Civil Society and the Future of Syria

No one can look at the horrors consuming Syria today without being tempted to think that the country is finished. Some who yield to this temptation try to shoehorn their feelings into a specific historical context, often portraying Sykes-Picot as an original sin requiring expiation in the form of new national boundaries. Others tend to project current conditions indefinitely into the future, seeing Syria as a sort of Somalia or South Sudan, but stripped of anything that might be construed as positive or hopeful. Few will resist the “Syria is finished” temptation and see the possibility of a united, functioning republic featuring citizenship, consent of the governed, rule of law, pluralistic inclusivity, and, above all, political legitimacy. Although nothing remotely this positive will happen in the absence of monumental effort, to dismiss it as a valid objective is to mandate the inevitability of something far worse.

The essence of the Syrian revolution to date is the growth of civil society—non-governmental organizations and initiatives addressing public needs and interests—under the most difficult of circumstances. There is nothing revolutionary in Syria about terror and torture as political tools. There is nothing revolutionary about political actors using sect or ethnicity to mobilize populations for destructive, self-serving ends. Indeed, struggling to end corrupt, incompetent, violent, and dynastic rule by clan is not, in and of itself, revolutionary. Syrians coming together voluntarily in associations to further the common good—although not totally unprecedented in modern Syria—is revolutionary. And it rightly registers alarm in the ranks of Assad regime insiders and the pseudo-caliphate of the so-called Islamic State.

Just as top-down authoritarian rule cannot exist side-by-side with civil society, a top-down negotiated political arrangement that fails to take into account, respect, and support civil society activism bubbling up from below cannot provide for a sustained political transition. Syria’s revolution is not just about cashiering the Assads and Makhlufs. Rather it is a struggle for self-determination and self-rule in the truest meanings of those expressions. To the extent this struggle succeeds, anyone rolling into Damascus to replace the criminal cabal now holding sway will find that the days of issuing decrees and easily enforcing them with lawless, unaccountable functionaries, are over. Syrians—even those still living in regime-controlled areas and still feeling a sense of fealty to it due to fear of the alternative—are no longer content to be subjects instead of citizens. It is an all-pervading sense of hopelessness with nothing of any political salience residing in one’s own hands that is prompting Syrians of all political persuasions to vote with their feet by walking across Europe.

It is all too easy to discount and even ignore Syria’s struggling, nascent civil society given the spectacularly negative images broadcast by the horrific conflict. It is not easy to pay attention to a young woman attorney trying to organize Syria’s lawyers as barrel bombs fall, hostages get beheaded, and the country empties itself of terrified, desperate people. It is easy to become persuaded that others trying to educate an otherwise lost generation are spitting into the wind, or that dedicated people providing the kindling for independent media are engaged in a fool’s errand. Can’t they see how hopeless it is? What is it about the death of Syria they fail to grasp? What is it they perceive that is not consistent with the received wisdom of Washington, DC in its many manifestations?

We in the West often complain that our “friends” in complex conflicts abroad are not as dedicated and single-minded as our adversaries. To put it in a very crude Syrian context, why is it someone in the employ of the Islamic State or the Nusra Front will blow himself up for a transcendent cause while a newly American-trained rebel will trade in his weapon, ammunition, and gear for safe-passage through a zone controlled by bad guys? In the case of the rebel, perhaps the fact that he was trained by foreigners to accomplish a foreign mission contributed to the kicking-in of his self-preservation instinct. In the case of suicide bombers, perhaps they actually believed in what they were doing.

None of this is to suggest the absence of Syrian nationalist rebels willing to fight and die to resist and overcome the depredations of the Assad regime. They have received precious little in the way of materiel support from a West whose priorities are elsewhere. And regional powers opposing Assad have all-too-often vectored their military support in the direction of groups whose sectarian agendas and pronouncements have aided the regime by scaring its captive populace.

The point, however, is that the kind of leadership, dedication, selflessness, and courage we bemoan as often lacking in our “friends” is to be found right under our noses: within the ranks of those leading Syria’s real revolution. The fact that we opt not to try to protect the civilian populations in which they circulate and work may take a toll on their effectiveness and indeed their survivability. Yet there should be no doubt that those in the West who exalt the values of civil society while bemoaning the alleged absence of people willing to sacrifice and die for those values either do not wish to look or know not where to look in the Syrian context.

There are, to be sure, Syrian civil society assistance programs managed by various agencies of Western governments. No doubt some do real good. No doubt some are of marginal or no value. What is not clear is the extent to which assistance agencies and their political masters understand and appreciate the importance of the undertaking. This is not the checking of a box to produce press conference talking points. Rather it is very much about the future of a country which, if truly “finished,” will visit catastrophes on its neighbors and others—perhaps even the United States—for as far as the eye can see.

Syria’s civil society activists will try to continue their work whether or not the West opts to protect the civilian communities in which they operate. If the choice in the West remains one of decrying the violence, writing checks for refugees, and doing a desultory anti-Islamic State air campaign, two results will emerge. The “Syria is finished” thesis will be self-fulfilling and the self-sacrificing “friends” whose alleged absence the West customarily bemoans will—finding themselves utterly alone and at risk of extinction in their struggle for self-determination and self-rule—provide a lesson for all the world to ponder about the meaning of “friends” in Western political lexicons.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: (Photo: Flickr/Ramu Pradip)