In this article, I propose a strategy that would be compatible with most foreseeable developments or internationally adopted plan – from military intervention to Annan’s peace negotiations. Furthermore, this concept could be implemented immediately, and appeals to the good sense of being able to both save human lives and secure international interests simultaneously.
To many, it might sound intuitively inappropriate to be talking about civil society as a response to the severity of the current situation. However, it is an indispensable element within any comprehensive plan for Syria. Furthermore, such an initiative can – and should – be introduced now, ahead (and independent) of whatever other measures might be adopted with a view to resolving the current crisis.
After the Baathist regime stifled Syrian civil society for decades, it is tragic that the international community now fails to realize its constructive potential, both as subject of more straight-forward consensus for the opposition, and as a way to ameliorate the situation (or at least lessen its degradation). It should have been actively supported long ago in recognition that the protest movement was essentially a manifestation of a civil society seeking a peaceful transition to a democratic system.
Today, it is even more pressing to support local civil society in order to minimize the risks of emergent sectarian civil war. The effective backing of well-selected civil society groups can work to limit the sectarian manifestations and chaotic escalations of such a conflict. Groups within the opposition who are promoting positive relations and dialogue between Syria’s various religious and ethnic communities are key to holding together the fabric of society, and averting a repetition of the kind of generalized violence witnessed in post-2003 Iraq.
One group playing a particularly pivotal role in this respect is the Kurds, given their shared geography with many of Syria’s Christian communities (Syriacs, Assyrians, and Chaldeans in al-Hassaka governorate), and the demographic intersection between Kurds and the Alawite community. From this population, which arguably constitutes the largest liberal force in the country, certain groups of Syria’s Kurds have taken upon themselves the task of protecting other – less numerically powerful – liberal groups, such as the Christians who have long been protected by the regime, and may fear for the future.
Indeed, the Kurdish Youth Movement (Tevgera Ciwanên Kurd), which sees itself principally as a civil society organization, explains, “…we raise the flags of the Christian minorities in our protests. We have historic good relations with these populations, and it is our duty to support these groups now, and let them know that we will support them in the future also.” Further, the movement’s media committee adds that “our revolution is against the Baathist regime, and we must distinguish this from those innocent Alawites who might risk becoming victims of retaliation. They too need to be protected.”
Civil society institutions are therefore not simply an indicator of the flourishing of liberal democracy, but rather they are also instrumental in realizing the transition towards such a system. In addition to contributing to the fall of the delegitimized regime by strengthening the protest movement, civil society will be able to play an important role in the eventual re-build and recovery whenever a resolution to the current crisis in Syria is reached. In order to be viable and achieve stability, any new regime will need to find ways to incorporate the protest (and youth) movement into meaningful roles. To start, the ready-made civil society organizations (be they informal or otherwise) could play a significant role in the re-integration of returnee refugees and internally displaced persons.
In the meantime, however, local civil society organizations, through their established networks and presence within Syria, have an important role to play in delivering humanitarian relief to the most desperate of recipients. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which claims to be “the only international relief organization working within Syria,” has been minimally effective. (I write this not as an attack on the international reputation, nor the underlying intentions, of the organization, but out of obligation to the Syrian people, whom I feel are ill-served by the present system of aid transmission.) This can be explained by its well-established operational partnership with the Syrian regime, through the implementation body of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (a body sanctioned and controlled by the Syrian state). As such, it is questionable what kind of access the Red Cross has to reach those most in need. Furthermore, missions are frequently manipulated as a mechanism of legitimization by regime media (think of the propaganda stunt broadcasting the Assads’ parcelling off of emergency aid to inhabitants in Homs while other quarters of town were being shelled).
In such a situation, would it not be better, if even just a portion of the funds donated to the Red Cross’ Syria campaign had been distributed through civil society mechanisms? Understandably, donors (both individual and institutional) prefer to support registered relief organizations like the Red Cross. Therefore, they should look at collaborating with local civil society by mediating with, and moderating, such groups, and distributing material supplies (not money) to their networks.
Western diplomatic services should similarly be identifying appropriate civil society organizations to back financially. It should be noted that in many cases, such informal groups are currently documenting their activities as well, if not better, than many established NGOs (with daily statements, reports, youtube video updates, and facebook and twitter posts).
Civil society in Syria should be encouraged to play an active role in every stage of the country’s developing revolution and post-revolutionary future. The imminent necessity for support is summarized by a member of the Homs Coordination Committee, who said, “every week we balance providing medical assistance to those in desperate need with finding money for the basic resources needed to produce new banners simply in order to retain the momentum of the revolution.”
Parts of the international community, which have declared their willingness to respond to the crisis in Syria, can engage now in such a way. If there is any positive feature to come as a result of the duration of the Syrian revolution, it is the professionalization of the opposition, and the opportunity for diplomatic services to establish meaningful and constructive relationships with groups of such newly-identified actors. While investing in civil society now could potentially save the international community from higher cost solutions down the road, missing this opportunity will have significant costs in human lives.
Thomas McGee is a Master’s candidate in Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter. He specializes in human rights in Syria and Kurdish rights and conducted field research in Syria for six months at the start of the revolution.