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The Dynamics of Underground Civil Society in Syria’s Regime-held Areas

Five decades of systematic political oppression by the Syrian regime have deprived the country of autonomous spaces for civil and political actions in regime-controlled areas. The Syrian exodus over the past ten years has had a major impact on the country’s social capital and the growth of a post-uprising civil society, causing the nascent Syrian civil society to become heavily concentrated in the diaspora, leaving the in-country independent civil actors hidden, fragile and disconnected.

This article aims to unpack some of the main determinants, dynamics and challenges of underground civil society networks in regime-held areas and proposes a number of recommendations on how to support and empower them.

The term ‘underground’ civil actors is used here to refer to several under-funded, independent networks of journalists, doctors, lawyers, writers and political activists who do not support the government and who are discreetly coordinating and implementing cultural, political and socio-economic activities in regime-controlled areas.[1]

The majority of such activities revolve around five main themes. First, political empowerment and awareness sessions, where participants gather behind closed doors to discuss key political issues such as active citizenship, national identity, elections and the internationally-backed constitutional negotiation process.[2] Second, self-funded cultural events, such as poetry readings and training workshops for journalism and creative writing. Third, women-centric activities aimed at generating income and provide financial support, particularly for internally displaced women. Fourth, legal support for detainees and those who have unresolved issues with civil registration, housing and property rights. Fifth, small-scale relief-based activities, such as distributing food baskets and cash for the most vulnerable families, particularly those who are ‘unsafe due to their political activism’.[3]

Most of these civil actors were somehow involved in the peaceful protests of the 2011 Syrian uprising. Their networks are largely concentrated in the provinces of Damascus and Sweida, where there are acceptable levels of ‘trusted and hidden social spaces’ away from the regime’s tight security grip.[4] The characteristics of such networks vary from one area to another. However, they do share some common characteristics.

Lack of access to sustainable funding. This is mainly driven by two factors. First, the increasing control of the Syrian regime’s top-tier clientelist networks over international funding, which deprives the country’s independent civil society actors of access to such funds. Second is the closure of the Syria-Lebanon border due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lebanon is largely considered to be ‘the only remaining safe space for activists residing in regime-controlled areas’ and the most significant element for ‘keeping these networks alive’.[5] Access to Lebanon has provided underground civil actors the opportunity to engage with Western donors and diaspora-based Syrian civil groups, in addition to the ability to participate in training and knowledge-transfer workshops. Therefore, the closure of borders has drastically restricted the already scarce financial support for Syria’s independent civil actors.

Lack of networking and coordination mechanisms. This is due to a lack of institutional and financial capacity, increasing fear of detention by the regime’s security apparatus, weak links to diaspora-based actors and acute levels of political and ideological polarization.

High levels of female participation. Activities and projects organized by underground activists are seeing increasingly high levels of women participants, coordinators and implementers. Four factors have contributed to this increase. First, the ability of women to move relatively more freely than men in regime-held areas ‘without raising suspicions’.[6] Second, the pre-existing coordination and interaction between the diaspora-based women-centric NGOs and women activists inside Syria. Third, the women-driven support networks, which transcend social and political positionalities. Finally, the departure of men from the regime-controlled areas, either out of fear of prosecution or to avoid compulsory military service. Since ‘men are able to escape the country much more easily than women’, women are the majority among civilians in regime-held Syria.[7]

Decreasing societal impact due to current economic crisis. The unprecedented deterioration of the economy and high poverty rates, in addition to the extreme shortages of fuel and wheat, have significantly affected people’s incentive and willingness to actively participate in many non-relief sociopolitical activities organized by these networks.

Recommendations for international donors and policymakers

International donors and the Syrian diaspora must take action to support the growth and continuity of Syria’s underground activist networks. Actions to be taken include:

1. Bridging the gap between Syria and diaspora.

Diaspora-based Syrian NGOs should focus on establishing safe and secure coordination platforms and communication mechanisms with in-country independent actors. This includes increasing the representation of such actors in workshops and high-level meetings that take place in neighboring countries – particularly Lebanon – when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Additionally, the ability of such actors to take part in online meetings should be boosted by providing them with basic logistical support, such as internet bundles and electricity generators. Finally, international donors should support efforts by Syrian diaspora groups to coordinate with each other and produce innovative strategies to safely engage with independent actors inside Syria.

2. Identifying and prioritizing recipients of international funding and institutional support.

This process requires political willingness from international donors to closely collaborate with the Syrian diaspora to identify and support those in-country civil actors and groups which are not absorbed by the regime’s patronage network and its cronies. This process must also ensure the confidentiality and security of the in-country activists.

3. Adopting flexible funding mechanisms.

The majority of underground independent civil actors do not meet donor requirements in terms of financial and institutional capacity. Therefore, relying on diaspora-based Syrian NGOs as grant holders and implementing mediators/partners could be a way to support Syria’s independent grassroot movements. Additionally, donors should adopt direct and flexible funding schemes for low-risk programmes within Syria, such as smaller grants for independent investigative journalism, legal support and cultural events.

4. Increasing support for women-led and women-centric initiatives inside regime-held Syria.

As mentioned above, a number of diaspora-based women-centric NGOs already have well-established connections with similar groups inside Syria. These NGOs could act as conduits of increased financial support and provide help with institution building for autonomous women networks in regime-held areas.

Underground networks of independent civil society actors in regime-held areas form the nucleus of any potential autonomous civilian-led collective action in post-conflict Syria, which could in turn pave the way for a democratic transition and active community-based participation in the public sphere.


[1] Gharibah, M. (2020). Reality and Prospects for Civil Society Actors in Regime-Held Syria. Chatham House (Link)

[2] A lawyer from Damascus in an interview with the author on 10/04/2021

[3] A humanitarian worker based in Damascus in an interview with the author on 10/04/2021

[4] A journalist and civil society activist based in Damascus in an interview with the author on 09/04/2021

[5] A civil society activist from Sweida in an interview with the author on 11/04/2021

[6] A journalist and civil society activist based in Damascus in an interview with the author on 09/04/2021

[7] Ibid.