The 2011 uprising has given Syrian civil society the opportunity to establish a new autonomous space for organized civilian-led collective action, independent from the state and outside the limited margin given by the government to actors such as religious institutions, regime-affiliated patronage and local mediators. However, this space remains significantly limited, if not hidden, in regime-controlled areas, where three main types of civil society actors exist: regime-controlled NGOs, independent and semi-independent charities and NGOs, and underground networks of civil actors.
The Syrian regime has expanded its control over the already marginal space for civil actors in the development, relief and medical sectors through ’non-governmental’ institutions formed and/or managed by the regime’s patronage networks and cronies. These government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) are the dominant form of ’civil actors’ in regime-controlled areas. They are the exclusive recipients of international grants and government funding, the mandatory incubators of civil initiatives without legal status, and the ‘modern and civil’ façade of the regime.
The main such institution is the Syria Trust for Development, headed by First Lady Asma al-Assad. The key partner of several UN agencies, it receives substantial funds from the regime and has absolute power and monopoly over Syria’s development and relief sectors. It is the only institution providing official legal support for internally displaced people, in addition to its wide – almost exclusive – mandate over early recovery response, community development and the rehabilitation of Syria’s cultural heritage, among other relief-based programmes.
The second main GONGO is al-Bustan Association, founded by the Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s first cousin and the main gatekeeper of Syria’s economy for almost two decades. Al-Bustan was the main rival of the Syria Trust, had its own militia and a large influence over the Alawite communities through its numerous charity programmes supporting the families of Syrian army soldiers. However, as a result of the recent public spat between al-Assad and Makhlouf, al-Bustan’s militia was dissolved and the management of the whole organization has been placed gradually under the direct influence of the Syria Trust. Coinciding with the deliberate marginalization of al-Bustan Association, and to maintain the required outreach and access to the Alawite communities, an official license was recently granted for a new association called al-Areen Humanitarian Foundation. This new foundation has been providing financial, medical and food assistance to the families of dead and wounded Syrian army soldiers, specifically those in the Alawite-dominated Syrian coastal regions.
The GONGOs’ dominance over Syria’s non-governmental sectors has increased noticeably during the conflict. This has been achieved by withdrawing the licenses or lifting the security protection previously granted to some independent or semi-independent NGOs, imposing conditions for obtaining exceptional security approvals even for licensed NGOs, and monopolizing international humanitarian and development financial support.
Such measures have forced many independent and semi-independent institutions to either be completely absorbed by the regime’s clientelism, or to change the scope of their work towards limited relief-based actions, work secretly or be entirely dissolved.
Independent and semi-independent charities and NGOs
A handful of NGOs, licensed before 2011, have been able to continue some of their activities throughout the nine years of conflict. Most of these institutions are faith-based charities affiliated with various religious bodies and are limited in terms of their scope of work and access, focusing on basic aid distribution among host communities and displaced persons in regime-controlled areas.
Other types of independent and semi-independent institutions that have emerged after 2011 are developmental initiatives, awareness-raising campaigns, and legal bodies working in property and civil rights. For many years, such institutions were able to work openly in non-relief sectors by obtaining an official license from the Ministry of Social Affairs, through personal relationships with the regime’s patronage, or by obtaining protection from religious institutions or local militias.
The unprecedented deterioration of the economy and the collapse of the state’s infrastructure have forced the regime to turn a blind eye to the work of such institutions, as long as they play by the regime’s rules. In most cases, these small-scale charities and initiatives have to share their data with the intelligence branches, pay bribes and allocate certain amounts of their food baskets, or other relief-related non-food items, to intelligence officers, public officials and members of local militias.  They are subject to the changing political will of the regime, which is constantly imposing more restrictions on them in order benefit regime-affiliated organizations.
Underground networks of civil actors
The majority of civilian-led collective actors in regime-held areas operate secretly, hidden from the regime’s tight security grip, especially non-humanitarian civil actors that focus on political empowerment and local development and whose positions are seen as being in opposition to the regime.
Most of these initiatives consist of networks of civil and human rights activists and journalists, often non-institutionalized, under-funded, and without sufficient human resources and technical expertise. They also tend to lack effective communication channels, both between themselves and with the wider Syrian civil society outside regime-controlled areas and in the diaspora.
Challenges and recommendations for international donors
Most UN agencies and international NGOs (INGOs) working in regime-controlled areas rely heavily on GONGOs as their key partners. This can be attributed to three main reasons: 1) the GONGOs have the required institutional capacities and human resources to reach local communities; 2) many donors and UN agencies are compelled to make political concessions to the regime in order to maintain the presence of their in-country offices and employees, and to maintain access in regime-controlled territories; and 3) the inability – or perhaps the unwillingness – of donors to identify and reach local partners outside the regime’s networks. This politicization of international support has transformed regime-affiliated NGOs into the ‘gate keepers’ of Syrian civil society and strengthened them at the expense of the independent grassroot initiatives.
The role of independent civil society actors in regime-controlled areas can only be impactful when international donor agencies drastically alter their partnership approach, funding policies and, most importantly, use their leverage, such as sanctions, over the regime to help create new autonomous spaces for independent civil actors. This could be achieved by: 1) putting pressure on the central government to develop and implement laws that regulate the work of civil society, and secure independence and protection for civil and humanitarian actors; 2) increasing the monitoring, transparency and accountability mechanisms for projects financed by international donors and implemented by local Syrian actors. Such mechanisms should ensure that projects are not solely captured by regime cronies and help guarantee equal opportunities for all civil initiatives in obtaining the necessary funding for their work, growth and societal impact; and 3) supporting diaspora-based Syrian civil society organizations with links to the underground networks of civil actors in regime-held areas, particularly when international donor agencies do not have a direct presence in regime areas. Moreover, minimizing the gap between diaspora-based organizations and independent civil actors in Syria would help increase the latter’s international presence, enhance their outreach and give them access to much-needed technical and financial support.
 The Guardian. 29 August, 2016. How Assad regime controls UN aid intended for Syria’s children. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/how-assad-regime-controls-un-aid-intended-for-syrias-children
 Aldassouky, A. and Hatahet, S. (2020). The Role of Philanthropy in the Syrian War: Regime-Sponsored NGOs and Armed Groups Charities. European University Institute.
 Darke, D. (2020). Battle of the Syrian charity giants: Asma Al-Assad versus Rami Makhlouf. Middle East Institute
 Asharq Al-Awsat. 26 October, 2020. Posters of Asma Assad Heavily on Display at Popular Event in Syria’s Hama. https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/2586856/posters-asma-assad-heavily-display-popular-event-syria%E2%80%99s-hama
 Skype interviews between the author and three in-country civil society actors located in the provinces of Al-Sweida, Homs and Tartous
 A Skype interview between the author and an in-country humanitarian worker located in the province of Damascus