The Role of Civil Society Organizations during Wars: Syria as a Paradigm

The domains of development and growth in civil society are widely present in European political thought and go back to the Roman era. Aristotle’s ideas about political society in addition to those domains were not beyond the paths of acute crises, such as wars, conflicts, regimes of domination, authoritarian and societal coercion which societies have always experienced. Each domain had taken on a specific meaning according to the historical circumstance, social need and political process for each stage.

Many thinkers and philosophers, beginning with John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hegel, Alexis de Tocqueville, ending with Marx and Gramsci had contributed their different descriptions to the state and civil society. A contribution by them was analyzing reality and examining the relationship between society and the state in order to provide an intellectual and knowledgeable rooting stands for the idea of organizing human relations, so it can be independent of any authority but the authority emerging from the society. This authority is intended to be organized and bounded by forms and rules that makes the society independent. In this way, the society would be able to do the job of organizing the relationship between the two parties of any political act (the ruler and the ruled). The society would be depending on the ideological and developmental dimensions to affect the course of events, whether in a state of peace or at war, no matter how widely the war takes place and how much spread its tangible impact on the vital areas of the state is.

In Syria, the calls for establishing a civil society have remained governed within the framework of establishment of the Syrian Arab Republic and independence regimes. These calls have also been administrated by the changes they went through which made the boundaries of this concept narrow and widen according to the political reality. The issue of putting forth democratic slogans as a matter of political pluralism and the establishment of parliaments did not turn into a social demand and did not live long because of military coups as it was neutralized and eliminated in favor of national and Arab trends.

During the war years, the Syrian fragmentation has reached four geopolitical divisions with different administration and governance: government-controlled areas, opposition-controlled areas in the northwest and Aleppo’s western countryside, areas under Turkish control which were occupied after military operations (Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch) and areas under Democratic Autonomous administration control (the areas liberated from ISIS and the areas of northern Syria).

Considering the complexity of Syrian conflict, the international and regional interventions, the conflict of different agendas and their impact on the reality of civil social organizations. It has to be said that monitoring the standards and the seven functions defined as (protection, monitoring, advocacy and public communication within the one group, socialization, social cohesion, mediation and facilitation, and service delivery) are not just terminology as these concepts put us in front of various problems. The most important of which are:

First, many organizations do not have the basic feature of political and military independence. For example, the organizations that were founded in the regime-

controlled areas are subject to the regime’s political authority and aligned with its goals. In the areas under the control of Islamic military groups, many restrictions have been imposed on the organizations working in the civil field as this work has been considered as a heresy. These restrictions have come in the name of applying Sharia and adhering to sectarian values and customs. In addition, the Islamic groups in their areas have the ability to enable or obstruct civil society organizations in order for them to carry out their own tasks and to serve their own interests.

Secondly, the increase in local, regional and international interventions has participated in defining the work mechanisms of various civil organizations and bodies and placing them under competing and conflicting political agendas. For the Participating regimes, they have tried either directly or indirectly to access the civil organizations structures by providing them with support and facilitation. For instance, there are organizations linked to Turkey, others linked to the Gulf states and some bodies affiliated to Iran and its religious project, as well as a few ones linked to Western countries. The impact of this aspect has increased due to the financial need of organizations and the terms of the financiers. This whole financing operation has turned those organizations into blocks soaking up livelihood from their supporters and competing with each other to obtain funding with billions of dollars from the donor countries. “The field of Organizations has turned into a new labor market, and their employees are merely commercial service providers,” Martina Fisher says.

This is something does not belong to civil society, but rather has been added. The organizations have taken it upon themselves to promote and defend the policies of foreign donors, which has led to a civil society influenced by the tasks and actions presented to it rather than the historical and cultural roots of the society. In addition, applying technocratic versions to resolve conflicts and transferring Western concepts of civil society to other contexts to impose them in the developing countries lead to institutionalization that would not strengthen state institutions. Moreover, making profits from the influx of humanitarian funds has alienated some local communities as the aid given to these communities, which were mainly formed from powerful local families driven by greed, politics, or ideology, has become attached to the extent of loyalty to the aid suppliers’ agendas.

Thirdly, the report of IMPACT published in July 2019 and entitled “Changing Contexts and Trends in Syrian Civil Society” has explained the nature of Syrian civil society as a survey of 514 civil society organizations has been conducted. These organizations spread in Syria and Turkey, and a few of them are in Lebanon. After analyzing the structure of civil organizations, its functions and roles, important results have been concluded:

  • Excessive reliance on funding based on temporary projects and a lack of long-term vision.
  • The small size of these organizations regarding their human resources.
  • Many civil organizations lack legal status of licenses and work permits in different regions.
  • Lack of specialization and focus while executing tasks, as well as a lack of the activities based on reactions to events and needs.
  • There is a shortage of specialized cadres, and the human resources is weakened, as the majority of the workers are part-time employees to implement projects.
  • An increased presence on the international political scene with weaker links to local and subnational governance structures.

Fourth, according to the report of Citizens for Syria. entitled “Syrian Civil Society Organizations: Reality and Challenges” and the results of the competency assessment survey for 748 entities classified under the category of governmental or semi-governmental organizations, it has been reached, regarding the type of employment, that 60% of civil society organizations do not hire employees from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, but rather from the same sect. The reason was referred to the fact that the war had emptied entire areas of the population belonging to certain sects. The matter that affected the formation of civil society organizations in those areas. As for the representation of women in the administrative board, 42% of the organizations controlled by the opposition do not include women candidates in their administrative board. Furthermore, 13% of the organizations operating abroad and 5% of the Kurdish organizations do not have women representation on their administrative board.

However, the issue still includes some optimizing points that could be strengthened and benefited from:

  • The ability of these organizations to withstand despite the great social and relief-nature responsibility entrusted to them, which enabled the population to resist collapse in the war.
  • The flexibility of these organizations that enabled them to adapt to an environment surrounded by problems and pressure from the de-facto authorities.

Generally, Legislation in all regions is explicitly characterized as hostile to the activities of civil society as the administrative bodies that are connected to the authority have the right to follow up, monitor and restrict the work of internal and external organizations.

  • There are many organizations and activists who have a desire for civil work and adhere to links above the local community, such as organizations in the humanitarian field which stand for defending human rights and releasing detainees, women’s organizations which focus on basic issues of rights and development regardless of religious, sectarian and ethnic differences. There are dozens of leading documentation, human rights, and advocacy organizations working on transitional justice issues.
  • Generally, in wars, the experience of organizations cannot be overlooked. The fact that they have not achieved great success in some areas, which are often characterized by the absence of a strong represent of civil society, does not nullify their efforts in the war and its aftermath.

The experience of Bosnia gives a clear example, where the lack of success and the adoption of disregard had led to the 1995 Dayton Agreement. At the time, the peace was achieved by running early elections, establishing a power-sharing system and liberalizing the economy including the rapid privatization of social property in the past. Nevertheless, the fragile “liberal peace” option in Bosnia, Weak State Institutions has Rehabilitated Dayton’s bottom-up approach to peace Since 1998. More funding has been provided to projects by NGOs in the hope that the country’s entrenched political structures would be broken by initiatives on the ground of society.

These points do not seem sufficient, given the problems of organizations that put us in front of social, economic and political blocs, which have different perceptions about the goals and activities of civil organizations. As their role as civil organizations has not developed in a way that enables them to deal with the repercussions of the conflict, and to achieve any long-term goals for social change. Therefore, the ability of organizations to play a role in shaping civil society and giving it its specific function or structure is still unclear, and it requires searching for mechanisms to restore balance.

Get out of the illusion of act to activation

The solutions to the Syrian reality are still premature, as the conflict is still ongoing at the level of political authority and the parties controlling the land. in addition to various threats such as: terrorism, cross-border criminal networks, the growth of shadow economies, chaos and other matters that have made the Syrian conflict difficult to resolve, until it seems that the issue of peace in Syria has become forgotten.

In order to be reviewed by all Syrians and not only by organizations, solutions should not be developed by focusing on organizations as is often the case, as a solution to social, economic and political problems, thus overestimating their workers and holding them with greater responsibilities than they can handle.

In particular, there are issues that cannot be bypassed, such as: the lack of a strong civil society tradition, and the fact that the active networks of organizations operating in separate geographical areas and under the control of different parties. So the huge increase in the number of non-governmental organizations does not mean more societal cohesion, or a broader expression of the popular will to make citizens more

autonomous and to make governments – and de facto authorities – more responsive to prevailing opinion.

The organizations themselves have gone in opposing directions with political, social, religious or ethnic features that urge suitable alternatives and limit their work to reduce divisions. Organizations have different views about the same civil society, and therefore different perceptions about the organization’s different goals and activities.

Which calls for:

First: Defining and controlling the concept of civil society in order to move on from what the years of war made.

Second: Defining the organization’s structure and strategic objectives in terms of building civil society.

Third: Focusing on the role of women in preventing conflicts. Because of the impact of wars on them as actors or victims, women can adopt various plans to build a peace strategy.

Fourth: Not to neglect the phenomenon of “collective philanthropy”.

Fifth: Urging reflection on “civil security” policies.


Addressing the imbalance requires transferring influence to citizens’ associations and enabling them to build peace emanating from the rationalization of both state and society policies. In order to create margins of social responsibility in deterring violence and giving a fuller expression of the popular will to achieve security instead of leaving it to the controlling authorities that work to preserve their own security, not the security and peace of citizens.

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