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Syria Notes Summer 2018

After the fall: Debating reconstruction in a broken Syria

After seven years of protest, revolution, and war, Syria looks next to be taking the form of a frozen conflict, with war aims pursued as much through economic means as through violence and repression. This issue of Syria Notes looks at the looming battle over reconstruction, and how the same issues of accountability and civilian protection remain key.

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Contents

Front cover photograph by Deana Lynn, ‘My last day in Douma,’ 13 April 2018.

Printing of this issue has been funded by Lush Charity Pot.

An archive of earlier issues of Syria Notes is here.




Idlib Pocket
Holding on to the revolution in Syria’s northwest

What if we accept Bashar al-Assad?

Marcell Shehwaro

This article is included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes.


Marcell Shehwaro is the Executive Manager of Kesh Malek, working to provide education and protect children’s rights in Syria.


What if we accept Bashar al-Assad? Let’s discuss ‘peacefully’ that ‘elephant in the room,’ as you say, what if we accept that Assad remains in power?

We are asked the question sometimes obliquely, and sometimes filtered through the closed circles that decide on Syrian affairs without the attendance of any Syrians. Sometimes it is brought up in ways that infantilise as if we are children who don’t dare to confront the truth ‘realistically.’

In the harshest times, this question is posed to us as a negotiation over the bodies of our children. Instead of the answer to ‘why we don’t accept that Assad remains in power’ being obvious—because he killed our children and the scars of their smiles are etched on our hearts—the blackmailing question becomes: He will kill your children and their smiles, why don’t you just accept him?

Excuse us for a moment! We need some time to understand this world’s logic, the world ruled by Trump, Putin and a bunch of politicians who only care about their four-year period in office.

Hafez al-Assad has blocked us from the outside world. Now his son follows in his footsteps. The liberationists amongst us gazed towards the United Nations Charters and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. Some of us believed that those charters mean something. When the revolution broke out, we discovered that those charters are ruined due to the misuse of the members in the UN’s Security Council.

Apologies for the digression. So: why don’t we accept Assad?

We wish you tell your people the ‘harsh truth’. We want to challenge your empty words and courtesy rhetoric. We know you mean nothing when you say things like: using chemical weapon is a red line, or Aleppo is a red line, or Assad lost his legitimacy.

The truth is that Assad is more your ally than the naïve group of dreamers that we are, believing like we do in democracy, justice and accountability.

Isn’t this the message of bombing in Idlib and Ghouta today? To convince us, ‘gently,’ to accept a political solution—the only solution that you lectured us about—as we are being killed?

You say that we are defeated. Well, gentlemen, I and my group of friends never imagined as we hid from the bullets that shot at our peaceful demonstration that we could defeat Russian planes all by ourselves. We never thought that we can win the ‘war’ while we were being tortured, or suffocated by chemical weapons, destroyed by shelling, rape and detention.

It may be true that we have lost. But this defeat made me aware of something I never wanted to know.

I know today the terminology of violence: The Golan cluster bombs, the difference between Sarin and chlorine, and the new version of bunker blaster that can destroy our ‘safe’ basements. I learned even how to pronounce these words in English.

You say we were defeated in Sochi! We were not even at Sochi. Sochi was the costume party that gathered the regime themselves with you. You have all our sympathy for the time you are forced to spend with them.

I keep digressing away from that nightmare, Bashar Assad’s ruling Syria, excuse me!

What if we ‘accept’ that Bashar al-Assad stays in power? First, Who are ‘we’? The cities that are besieged and bombed, the people that must cross a thousand barriers to visit one another. Who are ‘we’? The refugees who fail to have a proper family reunion? Or need an official permission to breathe?

And if some of us actually accept Bashar al-Assad as president, what can we do with all those of us who are rude enough to reject giving up their dignity? What can we do with all those who still believe in their right to their homeland? What if mothers who buried their sons refused to believe that justice had died also? We have to let them die.

So the suggestion is that some of us surrender, so that others die in silence. Or maybe we can give you the names and coordinates of all those who oppose Bashar al-Assad, so that you and your Russian friends can ensure their disappearance?

What if some of us actually accepted that Bashar al-Assad stays in power, do you guarantee that the war will stop? That the brutal dictator won’t celebrate his victory with taste of our defeated blood?

You say that you want him to stay for a transitional period. Funny joke, this one. Do you logically believe in your power to pressure Russia and the regime?

We have asked you for years to stop the shelling. We then felt sorry for you so we minimised our demands and asked you to stop the shelling of hospitals and schools. You failed here too. For years we have asked you to send relief convoys to the besieged areas; to move the sick for a distance of 10 kilometres, or to guarantee the families’ right to know the fate of their disappeared sons, and you failed to do so. You repeatedly explained that you are failing to put pressure on ‘Damascus’.

What logic do you want to believe, that you cannot stop a school bombing yet you can guarantee Bashar Assad’s removal after a transitional period?

So the offer, that you are in shock that we are refusing, is that we have to surrender without reservation, guarantees or condition and preferably silently.

Even if that means killing those who do not give up, we have to accept.

Even if that means that the form of death is only going to change from one form to another, we must accept.

Even if that means that he will rule us with iron and fire, and that our children, who will believe again in their own freedom, may be killed by nuclear weapons this time, we must accept.

So the equation is whether:

To accept Bashar al-Assad, surrender and die;

Or oppose Bashar al-Assad, resist and die.

We reject the whole equation then, and learn to resist the idea of choosing between death and death through thousands of borders that limit us every day.

And we retain all the anger caused by the killings of our people, who we were unable to grieve amidst the ongoing massacre. We retain the dignity of the revolution’s early days. We retain all of our memory and the choice of life. We retain the fragment of a beautiful dream we had one day to have a homeland.

To reconstruct or not to reconstruct

Sawsan Abou Zainedin & Hani Fakhani

This article is included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes along with other articles on the reconstruction debate.


Sawsan Abou Zainedin and Hani Fakhani are both Syrian architects and urban development practitioners with master’s degrees from the Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit at UCL. They co-found SAKAN, a programme aimed at developing alternative recovery-driven housing models in Syria.


It has been made clear that money for the reconstruction of Syria from the European Union and the international community will come only after a meaningful political transition process is underway under UN auspices. This was recently confirmed by the EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini at the second Brussels conference, Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.

In the meantime, it looks like the Syrian government is not really concerned with the EU’s deliberations. The Syrian government has already embarked on its own reconstruction process, with the development of Basateen al-Razi—for which Bashar al-Assad personally laid the foundation stone in 2016—marking ground zero for the process, and setting the blueprint for the intended vision of the reconstruction of Syria.

Basateen al-Razi is one of two sites designated for reconstruction under Presidential Decree 66 of 2012. Decree 66 provides the legal and financial foundation to expropriate areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements, and to redevelop them through private sector investments.
Areas designated in this decree are of particular economic and political importance, as they are strategically located in or around urban centres, and they were previously key centres of opposition activities.

The strict and excessive procedural requirements of Decree 66, coupled with the political context of the designated areas, and their poor and illegal conditions, enabled local authorities to expel a majority of the residents and deprive them of rights in the new development, with unfair compensation, or no compensation at all.

Procedural requirements of the decree coupled with other legislation facilitated private investors’ access to development of the designated areas at the expenses of their original residents. Private investors in the current Syrian context are mostly ‘regime cronies.’

Taken together, this suggests that the blueprint for the reconstruction of Syria set under Decree 66 is designed to manipulate the power of urban planning in order to engineer demographic change based on both economic and political interests.

Decree 66 is not the only law designed by the Syrian government as a means to manipulate urban planning and related housing, land and property (HLP) issues for political and economic interests. A set of other laws, put in place since early 2012, have played a part in the implementation of Decree 66 in the Basateen al-Razi development, and are forming a structure of unjust and discriminatory legislation to enable the government’s vision for the reconstruction of Syria.

Among these is Decree 63 of 2012, which allows the Finance Ministry to seize properties of people who fall under the Counterterrorism Law of 2012. This embraces the Syrian government’s broad interpretation of what constitutes terrorism, unfairly criminalising a large segment of the population without any due process or fair trial.

Decree 19 of 2015 is another problematic piece of legislation. It allows local administrative units (LAUs) to establish fully-owned holding companies to carry out work on their behalf, including managing all LAU properties. The assets managed by the holding companies and any of their subsidiaries are exempted from taxes and fees. This means that these holding companies benefit both from the advantages of operating under the company law and also from owning public assets. This decree provides a formal framework to award reconstruction and development contracts to corporations or investors and pay them with shares in the zone, at the expense of the rights of the original residents, as in the development of Basateen al-Razi.

Decree 11 of 2016 is also a problematic one. It suspends registration of property in registries closed due to conflict, including those in non-government held areas. This means that registered documents at any of the registries that were outside government control, including ones that were kept running by opposition entities, will not be recognised.

The latest and the most problematic of all is Law No. 10 of 2018. This law can be considered a systematic escalation of Decree 66, enabled by the other HLP-related decrees and laws. Law No. 10 empowers LAUs to create redevelopment zones within their areas to be designated for reconstruction. This entails LAUs re-registering property rights within the designated areas with extensive requirements for property owners and tenants to prove their claims to their properties in person or through legally appointed relatives. Failure to do so means that ownership reverts to the LAU, with no due compensation.

The procedural requirements of Law No. 10 suggest a significant potential for abuse and discrimination for the following reasons:

  • Only 50% of the Syrian land was registered before the conflict; and most local land registries have been either destroyed or suspended during the conflict;
  • A third of housing in Syria had been destroyed as of July 2017. The law provides no compensation or remedy for destroyed properties;
  • Over 11 million Syrians have been displaced internally or to other countries. The majority are not able to return and make personal claims within the time-frame of the law;
  • 70% of refugees lack the basic identification documents required to make a claim or to legally appoint a relative;
  • In particular, displaced populations from areas identified as anti-government cannot make personal claims, and cannot appoint legal agents, as this requires security clearance by the government. This is unlikely to be granted as suspicions of any affiliation with anti-government activities leads to highly abusive treatment by government security forces;
  • Hundreds of thousands of forcibly disappeared people in Syria cannot make personal claims, or appoint a legally recognised agent.

Within this context, the international community seems to have contradicting positions towards the reconstruction of Syria. Despite the strong and decisive message of putting reconstruction on hold until a political settlement is in place, different actors have chosen different trajectories for their work in different areas.

In government-held areas, high level international organisations and UN agencies are already engaged with ‘reconstruction’ efforts. They avoid the problematics of the term by categorising their projects as relief, rehabilitation, or stabilisation efforts.

The selection process of neighbourhoods targeted in these efforts lacks transparency, but is presumably significantly controlled by the Syrian government since it controls the security situation in the area. The majority of neighbourhoods targeted so far were part of local settlements resulting in population transfers and forced evictions of residents. Projects implemented have mostly failed to account for the rights of original residents.

This raises a serious ethical concern that the contribution of these international organisations and UN agencies could be seen as a ‘war crime dividend’ in view of the human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Syrian government in order to depopulate these areas.

In the current context of military dominance and political stalemate,  these projects raise a practical concern in relation to their impact on recovery and peacebuilding in Syria. Engaging with these projects seems to reinforce the unjust and discriminatory framework of the government’s approach to reconstruction, rather than challenging it. This creates new layers of grievances and injustice, further protracting the conflict.

These concerns obviously raise a question of accountability, not only regarding the Syrian government’s unjust frameworks, but also the role of the international community in reinforcing them.

In non-government held areas, the situation is more complicated. The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on these areas, with over half of the internally displaced people relocated there, and entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground. The vast population influxes to these already exhausted areas have put them under further strain, and have exacerbated the humanitarian needs—especially in terms of housing.

The populations in non-government held areas are amongst the most vulnerable to issues related to HLP rights. This is because they have no legitimate institutions that can be held accountable for this, and they are denied any means to demand accountability from the Syrian government. This puts a significant responsibility on the international community to establish an alternative mechanism for those people to document their threatened rights in a way that can have legitimacy in future land or property disputes.

Additionally, the response to the acute needs of housing in these areas has been limited to international humanitarian relief efforts, in the form of unsafe and inadequate temporary shelters, or to a commercial response resulting in generally unaffordable and extortionate prices being charged by private developers and landlords. This has significantly contributed to inflating the real estate market, including the rental one.

A March 2017 report on the property market in Azaz, in the Turkish-dominated area of northern Aleppo, showed that the rental market had reached twice that of Istanbul. The Stabilisation Committee in the region attributed inflation in the property market to the large influx of displaced people, the availability of livelihood opportunities, the lack of services and infrastructure in the surrounding areas, as well as inequality in wages between the local market and employees of the international humanitarian system living in the area.

Local councils do not have sufficient capacities, resources, or influence to provide housing solutions or to regulate the market. Increasing restrictions by neighbouring governments on imports of construction materials, and the continuous inflation of the construction market, have significantly reduced the ability of the affected population to lead on solutions for their own housing needs.
Yet with UN resolutions allowing cross border operations into Syria’s non-government held areas, there seems to be a missed opportunity to address the needs of the population in these areas in a structural way, rather than through emergency aid mechanisms.

The discriminatory legislation put in place by the Syrian government to dictate future reconstruction projects is not binding in non-government held areas, as the government does not have de facto authority there. This gives a chance for the international community to work with local actors in non-government held areas to set a precedent for how the discourse of reconstruction in Syria can unfold, should a just and inclusive framework be put in place.

This is not enough, however. A rights-based framework for recon­struction needs also to be enforced through accountability measures if it is to result in tangible outcomes when a political settlement is reached. Given this diverse and complicated context, shouldn’t the international community go beyond the dichotomy of ‘to reconstruct or not to reconstruct’ and instead work to develop new rules of engagement?

The ability of the Syrian government to enforce its own unjust approach to reconstruction, despite restrictions on international community funding, as well as the absence of any rights-driven alternative enforced by the international community, leaves a large portion of the Syrian population extremely vulnerable to being deprived of their property rights. This will definitely complicate any peacemaking process.

Refraining from engaging with reconstruction in Syria in the current context is not a solution. This only exacerbates the problem as it allows for all projects in Syria to be fully dictated by the government’s unjust legislation. While fighting this legislation should remain a priority for the international community, putting measures in place to resolve resulting disputes shouldn’t be of less importance.

Such measures must account for the compensation of those affected by the government’s unjust policies and consequent practices. They should also put in place a legitimate mechanism to document these practices and the potential resulting grievances in order to hold all involved actors accountable. This includes involved actors of the international community itself, potentially through the International, impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM).

It is not too early to engage with the reconstruction of Syria. Projects that aim to respond to people’s needs in a structural way must be funded in all areas. The international community, in this case, must make sure that funds do not contribute to the abuse of property rights, or go to actors and entities responsible for human rights abuses.

Financing for projects must also be conditioned to account for the rights of all residents including the displaced, and disappeared. This should be guided by the UN Pinheiro Principles on housing and property restitution, in the hope of creating a new and fairer blueprint for the reconstruction of Syria.
In other words, holding back funding does not hold back time, and the lives of millions are at stake while this is being debated. The more time the Syrian government has to implement its own framework for reconstruction, the more entrenched this framework will become, and the more hostile the environment will be to introducing new rights-based approaches. It is not the simplistic binary of ‘to reconstruct or not to reconstruct’ that we should be debating now. The ‘how’ is what we need to start looking for.

Reconstruction in conflict

Reem Assil, Tobias Schneider, Fadi Hallisso

This article is included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes.


On 27th of February 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria held a meeting discussing issues around rebuilding Syria, and possible UK policy options.

Speaking were: Reem Assil, founding member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, co-founder and co-manager of the Free Syrian Translators, and chair of the Syrian Platform for Peace; Tobias Schneider, an independent international security analyst and co-author with Faysal Itani of a recent report for the Atlantic Council titled Rebuilding Syria: A Localised Revitalisation Strategy; and Fadi Hallisso, co-founder of the Syrian NGO Basmeh and Zeitooneh, part of We Exist, a civil society umbrella group.

The meeting was chaired by the Rt Hon. Andrew Mitchell MP, Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

These meeting notes are also included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes, along with other articles on reconstruction issues.

Event Notes: Reconstruction and human rights

Syrian Legal Development Programme & Chatham House

The event notes below are available as a PDF from the Syrian Legal Development Programme and Chatham House, and are included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes along with other articles on the reconstruction debate.


On 25th of May 2018, the Syrian Legal Development Programme held an event to launch their Human Rights and Business Unit, focusing on human rights in the context of reconstruction in Syria.
Two panels discussed Reconstruction between political pragmatism and human rights idealism. The first panel was with Maria Alabdeh, Jean-François Hasperue, and Toby Cadman. The second panel had Wayne Jordash, Fionna Smyth, and Joseph Daher. The panels were chaired by Ibrahim Olabi and by Noor Hamadeh, both of the Syrian Legal Development Programme. Chatham House hosted the event.

Maria Alabdeh is Executive Director of Women Now for Development, one of the largest women’s organisations operating in Syria. Women Now is part of a group of 25 civil society organisations called We Exist. Since the first Brussels conference in 2017, We Exist have been advocating on conditions for reconstruction, saying that reconstruction should be ‘for all of Syria, and all Syrians.’
Maria Alabdeh raised questions that she and other Syrians have about reconstruction, on when, where, and who, starting with the ‘when.’
‘I feel sometimes there is a confusion between early recovery and reconstruction. As far as I know, the war is not over at all. Human rights continue to be abused. Since the beginning of this year, we have been witnessing the mass displacement of tens of thousands of people. As Ibrahim mentioned, more than 60% of my team has been displaced from Ghouta.’
Maria Alabdeh talked about the dangers facing displaced people in north Syria, Idlib and Aleppo province:
‘They prefer to go to there, knowing that there are extremist groups, there are bombs, chemical attacks could happen; but they prefer this sometimes to being under the control of the Syrian regime and the risk of being arrested. Syrians are still very unstable, because they don’t have any space that is protected.’
On the conditions needed for reconstruction, Maria Alabdeh pointed to the failure to achieve a political transition, with the discussion being shifted from Geneva to Astana and elsewhere, with the result that military people now negotiate the future of Syria.

While there is a real need for reconstruction, Maria Alabdeh said the conditions have to be right, and she warned of repeating a Gaza scenario, of paying for reconstruction only for everything to be destroyed again.

Turning to the question of ‘where,’ Maria Alabdeh said she felt people were mainly talking about Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo; of reconstructing areas that have been won militarily, completely neglecting a political process.

In particular, she pointed to the February 2017 Siege Watch report, No Return to Homs, on how reconstruction already begun in Homs has served to reinforce displacement.
‘The donor governments have participated in providing a war crime dividend. The conditions for the right reconstruction are not there. The people of Homs are not there, so how can we start a project of reconstruction when the people are not there?’
The issue of new laws being issued by the Syrian regime to seize property is now receiving increased attention. Maria Alabdeh pointed to how this links to the issue of detainees.
‘As a woman working with women inside Syria, most of them are families of detainees or disappeared, Those women don’t have any right of property. They cannot provide any document because the documents of property are mainly in the names of their husbands or fathers who have been disappeared. So these women are facing double discrimination.

‘When we are talking about the disappeared in Syria, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. As a Syrian, I think most of us have grown up with stories from the Hama massacre, about families who were not able to provide any death certificate or anything, and there they have lost property, and they were not able to get even a document for divorce because that person has disappeared.

‘To continue on that question of “where”: Can we talk about reconstruction in Idlib, where last year I lost a colleague during delivery because of the lack of medical infrastructure in Idlib? Can we talk about Raqqa, which was 90% destroyed by the Coalition?’
Maria Alabdeh turned to her third question: Who is to do the reconstruction?
‘According to the UN report on sexual violence issued in March this year, the regime, the Syrian government, is the main perpetrator of sexual violence. In the words of the report, “Rapes and other acts of sexual violence carried out by government forces and associated militias … formed part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population, and amount to crimes against humanity.”

‘I have met a lot of decision-makers who were telling me, “we said after Bosnia, never again,” so what about Syria today? When we are talking about protection of women, when we are talking about the commitment of countries to Resolution 1325, on women’s protection, on sexual violence, on women’s participation, where are we about all of this? Are we funding the main perpetrators of human rights abuses and sexual violence?

‘The report as well mentioned for sure violations in all parts of the conflict, and we have violations done by ISIS and by HTS. I think a lot of donor countries, and we totally agree with them, are working to not support HTS in any way. They are even cutting funds from us who are on that front, because they are scared that any funds should go to the extremist group.’
Maria Alabdeh said that while she totally agreed that funds should be protected from going to extremist groups, she would prefer the term human rights violators, so that funds should be denied to all human rights violators.
‘When we have women on the floor, we need to listen to them, it’s not just like, we have women, “tick,” on the peace talks. We actually have to listen to them.

‘The women I work with never forget the disappeared and the detainees, and they will keep looking for them, and they will never give up, but they are using peaceful ways to do this. So when women are saying we cannot have peace without knowing what happened to our beloved ones, we need to hear it very clearly.

‘When women also are saying we cannot have reconstruction without addressing the root causes of the conflict, the economic, social, and political ones, and especially—hearing from women on the ground that I am working with—education. All of us are afraid of ISIS ideology to be spread in the schools of Raqqa; what about the ideology of the Big Brother in Damascus? We need to review this, because we are preparing for the next conflict if we don’t address all of this together.

‘My last, very last point is, how can we discuss peace in Syria if we don’t preserve the public space. I’m a human rights actor. I’m a founder of the Syrian Non-Violence Movement. And today I would be scared to go back to Damascus, even though I have never ever been engaged in any military process, even though I have been set against all use of violence, against all human rights abuses.

‘It’s the case for maybe millions of Syrians today. Where we are not preserving the public space, where we are not preserving the space for civil society to be there to monitor the reconstruction, to monitor the peace talks, what we are doing is we are calming down for a few years while the conflict is going on between people, and we will see a more bloody conflict in a few years.’
Responding to a question from the audience on the peace process at Geneva, and on the lack of trust in the various bodies of the UN that are engaging in Syria, Maria Alabdeh answered that she also had lots of criticisms of the UN.
‘The last time I met the Special Envoy, it was last month in Geneva, he was asking us in a public event why Syrian women are not saying “enough, khalas, we need peace,” and I answered we will not say khalas because we are tired of being beaten, and as a woman I refuse to be beaten by the Syrian regime, and to be beaten by the other groups.

‘But we need to support this process, because it is the only political map that we have.’
In response to another question on whether civil society could take on implementing reconstruction, Maria Alabdeh said she didn’t believe that was their role; that civil society should be included and should monitor reconstruction, but should not be responsible for doing reconstruction.


Jean-François Hasperue is Political Officer on Syria at the European External Action Service. He began his talk by asking, what should be considered pragmatic today in Syria? He argued that the answer was to pursue a systematic comprehensive lasting peace, rather than following any temptation in the form of quick fixes.

Jean-François Hasperue rejected the idea that the current situation is simply that the regime is winning the war, instead asking which war are they winning, and listing all the multitude of conflicts within the larger war.
‘That’s the best illustration of what chaos Syria is right now, the point of divergence of local, national, regional, and global forces, and at the same time this point of convergence of their struggles.
‘So what would reconstruction look like in such an environment? The regime in Damascus is telling us that they’re ready to start reconstruction, and they have even started, to which I ask, what kind of reconstruction did they start to do?’
The answer, according to Jean-François Hasperue, is that the regime is pursuing reconstruction based on social engineering, aiming to reward their supporters, both inside the regime and amongst its allies. But while many might wish to profit from this, he doubted that many would fund it.
‘You will find a lot of people to reconstruct Syria right now, attracted by quick, dirty, and quite lucrative business, but you’ll find less candidates to pay the bill for the reconstruction.’
Therefore, Jean-François Hasperue said, he believes the European Union has a card to play in being willing to fund reconstruction, but only on the basis of a sustainable peace which is against the current military logic of the regime.
‘And we are convinced that right now, that this military logic is not realistic at all.’
For a peace to last, the root causes of the conflict need to be addressed, and this requires a comprehensive peace and a strong political agreement, Jean-François Hasperue said, and he pointed to the UN-led Geneva negotiations as the way to achieve that, as opposed to Russian-led talks in Astana or Sochi.

Turning to human rights, Jean-François Hasperue insisted it is not idealism to seek to protect human rights in Syria, and said that while trying to get a political settlement, the European Union should in the meantime continue to work to protect the human rights of Syrians inside the country.
‘Of course it’s not so easy, because there is still a war in Syria. We are not a military actor as the European Union, but we believe we can do something.’
Firstly he pointed to the EU’s role in supporting the gathering of documentation of human rights violations, and secondly to EU support for civil society organisations to help Syrians protect their own rights.

Responding to a question on whether there was any alternative to the UN in conducting negotiations, Jean-François Hasperue re-stated the EU’s commitment to the Geneva process led by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, and to the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
‘This is the only text agreed by the Security Council of what the future of Syria could be.’
On whether the EU can be flexible over reconstruction, he was emphatic.
‘No. Not at all. There is no room for flexibility in terms of funding for reconstruction. It’s not by chance that we repeat, and we do karma therapy with our mantra, no reconstruction without this genuine comprehensive political agreement.’
On a question on the institutional corruption in Syria, and the likelihood of corruption prevailing indefinitely even if there was a change in leadership, Jean-François Hasperue agreed that corruption was infecting the system of Syria even before the war, but said this would have to be addressed in a transition to support a way for Syria towards rule of law, while at the same time he believed care should be taken not to replicate mistakes of Iraq, and so the system shouldn’t be just broken as this again would lead to chaos.


Toby Cadman is co-founder and head of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, based in London with offices in Madrid and Washington DC. Reconstruction, he said, is not just about rebuilding houses, schools, and hospitals, it’s about rebuilding institutions so they are capable of bringing Syria forward, something that is hard to talk about as long as the conflict is still ongoing, with people still being killed and with massive forced displacement.

Toby Cadman said that in other cases, in Bosnia and Rwanda, institutional reform was possible because there was some form of political transition, and even if these were not transitions that everyone was happy with, there was at least some degree of influence for the international community in rebuilding institutions over time. Toby Cadman questioned what kinds of people could be involved in rebuilding institutions in Syria, and what kind of vetting would there be of the people in receipt of huge amounts of funds.
‘I find it very difficult to reconcile in my own mind how we can effectively support and fund, not just the Syrian government, but also those other governments that have supported it in the campaign of the last few years, in effectively rebuilding what they have destroyed.’
But given that reconstruction has started in some parts of Syria, and will go forward, Toby Cadman turned to the issue of how to hold those doing the reconstruction accountable—whether individuals or organisations—and how to ensure that what they do is for the right purpose, and that they comply with human rights policy.
‘There is a very grave risk in organisations, corporations, becoming complicit in the commissioning of war crimes and crimes against humanity, not necessarily by their own making but complicit in the kind of actors they’re supporting, and that to me is one of the fundamental difficulties in addressing a conflict such as this, where there hasn’t been, and is not likely to be any time soon, a political transition in the way many of us would like to see.’
As an example of the problems of engaging without a political transition, Toby Cadman recalled the UN Oil-for-Food programme in Iraq, an aid effort conducted while Saddam Hussein was in power that developed into a set of corruption scandals.

On whether corporate entities can be held accountable, Toby Cadman pointed to the investigation of BNP Paribas over allegations of complicity in the Rwandan genocide. And in Syria, he raised the case of the Lafarge cement plant in northern Syria.
‘For me one of the most fundamental points is that we can’t really consider the reconstruction effort without putting justice and accountability at the forefront of these discussions. As both Maria and Jean François said, it is looking at the root cause of the conflict.’
Toby Cadman said that for Syrians, the absence of accountability is not a recent phenomenon, as seen most notoriously after the 1982 Hama massacre.

On forced displacement, Toby Cadman said that in Bosnia the international efforts to help people return to their former homes had often only led to enabling them to sell their property and move to another area where they felt more protected by their own ethnic group being in government.

On the estimated $300 billion cost for rebuilding Syria, Toby Cadman asked where could that money come from when the international community has failed to even find the money needed to properly fund the IIIM, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism that was established by the UN General Assembly in 2016 to collect evidence and to prepare files to enable prosecutions for crimes in Syria.

To a question on the longstanding an deepening corruption of the governing system in Syria, he agreed that removing Assad and his inner circle would not be enough to change that system. Particularly on the judicial system, he said that one needed to be built, not rebuilt.
‘Because most of the legal professionals that are left, and who we continue to work with, the way that they explain the system as it works, is something that would not be recognisable to us as legal professionals outside.’
Toby Cadman argued that despite the level of difficulty and the scale of atrocities, that with small steps now it is possible to prepare for the long term.
‘When I started in Bosnia, we had a caseload of 10,000 cases, which with our resources would have taken 120 years to deal with. But you focus on what is achievable in order to improve the system.’
With no international accountability, no chance of referral to the International Criminal Court due to Russia’s Security Council veto, and no likelihood of an international ad hoc tribunal, the vast majority of cases would fall on future Syrian institutions that would have to spend decades dealing with them. This, he said, would require long term commitment.
‘The situation is so extreme, so many families and individuals have been affected by these things… you can’t just walk away and say it’s too big a problem, it’s too systemic, we can’t deal with it. You have to deal with it step by step. And Syrian legal professionals have to be prepared, trained, and helped by the international community for the next twenty years to be able to deal with this.
‘It’s going to take an entire generation of change in order for Syria to move forward into what we would all hope would be a democratic transition with a government that is actually elected by the Syrian people, not imposed by the international community, or as we currently see, the current regime, but a proper democratic transition with the rule of law.’
In getting there, Toby Cadman said the documentation process is important, recognising that we may not get to a court today, but we may do in a few years’ time. That, he argued, could have a knock-on effect for Syrians to then start to have some level of confidence in their own institutions, paving the way for a more stable environment and economy.
‘We’ve seen individuals brought before courts that we never thought we’d see in the past. Charles Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic who unfortunately died before he was sentenced.’
On the obstacle of being unable to get International Criminal Court referral due to Russia’s veto power, Toby Cadman pointed to a recent initiative for the ICC to use Bangladesh jurisdiction for cases of forced displacement from Myanmar. The ICC has jurisdiction in Bangladesh but not in Myanmar, and this example suggests it might be similarly possible for the ICC to tackle cases of people forcibly displaced from Syria to Jordan, as Jordan, unlike Syria, is a state party to the ICC.
On the issue of monitoring where funding ends up, Toby Cadman questioned whether current sanctions are being properly enforced.

‘Don’t forget that there are sanctions against the senior members of the regime, particularly the senior members of military intelligence who are largely responsible for the majority of the crimes that have been committed in Syria.
‘And in particular two of these individuals who have now been listed in two separate criminal cases, one in Spain that I’m involved with, and another one in Germany, two of the leading suspects in these cases that are alleged to be the most responsible for orchestrating this campaign of violence, have travelled to Italy, and travelled to Germany, notwithstanding that there are sanctions. So it is very difficult to understand, if these countries are welcoming individuals who are under travel bans and sanctions, how do you get them to monitor funding going to regime-connected entities?’

Wayne Jordash is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, specialising in international humanitarian law, and business and human rights due diligence. He began by expressing his disagreement with much of what was said by the previous speakers, particularly on the idea that Western states should wait for a political transition via the UN-led Geneva process before engaging in reconstruction.
‘I think the horse has bolted. And the question is not whether there is going to be a new government without Assad, because is that really looking very likely? And it’s not a question of whether we’re going to have accountability via an international mechanism, or very much accountability at the national level. It is not going to happen, not in the short term, or even the mid term, and probably not in the long term either. So the question now is, what happens in relation to reconstruction?

‘And the horse has bolted because it’s not just business which is engaged with reconstruction, and it’s not just reconstruction happening in areas which are controlled by responsible actors, it’s reconstruction which is happening at the behest of big actors such as the UN who are channelling money into projects which may be termed humanitarian, or may be termed something else, but ultimately they’re part of the reconstruction.’
Wayne Jordash said that reconstruction work being done in Syria in the name of humanitarian aid was already leading to violations of rights.
‘Research by the Atlantic Council has shown systematic failures in the UN’s inability to prevent regime cronies from corrupting the system’s programmes. They have already milked the international community for millions of dollars, and the UN is reconstructing at the behest of the government.’
Wayne Jordash argued that the EU position of no reconstruction before a political transition, of waiting and limiting funding to humanitarian aid, fails to understand that humanitarian assistance overlaps with reconstruction, and fails to understand what a rights based policy should involve. The ‘human rights business’ is not black and white, he said, but involves small incremental interactions at a local level to open up space for better outcomes.

Wayne Jordash proposed looking at reconstruction through the lens of business and human rights law, and the framework that this provides. Companies engaging in Syria, or players such as the UN or EU who engage in Syria, are entering an environment where there is a great risk that they will be complicit in violations of international humanitarian law, and so they need to take certain due diligence steps to ensure against that complicity.

The greater impact, according to Wayne Jordash, is not going to come from major violations of international humanitarian law, but is going to be the more local damage to communities from a failure to follow a structured approach to protecting and respecting human rights.
‘And this is where the business and human rights agenda comes in, because it doesn’t just say work with trade unions, it doesn’t just say engage with responsible actors, it doesn’t just offer ad hoc solutions to difficult problems involving corporate responsibility. What it does is it offers a framework, a structured approach.’
He maintained that the best way of approaching reconstruction is to use the business and human rights agenda to pressure states and companies to follow this framework.

UN guiding principles articulate the obligations on the state to protect human rights, and on business to respect human rights, and detailing what should be done in high risk places such as Syria. The processes which should be followed come under three headings: a policy commitment; human rights due diligence; and remediation. Wayne Jordash explained these as follows:
‘The policy commitment is designing a human rights policy, not just putting a nice statement on a website as a company, but actually designing it and embedding it into your company’s operations, and communicating it to the wider public, so they understand what your commitment is;

‘Due diligence, so a company is expected to follow certain steps in how it confronts the risks of human rights violations, so every­thing from conducting impact assessments, seeking to understand, and this is what is key I think to this whole reconstruction debate, is at the core of this due diligence, is a stakeholder dialogue. These are not “you must do X,” but “you must do X, but only after you have communicated and shared your thought processes, and received feedback from local communities, and sought to obtain free, prior, and informed consent to act”;

‘And finally, the remediation is the third essential aspect to this, which requires businesses if they do cause adverse business impacts to make good. It places obligations on states to provide judicial remedies and to support non-judicial remedies, and it puts an obligation on businesses to remediate their own ills through such things as mechanisms within companies to deal with those grievances.’
Wayne Jordash said that while these processes weren’t an answer to everything, he believed that they could provide a way for ordinary people in Syria to pressure Western companies and other actors to protect human rights. He was concerned that in making reconstruction contingent on political progress, opportunities for using these processes could be lost.

Responding to a question on whether the prospect of prosecutions would deter the more responsible companies from engaging in reconstruction, leaving the field to the less responsible and thus undermine the business and human rights agenda, Wayne Jordash responded that the amount of prosecutions for business-related crimes at the international level seemed low.
‘I think we’d see more responsible behaviour from businesses if there was a real fear that they were going to end up in a courtroom.’
Toby Cadman asked Wayne Jordash what in that case needs to be done in the international order for there to be a deterrent? Toby Cadman went on to say that he understood the pragmatism of the argument that as reconstruction was going to happen in any case, there was a need to create an environment where it would be done properly, but he asked what possible hope was there that the regime would actually respect some of the principles that were being referred to, seeing as the regime has absolutely no regard for the international treaties and conventions that it’s signed up to?

Wayne Jordash responded that what was needed was a mix of approaches, including strengthening legal enforcement and taking people to court when it was possible.
‘But I think that also can be a bit distracting, in the sense that we start to think about it as an issue of enforcement after the damage is done, and I think it’s about being first into difficult environments, with responsible actors demanding big and small things from actors bad and good, and being prepared to set an example, and being prepared to walk away if the result is not sufficiently—if practice isn’t affected.

‘And I think at the heart of this is a dialogue, it’s dialogue with the affected communities, trying to understand what they want, trying to communicate that to good actors and bad actors.’

Fionna Smyth is Head of Humanitarian Policy, Advocacy, and Campaigns at Oxfam. Acknowledging that the war was not over, she said there would be a long period where a humanitarian response would be combined with early recovery and development.

On the position of donors like the EU not to support reconstruction until the UN-led peace process goes forward, Fionna Smyth said the war economy persists, and asked what happens if there is no satisfactory political solution?
‘The other challenge I think for donors at the minute is that when they’re taking themselves out of the conversation, the conversation doesn’t stop. And when you have a vacuum, you will find that there are many other actors that are very willing to step up into that vacuum, and that they are leading that debate and driving that process.’
Fionna Smyth talked of drawing lessons from past examples of recon­struction.
‘I think that Lebanon is a really good example of how you have to be careful when you’re reconstructing after any conflict in case you’re inadvertently making the fragility even more fragile, or potentially laying the grounds for conflict.’
In Afghanistan, Fionna Smyth said, reconstruction was pursued without adequate consideration of political impacts, and of the priorities of rural communities, and the effort was more in state building than in delivering sustainable results for the local population.
‘And we know from other contexts that supporting an enabling environment for small and medium enterprise supports community development, empowers women and minorities, and lifts the local economy.’
Fionna Smyth suggested that as part of seeking to help remove obstacles for women’s full participation in Syrian society, NGOs with livelihood support programmes should avoid only supporting occupations that keep women in the private sphere, and should look at local labour markets for other options.

Fionna Smyth noted the need to make sure women are at the heart of all peacebuilding processes, and said we need to keep funding civil society in the uncertain period between war and a hoped for peace, saying that’s where the social contract can be built between the citizens and the state to get stability and a safe, secure, and inclusive society.

Responding to a question from Ibrahim Olabi on the dilemma for NGOs over whether to work from Damascus, given the reporting on how regime figures have gained access to funds from UN aid operations in Damascus, Fionna Smyth gave an account of Oxfam’s own decision in 2011-2012 to provide water and sanitation aid via regime-held Damascus. She sought to describe Oxfam’s role as a part of a wider humanitarian community response, and said the decision was in part based on Oxfam’s lack of presence in neighbouring states compared to other agencies.
‘We’d really hate it if we thought that by responding we were unable to have a loud advocacy voice, so that is what we continue to try to do. Sometimes we’re more effective at it than others, and sometimes the reason we’re less effective is due to stupid bureaucratic internal reasons rather than very principled reasons as well, because we are a massive organisation. So sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it less right.’

Joseph Daher of Lausanne University is the author of Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God, and founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever. He set out to explain the economic policies of the Assad regime prior to the uprising, and during the uprising.

He described how the regime used a process of economic liberalisation through the 1990s, and deepening neoliberal policies in the first decade of Bashar al-Assad’s rule from 2000 on, as a means to privatise the state in the hands of the Assad family and its associates. Joseph Daher uses the term ‘crony capitalist’ for these business figures affiliated to the regime.
‘Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, represented this mafia-style process of privatisation led by the regime.’
The result Joseph Daher termed a patrimonial state, where all the centres of power, political, military, and economic, are in the hands of the Assad family.
‘The objective was to encourage private accumulation principally for the marketisation of the economy, while the state withdrew in key areas of social welfare provision, aggravating the existing socio-economic problems.’
One of the main aims of this process was to attract foreign investment and Syrian funds held outside of the country, Joseph Daher said, and so foreign direct investment climbed from $120 million in 2002 to $3.5 billion in 2010.
‘Economic growth was chiefly rent-based dependent on oil export revenues, geopolitical rents, and capital inflows, including remittances. The share of the productive sectors diminished from 48.1% of the GDP in 1992 to 40.6% in 2010, while the share of wages from the national income was less than 23% in 2009 compared to maybe 40% in 2004, meaning that profits and rents commanded more than 67% of the GDP.’
This process also had consequences in agriculture, he said, with the ownership of land increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands. Ali Farzat’s satirical newspaper al-Domari headlined the situation as, ‘After forty-three years of socialism, feudalism returns in Syria.’

Even though there was an average of 4.3% growth per year between 2000 and 2010, as much as 60% of the population was living close to the poverty line, with a much higher proportion of poor in rural areas than urban areas.
‘So this was the context in which the uprising happened in Syria. Absence of democracy, absence of social justice, with the new ideas coming in 2011 with images on television of Tahrir Square, and Tunisia etcetera. From the beginning of the popular uprising, which turned very rapidly into a military war, the regime was increasingly dependent economically, in addition to politically and militarily, on its foreign allies, Russia and Iran.’
After 2011, even amidst the war’s destruction, the regime continued its process of concentrating Syria’s diminishing wealth. With about 90% of the biggest manufacturers in Syria completely destroyed, the ‘crony capitalist’ close associates of the regime earned high margin procurement contracts, exclusive import deals, and smuggling and other deals associated with the war economy. More independent-minded business personalities left the country.

In turn, business associates of the regime gave propaganda support via private media ownership, political support by mobilising their own sectors of society, and military support by funding militias.
‘This was a similar dynamic in the reconstruction that already started, especially from the end of 2016 in Damascus, and it was especially reflected with Decree 66 of 2012, and Law No. 10 of April 2018.’
Turning to how the international community should respond, Joseph Daher said it was necessary to understand that the regime is constituted with corruption at its core, and it cannot function without corruption.

The regime’s legislation on reconstruction, such as Decree 66 and Law No. 10, by allowing the seizing of large areas, will be used for dev­elopment projects to benefit regime cronies, and at the same time punish communities known for their opposition to the regime. So the issue of owners and tenants’ rights are central.

On international funding, while Western countries and Gulf monarchies are not ready to invest, Joseph Daher doubted that this was a question of human rights, giving as an example that the EU funds reconstruction in the case of Israel and Palestine without having dealt with root causes there.
‘I think we can limit the share where the crony capitalists and the regime can benefit, meaning reconstruction but with conditions: inclusion of the local population in reconstruction plans; property owners and tenants should be provided with new housing, or a true alternative; transparency of budgets; respect of workers’ rights.

‘And it’s important in this respect to prevent the regime and businessmen linked to it to use these funds to advance their own interests. But it needs empowering local populations at the lowest level possible to give them the instruments to be able to raise their voices and to organise themselves, which obviously in this framework is very difficult.’
Even if Syria had a small sector of independent businesses prior to 2011, today they are all gone, Joseph Daher said, and any kind of big business deal needs a regime godfather, and so the issue now for reconstruction is how to find alternatives that serve the needs of the most vulnerable while continuing to pursue justice for human rights violators.

While recognising that even conditional reconstruction would enable some regime-linked businessmen to benefit, Joseph Daher said the thing would be to limit this as much as possible, while using the conditions put on reconstruction to empower the local population.

In his view, the heart of the matter should be the people on the ground, in particular displaced people. While there has been reporting of some people returning, for every person coming back, three are leaving, he said. With half the population displaced, to say no reconstruction would mean setting those people aside.

On the pitfalls that await international NGOs returning to work under regime authority in Damascus, Joseph Daher said that the main Syrian charities there are linked to the regime and have received funds from different international actors, with the most well-known example being the Syrian Trust for Development, chaired by Asma al-Assad.

But he also suggested that contradictions in how regime-controlled areas functioned gave potential for conditional reconstruction to use these contradictions to bring about change.
‘We have a lot of contradictions within this regime, and within its so-called base of support. When it comes to Damascus, to Latakia, to Aleppo, a lot of people are complaining about this regime.’
Joseph Daher pointed to the regime’s need now to find employment for its base, particularly for the very large number of regime militia men, many of whom now use their positions to profit through extortion, leading to protests against them even from pro-regime populations.
‘There is a big work being done by the regime today, in Aleppo especially, but also in Damascus, to bring back manufacturing industry, because the ones that were not destroyed, they all left the country or they went to Latakia, to Sweida, other areas that did not suffer the same level of destruction.

‘But there are contradictions within the top ruling elite, because you have crony capitalists that benefit from importing products, and they are making huge money without investing any money, while you have manufacturers that are saying you have to put forward Syrian manufacturing.’
On seeing positive potential, Joseph Daher pointed to achievements in areas outside regime control in the last few years, where the state withdrew and Syrians gained experience in administering their own society, including hospitals, education, and other local services.
‘Today you have funding that is being cut to some sectors of civil society. This is in complete contradiction with the discourse of the European Union saying they want to help Syrians.’
Joseph Daher also saw potential in further supporting women inside Syria, saying that he thinks the one good aspect of today in Syria is the role women are taking in society, taking a bigger role in the labour market.
‘In some industries we only have women, and economically they are taking a much bigger role because men are outside of the country, refugees, in prison, killed, or they cannot go out of their houses, scared of being conscripted. And I think not only in the peace process, but also here a gender policy should in this perspective really be taken into consideration.’
Joseph Daher saw the Syrian refugee population in Europe as an important potential resource to help a reconstruction in support of local populations.

To further explain why he was focusing on empowering populations from below, he returned to the history of Syria before 2011.
‘What is facing us when we see the Syrian people is catastrophic for the past seven years, but this regime has been in place for the past forty years.’
The 1990s, according to Joseph Daher, saw a process of seeking an opening of economic relations between Syria and the world, and expecting a democratic opening would follow, but while the economic opening happened, the democratic opening was never a key demand.

We are now in a similar situation, he said, but with an even harsher regime that has now demonstrated its answer to the challenge of a large movement from below.
‘So this is why I’m saying if there’s a possibility through states or international NGOs, international institutions, that are able to empower from below this local population, these Syrian NGOs etcetera, and come and help IDPs etcetera under very difficult conditions, then I’m all for it.’

These event notes are available as a PDF from the Syrian Legal Development Programme and Chatham House, and are included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes along with other articles on the reconstruction debate.

Civil society and political transition


Abdullah Allabwani

This article is included in the Summer 2018 issue of Syria Notes.


Support for Syrian civic and grassroots movements is very much needed in this critical period. Programmes funded by the Friends of Syria states to support civic entities can be of great value in a political transitional process.

I will aim here to lay out strategic directions for funded programmes, and key areas of impact for Syrian civil society initiatives, in light of the ongoing political and security changes in the country. The term Syrian civil society refers here to local governance entities and local councils as well as civil society organisations (CSOs).

Many international development and foreign aid organisations have been working with local civil society partners in opposition-held territory in the past seven years. With the deterioration in security in the last three years, most have preferred to limit support to humanitarian and relief CSOs to avoid any political issues with local and regional stakeholders.

It is increasingly difficult to separate assistance for local governance and local councils from assistance to CSOs since the organisations and their activities are interconnected and often derivative. For example, both local councils and CSOs have missions to facilitate assistance and capacity building in opposition areas. In addition, most of them have assumed a role in facilitating a more democratic public and civil administration. They face similar challenges in long-term institutional direction, in popular legitimacy, and in securing sustainable sources of funding in what has become a protracted conflict. This has caused significant overlap between work conducted by CSOs and by local councils, something that is unlikely to change in the near future.

Another important factor is the disconnect between the top level organised opposition, i.e. the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the ground level opposition, the local councils and CSOs working inside the country.

Moderate governance is under relentless assault both from Islamic extremist-derived organisations and also from the Assad regime and its allies. Both of these sets of forces seek to break the links between CSOs and local councils in the course of trying to erase them altogether, either to restore regime tyranny or to expand ‘Islamic governance.’

Assistance from Friends of Syria states should aim to preserve and strengthen existing linkages between CSOs and local councils as well as forming relationships with political opposition bodies, the Syrian National Council and Syrian Interim Government. The aim here should be to strengthen the position of Syrian people in the political transition process through supporting Syrian civil society.

Because the Syrian political opposition has been unable to represent Syrians as an actual decision maker, this has resulted in it having zero legitimacy amongst Syrian communities over the last four years, and many opportunities to improve the Syrian situation have been lost.

The gaps that have grown between top level political opposition bodies and Syrian civil society and opposition circles inside Syria are due mainly to the following reasons:

  1. Top level political opposition bodies are seen to represent political agendas of other states involved in the Syrian crisis rather than clearly representing the aspirations and demands of the Syrian communities that have called for change.
  2. External actors have assigned local and provincial councils in regions under their control. Such a relationship with external actors sees local councils merely as service bodies for the external actors, or as representatives of the external actors, rather than as representatives of the communities they serve. This generates distrust for these bodies amongst local communities.
  3. The civil society system in place in most communities is fairly disorganised and sometimes very unclear; this generates a general confusion on how links are to function with bodies such as the Syrian National Council and Syrian Interim Government. Civil society bodies also struggle to maintain a healthy and clear relationship with armed groups so as to avoid armed groups taking advantage.

The overall end should be to ensure that a civic culture exists that supports democratic values and enables the active participation of all individuals in social and political life.

Towards this end, the first objective should be to build the capacity of a certain number of civil society organisations and local councils in opposition territories to become more organised, to obtain a solid governance system, to help amplify their independence and represent their communities, so that these bodies become credible as legitimate representatives of their communities, and so that a more efficient and clear governance process results.

Once that first objective is achieved, these local councils and civil society organisations can delegate representatives to Syrian political opposition bodies. These newly assigned representatives can undergo training for capacity building, political representation, managerial structuring etc. to become more responsible and capable representatives, assigned not only with channeling resources but also becoming part of wider political discussions and decision-making processes.

This should result in Syrian civil society’s organisational capacity, credibility and legitimacy being increased; in civil society being able to advocate more effectively; and in a more productive relationship between the political opposition bodies and Syrian civil society.


Selecting partners

In selecting local councils in a number of provinces to support, Friends of Syria states should consider the following criteria:
Scale: Support local councils that have larger populations in their communities.

  • Visibility and legitimacy: Choose candidates that will be seen as fit to represent their communities.
  • Risk and sustainability: As far as possible, choose councils that are not open to risks such as: ISIS, Al-Qaeda offensives, regime targeting, etc.
  • Strategic locations: Some areas are considered of higher value based on resources, political and social diversity, geographic position, etc.
  • Capacity: Choose candidates to support that have existing capacity such as good organisational structure, qualified individuals, experience in implementing such projects, and have a general understanding of the financial, managerial, and documenting aspects needed for of the tasks.

Civilian society organisations in each province should be supported in the following categories:

  • Local professions development: Providing support to local professions, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.
  • Local media development: Providing support to local independent media entities or groups.
  • Social services development: Providing support to local groups involved in social services in their communities or across the country at a whole.


Suggested steps in this strategy
Goal 1: Increase organisational capacity, credibility, and legitimacy of civil society organisations and local councils.
Activity 1a: Friends of Syria states should enable civil society activities through provision of operational support.
A large number of Syrian organisations need operational support to strengthen their capacity to implement their activities, for example salaries, office rent, equipment, and expenses. This support should allow organisations to fully dedicate their efforts to implementing their project’s scope of work. Friends of Syria states should also work with those organisations to seek the best means of making them sustainable.
Activity 1b: Give organisations and local councils technical assistance on organisational development.
This is one of the key interventions Friends of Syria states can use to build or improve partner organisations’ capacity. Most civil society organisations and local councils require such technical assistance to define and refine their governance structures and management practices. This intervention requires performing an organisational capacity assessment prior to awarding a sub-grant. Friends of Syria states need to work with partners to develop targeted work plans to provide capacity building support in a strategic and responsive manner, and to tie assessment to the organisational planning and goal setting process.

Components to be targeted under organisational development include areas such as internal governance, management practices, human resources, financial management, service delivery, external relations and sustainability.
Goal 2: Enable civil society organisations and local councils to advocate effectively for their causes.
Activity 2a: Provide technical assistance on strategic communication and outreach.
Friends of Syria states can assist partner organisations in advocating causes and values, in effective communication with their communities, and in framing social discussion on topics that are important to them, by means of mentoring to develop communications strategies, to help them articulate their messages, advance their mission, and grow the community base of support for their work. This will also help ensure that staff members of organisations and councils are working from the same set of assumptions. Support should include training on building ties with local constituencies, community messaging, organising town hall meetings, use of online and offline social networking services.
Activity 2b: Give support for civil society organisations and local councils’ advocacy interventions to enhance civic engagement.
To help civil society organisations and local councils undertake effective community initiatives to counter regime and extremist narratives, work with them to develop short and long-term community engagement strategies that give authentic representation to different segments of society. Particular support should be given to projects and partners that demonstrate readiness to form alliances and networks aiming to increase the aggregate influence of civil society within Syria. Under this activity, civil society will gain expertise in designing and implementing campaigns, forming alliances and networks on particular issues, campaign branding, engaging in policy discussions with other NGOs and local civic entities, and mobilising supporters to take action when possible.

Additionally, work with sub-awardees to ensure that civil society accurately and accountably represents the interests of the entire community, including women and socially and politically excluded groups. The need to promote a more gender-mainstreamed agenda is particularly important. This will require—amongst other things—the inclusion of gender equality targets and indicators in the design and implementation of civil society strategies and programs, and systematic use of sex/age-disaggregated data for monitoring purposes.
Activity 2c: Support the presence of civil society actors in areas controlled by Designated Terrorist Organisations or the regime.
To maintain voices promoting values that counter extremism, seek partners that continue to work in areas controlled by designated terrorist organisations or the regime. Care is needed to protect the security of such groups. These will mostly be advocacy civil society organisations that need operational and organisational support to maintain their presence. In some cases, these will be one-time initiatives by groups of activists.
Goal 3: Foster a productive relationship between civil society organisations and local councils and Syrian political opposition bodies (SNC and SIG).
Activity 3a: Support civil society organisations’ initiatives that strengthen local councils.
Try to work with partner organisations that fill gaps and support cooperation with local councils, rather than replacing them. This could include supporting certain departments within a council, coordinating service delivery projects, or strengthening advocacy for mutual causes. Opportunities and challenges in organisations and local councils’ cooperation differ from one area to another, as capacity of local partners, project feasibility, and security considerations vary locally, so this activity should adopt a provincial-level approach.
Activity 3b: Establish civil society legitimacy to further political reach.
Work with stakeholders to outline the conditions needed for civil society to be heard in policy dialogue and to maximise the value of their contribution in a transition process. Work to clarify the contributions that various categories of civil society can make at different levels and in different types of policy discussions. Do capacity building for civil society to engage in policy dialogue in a sustainable way. Promote civil society networks for a stronger voice.
Activity 3c: Support SCS activities that hold the Syrian Political Opposition Bodies accountable.
Cooperate with partners which aim to watch over Syrian political opposition bodies’ activities to hold them accountable to their constituencies. This includes civil society organisations in human rights, international law, and media platforms that play a watchdog role.