A few weeks ago, WILPF held a side event to the 28th session of the Human Rights Council on activism in Syria. The permanent missions of Canada, France, the Netherlands and the UK to the United Nations co-sponsored the event. In case you missed the event, you can read more about the changing dynamics of Syrian civil society below.

Experts’ Panel: Speakers Addressing Civil Society Dynamics

The event brought together two Syrian researchers and activists: Oula Ramadan and Rana Khalaf, co-authors of the Activism in Difficult Times report, which provides both a quantitative and qualitative mapping of civil society organisations in Syria during the period of 2011 – 2014. The study also delivers an analytical account of the characteristics and dynamics of Syrian local civil society groups.

Another key panellist in the event was Thania Paffenholz, a Senior Researcher at the Graduate Institute’s Centre on Conflict, Peacebuilding and Development in Geneva, who has conducted extensive research on the impact of a broader inclusion in peace processes, as well as on the various functions of civil society in different phases of conflicts.

Changing Structures and Dynamics

Rana Khalaf, Research Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies in St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, discussed the dynamics and changing structures of civil society in Syria and drew the contrast between the pre and post-2011 periods.

Khalaf pointed out that although civil society did exist prior to 2011, it was indeed limited and categorised as having a top-down central leadership, whereby organisations with stronger ties to the ruling government enjoy a broader influence.

However, after the beginning of the uprisings in 2011, the profile of civil society organisations in Syria has witnessed a striking change.

Far from the conventional structures, Khalaf indicated that newly emerging organisations have a non-central leadership, are communitarian, apolitical and predominantly run by youth (74% of the interviewed organisations in the Badael report are youth-run).

In addition, a closer look at structures of these organisations indicates that they are value-based and have boomed as soon as their areas moved from government control, but alternately declined whenever extremism emerged.

Gender analysis and civil society organisations in the transitional process

Oula Ramadan, a Syrian Activist and Founder and Director of Badael, stated that the number of women active groups has significantly increased since early 2014, which indicates a growing awareness about the important roles that such groups play.

Ramadan reiterated the youth-based nature of the organisations and affirmed that it is also the case for the new women movement in Syria. As for the ISIL-controlled areas, women are still active despite the security concerns, and are directing their efforts towards providing a secular type of education as a strategy against child recruitment.

On top of the dangerous security conditions, women also face other challenges, mainly rejection from their own communities concerning the active role they are engaging in.

88% of civil society organisations in Syria are working in raising awareness about human rights, freedom and democracy. These organisations face multiple challenges, but the most prominent one is the lack of experience, especially in how to collect evidence and ultimately build a case.

Amidst the current turmoil in Syria, especially in ISIL-controlled areas, some States are retaining funding for policy-related purposes, but it is important to note that the lack of financial resources is severely damaging and limiting the work of Syrian civil society.

Shrinking space, shrinking opportunities for civil society in Syria

Professor Thania Paffenholz explained how the violent conflict in Syria is shrinking both the space and opportunities for civil society organisations.

She said that on the one hand, civil society has endured a shrinking space due to regime control prior to the uprisings, but the current and on-going violence has exacerbated the problem. Thus, the only solution to help civil society in Syria is to reduce the violence.

On the other hand, there is a trend towards the “NGO-isation” of civil society, whereby the organisations are turning into mere service providers and consequently, the opportunity space for activists shrinks. What’s needed is, Paffenholz argues, a support strategy tailored to support those involved in civil society as activists and not as service deliverers.

Lastly, Professor Paffenholz warned about the risk of overloading civil society with random and project-oriented tasks. Donors and partner international organisations must think critically about how to support civil society, and these stakeholders need to commit to adopting a needs-oriented strategy.

Supporting Civil Society in Syria is essential to achieving peace

There has been a striking change in the dynamics of civil Society in Syria since the uprisings erupted in 2011. While civil society was not particularly active before 2011, its work has significantly expanded during the war and encompassed a youth-dominated popular base.

However, several factors, such as stringent government regulations and the wave of extremism that is spreading across the country, have considerably damaged the nonaligned work of civil society organisations.

WILPF believes that States, international organisations, and the international community bear the responsibility of protecting and supporting the peaceful work of civil society in Syria, simply because more guns and violence can never bring peace to this war-torn country.