Myra Abdallah

What’s happening to Syria’s civil society?

Are international NGOs slowly hijacking the agendas of actual Syrian activists?

Protesters in Kfaranbel, Syria, in March 2013. (via theorient.ca)

“Before the uprising, I was a dentistry student at Damascus University. With the beginning of the revolution, I became active in the Syrian civil society collaborating with activists and aid workers. We were calling for nonviolent activism all the time,” said Sohaib Zoabi, a Syrian activist from Daraa and founder of Ghosn Zaytoun. “I used to help with medical and food aid programs. Later, I was expelled from university because of my activism and I was arrested three times. The last time was the hardest. I spent six months in prison. I was accused of being an aid worker; being an aid worker is a crime in Syria. Afterwards, I left for Lebanon and started looking for funders in order to start my own initiative — Ghosn Zaytoun (Olive Branch) — which is now funded by international civil society organizations. Three months ago, I moved to Germany, where I am now a refugee.”


Since the beginning of the revolution, Syria has seen the emergence of several local non-governmental organizations and civil society groups, mainly under the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). However, with the Assad regime cracking down on activists, the increase of violence and the emergence of Islamist groups in Syria, many of these civil activists found themselves isolated, unprotected and confused. As violence increased, many activists like Zoabi ended up joining NGOs.


Civil society organizations seemed to be strong at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, but increasingly activists found themselves being threatened by the regime. The United States human rights report on Syria in 2013 affirms that anti-government protesters, activists and their families have been targeted by the Syrian regime. The report shows that 95% of the 2,963 victims of death by torture by the government since the beginning of the uprising have been human rights activists, protesters and journalists. According to this report, activists in particular have been detained under Syria’s 2012 Counterterrorism Law, which was implemented following the lifting of the Emergency Law in 2011, which had been in effect since 1963.


Social and political activists say they did not predict the changes that have since taken place in Syria. “The protests were non-violent in the beginning. The only military news we used to hear were of Assad’s regime attacking some opposing groups, but the numbers of killed people were not so big at first,” said Maher Esber, a Syrian activist currently living in Lebanon. “Later, Syria ceased to be a safe haven for activists, the number of casualties started to get higher, and the situation has changed into a purely military one. The opposition — almost exclusively — gathered armed groups rather than peaceful activists. Following the constant attempts to silence Syrian activists, few decided to stay and many others decided to leave Syria and seek refuge abroad, especially as they were in urgent need of jobs that would assure them a proper income so as to be able to survive and help their families back home.” 


NGOs have subsequently capitalized on this need by hiring Syrian activists. “Syrian activists have been hired in Europe, the United Sates and in neighboring countries,” said Muttasem al-Sioufy, Syrian activist who participated in the Damascus uprising and who currently works for an NGO in Turkish Antab. “Activists who went to Europe or the United States had their lives merged their. They gave up on the revolution and started planning their futures abroad. Other activists, who are working in Lebanon or Turkey, for example, are still trying to be part of an active civil society but are unable to go back to Syria because of the threats. In fact, many international community players have chosen to support Syrian civil society groups that are located in neighboring countries because they are more accessible to them. This has definitely weakened the civil society in Syria,” Al-Sioufy told NOW.


Some activists have remained in Syria despite the threats against them. Aware of a few places in Syria still safe enough for activists, Manhal Barish, who left Syria several times, decided to go back in September 2014. “International organizations have alienated revolutionaries from their revolution,” said Barish.


“I refused to work outside Syria. Lately, I have been receiving offers from international organizations to work as a program manager or coordinator inside Syria. The Syrian opposition being unable to create institutions with the skills and capacities of activists, they had to seek jobs in non-local organizations.”


Absent from Syria, activists once active during the uprising “started to be gradually distracted away from their cause and stopped their activism work — even online, they barely write anything,” said Barish, adding that even within Syria, political funds— both domestic and foreign — paid to civil society groups have the corrupted activists’ work. “Some civil society groups were funded by Syrian political groups or Arab and Western political organizations and governments,” said Nagham (pseudonym), who works for an NGO in Lebanon. Humanitarian and social work is a new concept for the Syrians because it was forbidden before.”


Several of the activists NOW spoke to are critical of international NGOs that have recruited Syrian who do not have much experience, adding that non-local agendas are being pursued by some international organizations. It’s also been said that these NGOs tend to focus so intently on the same groups of activists that many civil society groups, according to a Badael Project report: “felt condemned to adhering to donor conditions and adopt the agenda of the supporting INGO rather than focusing on their own national agenda.”


“International organizations sometimes do indirectly what various governments in the world can’t do directly,” Barish told NOW. ”Unfortunately, this has not been for the good of the Syrians.”


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah


Protesters in Kfaranbel, Syria, in March 2013. (via theorient.ca)

I used to help with medical and food aid programs. Later, I was expelled from university because of my activism and I was arrested three times. The last time was the hardest. I spent six months in prison. I was accused of being an aid worker; being an aid worker is a crime in Syria."