- Maria Al-Abdeh, Executive Director, Women Now for Development (WND)
- Oula Ramadan, Founder and Director, Badael Foundation
- Salim Salamah, University of Oxford
On 1 March, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘Demystifying the Syrian Conflict’. The aim of the conference was to shed light on four key themes that are sometimes oversimplified or little understood in public discourse.
The fourth theme is civil society and communities, especially their role in any future peace process.
Maria Al-Abdeh started by critiquing how media coverage of the Russian and Syrian regime’s attack on eastern Ghouta in February focused on bombardment but overlooked the work of civil society in the area that continued despite the attack.
She argued that there is a need to recognize how local communities and civil society organizations are working on peacebuilding inside Syria – for example, by creating safe spaces for debate and giving tools to the community to discuss political issues. Al-Abdeh explained that civil society faces a huge challenge in sustaining this kind of work, as only limited funding is given to support these kinds of activities, which do not seem attractive enough to international donors. Al-Abdeh also spoke about the importance of providing protection to civil society.
Moderator Laila Al-Odat explained that the term ‘civil society’ is used to define a very large spectrum of activities, including governance, humanitarian aid and civil support. As Oula Ramadan illustrated, the scope of work of civil society groups inside Syria is linked to the situation on the ground and to the needs of their communities. Therefore, although there are commonalities between different civil society groups in the areas that are not controlled by the regime, their work differs based on who is controlling the area and what the needs of the residents there are.
For instance, civil society activity in Hasakeh, which is controlled by the PYD, differs from the type of work that is implemented in Idlib. Ramadan explained that civil society groups in Hasakeh focus their work on women’s local participation in public life and women’s rights, but they avoid working on education. This is because the PYD present themselves as supporters of women’s rights and women’s inclusion, and they welcome such work, but they have monopolized the field of education, for instance through eliminating Arabic language from the curriculum.
Despite these limitations, civil society groups are able to tackle important issues by implementing activities clandestinely. Ramadan cited the example of Saraqib, in which a women’s group addressed the issue of child recruitment into armed groups through providing psychosocial support to adolescents.
Salim Salameh added that one of the challenges civil society faces today is to actually remain part of the equation, because the polarization of and the pressure on civil society is extreme. And that is not always because of regime practices, but also sometimes because of the practices of the international community.
Ramadan explained that the term ‘peacebuilding’ has come to be regarded with suspicion by some civil society actors in non-regime areas because the regime has used this term in setting up a Ministry of Reconciliation that many regard as a vehicle for shaking hands with the regime. Salameh said although the Civil Society Consultation Room that is part of the Geneva process is an important mechanism, civil society groups have repeatedly voiced concern about the consultation process. Ramadan followed by saying that Syrian civil society groups were not involved in setting the agenda from the beginning.
The panel ended with a comment by Ramadan on the need for continued international funding for civil society in areas in which groups like HTS exist, and having mechanisms in place to ensure that civil society groups can sustain themselves in the long term.