Almost three years after the Syrian revolution began peacefully, more than 140,000 people have been killed, and the United Nations estimates nearly 2.5 million Syrians have fled their homes. Despite violence, a lack of resources and insecurity, Syrian civil society perseveres.
Syrian-led organizations inside and outside the country support humanitarian aid efforts, share information and relevant skills, and prepare to build the institutions necessary to govern local communities even now and, ultimately, to help get a postwar state back on its feet. They’re also fighting for a seat at the negotiating table in Geneva.
The Day After Association (TDA) is one such civil society organization. It grew out of a USIP-guided transition planning project called The Day After. Now led by a board of directors comprised of Syrian opposition activists and Executive Director Wael Sawah, The Day After Association works to support a democratic transition in Syria. TDA’s office is located in Istanbul and it works with Syrian activists inside and outside Syria.
USIP Program Officer Rachel Brandenburg spoke with Sawah this month to discuss TDA’s work, and more broadly, the role of Syrian civil society amid the conflict in Syria.
RB: The Syrian revolution looked very different when The Day After project was conceived, in January 2012, and even when it was completed six months later. How has TDA adapted its vision to reflect the nature of the current crisis?
WS: Yes, the nature of the revolution has changed. When the project started in January 2012, the situation in Syria was not as bloody as it is now. It was mostly a peaceful revolution where people were taking to the streets and protesting the government’s fascist practices against the Syrian people and calling for freedom, justice, and equality. Now the Syrian people are facing two enemies – the regime on the one hand and the extremist Islamists on the other hand. We can see this in certain areas such as in Idlib and in the Aleppo countryside, where people are fighting against [the militant group The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] ISIS, and at the same time the regime is killing them by dropping explosive barrels.
TDA is working on developing its vision within the current context, while keeping and maintaining its basic principles for rule of law, transitional justice, electoral system reform, constitutional reform and reform of the security sector and the economy. We take into consideration that the culprits in this conflict are not from only one party, and efforts to achieve a democratic transition will continue to become more complicated and more difficult.
RB: What is your impression of the state of Syrian civil society more broadly at this juncture, given the context you just described?
WS: The majority of civil society groups in Syria are paying attention to the changes I just mentioned. There are some civil society organizations that are politically affiliated and have a political agenda, but these are not the majority. The majority of them are approaching the situation in a rather neutral and professional way – trying to avoid having a political agenda or being constrained by any political group. They try to defend their independence and independent vision.
RB: Do you think this has anything to do with not knowing what the outcome will be?
WS: They have gained more experience and knowledge throughout the past three years. They have been exposed to others’ experiences, to training, and they met people from different regions of the world. All of this has helped in encouraging them to insist on their independence rather than being after anybody’s agenda.
RB: What role has civil society played in the Geneva process?
Civil society in Syria tried to play a bigger role in this Geneva process than they were allowed. We sent several messages through meetings and through the media in order to create a role for civil society in the Geneva process but received no positive reply. The regime did not want civil society to be there, the opposition did not want civil society to be there, and Americans and Russians did not want civil society to be there. From the beginning, they wanted only the two parties to sit at the table and talk to each other. So we suggested we participate as advisors or observers if necessary. There were a number of meetings with [United Nations envoy on Syria Lakhdar] Brahimi and his advisors in which we pushed for a bigger role for civil society, but we had the sense from the beginning that they did not want civil society to play much of a role.
I think this was a mistake. The fighting parties may be able to reach a peace agreement, but they cannot guarantee it will be sustained. Civil society is what guarantees the sustainability of any agreement. Civil society has been responding to Syrians’ needs and raising awareness about the situation in Syria from the beginning of the revolution. Civil society played a role in the media, conveying to the world what was happening in Syria; took photos and published them to the entire world; helped refugees and those displaced; defended human rights; documented violations against human rights and crimes against humanity, all while the regime was killing people and the opposition was fighting over political positions. In order to sustain any agreement from Geneva, the world needs civil society to be involved.
RB: What are groups doing to try to make their positions heard?
WS: I’m aware of several meetings held with Brahimi’s assistant in Geneva before meetings, including a couple days before the first meetings took place. In Istanbul, I attended a meeting a month before [the talks] with an agency of the U.N. In these meetings, we said overtly [that civil society wants] a role in Geneva, even if only as observers. But we should be there to play the role of the conscience for the two parties, to remind them you are talking about lives of people and an entire society. These comments were welcomed by the organizers of the meeting, and they promised it would be considered. But nothing came out of it.
Last week, TDA held a conference for the organizations that work on transitional justice, and for the first time – according to my knowledge – the [Syrian National] Coalition took part in the meeting. It was the first example of sitting together and seriously discussing collaboration between civil society and opposition.
RB: Are there things in particular that civil society organizations are missing or that others from the international community could be doing to help raise their profile?
WS: The biggest challenge among civil society organizations is lack of coordination. Each group is doing a great job with the capacity and resources they have. However, if you put the effort of two to three organizations together, it would not just be adding the sum of the parts, but multiplying them.
Imagine if we could create a channel of coordination among groups working inside Syria and in Turkey and Lebanon. So the best assistance that can be given to civil society in Syria is to support the efforts that try to coordinate and group civil society into bigger alliances.
The second kind of assistance is to help Syrian civil society occupy a certain place in the future of the Syrian people, which of course includes having a position in the Geneva process or any future negotiation on Syria. The negotiations are not only about the government but about the entire nation – and we as Syrian civil society demand we have a bigger role in that.
RB: Even with negotiations ongoing, there are analysts saying this war could go on for at least 10 years. What is your vision of the conflict and the potential for it to end?
WS: Nobody can afford a 10-year conflict. Neither the region, nor the international community, nor the United States, nor the Gulf countries, nor Israel can afford to pay the bill for that. I wasn’t in Geneva, but I was following closely and had friends who were there and a sense based on what I hear – there is an agreement that the price of letting things go for a longer time will be bigger than anybody would like to pay. My inclination is that there will and must be pressure on both parties to accept a compromise.
RB: You said it would be up to civil society to implement any agreement reached between the parties. How quickly do you expect civil society will be able to mobilize to support a resolution if one should be reached?
WS: I have no expectation that a single resolution will be reached soon, but instead, some resolution toward better understandings in certain areas. There are processes already underway in some areas which comprise a number of Sunni villages, for example, to create better understanding and encourage civil peace between populations. In al-Hasakah, for example, there is a group that is working toward co-existence of ethnic groups. In the western area of Homs, there is an initiative that comprises several Sunni and Alawite villages aimed at creating better understanding and coexistence between them.
In some of these areas, such initiatives are successful; in other areas, less so. In Aleppo, they have not been as successful. The problem civil society faces in many cases is the abundance of weapons inside Syria. When anybody has a weapon, and especially when it’s used, it will be difficult to give that up and for the person to return to being a normal civilian. If we don’t find a solution to this situation – to collect the weapons from the people and integrate the fighters back into society – we are going to have serious problems.
RB: Separate from civil society organizational needs and concerns, what would you say is the most pressing concern for Syrian civilians at this point?
WS: Survival. Food. Security. Work.
RB: All the more reason a resolution needs to be reached soon. Thank you for your time and thank you and The Day After Association for your important work in support of a democratic transition in Syria.