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The role of civil society in Sweida

Since the 2011 uprising, civil society groups in Sweida have stepped in to fill the gaps created by the absence of the Syrian regime. However, the regime continues to pose a security threat to civil society actors, forcing them to operate in secret and limit their work to a more logistical and tactical role.

Civil society steps in

Civil society in Sweida consists of local charities, activists and field journalists operating under the auspices of influential local leaders who are related to important families with strong tribal ties in Sweida and Daraa. Sweida’s civil society was largely formed in response to kidnappings and disputes between its residents and internally displaced persons from other provinces as well as with the area’s beduins. Most importantly though, it emerged from the vacuum left by the Syrian regime, forcing civil society actors to step into the role of a makeshift government. For example, according to Taim Zaidan and Salam Azzam * who were interviewed for this piece, police in Sweida were ordered by the Assad regime not to make any arrests, leaving civil society and individuals concerned with law and order to try to hold offenders to account using measures such as societal rejection and punishment. However, societal punishment cannot be enforced, so while important families or neighbourhood leaders can form committees to help solve a dispute, their decision is non-binding if those involved in the dispute will not cooperate.

Several factors have helped Sweida’s civil society groups play an integral part in dispute settlement. Years of trust-building efforts have resulted in a network of important relationships between civil society members, traditional leaders, heads of big families, religious leaders – known as the Aql Sheikhdom – and armed groups. Strong social ties in the province in general, and the south in particular, still play a role in conflict resolution. Civil society leaders not only worked to build relationships inside Sweida, but they also built ties with traditional leaders and civil society in Daraa.

The current makeup of civil society in Sweida is a post-2011 product, with the exception of tribal and religious leaders, such as the clans whose land borders Daraa – like my own family – who have been helping to solve recurring disputes for decades. The leaders of our clan believe that Sweida and Daraa share the same fate and a strong relationship with mutual commitment to nationhood and brotherhood. These relationships are the result of decades of local dispute settlement and peacebuilding efforts between leaders in Sweida and their counterparts in Daraa.

The security gap

When I left Syria in early 2014, Sweida’s streets were filled with regime checkpoints but by the end of that same year they had been removed following clashes between the regime officers manning the checkpoints and the Karama movement, one of the biggest Druze factions. Repeated confrontations with the regime eventually led to the assassination of the movement’s leader, Sheikh Bal‘ous, in 2015.

Following this incident, the regime withdrew from playing any role in Sweida’s security, leaving no police on the ground and its civilians in chaos. This security gap was, and still is, a major challenge for Sweida’s civil society, yet it created an environment in which civil society groups have thrived out of necessity despite the internal and external challenges they face.

The deliberate security gap created by the Syrian regime also caused the emergence of military factions, militias and armed groups, funded by Druze leaders in Lebanon and Palestine. It was not long before some militias started abusing their power by trading on the black market and kidnapping internally displaced persons in Sweida – and eventually other residents – to generate money. In response to the kidnappings in both Sweida and Daraa, civil society groups used their connections to help mediate and negotiate with the kidnappers, either by calling on the Aql Sheikhdom or family leaders in the kidnappers’ home provinces.

Harnessing the power of social media

Civil society actors also stepped in to mediate after the Syrian army looted houses in Daraa and tried to sell the stolen belongings in Sweida. Bad economic conditions and the fall of the Syrian lira meant people could not usually afford to furnish their homes and the goods were sold cheap. Civil society actors worked on different fronts inside both Sweida and Daraa to prevent resentment between the neighbouring provinces. Their first response was a social media campaign using hashtags urging people to not buy stolen goods and to think of the owners who lost their homes. Knowing the power of religious leaders in the province, civil society actors also worked closely with the Aql Sheikhdom to create a ‘Tahreem’, a type of Fatwa forbidding people from buying the looted goods and deeming it an act of defiance against god and Islam.

Recently younger civil society organizers have used social media to lead civil activism across Sweida and Daraa. The most prominent example of these efforts is the recent launch of the civic media platform called Sada or ‘The Syrian South Echo’, a blog aiming to engage civil society youth in the south. This type of civil society work is not under the auspices of any religious leader or important family and was made possible by social media, where activists from the two provinces found each other and exchanged ideas leading to the creation of the blog.

Limitations for civil society

One of the limitations faced by Sweida’s civil society actors is their inability to play a direct role in humanitarian efforts to aid internally displaced people and other residents. They also have to rely on the support of religious leaders and heads of known families when working in conflict resolution in and around Sweida.

But the main obstacle they face is the deliberate sabotaging of civil society efforts by the Syrian regime. According to Taim Zaidan and Salam Azzam, the regime tries to sabotage conflict resolution efforts – while at the same time attempting to take credit when such efforts are successful – and prevents aid from reaching independent civil society organizations.

Over the past ten years, threats of arrests and travel bans have forced civil society actors to operate largely in secret and to limit their work to a logistical and tactical role. Despite the challenges they face, the main focus of their work remains to protect civil peace for the people of Sweida.

* This article is based on interviews with civil society leaders and researchers Taim Zaidan and Salam Azzam, who chose to use pseudonyms.