Syrian civil society and politics: questions behind “MadaniyaConf2023”

Yasmine Mashaan, a founding member of the Caesar Families Association, holds pictures of her brothers who were killed under torture in the prisons of the Syrian regime (The Syria Campaign)

Syrian civil society and politics: questions behind “MadaniyaConf2023”

Yasmine Mashaan, a founding member of the Caesar Families Association, holds pictures of her brothers who were killed under torture in the prisons of the Syrian regime (The Syria Campaign)

Yasmine Mashaan, a founding member of the Caesar Families Association, holds pictures of her brothers who were killed under torture in the prisons of the Syrian regime (The Syria Campaign)


Yamen Moghrabi | Muhammed Fansa | Sakina Mahdi

The heritage of Syrian civil society goes back more than 100 years, and during this long period of time, the civil organizations witnessed fluctuations and stages of ups and downs due to their influence on society or the ruling authority, depending on the political circumstances, margin of freedoms and the ability to practice civil activities without fetters.

As far as the policy of restricting and suffocating the work of these organizations by the security services since the Arab Socialist Baath Party came to power in 1963, the conditions that Syria experienced after the start of its revolution in 2011 necessitated the presence of dozens of organizations on the scene within the relief, medical, service and human rights sectors.

The activity of civil society organizations was not easy, given that they were forced to work in areas under the control of the de facto authorities to find themselves once again facing a major challenge represented in dealing with the political process more than what is required of them.

Since last February, and specifically since the devastating earthquake struck the cities of Syria and Turkey, political events accelerated in the Syrian file, and the Syrian regime returned to occupy Syria’s seat in the Arab League, and the opposition found itself in very difficult circumstances.

Amidst all complications, a MadaniyaConf2023 was held in Paris, and the two-day conference took place on 5-6 June. The civil initiative was organized by Madaniya Network and brought together about 150 Syrian civil society organizations and actors under the slogan “Reclaiming Political Agency: Syrian Civic Actors As Counterparts” and aimed at creating a “greater political influence” for the organizations within the Syrian political file.

In this file, Enab Baladi discusses the role of civil society organizations in public life and the possibility of them entering political action. It also discusses the debate on this point in particular, its relationship to governing bodies and pressure on them, and the oversight and legal roles they carry out.

What happened in Paris?

Enab Baladi attended the meeting held by “MadaniyaConf2023” in Paris, which included 150 representatives of Syrian civil society organizations in various sectors, without the presence of any opposition political party, with the exception of the head of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), Badr Jamous, who in turn expressed the commission’s willingness to provide support for organizations.

The conference witnessed a discussion by the participating organizations about the idea of “political entitlement,” which stems from the principle that civil organizations have their power on the ground in areas outside the control of the Syrian regime and have their financial mass, which is the largest among the parties opposing the regime.

Accordingly, the organizations do not want to be just a “service provider” to respond to the daily life requirements of the Syrians only, but rather for the organizations to have influence and participation in the political decision.

“I am hungry.. this is a political problem”

This phrase was frequently repeated during the conference discussions, given that civil action in Syria is no different from political action for two reasons.

The first is that all organizations are supported by foreign external parties, except for what is rare, and the second is that the Syrian regime itself views civil action as a political action.

Despite this desire originally represented by the slogan of the conference, the discussions also went to the fact that the organizations do not present themselves as an alternative to the current opposition political parties (the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary Forces and the Negotiations Commission).

Despite the clarity of the general ideas presented at the conference, there is a disagreement on the way to implement the visions put forward by the “MadaniyaConf2023”.

Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Madaniya Network, Ayman Asfari, with King Charles II of England during the King’s condolences to Syrians in England after the earthquake disaster - February 14, 2023 (The English royal family)

Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Madaniya Network, Ayman Asfari, with King Charles II of England during the King’s condolences to Syrians in England after the earthquake disaster – February 14, 2023 (The English royal family)

Questions, concerns

A number of questions were raised at the conference, most notably whether civil organizations will influence political decisions without replacing political institutions and how they will participate in political action without affecting their civil work and shaking the public’s confidence in them.

Differences in visions emerged during the conference discussions, and some of the participants shared a general feeling among representatives of civil organizations that they had been invited to a conference in which everything had been prepared in advance because the visions of the meeting were specific and there was already a board of directors for Madaniya Network, so a frequently asked question was: “What is our role as invitees?”

Also, another question that emerged greatly during the public discussions, “Why should civil organizations participate in the political process in Syria directly, and does participation make these organizations lose their independence, especially with fears that they will not agree with the de facto political and military forces in areas outside the Syrian regime?”

Most of the attendees were asking the problematic question: If organizations participated through a Madaniya initiative in political action, which opposition parties would they be with?

The previous question, specifically, was not addressed, and although the idea of a Madaniya conference could restructure the Syrian civil society, its long-term goal is unknown to anyone how it can be achieved.

During the two days of the Madaniya conference meeting, the organizations and even the conference itself were not presented as an alternative to political parties. Enab Baladi monitored the desire of those present to maintain a role far from the de facto forces in Syria, which added to the confusion of the question about how to ensure the political eligibility of civil society with this condition, which the conferees did not come up with a clear answer about.

Although the main objective of the conference was to discuss the participation of civil society organizations in the political process, the second day of it, with the presence of a number of international officials, discussed the issue of holding war crimes accountable, with a tendency to hold the international community responsible, based on the principle that the latter provided the required funds and resources for civil organizations. However, there was no serious intention for political change in Syria.

2025 elections?

A very important question was raised during the discussions that prevailed at the conference: What if Western countries provided guarantees about a fair and transparent electoral process in Syria in 2025? Will civil society guarantee “Assad’s departure” at that time through elections? The answer was that this cannot be guaranteed in light of the political weakness of the opposition.

What is civil society and what is its role?

There are dozens of definitions of civil action organizations, generally agreed that they are a group of non-governmental organizations and bodies that aim to defend a specific cause that they believe in in the long term and take a neutral position on political governments, in the sense that they do not provide them with support, but rather play the role of monitoring and accountability towards them, according to the case they adopt.

According to the World Bank, the term civil society refers to a wide range of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable and religious organizations, professional associations, and foundations.

As for the United Nations, civil society is defined as the third sector of society with the government and the business sector, and this sector consists of civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations.

In 2004, writer Michael Edwards published his book “Civil Society: Theory and Practice,” which is considered one of the main references in understanding the nature of civil society.

Edwards gave many definitions of this society, including that it “represents the desire of citizens to hold public and private authorities accountable for their actions, to generate alternative ideas and political positions that demand fundamental changes in the structure of power, and to organize collective action within levels broad enough to impose far-reaching transformations in politics, economics, and social relations.”

While thinkers in the “Enlightenment Movement” considered civil society a line of defense against unjustified state encroachments on individual rights and freedoms, it is also a self-organizing world that includes bonds committed to the same ideals and goals. It needs to protect itself from the state to maintain its role in resisting tyranny no matter what. 

The role played by civil society is divided according to interpretations of this role, and the most “radical” interpretation, which is affiliated with “neoliberalism,” believes that civil society is the ground that challenges the status quo and adopts through it new alternatives.

Other explanations say that it is a non-profit sector, through which services that were needed are provided due to the failure of the market and governments to provide these services, according to Edwards’s book.

Dr. Bassem Hatahet, an expert in civil society, told Enab Baladi that the role of civil organizations is not limited to the human rights aspect but is all about the people’s needs.

Among its roles is supporting education in all its aspects, supporting the end of poverty, supporting the issuance and amendments of laws, supporting their commitment to the global methodology such as the Charter of Human Rights, and supporting governance and oversight.

Civil society is considered “the basic basis for any just political society,” and it is stronger in terms of performance as an effective system within society. Then comes the political society to mature joint programs that are developed from civil society, according to Hatahet.

UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen meets with members of the Syrian Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) – May 2, 2023 (UN)

UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen meets with members of the Syrian Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) – May 2, 2023 (UN)

Between civil and political action

Some civil activists believe that the opportunity is ripe for organizations to enter the field of politics in the Syrian file after the accumulated experiences that Syrian civil organizations have built up, building good relations with Western officials working in the Syrian file, and the failure of the Syrian political opposition to achieve progress in the file, in conjunction with the return of the Syrian regime to the League of Arab States.

The most important rule for the work of civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations, in general, is that they do not seek to gain power, unlike political parties, but rather try to make a political change in the surrounding environment, economically, socially and legally, according to former Syrian diplomat Danny al-Baaj.

From this point, al-Baaj pointed out the existence of a political future for the Syrian organizations in the event that they have a space of freedom, which they naturally need to carry out their work.

If al-Baaj’s reference is towards a political form that falls within the work of the organizations mainly, then Mohammad al-Abdallah, Director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), believes that it is better for the Syrian organizations not to have a future in the political work itself and not in its environment, for several considerations.

Al-Abdallah told Enab Baladi that political work is separate from the work of civil society and human rights organizations, and the latter, in particular, must be neutral and independent of any political tensions and protect their space of freedom.

He added that society, in healthy and sound conditions, plays a role of oversight and accountability for politicians, parties, and parliament. This accountability comes through harmony between the media and civil society, and given that society is fragmented and Syria is shattered, no one can play this role except within possible limits.

Al-Abdallah’s opinion, which goes towards preferring civil society organizations not to enter the field of politics, is also related to the fact that, in some countries, including Syria, political parties have organizations that defend them and exploit them politically.

This point, in particular, makes civil work lose its credibility and respect internally (society) and externally among states, so it is not in the interest of any of the parties for organizations to go in this direction.

For his part, Mutasem Syoufi, director of the Day After organization, one of the organizations concerned with the democratic transition in Syria, believes that organizations cannot essentially be a substitute for political parties or trade unions and federations, especially since the conflict in Syria has not ended.

On the ground, organizations play a role in political life, but not in the way that parties practice it, but rather by pushing for certain policies and preparing the general ground for political life, then interacting with parties and others.

Thus, according to Syoufi, the political role played by civil organizations is to defend the cause they adopt, but it cannot be a substitute for political parties that express political ideas and beliefs that represent the interests and ideas of broad social groups.

Considering that the human rights file is one of the most important files related to the future of transitional justice in Syria, al-Baaj believes that human rights organizations, in particular, should stay away from politics because their role must be neutral by exposing crimes and prosecuting war criminals, regardless of their affiliation.

Does civil society produce political figures?

Syrian civil organizations have gained, through many years of work, various experiences in building partnerships, relations, and communication with diplomatic officials in various countries that have intervened to support the Syrian file.

These accumulated experiences, and the failure of the traditional Syrian opposition to export new faces capable of leading the current stage in the face of the recent political gains of the Syrian regime, may push towards new figures taking the lead in political action.

The source of these personalities is the Syrian civil organizations, which in turn may seem able to provide new names.

However, the success of these names is linked to several considerations in turn, the most important of which is having political ambition and moving in the direction of politics, according to the former diplomat al-Baaj.

While the director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, al-Abdallah, believes that Syrian organizations may produce personalities who exit civil work to enter political work, as happened in Lebanon and Iraq earlier, he also indicated that the best way to practice political work lies in the running in fair elections. 

Al-Abdallah also considered that it is too early to talk about this matter because the political class of the opposition is dominated by political parties and monopolizes opinion, and is controlled by the supporting countries that impose their decisions, as in the Syrian Constitutional Committee, so at this stage, it is not possible for new political figures to emerge from Civil work.

On the form of interdependence between civil and political society, the academic expert Hatahet divided the relationship into two aspects.

In the Syrian case, Hatahet believes that the political society with all its components is still “weak and emerging far from correct concepts,” which makes it imperative for civil society to play its role in maturing society politically.

As for the involvement of Syrian civil organizations in political work, the director of the Syrian Civil Society Organizations Platform, Mohammad Aktaa, believes that opposition platforms such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) are considered the legislating body for the Syrian opposition while civil society organizations remain the mediating body between society and the authority, whose mission is to put pressure on the authority. Therefore, civil society is an integral part of the political process.

Syria before Baath rule

The political conditions during the period of Syria’s dependence on the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century led to the emergence of many political movements and civil society organizations that tried to interact with political and social changes, especially with the emergence of similar Turkish movements at the time.

The Ottoman era: One of the first movements to emerge in Syrian civil society was the Ottoman Arab Brotherhood Association in 1908, and it aimed to “raise the status of the Arab nation in economic and cultural terms” after the adoption of the Ottoman Associations Law in 1908, according to the book “Partisan Life in Syria” by Mohamad Harb Farzat.

The era of King Faisal: Civil movements continued to develop and emerge according to the political conditions of that period, including women’s organizations that emerged after the independence of Syria and the start of the Faisali era (the Syrian Kingdom after King Faisal bin Hussein 1918-1920), according to the book “The Tramway Railroad” by Sami Marwan Moubayed.

French Mandate: Special decrees were issued for parties and associations by the French High Commissioner, with the Ottoman laws continuing to work until 1953.

1953: Law No. 47 on associations and parties was issued, and it was abolished with the return of democratic life to Syria in 1954.

The labor movement and trade unions in Syria went through the stages of formation and emergence in the 1920s and 1930s, while the stage of launching and establishing was in the 1940s and 1950s, specifically with the introduction of bourgeois-feudal rule, at that time, concessions to workers, and paving the way for labor movements, which was evident according to the book “Images from the Life of 20th Century Syrian Communities” with two pivotal moments, the Syrian Labor Law of 1946, and the Syrian Workers’ Conference of 1950.

The book stated that the democratic atmosphere during the parliament era 1954-1958 was appropriate for the development of civil society institutions, including parties and unions. It also coincided with the rise of the ideas of Arab enlightenment and rationality and the consolidation of the concepts of freedom and national struggle. These phenomena were evident in the success of the United Trade Union List in 1958 in the parliamentary elections.

The political conditions during the years of unity between Syria and Egypt (1959-1961) dealt a blow to civil work institutions before they returned for a short period and then began to be controlled by the Baath party with its gradual coming to power in 1963 in parallel with its continuous movement.

The first day of the MadaniyaConf2023 for Syrian civil society held in Paris - June 6, 2023 (Anmar Hijazi)

The first day of the MadaniyaConf2023 for Syrian civil society held in Paris – June 6, 2023 (Anmar Hijazi)

Separate organizations

Political and civil organizations need to work jointly on the Syrian file, and meetings rarely occur between these organizations, a behavior that analysts interpreted as “competitiveness” between the two parties and a “monopoly” of political work.

Dr. Bassem Hatahet, an expert specializing in managing civil society organizations, believes that the lack of integration of the work of Syrian political and civil organizations is linked to several reasons, the first of which is “selfishness” and the lack of a political program for the political opposition in which civil tools operate.

Hatahet talked about the lack of communication, explaining that the current political components did not come with elections, and therefore they have a “fear” that civil society will strengthen and affect its existence or its movements, which may be unacceptable.

On the other hand, the director of the Platform for Syrian Civil Society Organizations, Mohammad Aktaa, sees the reasons for the lack of integration from a different perspective, saying, “Civil society’s relationship with (the National Coalition) does not have any legal and informal cover. There is nothing obligating the Syrian opposition civil society to arrange the relationship with the opposition parties.”

The head of the Syrian Liberal Party (Ahrar), Bassam al-Quwatli, believes that the lack of coordination is widespread between the political and the civil on the one hand, and even between the political and the political and between the civil and the civil on the other hand.

In most cases, the different entities operate on their “private islands” without effective management or a unified strategy, he adds.

Dictatorship countries, when they fear civil society, they include it, like the Syrian regime and others. As for democratic countries, when they need civil society, they give it broader capabilities because they know that it supports them in the end and because their concern is the societal infrastructure for the people to rise and live.

Dr. Bassem Hatahet, an expert specializing in the management of civil society organizations

Al-Quwatli held the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) the main responsibility for this “failure,” realizing that the reason is due to the diversity of support sources and agendas of supporters and the fact that many directors of civil organizations have legitimate political ambitions, which increases the sense of competition between organizations and political bodies, and contributes to the lack of coordination.

He added that some individuals and political organizations monopolize political existence for their own benefit, which eliminates competition and the access of the most capable, and creates a “closed” system that is unable to work with others.

Success secret of civil organizations

After 2011, the Syrian civil society underwent many changes that were reflected in the performance and presence of the entities emanating from it in a way that made it grow and develop its own model.

Political conditions played a prominent role in changing the position of civil society in front of the rest of the political platforms, and this began in 2016, when the former UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced the establishment of the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR), which took upon itself to follow up the political process.

Then came the Brussels Conference in its first edition in 2017, which recognized the role of civil society as an essential part of the permanent solution. In the announcement of the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in 2019, the role of civil society developed by including it in the lists of the committee.

The presence of civil organizations did not depend on international representation, as by freezing the only political track in which the opposition participates (the Constitutional Committee), civil society organizations worked to exert pressure on local and international actors in order to push them to adhere to the system of values they adopt.

The level of pressure has reached the level of civil society’s contribution to formulating international policies, such as the contribution of Syrian organizations in the United States to drafting the Caesar Resolution in 2019 and pressure on the actors there to adopt it.

Civil organizations played a key role in shedding light on the Captagon trade as a main financier of the Syrian regime through studies, research, and political pressure, so that the American anti-drug bill came to light after difficult labor among the legislative councils, starting from 2021 until the end of 2022.

In the midst of the Arab openness to the regime two months ago, with the push of several Arab countries that brought it to the Syrian seat in the Arab League, the American Alliance for Syria organization worked with a group of members of the US Congress on a bill prohibiting the federal government from recognizing or normalizing relations with the regime.

The draft law, which was unanimously approved by the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives on May 16, legislates amendments to the Caesar Act that expand the circle of monitoring those who try to deal with the regime, whether they are governments or entities.

Dr. Hatahet explained to Enab Baladi the differences between the Syrian political and civil society, saying that the political society (the main opposition platforms) is an emerging political society that is neither active nor experienced.

Hatahet described the performance of the Syrian political actor as “very slow” and “dependent on countries or institutions that support him.” He does not have a strategic political vision regarding the intersection of interests and “networking of relations.”

The Syrian academic criticized the political platforms that are at the forefront of the scene, such as the Syrian Coalition and the Negotiations Commission, for their inability to establish a supportive civil society or pressure group or to be affiliated with one of them or one of the Syrian “lobbies.”

On the other hand, the Syrian civil society enjoys greater freedom and tools to move across the various sectors in which it operates, and it is present in various parts of the world, according to the civil expert.

Hatahet divided the existence of the current civil society between a newly-emerging society that trained and learned through its dealings with international and UN institutions, and with the Congress and the European Parliament and an old foreign society present in Western countries, which was able, by virtue of its experience, vast financial capabilities, and its Syrian affiliation without being dependent on any other project, to achieve “many” steps, such as the Caesar and Captagon Acts, and the implementation of pressure on the European Commission and Parliament.

The Executive Director of the Syrian Civil Society Organizations Platform, Mohammad Aktaa, told Enab Baladi that the legal cover for civil society organizations places a greater responsibility on them than the political opposition entities, as it is not possible for someone who has been involved in work within a civil society organization, and has obtained continuous support and legal status to defect from it and create another organization easily.

On the other hand, political action and political opposition platforms, due to their loss of this legal cover, can form a political bloc and then separate from it and form another with a different name without an approved official law or system that controls this process, which makes civil organizations more “organized and sustainable” than other entities, according to Aktaa.

Video presentations of representatives of organizations who were unable to leave Syria during the “MadaniyaConf2023”- June 06, 2023 (Anmar Hijazi)

Video presentations of representatives of organizations who were unable to leave Syria during the “MadaniyaConf2023”- June 06, 2023 (Anmar Hijazi)

Importance of civil society in political process

Civil society organizations play the role of governance, which is the body that moves in the society’s name to convey the voice of citizens to the state and monitor its policies, in addition to taking action to defend issues of democracy, human rights, social justice, and others.

From this standpoint, it is possible to understand the role that civil society organizations play in the political process, a role that the executive director of the Syrian Civil Society Organizations Platform spoke about to Enab Baladi.

According to Aktaa, civil society is considered the third or societal sector that achieves governance in the country and the party that moves in the name of society and the citizen to make its voice heard in the state and monitor its policy.

Therefore, today, political parties are considered civil society organizations, and in some countries, the parties that grant licenses to parties are the same that grant licenses to associations.

Opposition platforms, such as the National Coalition, are considered an alternative political body to the regime and administrative authority, regardless of whether or not it carries out its tasks today, but it is the legislating body for the Syrian opposition, while civil society organizations remain the mediating body between society and the authority, and their mission is to pressure the authority to carry out its role. Therefore, civil society is considered an integral part of the political process, Aktaa said.

He added that “The civil society’s relationship with the (Coalition) does not have any legal or informal cover, as there is no obligation for the Syrian opposition civil society to arrange the relationship with the opposition parties, in addition to that, it is a new experience, as it began in 2013 only, while the Syrian regime has laws and security authority that put pressure on civil society organizations which is an element of political power.

“It is not possible to put forward a clear vision for the political future of the Syrian opposition civil society because it is involved in the humanitarian sector by virtue of the reality we are in today, and this humanitarian sector is far from political action, but it is part of civil society and not all of it,” Aktaa says.

The Syrian opposition civil society will have a continuous presence and a fixed role, despite its presence in many countries and its continued funding according to the decision of the supporting countries, the civil activist confirms.

Aktaa concludes that even if normalization takes place with the Syrian regime, most organizations will maintain their existence because they enjoy financial independence and legal licenses.



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