Foreword

The up-and-down relationship between civil society and the Syrian opposition


In principle, the civil society needs to be apolitical. However, in a situation like Syria where the regime of Bashar al-Assad has taken a hostile position towards his people, which made him one of the most war criminal in history. The Syrian civil society therefore found itself obliged to play a political role. But it also found itself in this position because of the poor performance of the Syrian opposition. The latter was interested in its little games and gains more than being interested in the public cause. The Assad regime has been brutal and criminal; the opposition has been little and petty, if we want to be cautious in using our words. The civil society therefor had not other option but to have a say in the political arena.

February 12, 2019


The up-and-down relationship between civil society and the Syrian opposition

Wael Sawah – Pro-justice


In principle, the civil society needs to be apolitical. However, in a situation like Syria where the regime of Bashar al-Assad has taken a hostile position towards his people, which made him one of the most war criminal in history. The Syrian civil society therefore found itself obliged to play a political role. But it also found itself in this position because of the poor performance of the Syrian opposition. The latter was interested in its little games and gains more than being interested in the public cause. The Assad regime has been brutal and criminal; the opposition has been little and petty, if we want to be cautious in using our words. The civil society therefor had not other option but to have a say in the political arena.

Inside Syria the Assad government deserted vast areas and regions with no services or security. It was the civil society who jumped to fill in the vacancy, through forming their tansiqiyat (coordination committees) or the local councils. The opposition in most cases made things worse and whenever they meddled, they just messed up.

Hence, the civil society can only support the opposition by criticizing it, by being the opposition conscience that reminds it with its duties and correct its deviation from the right path.

The civil society has few tools to do so. Among these few are the following:

  • Lack of political ambition: the civil society activists have little, if any, political ambition. They do not aspire to occupy an office in the political future of Syria. This gives them a moral power, as they do not pose any threat or competition to the opposition figures. This give them a leverage to have open discussions with the opposition in order to explore better scenarios and solutions.
  • A clearer discourse and platform: Unfortunately the opposition does not have a clear discourse on major political issues in Syria. It has not developed a coherent vision of future Syria that will be for all Syrians. Even worse, the opposition is not capable of producing such a vision, due to its internal conflict and superficial critical thinking which the opposition figures enjoy. The civil society, on the other had, has the interest and ability to develop such a vision and help the opposition reach together a clearer staregy for the political process.
  • Better relationship with the grassroots: Unfortunately, the Syrian opposition has failed repeatedly in building a coherent relationship with the Syrian grassroots. This has left the Syrian people an easy prey for the radical Isla mists groups and military factions. The civil society, despite its low resources, managed to create a better relationship with the grassroots, which make it more capable to play a role in mobilizing the population in the right direction to have an exit for the Syrian crisis.
  • Among the other tools civil society had is the desire of the UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura to involve the civil society in the political process. This could give the civil society a bigger leverage to support (or weaken) the opposition.

The civil society could have done more of course. It did not because it, by its turn, had indigenous problems. The civil society took charge of many situations with little, if any, experience. It also had its share of internal competition and rivalry-based differences. The CSOs preferred to work solely (except in a few areas and examples). They competed for resources and reputation.

Had they overcame these differences, their influence would have been greater in the political arena. The opposition would have listened more to their concerns and advice, and the popular incubator would have more supported the would-have-been stronger partnership between the opposition and the civil society, giving more room to the civil factors and less room to the military factions.

I was not involved directly in the civil society room. However, I headed two CSOs, which participated in the room. I took part in a couple of events on the sidelines of the Geneva Process, both inside and outside the United Nations and the De Mistura realm. We tried to link our activity to the negotiations and to enhance the position of the HNC in the process. However, my personal take of the De Mistura plan was negative. I strongly believe that De Mistura wanted to involve the civil society for two reasons, none of them was serious. First, he wanted to decorate his efforts with a non-political actor that are internationally accepted, particularly by the Western government. Second, he wanted to use the civil society as a tool of pressure on the negotiators, suggesting that he has a THIRD party that is more ready to cooperate with him in his plans.  I did not believe that De Mistura really want an input from the civil society. I met with de Mistura a couple of times. In every time, I tried to convince him of a bigger and more effective role for the civil society. But he never looked to me as somebody who took the us seriously.

Finally, The relationship between the opposition and the Syrian civil society has always been tense and awkward. On the one hand, the civil society saw the opposition busy with their infight and competition more than the national issues. The opposition on the other hand believed that the civil society did not have the sufficient experience and that it has bigger international attention than it should have. It is hence that the civil society groups that participated in the Geneva process were targeted by the opposition and their fellow fans. This included the civil society room and the women consultation group that advised de Mistura.