Syria’s democratic opposition is despondent.
Established in November 2012, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition), an umbrella organization for various Syrian opposition groups, has been unable to unite people inside the country behind a common vision for Syria’s future. Thanks to internal divisions, questionable loyalties, and a divided international community, the coalition is currently left without a direction.
Despite this disunity at the national level, there are legions of local leaders—democratic activists, judges, lawyers, doctors, and others groups—who are attempting to fill the void. Democracy-building efforts by these peaceful activists are, however, being stymied by a lack of international support.
To date, aid for the Syrian opposition from the United States, Europe and the Gulf has primarily been offered to the Syrian National Coalition, and not to Syria’s local leaders. As a result, these individuals and groups have made do with limited financial resources – typically acquired from wealthy Syrian benefactors, private donors, or their own pockets.
As with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, those Syrian who helped launch the revolution have had their hopes dashed by a combination of cynical international inaction and meddling by self-interested power brokers. If more resources were provided to these moderate, pro-democratic leaders, their ability to build a Syrian state based on inclusion and tolerance would be greatly enhanced.
Western countries that support Syria’s opposition must broaden their reach to include these indigenous democratic actors, ranging from local citizen councils to humanitarian organizations and civil society groups, notwithstanding their affiliation with the Syrian National Coalition.
Having regularly traveled to southern Turkey, I have come to understand some of the needs and desires of the indigenous, pro-democracy activists who helped start Syria’s revolution. Among their ranks are members of local and provincial-level councils that have been established to run liberated cities and villages, human rights and documentation organizations, media groups broadcasting the story of the revolution, humanitarian and relief organizations providing aid to millions, and emerging political parties and civil society organizations.
These groups and their members have needs ranging from food aid to technical training to assistance with building an accountable and democratic Syria. In the country’s hyper-politicized environment, humanitarian aid and medical relief have, however, often become chips in a game for greater political legitimacy inside the country. As a result, some pro-democracy activists – a group we can call the “moderate middle” – have chosen to be more selective in the assistance they accept.
It is this cohort, which understands that decisions made in the fog of war will impact Syria’s post-conflict future, that should be the principal focus of Western humanitarian support. To spare these actors the pain of choosing between their democratic principles and their communities’ future survival, Western help is imperative.
This assistance could come in a variety of forms, including: humanitarian, medical, and food aid from Western countries, as safety precautions inside Syria permit; technical support for civil society and political organizations to help disseminate their message about the country’s democratic future; and financial and technical assistance to help organizations educate Syrians on their rights and responsibilities as equal citizens.
While some have chosen to abstain from foreign funding, there is a large community of pro-democracy activists who view the West, especially the United States, as an ally. These activists are willing to accept funding and support from Western countries as long as there are few ideological strings attached. This support would allow them to design and implement their own programs for the benefit of Syria instead of for self-interested regional power brokers.
Syria’s Emerging Political Actors
Because of the power vacuum created by the revolution, the political playing field inside Syria is a blank slate. It is rapidly being overtaken, however, by a number of well-funded, organized, and undemocratic forces, including those affiliated with the Salafist movement.
Unfortunately, as a result of these and other factors—including the atomization of Syrian society—there is a lack of popular confidence in many newly emergent political and civic organizations in the country.
This is not surprising given the Assad regime’s success in undermining the value of collective action within Syrian society. A Syrian friend recently described to me how the Assad regime would use schools and children to implicate family members in anti-regime activities. It may be difficult to imagine, but some school officials would resort to physical force to extract information about a student’s family background. As a result, children were taught at a very young age not to share information about their families in case a teacher or headmaster was secretly working for the intelligence service.
This in-born suspicion about government collaboration also permeated popular feelings about collective action. Supporting those actors working to resurrect popular faith in group collaboration and civic participation is critical since these efforts constitute the building block of a post-Assad Syria.
So far, Western countries have failed to deliver this brand of assistance. This has been especially true for the local and provincial-level councils, which exist in every governorate and most villages and towns throughout Syria.
The activities of these councils vary, as does their degree of legitimacy and autonomy vis-à-vis the rebel fighters in the area. A few councils are led by individuals with authority over both civilian and military elements within their village or town and are able to provide public services in a coordinated fashion. Many other civilian councils are free to provide services within limits established by more powerful local militias. Most council’s deliver humanitarian assistance and provide or coordinate medical aid. Some have established police forces, restored electricity and water, and developed garbage collection systems.
Some local councils have joined together under provincial-level bodies to better coordinate services within their governorate. In March 2013, local councilors from towns and villages in the Aleppo governorate selected a 29-member provincial council from among a roster of community leaders and other important figures in the area. Due to security concerns, voting took place in Gaziantep, Turkey. The council now coordinates services among different areas in Aleppo and provides provincial-level administration to one of Syria’s largest cities.
In addition to the work done by local and provincial councils, civil society organizations have fought to educate local populations about the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship. I have worked with civil society organizations based in nearly every province of Syria operating under the worst conditions imaginable. Among other activities, they lead protests throughout the country, even as war rages around them; bravely discuss themes of democracy and accountability in heated conversations with armed rebel fighters; and host gatherings of women to discuss their inclusion in a future Syrian state. The risk in pursuing these activities is great – at least two people I know personally have been arrested, while two others have been killed.
Countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain must familiarize themselves with and support these local actors. They are readily accessible both inside Syria and in nearby Turkey and are best able to address the needs of civilians inside the country.
Every uprising is unique, and scenes of horrific violence and unspeakable atrocities have made Syria’s transition all the more difficult. As those inside and outside Syria search for a path forward, the world must not forget the many Syrian citizens yearning for support to build their own bright, shining democratic future.