Political Development as a Response to the Conflict in Syria

Of the five aspects of development, projects in Syria lack focus on political development, favoring projects of a social, economic, cultural, or environmental nature. In Syria, the spread of selective economic and social services projects without any political development component hinders development work from supporting the resolution of the larger conflict in Syria and sub-conflicts. The absence of political development cannot be offset with a strong economy or social services.

Unfortunately, political development is not understood, because it is confused with other ideas such as political reform and democracy, and because of its relation to philosophical and ideological ideas such as equality. The dimensions of political development are summarized as follows: bureaucratization and specialization in the political structures, secularization of political culture, establishment of multi-party systems, achieving economic growth, electoral participation, and political competition, and strengthening the concepts of national allegiance, sovereignty, and equality.

In Syria, a country that has suffered under one-party rule for over forty years, any talk of development is illogical if it is not grounded in improving peoples’ lives and promoting their rights and freedoms. Development without these aspects is made to fit the interests of authorities, not the people. In some rural areas, under Bashar al-Assad, development did not even live up to the level of service. In these areas, people lacked the most basic necessities of life. The deep state controlled the lives of people every day, as seen in children reciting national mottos extolling Syria’s leader and vowing to combat enemies of the homeland, political detention, and the conversion of the country and its natural and human resources into a possession of the ruling class.After the start of the revolution in Syria in early 2011 and the boom of civil activity, a large portion of non-governmental organizations operating inside Syria and in neighboring countries classified their work as development activities. However, the organizations were unable to meet the demands placed on them as the war spread. By development, most of these organizations meant sustainable development projects, but also mixed this with the concept of service provision. Organizations did not mix service provision with development because of lack of knowledge, but rather because of the severe need that the war created and the impossibility of accomplishing true sustainable development while the conflict was raging.Current projects in Syria that try to effect political development include concerted organizational efforts to draw up plans for institution-building in a democratic Syria, transitional justice projects, and good governance programs. However, even these are often lacking. For instance, some organizations overlook the fact that democratic transition without a mechanism to hold responsible the perpetrators would only lead to further bloody reprisals.Rather than ignore political development during and after the conflict, we can look to other countries as examples, such as Colombia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Malawi. All are states that lived through conflicts, some that failed to achieve political and democratic development post-conflict, and others that succeeded. Rwanda, for example, is one of the models that can be utilized by the Syrians who believe in the importance and impact of political development. Rwanda witnessed a bloody civil war in the early nineties and a massacre in 1994, but registered as a global turning point in several concepts including intervention and humanitarian response, and was one of crises that lead to the Sphere Project, a set of humanitarian standards and adoption methods for clean water, nutrition, food aid, shelter and site planning, and health services. Its progress in democratic transition and reconciliation contributed to the improvement of the lives of Rwandans at all levels.The top priority of the interim government which was formed in Rwanda after the massacre was for the crime to never be repeated. On that basis, it opened doors for reconciliation by putting genocide leaders on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and outlawing ethnic designations. It also helped the country politically and economically, by providing free and compulsory education, and investing in the tourism and coffee industries. Rwanda adopted a pluralistic party system. Refugees were encouraged to return, resulting in about 1.2 out of 1.3 million returning to Rwanda. The elections in 2003 were the culmination of nine years of democratic transition. It advanced democracy in the country significantly by empowering political parties, civil society, and the private sector. Also, women in Rwanda occupied half of the seats in parliament and government.One main takeaway from these other countries is that development must include all five aspects. To do otherwise is to simply open the door for the return to a system of oppression that Syrians took to the streets against. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, in the book Development as Freedom, demonstrated that economic and social rights are inseparable from civil and political rights. Looking at the Middle East region, it is the citizens’ desire for political and economic advancement, and the absence thereof, that lead to people wanting to topple the regime and its apparatus, and ending the war without achieving these will likely lead to renewed fighting. Based on the experiences in other countries, Syria’s level of political development should be assessed both before 2011 and currently, to put together a plan for the future. Public participation in politics needs to be prioritized, including amending legal and constitutional articles that limit such participation. Political participation includes from those segments that are absent from political activity or have previously been denied rights. Syrian women should also be empowered to achieve an equitable partnership with men in the political sphere, which will guarantee their legal, social, and economic rights. Updating election laws and establishing mechanisms so they are transparent and giving youth a chance to participate will build public trust in the political system.

At the same time as these political changes are being implemented, safeguards can be put in place to prevent backsliding. These include documenting practices that aim to limit free political choice, raising awareness regarding the importance of active political participation of all citizens. And enforcing checks and balances, and accountability mechanisms over the authorities.

One of the first results of these proposals will be the improving how people view political parties, politicians, and party activists. Syrians’ current opinion of politics is understandably negative because of decades of living under a dictatorship and the current war.The goals of sustainable development are summarized to 17 goals, which the world leaders released in September 2015 to achieve sustainable development by 2030. The sixteenth goal is to promote just, peaceful, and inclusive societies.” This goal means that that stopping the continuous death that Syrians are suffering, and that the world is overlooking, is a priority for there to be any future Syria.

Sarah Sheikh Ali is the co-founder and director of Humena Organization for Human Rights and Development. She has worked in local and international organizations in Lebanon and Turkey for more than 8 years. She holds a Master’s degree in nongovernmental and international organizations, and a certificate in human rights from the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg.

Image: Photo: Delegates open the jobs and economic development pledging session at the Supporting Syria conference. Creative Commons, Adam Brown/Crown Copyright. February 4, 2016.