad government has lost much control over local initiatives and grassroots organisations and a robust civil society has emerged. In his recent article in The Guardian, Simon Tisdall presents a report of the Peace Society on Idlib civil society. The region is referred to as a “kill box” because, since it is a focal point for opposition groups and jihadist groups, the population is threatened on two fronts. On one side, the Assad regime uses the presence of opposition and jihadist groups to justify bombings on this territory. On the other, the population is continuously threatened by the violence of extremist jihadist groups. It is estimated that out of the 2.6 million people living in the region, 1.7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. The report gathers testimonies of members of civil societies operating in the area highlighting their firm belief that the only way to create a new peaceful Syria is through the civil society.

These groups have mobilised to provide services such as medical assistance and education to the population. Women have been playing a central role in starting new initiatives and actively leading the work of the different groups. In doing so, they have not only practically helped the population in its everyday needs, but they have also succeeded in changing the perspective on women’s role in society. Some of those interviewed remember how initially many men were hostile to women working but now, they say, the same men are proud of their daughters joining the civil societies.

Besides assisting the population, civil society plays an essential role in rejecting terrorist groups. A study conducted in July 2017 in the region, found that 77% of those surveyed disagreed with Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafist jihadists militant group, and other Salafist groups in Idlib, and 73% rejected Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated councils in Idlib. Almost all of them believed HTS was against the aims of the revolution. Some centres in Idlib have also succeeded in pushing these groups out.

Despite their extraordinary efforts, civil societies members are asking for greater support from the international society and are demanding that international organisations working in the region get more and more involved with local civil societies.

Simon Tisdall: Amid Syria’s horror, a new force emerges: The Women of Idlib. http://theguardian.com;
Peace Society: Idlib Lives, The Untold Story of Heroes: https://idliblives.org;
Craig Browne: Hope and Despair: Syrian Civil Society http://mei.edu.

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