Syria: Civil Society in Times of War
Claudia De Martino 14 June 2017

However, it is precisely those over 15 million Syrian citizens that seem to be notably absent from the discourse. A population already reduced by the death of over 400,000 people and the exodus of about five million refugees, these citizens resist tenaciously, attempting to organise their lives in spite of the war, both in areas controlled by the regime and those held by rebels.

What is never emphasised enough is that the Syrian state was already experiencing a crisis before 2011. It was precisely this progressive disaffection that many citizens felt for Bashar al-Assad’s government that caused the initial uprisings that sparked the brief Syrian Arab Spring, immediately and violently repressed by the regime.

The Syrian state was experiencing a crisis because the governing system was founded not only on the systematic repression of opponents (thanks to the use of between 50,000 and 70,000 men belonging to the security forces and the secret services, members of the fearsome 15 agencies of mukhabarat) and the continuous imposition of a state of emergency. It also relied on a selective welfare system, with access to institutions managed on a sectarian basis that did not guarantee any form of universality and neutrality in allocating resources, clearly favouring the Alawite (12%), Christian (8%), Druse (3%) and Shia (1%) minorities, discriminating against the Sunni majority (65%), condemning respectively 11% of the population to total poverty and 30% to relative poverty (David Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, 2013: p. 67).

The social emergency was particularly accentuated in rural areas already affected by continuous droughts between 2006 and 2010 and the concurrent liberal structural reforms undertaken by the regime, aimed at dismantling the agricultural sector by closing cooperatives and stopping subsidies. This resulted in a real and proper abandonment of the countryside by the regime in favour of urban areas, which was also the cause of significant social and ethnic inequality, since most of the rural areas were inhabited by Sunnis. The north-east of the country, in particular the province of Raqqa, were linked to agriculture and had been forced to their knees by reforms and deprived of alternative forms of revenue, with 58% of the population becoming poor (which perhaps explains a great deal about ISIS taking root in that city in 2014.)

Blocking all access to welfare and simultaneously imposing a strict ban on political activity through a capillary penetration of what was basically one political party – the Ba’ath, alongside which no real alternative political power could emerge in spite of a slight opening in 2012 – Syrian society was kept in a sort of eternal immobilisation, the only ripples of activity being cosmetic reforms – such as the 2005 Declaration of Damascus – announced by a government that had become increasingly oligarchic and family-based. No opening had occurred in the passage of power from Assad father (Hafez) to his son (Bashar), who had, however, raised many hopes in Syrian society and above all among its intellectuals who had rushed in 2000 to sign the “Declaration of the One Thousand” asking for a multi-party system, the end of the state of emergency and freedom of the press and of association. All these requests were disregarded by the young president who had instead decided to show a softer side, but basically of continuity with the previous repressive political agenda.

Syria, however, was a young country, with over 55% of its citizens aged under 24 in 2010, which needed greater economic growth to create enough jobs, but also greater social justice and political openness to guarantee an adequate representation for a more active, globalised and educated young population (25% of these young people attended the country’s state universities). In summary, Syria was growing up in fits and starts, with excessively partial and limited openings and with bans that were too evident to allow the country not to look like a “pressure cooker” in spite of its president’s official statements on the eve of the uprisings.

In a political context devoted to immobilism, more and more young Arabs prevented from playing a political role or from obtaining jobs in government institutions, had already turned in rising numbers to associations or new NGOs before 2011 so as to play an important social role denied to them in the political sphere. The Syrian government, however, only allowed two kinds of associations to exist; charitable ones, often Islamic, carefully monitored by the Ministry for Social Affairs and Labour, and the so-called new NGOs linked to Assad’s family and in particular to the First Lady, such as the Syria Trust for Development, the Junior Chamber International (JCI), the Syrian Enterprise and Business Centre (SEBC). There were others called GONGOs, hence the government’s non-governmental organisations, an amusing way of pointing at the absolute aporia of reality that resulted in these organisations appearing to be independent while they were really on the government’s payroll.

Although oriented at fighting specific campaigns and solving real problems, many of these groups were however placed mid-way between political and social organisations and animated by broader expectations of justice over the long-term. It was therefore not surprising that about two months after Tunisia and Egypt has risen against their own despots, setting an example, Syria immediately joined the wave of protests. Many of the young people who had acquired a political and social conscience in previous phases in the various GONGOs, joined the new Tansikiyat, or local coordination committees, initially created only as provisional bodies to coordinate protests and then gradually assigned increasingly important functions of real and proper governance, as the official government gradually lost territory faced with the advance of rebel groups and abandoned them to self-governance. So, the Coordination Committees were transformed into Councils, which tried to replace the government in its basic administrative duties, ranging from General Register Offices to providing basic public services such as road maintenance and garbage collection.

With the multiplication of the practical needs of self-government, the vivacity of the Syrian social fabric, already significant before 2011, intensified with a sharp rise in the creation of NGOs (+91% since 2011), as well as their progressive diversification. Groups devoted to humanitarian aid and to providing parallel or complementary basic services to those of a state clearly on the verge of failing, were joined by those dedicated to political advocacy, which would never have obtained official approval, but also those more closely linked to the conflict, such as NGOs devoted to detailed documentation of human rights violations (such as Violation Documentation Center, Douma’s VDC or Raqqa is being slaughtered silently), indifferently carried out by both parties in conflict and hence, obstructed by both.

Nowadays, thanks to the work of some of these NGOs, it is possible to know in detail how many of these associations are effectively working in the field and with what objectives. The detailed report drafted by “Citizens for Syria” (available online at and published in Italy thanks to the NGO Un Ponte per) provides us with an image of Syrian civil society, revealing precious data concerning the number as well as the level of work done by the NGOs involved.

A great deal of important information emerges, such as the fact that about 748 more or less official NGOs listed in the report, work fulltime in the country and that most of them are predictably concentrated in areas occupied by the rebels (44%) as well as in the province of al-Hassakeh, in the Kurdish area, autonomously managed since 2012 by the Kurdish-Syrian minority thanks to an agreement signed with the Assad regime. Only a small percentage of the NGOs seem to be still active under the regime. For them it is also difficult to establish relationships with other NGOs, both due to objective difficulties in communications and doubts concerning restrictions on their mandates and the pressure under which they are obliged to work. Most Syrian NGOs still have offices or branches in the country, although an increasingly significant percentage are registering in Lebanon and more recently in Turkey where contacts with local civil society had been sporadic until war broke out. One also sees a “progressive democratization” in the spreading of associations and NGOs all over the country, previously exclusively concentrated in Syria’s advanced or loyalist areas, therefore in the large cities and along the coast mainly inhabited by Alawites (until 2011, 85% of NGOs were based in Damascus, Aleppo, Tartous, Latakia and Hama).

Over one third of Syrian NGOs are involved in humanitarian aid (35%), dealing with the more urgent and immediate needs of a population that needs everything. However, an almost equally large percentage (31%) is instead involved in the media sector, considered another of the war’s hot fronts as communications are continuously manipulated both by the regime and by ISIS and the great powers for reasons often extraneous to Syria and, above all, to its citizens fundamental objectives, mainly the end of this conflict and the beginning of peace negotiations. Smaller percentages of NGOs are also active in what are only apparently secondary fields, such as civil rights and citizenship advocacy, health (6%), culture (5.7%) but also research (6%), bearing witness to the commitment shown by Syrians themselves to fostering political solutions to end the conflict. This to avoid being considered just passive recipients of choices made elsewhere and corresponding to agendas extraneous to them. They all suffer from a systematic lack of funds, but above all from the impossibility to expect such funds to arrive, hence their sporadic appearance, which determines significant organisational precariousness, forcing many of them to plan their work on a monthly rather than yearly basis.

Finally, Syrian society has gained awareness, at least recently, of the extreme fluidity and weak organisation of the galaxy of groups involved in the terrible task of opposing both the regime and jihadist violence, as well as foreign exploitation. They also need to have stronger cooperation nuclei among civil society’s many souls so as to count at least a little in post-conflict Syria as well as in the process that will lead to the end of the war. This has resulted in the creation of alliances and coalitions in civil society that form a number of spontaneous groups and NGOs active in the country. These include the Syrian Civil Coalition (TAMAS), the Syrian Alliance for Hope and Modernity and Freedom (SHAML), the Union of Medical Organisations (UOSSOM), the Union of Civil Society’s Organisations (USCSO), the Syrian Forum, the Syrian Aid Network (SRN), which are all available for analysis in the report drafted by the NGO Citizens for Syria. There are certainly still too many acronyms, even at a first glance, to say that the synthesis and merging operation has been a success, but it still is a first attempted step in the right direction.

The report does not ignore the perplexities and doubts that remain in civil society’s activities, which, although committed to oppose and limit the pervasive effects of war, does not operate within an isolated context, but one greatly distressed by the conflict and therefore subject to the same restrictions to action and vision as many of the political powers deployed in the field. In primis, the tendency to “ethnicise” or “cantonise” Syria, favoured by the creation of ethnically or geographically homogeneous NGOs, which have few relations with groups in other areas of the country and rarely recruit members from outside their own sect or local group of origin. While it is true that all associations and NGOs operate in emergency conditions and cannot, for the moment, be the representatives of broader visions that would not have the means to achieve, it is also certain that by adopting more simple and speedy forms of operating they negatively contribute to the disintegration of Syria’s national social fabric and simplification of reality.

In summary, one can deduct from this report, as well as from others that, paradoxically, Syrian civil society has never been as active as it has been since the war has allowed many other groups to become organised in autonomous associations, thanks to the absence of the state’s control and its repressive apparatuses. That said, many challenges await civil society, among them the capacity to assume an increasingly cohesive and representational organisation at a national level, overcoming and merging ethnic-religious and gender barriers, fostering new forms of more inclusive citizenship. The greatest difficulty seems to be that of building bridges with fellow citizens who have remained under the Assad regime, who must not indiscriminately be perceived as regime loyalists and excluded tout court from the reorganisation of Syrian civil society that is taking place in rebel-controlled areas and abroad. Furthermore, Syrian NGOs need to try and establish closer relations with societies hosting them, be they Lebanese, Jordanians, Turks or Europeans, while simultaneously preserving full autonomy from the political agendas of donors and foreign governments that have every interest in converting their benevolent welcome into forms of political leverage, knowing well that some of these NGOs now play a fundamental role in representing a future Syria, and tomorrow in rebuilding the country.

Translated by Francesca Simmons 



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