The Syrian uprising in 2011 can be considered a transformative event, which prompted unprecedented levels of collective action and organization, in particular among the opponents of the current Government of Syria (GoS). The countries hosting Syria’s displaced populations witnessed the emergence and ongoing development of a vibrant, politically and socially engaged civil society led by Syrians with the aim to, first, play a part in the social and political transformations Syria is going through and second, respond to the pressing needs of Syrian people both in the country of origin as well as of destination.
Through workshops and semi-structured interviews, this study investigated the external and structural conditions that interfere with the space and actions of Syrian civil society organizations (CSOs) in six host countries (Lebanon, Turkey, France, Germany, Denmark, United Kingdom). In addition, the prospects of Syrian CSOs, potential strategies, solutions, and fields of action are elaborated on in light of likely scenarios.
The actions and strategies of Syrian civil society are influenced heavily by the dynamics inside the country of origin, such as the bureaucratic and security challenges to the delivery of aid inside Syria and the general lack of security and stability in cross-border operations.
On the host country level, the legal environment of European countries concerned in this study is an enabling factor for advocacy, while the legal precariousness and political instability in neighboring countries do not allow much space and freedom for political mobilization. International political contexts and discourses pose both opportunities and constraints to the Syrian diaspora and affect the direction of engagement. A potential normalization of international relations with the Syrian government is likely to intensify the political nature of diaspora mobilization in some segments of civil society, particularly in European host countries, with increased advocacy efforts to indirectly influence the homeland´s political situation. The UN-sponsored peace talks and the efforts of European countries in peacebuilding present opportunities for Syrian civil society to voice their demands, but the diverse components of Syrian civil society are not adequately engaged in such settings.
The narratives of conflict and peace that are imposed by the host countries and international organizations potentially portray parts of Syria as being safe for returns, but many refugees continue to face serious risks upon their return. Reconciliation emerges as a contested term in some contexts both in the region and Europe, with the argument that the desire to rapidly achieve peace can hinder the processes of justice for the sake of stability in the region. The needs and resources of organizations are diverse and context-specific but mainly centered around coordination efforts, accessibility, and availability of funding, technical capacities, human resources, availability and reliability of data, and the need to harness advocacy efforts to promote wider solidarity and mobilization.
Over the past years, the maneuverability and adaptability of Syrian civil society actors in response to the changing realities inside and outside Syria is noteworthy. However, it is safe to say that concrete organizational strategies and solutions for likely future scenarios hardly exist for the majority of Syrian CSOs except for a handful of professionalized and well-established organizations.
The divergent perspectives of actors regarding the controversial matter of building or maintaining ties with actors and entities in the government-held areas of Syria may introduce new fault lines among civil society actors in the ‘near’ diaspora (Syrians in neighboring countries) in a scenario in which the Syrian government regains control of Syria.
However, the mere fact that it is possible to openly discuss these seemingly difficult issues may serve to illustrate that such positionings are not as indisputable as popular views might suggest.
The protraction of conflict entails sustained efforts towards relief aid while at the same time, it is seen as essential to work towards increased solidarity and dialogue among the Syrian people. In a scenario with a federal system, there is a tendency to shift the emphasis on fostering dialogue among fragmented geographies and the creation of social capital to maintain the unity of Syria to some extent. The post-conflict role of civil society mainly lies in advocacy and justice, especially in the European context.
Syrian organizations express a desire to strengthen international ties with a perspective to contest a default gradual legitimization of the current government of Syria, intensify efforts in the pursuit of justice in international courts, and put the issues of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention on the international agenda. To what extent and under which conditions an independent civil society can exist inside and outside Syria is uncertain.
While the organizations in Europe seem relatively more settled, it is uncertain whether the end of the conflict will jeopardize the existence of Syrian civil society in Lebanon and Turkey. The potential deterioration in host country contexts may force Syrian CSOs to relocate to another hub in the region or extend transnational networks to more enabling contexts in Europe. Depending on the financial capacities and the existing transnational ties, a potential pathway for well-established humanitarian organizations could be building on their capacities to become international players, as some key Syrian humanitarian organizations did, and serve in missions elsewhere, which means a partial loss of diasporic identity.
The international aid community played an important role in supporting Syrian CSOs through partnerships, funding opportunities, training programs, and coordination efforts. There are important initiatives to engage Syrian civil society in discussions on the political level such as UN-led talks in Geneva and Brussels Conferences co-chaired by the EU and UN. There are a number of further steps that can be taken:
Democratizing decision-making processes at the international level
A future political settlement in Syria should be Syrian-led with decision-making roles in justice, return & reintegration, and reconstruction. A top-down agreement faces the risk of breaking down due to a lack of nuanced understanding of the Syrian context, whereas local and grassroots ownership in peacebuilding can render it successful and durable. A greater representation of Syrian civil society in international decision-making processes should be selected in a transparent and democratic manner. The selection mechanisms should facilitate the representation of different political (independent) voices and allow space for bottom-up politics.
Focusing on justice, treating reconciliation with caution
The international community should make a meaningful effort to keep the issues of justice and accountability for Syrian victims, including victims of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention alive. Increased donor support, whether on a financial level or at the level of capacity building, should target Syrian civil society’s efforts for documentation of violations. The use of third-country courts to seek accountability should be facilitated. Notions of justice and reconciliation should not be conflated, and the international community should recognize the sensitivity of the term reconciliation. The desire to achieve an end to the conflict and reconciliation may harm the process of justice, which is seen as a precondition for reconciliation and sustainable peace.
Localization of aid
International organizations and donors should be supportive of contracting local organizations and delivering aid through local Syrian-run initiatives. There are hundreds of local Syrian organizations on the ground with a better grasp of their communities’ needs and enhanced access to the target population. Establishing true partnerships with them to deliver aid and services will ensure a mutually beneficial outcome by easing the access of international organizations to local communities and increasing efficiency and sustainability of aid delivery on the one hand and developing capacities of local organizations on the other hand. Syrian CSOs should be treated as stakeholders in their own assistance and included in the design of programs rather than reducing their role to mere service providers.
Preventing brain drain from local civil society
International organizations should consider the consequences of hiring qualified local staff and the possible harm they may cause to local civil society. Local CSOs typically lose their most qualified staff to the INGOs, who offer much higher salaries in comparison to their local counterparts. As a result of this brain drain from local organizations, the division between local and international NGO staff widens and local organizations strive to sustain their activities without their qualified staff. The rhetoric of enhancing capacities of local civil society should be accompanied by a commitment to help local organizations attract qualified staff to properly respond to future crises. Building the capacities of local Syrian CSOs may contribute to a shift in the power imbalance of the humanitarian system, by enhancing their competitive position to attract and maintain qualified staff.
Tackling the misconceptions about civil society inside
The international community and Syrian civil society in host countries should overcome the misconceptions about CSOs operating in government-controlled areas. The organizations working in government-controlled areas do not necessarily support the Government of Syria and categorizing them as such can only work to the advantage of the Syrian government. There are different opportunity structures that can expand the degree of collective action inside Syria as some areas held by the government still offer a certain degree of freedom to mobilize. In light of possible future scenarios inside Syria, recognizing the existence and importance of a civil society that upholds pluralistic and civic values inside GoS-held areas and opening channels of dialogue with these geographies is an investment in the future of civil society in Syria. At the same time, the potential of co-optation by the current government and the security risk that independent civil society organizations face in government-controlled areas should not be underestimated. Cooperation therefore should follow the acquiring of contextual knowledge, creating trust, and acting in a conflict-sensitive manner.
Creating common spaces
It is critical to establish platforms and organize networking events that bring together Syrian-led organizations. The international community and well-established Syrian CSOs should work on creating common spaces for CSOs and the wider network of stakeholders that allows space for reflecting on strategies and joint future actions rather than reactions. These platforms and networks should be transnational in nature connecting the different geographies, not only to keep diaspora CSOs connected and aware of the realities on the ground but also to provide a space to generate a strong collective voice based on shared values.
Less paperwork, more funding
The high bureaucracy of grant applications and complicated procedures hinder the access of small-scale and less professionalized Syrian CSOs to funding opportunities. Multilingual and simpler application forms and reduced reporting duties to donors could prevent the concentration of aid in a small number of professionalized civil society organizations and empower new ones. More structural long-term grants that cover indirect costs (overheads) and human resource costs are vital for the survival of small and primarily volunteer-based organizations. To enable small organizations’ access to resources, donors can launch funding opportunities for well-established and more resourceful Syrian organizations who can contract smaller Syrian CSOs and grassroots organizations and supervise their projects.
Easing sanctions that affect civil society
The restrictions on money transactions to Syrian organizations are impeding the work of many Syrian civil society organizations inside and outside Syria and hampering the delivery of aid. Stakeholders should enter in dialogue with financial institutions to facilitate financial transfers and to mitigate the negative impacts of “de-risking” measures on the support of livelihoods, economic stability, and other economic and social development benefits of diaspora contributions. Negotiating more reasonable sanctions on Syria is critical for sustaining the work of Syrian CSOs.
Regular assessment of needs and reliable data
Stakeholders should regularly conduct and share needs assessment studies to develop projects that respond to the latest needs on the ground. Availability of reliable data sources and a solid coordination mechanism will help reduce duplication of services and respond to the needs gaps that are not addressed by any organization. In emergency cases, it is important to have instant access to a reliable data source for front-line responders in order to act efficiently. There is also diminishing confidence in available data sources. Developing online platforms that accelerate evidence-based responses in emergencies could be useful.
Covered in this study (Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Denmark) have taken their fair share of responsibility to provide solutions for Syrian refugees to varying degrees. Each host country’s context offers opportunities and challenges for Syrian CSOs and refugees. The following recommendations to host states can enhance Syrian CSOs and target populations.
Shift towards long-term response
The ongoing humanitarian response should be complemented by long-term planning to promote the self-reliance of refugees and reduce the risk of aid dependency. The imperatives of the humanitarian system tend to portray refugees as passive recipients of aid rather than resourceful actors in their own future. Additional funding should be channeled to foster the empowerment and self-reliance of the Syrian population. More inclusive host country policies on refugee education and labor market integration can reduce the risk of aid dependency while preserving the development gains of migration. By collaborating with Syrian organizations active in integration, other stakeholders can support the efforts of the Syrian CSOs to contribute to integration, civic engagement, and human capacity development.
Host states and donors should recognize the heterogeneity of Syrian refugees and as well as the identity struggles associated with the experience of forced migration. The traumatic experience of war and forced migration may complicate further the fragile self-identification of Syrian community. Harmonizing with the new society as equals initially requires the reconstruction of self-identity before exposure to the new context. Identity reconstruction is more of an in-group affair that should be dealt with by Syrians themselves. Donors and host states should provide support to Syrian organizations and actors in identity-building efforts.
The right to return and the wish to remain
Host countries should refrain from circulating discourses that tend to carry a notion of an obligation to return, but rather design policies that recognize the right to return, but also the potential of a wish to remain. Host countries both in Europe and in the region should consider providing the option of refugees to stay regardless of how the conflict ends.
Understanding return from a rights-based approach highlights the importance of creating a safe and secure environment for sustainable return and reintegration in the future. Syrian CSOs’ advocacy efforts tackling the right to return but also the right to protection (and thus remaining) while it is unsafe to go back should be promoted by offering a platform to engage with key stakeholders in host countries and at the international level. Syrian organizations are stakeholders in their own assistance and the agents of change in the future of Syria. However, to realize their potential, there are further steps that can be taken. Below are points raised in the discussions by the actors themselves:
Strategic & coordinated approach
While recognizing the benefits of rapid adaptation to the changing conditions, respondents underline the necessity to learn from the past and present and to take on a proactive role with a long-term vision through analyzing the hurdles that are facing them rather than solely reacting to the happenings. It is critical for Syrian CSOs to think independently and act together to influence policy. A safe space for dialogue and the use of scenario-building workshops can provide a space for discussing and reflecting on possible developments in (post-conflict) Syria, joint strategies, and plans for the action of the Syrian civil society.
In contexts of change, complexity, and uncertainty, this reflexive process allows stakeholders ranging from policymakers, academics, and international organizations, as well as the private sector and Syrian CSOs to share knowledge, challenge and transcend given assumptions, and to investigate policy alternatives and their consequences.
Solidarity for capacity
Some Syrian CSOs successfully mastered the path towards professionalization and established themselves as key players within the humanitarian response in Syria and are now part of important coordination bodies and international decisions structures. Organizations working on a lower capacity can benefit from peer-to-peer learning opportunities, in which well-established Syrian CSOs share their experiences and extend thematic and technical assistance to smaller ones. At the same time, established Syrian CSOs could learn from the grassroots experience of smaller organizations. In addition, designing and implementing joint projects that could harness these synergies efficiently could improve coordination between diverse actors in Syrian civil society.
Participation of youth should be promoted further to harness more civic energy by offering training programs targeting youth workers, facilitating their systematic engagement in all stages of civil society work, enhancing their engagement with the international community through participation in events, and recognizing the abilities and skills of youth and working to reinforce it.
Increasing the representation of women
Women are recognized as important actors in the Syrian civil society movement, but they are underrepresented particularly in managerial levels in Syrian CSOs. Diverse organizational structures and processes can produce social positions based on, among other things, hierarchies of class, profession, generation, and gender, risking the reproduction of pre-existing societal power asymmetries within Syrian civil society mobilization. The intrinsic dynamism of Syrian civil society presents an opportunity to improve structures and processes of governance to embed gendered perspectives in all aspects of civil society work. It is vital to work with women and women-led organizations in order to mainstream a gender-sensitive approach.
Syrian civil society should develop partnerships with universities and promote research on relevant issues. It is critical to achieving the much-needed wedding of academia and civil society as a way to build on the knowledge of civil society and frame it academically. Action and advocacy are more efficient and credible when based on factual and neutral evidence.
No new taboos
Based on learnings from past experiences, the Syrian civil society should avoid producing new taboos inside Syria. The multiple actors in the Syrian territory pose the risk of reproducing authoritarian practices in the future. It is important to avoid narratives that embolden new authoritarian structures.