Civil Society

Dimension 7 of 17


We wanted to learn about civil society in Syria. We listened to a wide range of local, regional, and international actors influential in the life of Syria. We received a wide range of responses, for example: 

“There were no civil society organizations before the revolution. The Baath Party controlled every aspect of society. There were attempts to start organizations. Founders were followed and arrested. After the revolution, the people began to support them because they needed them. Now there are a lot of associations, but they are facades for foreign governments and other interests. They are more business organizations for personal gain, or to fund Islamist groups. The Muslim Brotherhood backs and is supported by Al-Watan, for example. Even the United Nations organizations are corrupt. Some are honest and hard working.” (231641)
“Prior to the civil war civic associations threatening the government were forbidden. Rule of law and freedom of the press didn't exist. None of the standards of a legitimate government did.” (239311)
“The participant wonders what an elite mosque looks like. It never was a healthy civil society. It was always government controlled. The war has destroyed a lot of normal civil society ties. Refugees reports that getting a child out is the best they could do.” (239312)

“The society is built on fear.” (230713)

 “There are a lot of civic groups doing fantastic work all over the country, but it's challenging to do that because of the degree of violence or repression where they work.” (233121)
“[Almost non-existent] for the whole country, including the Kurdish region. There is hardly any left, but what does exist is restricted or forbidden.” (231642)
“Government NGO's exist in the regime controlled areas. In opposition controlled areas there are over 800 civil society organizations since the war started. Some have very little capacity. Some have great resources. SAMS claims funding over $50 million annually.” (236592)
“There are civil society organizations in the opposition controlled areas.” (235931)

“There are no self-sustaining models which exist. Civic associations do exist however. The ones outside the regime have a more rights based approach and a voice impacting the country. The ones in the regime held areas don't have that ability. They do as they are told.” (233911)

“Groups like the White Helmets do humanitarian work, but definitively get outside funding to operate. There are some that aren't necessarily legal.” (238631)
“There are quite a lot of opposition areas and the areas freed from ISIL.” (232272)
“There are a lot of Syrian NGOs. There are too many INGOs in Syria implementing programs. The INGOs get most of the funding because they have access to money and greater capacity to deliver impact.” (238341)

“They are forming and improving, but they are still weak.” (232631)

Is civil society in Syria practically non-existent? Or is it forming and improving, but still weak?  Why does this matter in your choice of partners, the design of initiatives, and the implementation of those initiatives? Read more to find out. Scroll to the bottom of the page for more statements. 


INCA DIMENSION #7: SYRIAN CIVIL SOCIETY


7 Top.png

Syrian Civil Society is the 7th of 17 dimensions in Syrian society that influential local, regional, and international actors assessed and discussed through 3 rounds of interviews and feedback, beginning in January, 2016. Taken together, the 17 dimensions of the x-axis offer a comprehensive, holistic view of Syria and its people. Interview participants assessed the capacity of each dimension, represented by the y-axis; higher levels indicate greater capacity within that dimension for Syrians to respond effectively to existential global threats.

Civil Society is important because it reveals the capacity of the Syrian public to mobilize their resources to solve social problems and exert pressure on the government. Based on the 8-level hierarchy described in the question below, participants from 27 influential organizations assessed Syrian civil society at different levels at this time in history, ranging from 1 to 4. (At the bottom of this page, you can read statements interview participants gave to support their assessments.)


The Question

Civil society includes: independent civic associations, unions, professional associations, charities, non-profits, lobbying organizations, advocacy organizations, and think tanks. These organizations can be secular or religious. They can include “public-private partnerships,” in which some government funding is combined with private donations. Which of these levels of development is the dominant mode of this country? (If two seem equal, name the lower level.)

1.     Civic associations are almost non-existent.

2.     Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are forbidden.

3.     Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are mostly tolerated.

4.     Civic associations exist, but outside NGOs and outside funding are essential supports.

5.     There are many independent civic associations, with freedom to operate, but weak capacity. Outside NGOs and funding are supplemental, not primary supports.

6.     There are many civic associations, with freedom to operate and strong capacity.

7.     There are many civic associations and non-profits from this country that are active in a few other countries.

8.    There are many civic associations and non-profits from this country that are active globally.

 


READ CLOSELY, IMAGINE, LEARN

Read each statement below closely. Assume the person who wrote this is sincere; they believe every word. Imagine what life experience or background might lead a person to have this belief. Whether true or false, this person’s perception is a fact. To move forward on an initiative involving Syrian civil society, the reality of each perspective might need to be accounted for.

This Prime Actor participant sees Syrian civil society as centered at Level 1, all but non-existent:

“There were no civil society organizations before the revolution. The Baath Party controlled every aspect of society. There were attempts to start organizations. Founders were followed and arrested. After the revolution, the people began to support them because they needed them. Now there are a lot of associations, but they are facades for foreign governments and other interests. They are more business organizations for personal gain, or to fund Islamist groups. The Muslim Brotherhood backs and is supported by Al-Watan, for example. Even the United Nations organizations are corrupt. Some are honest and hard working.” (231641)

A different Prime Actor participant sees Syrian civil society as centered at Level 4, Syrian NGOs exist, supported by outside INGOs and outside funding: 

“There are a lot of Syrian NGOs. There are too many INGOs in Syria implementing programs. The INGOs get most of the funding because they have access to money and greater capacity to deliver impact.” (238341)

When you can imagine how other Prime Actors could hold each of these perceptions, you will be better positioned to partner, plan, and implement initiatives in Syria.


DEVELOPMENT IN SYRIA



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WORK WITHIN SYRIA’S CIVIL SOCIETY

The thick brown line represents the lack of civil society organizations

The thick brown line represents the most conservative assessment of Syria’s civil society, a lack of organized civic associations.  Any organization operating in Syria or with refugee Syrians would be best served by not counting on the presence of any kind of effective civil society organizations.


STRENGTHEN SYRIAN CIVIL SOCIETY ONE STEP AT A TIME

Aim just right: government-approved civic associations in Syria or in refugee communities

The green area of the chart, from levels 1 to 2, indicates which kinds of projects to strengthen Syrian civil society will be most likely to succeed, in and outside of the country.

  • In government-controlled territory, civil society associations approved by the government are the only efforts likely to succeed. The United Nations relief mission came to this conclusion when they agreed with the Assad government's conditions for providing aid, which only flows where the Assad government wants it to.
  • A similar approach would be necessary in territory controlled by ISIL. 
  • Outside of Syrian government- or ISIL-controlled territory, in refugee communities or camps, constraints will be much lighter, and support much greater. In these communities and camps, many kinds of civic associations will thrive.   

If you aim too high: destructive overreach

Projects and agreements in the red area of the chart are overly ambitious and, at best, will be a waste of time. More likely, they will drive confusion and corruption into the country. An example is of initiatives intended to rally existing civic associations to demand acceptance by an intolerant regime (level 3).

If implemented in parts of Syria controlled by the Assad government or ISIL, this attempted leap from a virtually non-existent civil society (level 1) to one in which civil associations gain acceptance from the Assad regime or ISIL leaders (level 3) would be too much to do at once! Without first establishing civic associations fully approved of by the regime (level 2), it will be too difficult for activists to simultaneously learn how to form civic associations while fending off the disapproval of the government or the leadership of ISIL.  Efforts to do so are doomed to failure.

Civil society in post-invasion Iraqi society was at a similarly low level in the spring of 2003. The United States, however, failed to recognize just how weak Iraqi civil society was and instead enacted many programs based on the faulty assumption that there existed many independent civic associations that would be capable of reconstructing the country if only they received a bit of financial help from the United States (level 4). Instead, inappropriate practices and projects drove confusion and corruption into Iraqi society with disastrous results.

The most blatant overestimation of Iraq’s civil society was the process of de-Baathification undertaken by the US-backed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). In its very first order, the CPA disbanded the ruling Ba’ath Party, firing all party members in the top three tiers of all government institutions and permanently banning anyone in the top four ranks of the party from ever holding public office. CPA Order #1, which affected roughly two million people in a country of twenty-five million, was issued under the assumption that leaders from civil society would step forward to fill the ranks of the new government, and that the level of governmental, political, and social organization previously provided by the Ba’ath Party could be easily replicated by simply funding other civic associations until they were able to operate without foreign support (a level 5 goal). As our INCA platform reveals, however, this assumption was misguided and led to program overreach. The Ba’ath Party proved to have been the only truly powerful civic association in Iraq, and none of the organizations propped up by the United States was able to fill the organizational void left by its dissolution. Rather than replacing the Ba’ath Party with alternative civil society organizations, which was the intent behind the project, CPA Order #1 created a huge organizational power vacuum. This vacuum, still unfilled in 2017, created an opening for the Iraqi insurgency campaign, al-Qaeda Iraq, and ISIL.  

Background Reading

For more information on INCA for Iraq, read our retroactive case study here: http://sovereigntyfirst.com/iraq/report


Round 3 Statements (Nov 2016 - Jul 2017)

Note: These statements were given by participants as rationale for their decision to gauge Syrian capacity at their stated level. 

The Range

Lowest Score:1

Highest Score: 4

1. Civic associations are almost non-existent

“There were no civil society organizations before the revolution. The Baath Party controlled every aspect of society. There were attempts to start organizations. Founders were followed and arrested. After the revolution, the people began to support them because they needed them. Now there are a lot of associations, but they are facades for foreign governments and other interests. They are more business organizations for personal gain, or to fund Islamist groups. The Muslim Brotherhood backs and is supported by Al-Watan, for example. Even the United Nations organizations are corrupt. Some are honest and hard working.” (231641)
“Prior to the civil war civic associations threatening the government were forbidden. Rule of law and freedom of the press didn't exist. None of the standards of a legitimate government did.” (239311)
“The participant wonders what an elite mosque looks like. It never was a healthy civil society. It was always government controlled. The war has destroyed a lot of normal civil society ties. Refugees reports that getting a child out is the best they could do.” (239312)

2. Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are forbidden

“The society is built on fear.” (230713)
 “There are a lot of civic groups doing fantastic work all over the country, but it's challenging to do that because of the degree of violence or repression where they work.” (233121)
“True for the whole country, including the Kurdish region. There is hardly any left, but what does exist is restricted or forbidden.” (231642)
“Government NGO's exist in the regime controlled areas. In opposition controlled areas there are over 800 civil society organizations since the war started. Some have very little capacity. Some have great resources. SAMS claims funding over $50 million annually.” (236592)
“There are civil society organizations in the opposition controlled areas.” (235931)

3. Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are mostly tolerated.

No Statement 

4. Civic associations exist, but outside NGOs and outside funding are essential supports.

“There are no self-sustaining models which exist. Civic associations do exist however. The ones outside the regime have a more rights based approach and a voice impacting the country. The ones in the regime held areas don't have that ability. They do as they are told.” (233911)
“Groups like the White Helmets do humanitarian work, but definitively get outside funding to operate. There are some that aren't necessarily legal.” (238631)
“There are quite a lot of opposition areas and the areas freed from ISIL.” (232272)
“There are a lot of Syrian NGOs. There are too many INGOs in Syria implementing programs. The INGOs get most of the funding because they have access to money and greater capacity to deliver impact.” (238341)

8. There are many civic associations and nonprofits from this country that are active globally.

“They are forming and improving, but they are still weak.” (232631)


Round 2 Statements (Aug 2016 - Oct 2016)

Note: These statements were given by participants as rationale for their decision to gauge Syrian capacity at their stated level. 

The Range 

Lowest Score: 1

Highest Score: 8

1. Civic associations are almost non-existent.

"Civil associations are non-existent in Syria. The ones that exist are completely controlled by the Secret Police of the regime. Unions are controlled by the regime. There are over 900 organizations founded for and by Syrians outside the country. The Assad regime created civic associations, even in Turkey, that have humanitarian fronts, but are regime controlled." (221641)
"There is a lot of grassroots activity with rescuers and people trying to organize themselves in a society that used to be well educated. People are prepared to take on these roles." (222272)

2. Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are forbidden.

"Before the revolution the civil society was controlled by the Baath Party. It's why they (civil society) didn't have any influence. There are many groups of civil society in Syria. In government regions civic organizations are controlled by the regime. The Kurdish regions have had a growth in society. The government regions are very controlled." (223881)
"By government we mean Assad." (225662)
"Civic associations only exist as allies of the government and its intelligence agency." (229051)

3. Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are mostly tolerated.

No Statement

4. Civic associations exist, but outside NGOs and outside funding are essential supports.

No Statement 

5. There are many independent civic associations, with freedom to operate, but weak capacity. Outside NGOs and funding are supplemental, not primary supports.

No Statement 

6. There are many civic associations, with freedom to operate and strong capacity.

No Statement

7. There are many civic associations and nonprofits that are active in a few other countries.

No Statement 

8. There are many civic associations and nonprofits that are active globally.

"There are charity organizations in the freed regions. The organizations in the government regions are controlled by the government. They exist to fund the government. Recently The Guardian posted an article regarding the scandal of misappropriated aid money." (222172)


Round 1 Statements (Jan 2016 - May 2016)

Note: These statements were given by participants as rationale for their decision to gauge Syrian capacity at the level they did for this dimension. 

The Range

Lowest Score: 1

Highest Score: 5

1. Civic associations are almost non-existent.

"Civic associations are almost non-existent." (2187522)

2. Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are forbidden.

No Statements

3. Civic associations that threaten governmental or economic interests are mostly tolerated.

No Statements

4. Civic associations exist, but outside NGOs and outside funding are essential supports.

No Statements

5. There are many independent civic associations, with freedom to operate, but weak capacity. Outside NGOs and funding are supplemental, not primary supports.

No Statements