Syria conflict: the role of civil society

Syrians from more than 40 different organisations met in Beirut last month to consider what role civil society might play in resolving the country's crisis. With no sign of a swift end to the armed conflict, and with many governments uncertain how to respond to it, the conference also sought to explore some alternative approaches.

Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, was one of the organisers and she explained more about it in a talk last night. Unarmed activists in Syria get very little attention these days and that, I feel, is sufficient reason to report her talk at length in this blog post.

Kaldor presented some interesting ideas about bottom-up rather than top-down strategies for moving towards a political solution in Syria, and it would be good to know what readers make of them (please post your thoughts in the discussion thread).

There was also one specific point in the talk which struck me as worth highlighting: Kaldor argued that European anti-terrorism legislation is hampering relief efforts. "NGOs or humanitarian workers now have all kinds of restrictions on them if they are likely to work in areas where Islamists or jihadists might benefit," she said, adding that this has "made it very difficult for European NGOs to work in Syria".

Here is Kaldor's talk:

We see all this news about Syria and it's about bloody episodes, terrible tragedies, it's about the rebels versus the Assad regime, it's about arms embargoes, what Russia thinks, what Iran thinks, who's winning ... are the talks on? You almost never hear anything about civil society, and the most interesting thing for me about what's happened in the last couple of years is this extraordinary upsurge in civil society activities.

Civil society groups [came to the Beirut meeting] from all over Syria – from government controlled areas and non-government controlled areas. It was quite difficult to get there. They had to travel by bus from Damascus if they came from government controlled areas or they had to go through Istanbul or Amman if they were coming from non-government controlled areas.

Just talking to people, it was extraordinary what groups do all over Syria. I met one group of civil society activists who had literally stood between a Kurdish brigade and a Free Syrian Army brigade and persuaded them to stop fighting each other. 

There were people who held meetings to which they invited the shabiha militia and actually persuaded them to stop being part of the militia. There are people running schools for children from both government and non-government controlled areas in Aleppo, there are people running health care services, there are people offering legal services, there are people treating the victims of rape and sexual violence, there are people dealing with traumatised children, there are people doing cultural events (which actually are very important in these circumstances), there are people really trying to bring together supporters of the government and people who are against the government, to talk.

It's quite extraordinary what's going on, and we just don't hear about it. What was very striking to me about this meeting was that in contrast to the political opposition or the rebels there was a huge amount of solidarity. 

The main thing that came out of the meeting was how happy they were all to meet each other and to be together. They had a shared vision of the kind of Syria they wanted, which was secular, multicultural, cosmopolitan. 

They were all very committed to nonviolence – which is something that really struck me. Even though they had big differences about whether you should arm the rebels, some people said "Well, if you strengthen the Free Syrian Army that would strengthen it vis a vis the government or the jihadists," some people said "No, that would be terrible, it would escalate the war", some people wanted a no-fly zone, others said no ... but actually they all thought it was a terrible mistake and a tragedy that what had been a peaceful protest had become violent and they were very committed to sustain nonviolence, so I thought that was incredibly important.

The other thing that I felt was very important was that they did have a common understanding of the conflict – which for the most part people saw as a massive violation of human rights. When you read about the conflict in the newspapers sometimes it's described as a civil war, sometimes it's described as a sectarian war, sometimes it's described as jihad, sometimes it's described as a democratic revolution against a dictatorship, sometimes it's described as a proxy war – Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the west all fighting out their differences in Syria. Of course, to some extent all of those things are true. But for people who experience [it] on the ground what it is is a massive violation of human rights – mostly by the government but also by the rebels.

That's how people experience it. There has been a massive population displacement. The UNHR says there are something of the order of 1.5 million refugees and there are probably about 4.5 million internally displaced people – which is incredibly high. According to the UN, 93,000 people have died, which is of a similar order to Bosnia.

What I kept thinking about as we went to the conference was the differences with the war in Bosnia which is something I was very involved in. A big difference is that in Europe among civil society, among the media, there was a huge concern about the humanitarian tragedy that was going on and there were lots more connections with civil society in Bosnia. 

Even though the international community didn't act very effectively there were a whole lot of innovations that came out civil society in Bosnia and which were promoted by the media – like safe havens, humanitarian corridors, the establishment of a war crimes tribunal – and the whole discussion about Bosnia was extremely different from the discussion about Syria. 

I have been thinking about why the humanitarian aspect and the civil society aspects are so neglected in the coverage of the Syrian war, and I can suggest several explanations.

One is simply the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that has affected both people who might otherwise want humanitarian intervention but fear it would lead to military intervention, and western governments who are very much afraid that if they do anything they will get dragged into another terrible war. 

I think it's also the change in geopolitics. When Bosnia happened it was just after the end of the Cold War. Russia and America were operating together – it was so much easier to come to international agreements over Bosnia than it is now in relation to Syria. Now, there is geopolitical competition and it's really hard to get them operating on the same page. 

The final aspect, which I think is very important but very neglected is the effects of counter-terror policies. This is particularly true in Europe. NGOs or humanitarian workers now have all kinds of restrictions on them if they are likely to work in areas where Islamists or jihadists might benefit, and that has made it very difficult for European NGOs to work in Syria. 

In April I was on the Turkish border with Syria and at that time Médecins Sans Frontières was the only [European?] humanitarian organisation operating inside the non-government controlled areas and there were lots and lots of Islamist and Islamic humanitarian agencies operating. That's a real problem in terms of generating a sense of solidarity. 

When we look at newspaper reports or discussions about how to go forward we are always presented with two choices. One is to get involved militarily, either by arming the rebels or by some kind of intervention, and the other is top-down political negotiations between Assad and a very divided political opposition. 

What people say, probably quite rightly, is that arming the rebels will escalate the violence and any unilateral western military intervention will also escalate the violence and could lead to a great geopolitical war in the Middle East. On the other hand, political negotiations are very very difficult to arrive at. So where are we? Where do we go from here?

I think the key point is that if we take civil society seriously and we take seriously what civil society people are saying we might develop some alternative strategies. In particular, if we focus on the needs of human beings and on human rights violations rather than focusing on high politics we might actually try to find ways to de-escalate the violence.

One of the things that came out of the Beirut conference is that civil society groups felt the only way, really, to solve the problem was to have internal political negotiations among Syrians about what kind of political future Syria should have. But as long as the violence continues that's impossible. So the role of outsiders has to be to do two things: to support and empower civil society – in particular to help areas where civil society is active. There are areas in Syria which are relatively safe. There are areas where civil society is very active ... 

So, a kind of bottom-up strategy, but at the same time shifting the focus of top negotiations to more humanitarian issues, putting the pressure on countries like Russia and Iran – not necessarily to talk about what the political solution is but how to stop violence. Instead of focusing on how to remove Assad, focus on how to stop Assad from killing. That's the kind of shift of discussion, and even if we can't get countries like Russian and Iran on board at the top, at least a change of focus of the discussion could bring us in a different direction. 

Above all, I just think civil society voices need to be heard. We need to know more about what they do, we need to listen to what they say. The way I always think about it is that they may not represent all Syrians – these are the activists, these are the people trying to do good – but they are the real experts in what's going on in Syria and that's why it's so important to hear their voices.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 9 July 2013