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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.