The 2011 uprising against the Syrian regime and the country’s descent into a civil war led to a relatively unknown phenomenon in Syria. Following nearly half a century of authoritarian rule by the Assad family and a multitude of secret services, numerous Syrian political, military, and civil actors were given the space to challenge the state.
In light of this, Syrian civil society groups took on a major role in changing the status quo. By advocating a different vision for Syria and eventually assuming duties in opposition-held territories usually reserved for the state, such as service provision, they were able to present themselves as independent alternatives to the rule Syria had experienced under the Baath Party.
However, as the conflict forced the opposition to seek outside support against the Assad regime and to sustain rebel-held territories, it was gradually co-opted by regional and international actors. This occurred first on the military and political sides of the opposition while civil society activists remained independent the longest. However, as these activists gradually became service providers through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) financed by foreign countries, they became implementers of those countries’ agendas and lost their agency. As a result, civil society is in a much weaker state than during the early period of the uprising and, importantly, is no longer seen by many as an embodiment of a unified Syrian national identity.
The Internationalization of the Military and Political Opposition
Social movements demanding civil liberties emerged as the vanguard of the uprising in March 2011. Given how strongly oppressed civil society was before 2011, it was not surprising that numerous groups and activists found in the uprising a chance to exercise their long-awaited right to shape Syria’s future. However, the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on protests during 2011 led to the transformation of a mostly peaceful opposition movement into an armed one. As the uprising descended into war, efforts by civil society groups took a back seat to the political and military facets of the opposition’s campaign, which rapidly fell under foreign influence.
Hundreds of networks, associations, and organizations, some with loose structures, appeared across Syria during the initial phase of the uprising. While some were led by veteran dissident activists, the majority were established by young activists who did not possess any previous associational or organizational experience. Early on, the groups mainly focused on organizing the protest movement and trying to draw international attention to what was happening inside Syria.
Hundreds of networks, associations, and organizations, some with loose structures, appeared across Syria during the initial phase of the uprising. While some were led by veteran dissident activists, the majority were established by young activists who did not possess any previous associational or organizational experience.
As the contentious movement solidified during the first four months of the uprising, it manifested itself more and more through three main groupings: the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), led by Razan Zaitouneh and Mazen Darwish; the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), led by Suhair Atassi and Nidal Darwish; and the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution (SCSR), led by Imaddedine Rashid and Wassel al-Shimali. Members of these three groups either joined or indirectly supported the first unifying structure of the Syrian opposition: the now-defunct Syrian National Council (SNC).
The cases of the SRGC and SCSR demonstrate the short-lived independence of the armed opposition in Syria. In 2012, the SRGC supported the first armed opposition group in Syria, the Farouq Brigade, which mainly operated in the city of Homs and its suburbs. The SRGC then threw its support behind other local, armed factions, which in the early stages of the conflict aimed to protect areas affiliated with the opposition against the Syrian military. For its part, the SCSR relied mainly on Syrian army defectors to establish military councils across Syria, with Muti al-Butain coordinating the SCSR’s military efforts. Among the most prominent of these were the Daraa Governorate Military Council and the Damascus Governorate Military Council.
Both the SRGC and SCSR realized in 2012 that they needed foreign sponsors to continue their military efforts.1 Ammunition was running low, weapons were increasingly deficient or malfunctioning, medical bills started increasing, and cash donations from local communities were not enough to finance military purchases. In November 2012, the SRGC’s military coordinator Nidal Darwish moved to Doha to represent the SRGC in the formation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and to solicit Qatari support for the Farouq Brigade and other local factions operating in Idlib and Hama Governorates. Due to its connections with former Syrian army personnel who defected with their weapons and ammunition, the SCSR was in a slightly better position to handle the shortages. Butain had joined the SNC in December 2011 and became a member of the group’s Executive Office. However, by 2013 the SCSR was also struggling to raise enough funds via the SNC to sustain its military activities. This led it to contact foreign sponsors—mainly Salafi networks in the Gulf—to fill the funding gap.
Meanwhile, the international community backing the opposition—most notably the United States, France, Turkey, and Gulf countries—tried to organize military support for the rebels, particularly after their takeover of half of the city of Aleppo in July 2012. Two main operations rooms were established to coordinate military efforts: the Müsterek Operasyon Merkezi, or joint operations center, based in Turkey, was responsible for northern Syria while the Military Operations Center, based in Jordan, handled southern Syria. The Daraa Military Council would go on to form a component of the Southern Front, an alliance of rebel groups operating in Daraa, Suweida, and Quneitra Governorates.
Despite backing from Western countries, the trend of the armed opposition groups toward adopting Islamist ideologies became increasingly visible. As they competed for funding, brigades rebranded themselves with Islamic references more ideologically in line with sponsors from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This empowered more militant Islamist factions in the opposition at the expense of their less dogmatic counterparts. As a case in point, the Damascus Governorate Military Council was slowly absorbed over time by predominantly Islamist groups operating around the capital such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham.
The political wing of the opposition movement resisted aligning directly with international backers a bit longer than the military opposition—mainly due to its diversified source of funds and smaller overall budget—but it too eventually became influenced by foreign powers. The SNC, the initial torchbearer for the opposition, began to lose influence with the international community after adopting maximalist positions and rejecting the June 2012 Geneva 1 Communique, the result of a UN-backed conference that advocated for the formation of a transitional government in Syria. This led to a decrease in funding from key opposition backers Saudi Arabia and the UAE.2 The SNC was later eclipsed by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which subsequently became known as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC).
It soon became evident that the SOC was also subject to international backing and influence. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, most Gulf countries, and dozens of other countries recognized the SOC as the sole and legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012 at the fourth Friends of the Syrian People conference in Marrakesh, and some provided SOC representative offices with foreign mission status. Although the diversity of the SOC’s membership ensured some form of independence earlier on, the coalition soon became factionalized, with various members affiliated with different countries supporting the political opposition. These factions became representatives of these backers’ diverging interests and agendas. At SOC general assemblies, international envoys would consult with their proxies on the sidelines and use them to affect the outcomes of the meetings. Major decisions within the SOC, such as whether to attend or boycott negotiations, were conceded to foreign powers.
The international dimension within the Syrian political opposition was further enshrined in the Riyadh 1 (December 2015) and Riyadh 2 (November 2017) conferences. These gatherings sought to unify the Syrian opposition and increase its inclusivity by adding independents and representatives from armed groups and disparate opposition platforms to the SOC. Riyadh 1 also saw the formation of the Higher Negotiation Committee, which was intended to serve as the principal negotiator with the Syrian regime during peace talks. However, the decision to bring in opposition groups based in Cairo and Moscow—both created to represent the agendas of their respective backers—served to dilute Syrian agency and independence further.
Global and regional powers would become the ultimate decisionmakers in Syria at the expense of the Syrian opposition. The conflict had drawn interventions from many countries and non-state actors in terms of funding and material support on both the government and opposition side. However, it was Russia’s military intervention in the country on behalf of the Assad regime in September 2015 that enshrined this trend. As Moscow assumed a primary decisionmaking role on the government side, rival powers began to negotiate on behalf of the Syrian opposition. The culmination of this international co-optation of the opposition was seen at the Astana (January 2017) and Sochi (February 2018) conferences where Turkey, Iran, and Russia became guarantors of local “ceasefires.” These countries, with the help of the UN, also nominated or vetoed members for the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which was formed in September 2019 and included representatives of both the opposition and the Syrian government.
From Activism and Community Mobilization to NGOs
During the uprising, civil society initially focused on promoting civil and human rights in opposition-held areas as well as stepping in for the absent Syrian government to ensure proper service delivery. However, as events evolved into a mainly military contest, the LCCs avoided entering the fray of armed conflict and high-level opposition politics, in contrast to the SRGC and the SCSR. Thus, civil society initially demonstrated more resilience to outside intervention and influence. However, its independence gradually was put into doubt as activists and networks became service providers through NGOs financed by outside countries. This reliance eventually led them to become implementers of their funders’ agendas.
Early in the conflict, as Syria fragmented into government- and rebel-held territories, Syrian civil society undertook initiatives aimed at promoting human rights and social justice. These ranged from documenting human rights violations to running workshops on and spreading the ideals of peacebuilding and transitional justice. Syrian human rights organizations—such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center, and the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center—would later partner with the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria in an effort to reveal violations committed during the conflict and hold the perpetrators to account. Meanwhile, the work of organizations focusing on female empowerment led to women’s centers multiplying across Syria. These allowed for women to be better informed, provisioned, and engaged in society. Some women from these centers eventually took public roles in different forms of local governance. For example, the head of the women’s center in Hass, Idlib Governorate, became a member of the town’s local council.
Civil society organizations also worked with local administrative councils and other quasi-governmental structures to provide educational, health, and other public services. By promoting resilience within the population, the LCCs became key players in early stabilization and recovery projects. Until mid-2012, the LCCs were either self-funded or sponsored financially by private citizens in Syria. Other fundraising avenues for these relief efforts included local Islamic charities, which would collect money at mosques during Friday prayers.
The seeds of civil society’s co-option by international actors came as international donor money started flowing to relief efforts in conjunction with external support for the opposition military effort. In summer 2012, the Qatari government raised $350 million domestically for itsWe Are All Syria (Kuluna al-Sham) campaign. The SRGC, SCSR, and LCCs all tried to get a slice of the cake, though the latter backed off at the last minute to avoid politicizing aid. During this period, the SRGC and the Syrian Forum, a fund formed in support of the uprising by Syrian businessmen, led by Mustafa Sabbagh, became local implementers of the distribution of Qatari aid inside Syria.
Meanwhile, the militarization of the uprising in 2012 added urgency to relief and humanitarian issues and challenged civil society’s foundational mission of promoting justice and freedom. As Syria’s military opposition grew more fragmented, chaotic, and overtaken by extremism, civil society found it difficult to continue working on a vision of promoting a future inclusive democratic state. In response to the shrinking space for public advocacy, as well as the increasingly dire humanitarian situation, the LCCs increasingly focused their efforts on nonpolitical service provision.
The trend of activists forming or joining NGOs was reinforced by the international donor community. As countries increasingly failed to provide the promised institutional support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, many governments decided instead to focus on humanitarian relief. Often, countries looked for local implementation partners and found them in civil society initiatives and organizations. As useful as these efforts had doubtlessly been for many areas during some of the most difficult phases of the conflict, they served to reinforce the charitable and humanitarian orientation of civil society organizations away from their initial role as community mobilizers and leaders of the opposition movement.
As countries increasingly failed to provide the promised institutional support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, many governments decided instead to focus on humanitarian relief.
Local Syrian NGOs became public service providers for nearly everything the government had provided in the prewar period. This included health, education, and food distribution, as well as water, sanitation, hygiene, and shelter for the displaced. Medical NGOs such as the Syrian American Medical Society and the French Union des Organisations de Secours et Soins Médicaux established and ran hospitals and regulated the health system. Other NGOs such as the U.S.-based Big Heart Foundation or the Qatari-backed Ihsan for Relief and Development—part of the Syrian Forum—sought to ensure food security by building and operating bakeries. A sprawling support structure for Syrian and international NGOs developed in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to support operations. These organizations also became the main employers in areas outside the control of the regime and were thus direct contributors to sustaining local livelihoods.3
The reliance of Syrian NGOs on foreign donors to finance operations gave outside countries increased influence over the policies adopted. Role confusion and the eagerness of local service providers did not allow for local councils to fully impose their authority over governance. This represented a challenge to the power and legitimacy of local political and military authorities and led to conflict between them and NGOs. Indeed, NGOs were almost always better funded and more stable than local councils. Moreover, as direct recipients and distributors of aid, NGOs became power players at the local level. In the education sector, for example, donors dealt directly with community-based organizations managing schools, which eroded the legitimacy of education directorates formed by opposition authorities and limited their ability to impose educational standards and regulations.
Given the lack of access on the ground for international organizations, Syrian NGOs became conduits for competing local agendas. The formation of aid mafias that benefited from the flow of humanitarian aid funds served to alienate certain local communities. Community aid provision became increasingly linked to perceived loyalty to the agendas of these aid mafias, which were mainly formed by influential local families and variously driven by ideology, politics, or greed. For instance, groups mainly funded by Gulf countries or foundations had a more Islamist agenda, whereas NGOs primarily funded by Western countries or foundations had a more secular mission. Gulf-backed organizations began to include material on Islamic teachings and references as part of food baskets while groups with more secular agendas generally spread their ideals through indirect communication campaigns such as graffiti work. Thus, Syrian NGOs underwent clear and undeniable politicization stemming from the source and agendas attached to their funding.
Civil society’s primary role should be advocating for and upholding the highest adherence to human rights. This mission is particularly important during conflict, as commitment to these ideals can help to prevent a complete disintegration of the social fabric. In the Syrian context, however, the shift of focus toward humanitarian aid and service delivery led to the erosion of civil society’s ability to pursue long-term impact in local communities. This is perhaps unsurprising given the difficulty in mobilizing people on issues such as democracy, good governance, and human rights while they lack basic necessities such as water, food, shelter, and security. Financial support for such efforts also dwindled as armed groups in large swathes of Syrian territory became more radicalized.
As activists became NGO employees, they became less visible and outspoken, and thus communities lost their reference points within the civil society movement. The rise of new leaders within civil society was negatively impacted by a lack of mentors, who either are no longer present in the country or have been lured to the more lucrative NGO business. Donor agendas have also served to entrench sectarian and ethnic divisions while the politicization of aid has contributed to the emergence of local grievances and enshrined a culture of dependency. Meanwhile, civil society’s previous ability to build bridges and linkages across communities has dissipated in tandem with Syrian agency.
As the Assad regime consolidates its power and territorial control, it is likely that Syrian civil society will continue to wane in influence. This trend can only be reversed by a concerted, sustained, and institutionalized effort at the grassroots level to redefine civil society and refocus its role on Syrian-led priorities.
About the Author
Assaad Al Achi is a Syrian economist and civil society activist. He currently serves as the executive director of Baytna Syria, a Syrian civil society support organization.
1 Author discussions with SCSR leader Wassel al-Shimali, Doha, July 2012.
2 Author observation while serving as the chief accountant for the Syrian National Council, December 2011–October 2012.
3 Author interview with a civil society field officer, Idlib Governorate, via Skype, August 2019.