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Middle East

Civil society's critical role in rebuilding Syria

Prior to the revolution, civil society in Syria was active within the confines of a regime landscape. The fighting killed trust, but Wael Sawah says it must be regained for Syria to undergo transitional justice.

Wael Sawah is a researcher, activist and author focusing on civil society in Syria. He is a board member of The Day After, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and founding member of the Syrian League for Citizenship. He has also worked as editor of The Syrian Observer, and a political analyst at the US Embassy in Damascus.

DW: How would you describe the civil society landscape in Syria before 2011?

It fluctuated between being active and idol. The Ba’ath regime suppressed community initiatives when it came to power in 1963, and although we had a kind of civil society, it was in concept rather than in name. After that it went up and down, but in 2003 a large number of human rights groups started to work semi-publicly defending prisoners of conscience. At the same time, environment and women’s NGOs emerged and this started a new phase of society.

But when the government cracked down in 2006, sentencing many activists to prison, the movement shifted from advocacy and human rights to other domains such as culture, environment, disabilities, health and children. So in the second half of the last decade a good number of organizations flourished in these areas - although human rights groups were still repressed.

There appear to be several Syrian civil society groups working outside the country at the moment, are these largely organizations set up in response to the current situation?

Yes. There are now more NGOs working on Syria outside the country than inside it. After the revolution, the state withdrew from many villages, small towns, and even big cities, and it left a big gap that the opposition was not prepared to fill. So in the first year of the revolution, Syrian civil society jumped in to collect rubbish, clean the streets, distribute bread, safeguard houses and shops and take care of running water and electricity. We saw new groups springing up on the ground every day, and it was all voluntary.

And where are they now, these groups?

Some disappeared quickly, some remained, but now Syria is divided between areas where the regime is in power and areas where the opposition is in charge, which means some places are controlled by radical Islamists and others by moderates. We also have local councils, which are regarded as state agencies rather than civil society, as well as armed groups, and religious commissions, which play the role of the judges and judiciary in their areas. So I would not say that civil society is now filling the gap as it did in 2011, but it is still working - especially in the fields of relief, education, transitional justice and civil peace.

What kind of civil society work is happening for Syria outside the country?

I am aware of dozens and dozens of NGOs in Turkey, possibly even hundreds, that have been established in the past 18 months, and they all work on different issues for Syria. The big difference between the NGOs formed inside Syria in 2011 and those that have emerged outside in the past 18 months, is that the former existed to fill certain gaps and do certain duties imposed on them by the needs of the people inside the country. The new NGOs, however, don’t necessarily do things because they are trained to do them or because it was their original mission, but because of market demands. If the demand is for transitional justice, you will find a big group of NGOs working on transitional justice. Now the current trend is on security sector reform and we see many organizations move from other domains to security sector reform. It is civil society à la carte.

Do you consider that to be a good thing?

In a way it is, but in a way it is not. This new generation of activists is made up of young men and women being trained to lead society and civil society and maybe political life in Syria in the future, so this is good. They are dealing with transitional justice, rule of law, security sector reform, drafting constitutions, relief, gender and empowerment of women, capacity building, networking, building political programs, so although it is à la carte, they are good things to be working on. The less good thing is that the spirit of voluntary work is diminishing.

Do you think the people of Syria have a sense of trust in civil society in the current situation?

I work with people inside Syria and talk with them and they sometimes hate us and sometimes praise us. We are talking about the same people, who praise us one day and tell us we don’t understand their needs the next. I think they feel some sense of admiration - especially for those working on relief and medical assistance and education, but they think we are doing what we do as a hobby. I would say there is very little trust.

Trust in civil society must be an imperative in post-conflict Syria, and that being so, how do you envisage gaining it?

This will not happen until we have a transition that enables us to go back to Syria and live in the same conditions as everyone else, and to work with them together in order to build the country. But now, as long as there is this divide of Syrians living inside and outside the country, I don’t think it will be easy for us to regain their trust.

How important will civil society be in the efforts to rebuild the country when the fighting finally comes to an end?

I think very, very important. We spoke about trust and contradictory feelings, but at the same time, there is no way to ignore the role of civil society during a transitional period, because neither the state, nor the political movement can fill the gaps. When it comes to transitional justice, rebuilding trust among different communities, gender issues and human rights, it is civil society that has the know-how, and it is civil society that will build the necessary bridges.

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