The problems that make Syrian organisations drown

13 January 2015

Pîroz Perîk

Syrian writer and photographer living in Qamishli.

Translated by: Leila Al-Shanfara

After the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, it wasn't long before the Americans began to allocate a portion of their Syria aid to support civil society organisations and so-called and recently established "alternative media outlets," in particular those that were based in Turkey. These organisations and media outlets were there because they benefited from the Turkish authorities' turning a blind eye to the issue of visas and registration, and also because they were unable (for the most part) to be based inside the country and to set up offices and run activities there. Most of the pioneers who founded and became involved in these organisations had been part of revolutionary activities and coordination committees, but despaired when the conflict became inflamed and exacerbated and therefore took refuge in Turkey, fearing attack by the regime or fundamentalist forces.

Aid from American and European patron organisations that were either supported by foreign ministries or directly affiliated with them was provided in a number of fields. This included distributing communications and technical equipment to masses of so-called "peaceful revolutionary activists" and the apostles of "civil society" and "civil peace," and champions of women's issues and gender mainstreaming, and those with ambitions to work on future transitional justice programmes, or those wishing to attend capacity-building workshops for citizen journalists. Delegations of the likes of these began trickling to Istanbul and Gaziantep to attend training workshops and conferences and dialogue sessions, with Syrian organisations acting as intermediaries.

Although a substantial number of Syrians benefited from this support, it produced no qualitative changes in either the outputs or the results of the work being done. Routine, repetition and effort expended on abstract concepts with no prospects for real application were dominant in more or less all the work of these organisations [receiving training]. The vast expanses of lucrative aid given to some organisations were exploited in the service of personal interests, to establish one's presence at conferences and conventions, to jet around the airports of Western countries or perhaps to apply for asylum.

Those who organised these activities forgot much of the detail of the daily life led by Syrians inside the country, as well as the dramatic changes occurring in the field. They also failed to grasp the particularities of each region and their relative differences within the map of the ongoing bloody conflict. In one instance, for example, Syrian activists were trained by instructors from the Serbian organisation "Otpor" on civil disobedience, but long after bloodshed and war had taken root in the region targeted by that training, making it impossible to organise demonstrations of defiance, or civil disobedience, under the roaring Migs and the plunging barrel bombs and the artillery shells! Similarly, the conferences would simultaneously target women of Kurdish or Druze or Ismaili origin, who came from comparatively less conservative societies, and extremely conservative women from the Aleppo or Idlib countryside, and train them together using the same standards, educational methods and teaching materials with no consideration given to their sociological diversity and the differences in their mores and customs, and sometimes no attention was paid to the psychological and social consequences of the ground conditions in the areas from which they hailed, and the state their disaster-stricken societies had reached!

Projects are being written up and sent to donors at a raging pace, and no one is paying attention to indications suggesting that activists in a number of regions in Syria have started to ask that the word 'democracy' be removed from awareness-raising pamphlets and newly formed newspapers, this as way to keep a low profile, because the term is equivalent to disbelief (kufr) in the view of the influential forces in their areas. In other cases the mention of this term might cause offense to no one, as is the case in areas controlled by Kurdish forces, where the inhabitants are the first to reject religious fundamentalism, even before their political authorities, as well as political Islamist movements in all their forms. Despite this, that disparity in discourse might not, for those who work in this field, constitute a meaningful datum – because it is now consistently the case that diagnoses of the reality and needs of each region, and serious assessments of the circumstances there, fail to be conducted, this on the pretext that the security situation is deteriorating.

Were it not for the efforts and additional actions of some people (who actually follow daily events and transformations) to make something of these activities, they would become theatrical performances to attract funds, and no more. What is the point of pumping tens of thousands of dollars into organising workshops and consultations to lay the foundations for civil peace in the Jazira area [NE Syria/Mesopotamia] when there are already publicly announced as well as under-the-table agreements, reflecting the real weight and presence of the various social forces and actors among Kurds, Arabs and Syriacs, which provide for an end to the infighting and a re-focus on securing the basic necessities of life? Whereas there is a dearth of large-scale and small-scale development projects, the kind that has a direct impact on the lives of local residents and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in this area, which already enjoys a state of relative peace, due to its political and demographic composition and balance.

In the domain of coexistence, the people most deserving of support are those in regions with sectarian interpenetration, such as Homs and the Homs countryside, and Hama, Idlib and Latakia. But most of these areas are denied enrichment and support in this field, because their areas are witnessing a grinding war, and those who reign over this conflict refuse to take into consideration any initiatives in which blood might be shed. And, as if they were fleeing or dodging the issue, these organisations turn to areas where coexistence already prevails, to demonstrate that they are "working tirelessly" on portfolios like supporting coexistence and tolerance and laying the foundations for civil peace. Meanwhile real development projects are neglected because they require persistence, experience, skills and a presence in the field, things that go beyond affecting eloquence, sermon-giving and blowing hot air, the latter being something that a good number of self-styled peace-builders, supporters of coexistence, and champions of women and their influential role in the war, excel at.

These workshops and gatherings, attended by a motley mix of Syrians hailing from numerous regions, have made it possible to draw lines of interaction and interconnection between groups, and they created forums for mutual acquaintance and building friendships, some of which rose to the level of mutual admiration or marriage. But they did not, in the slightest, have any success in establishing real civilian hubs or a network of messengers of true peace among this stormy sea of Syrian blood. For this reason, it behoves these organisations to strive, with all their might, to encourage specialisation and to back the projects they present to donors with diligent studies and assessments. Just as it is incumbent upon international organisations to support the Syrian organisations that work according to well-defined local programmes, and to be stricter abo­ut giving precedence to the current and urgent over the bombastic and ambiguous, and distinguishing those whose drool over salaries, funding and margins from those rendered sleepless from answering people's troubles and expectations. The donor institutions have plenty of experience from their past accomplishments in this arena, on the basis of which they could, if they wanted to, make those distinctions and choices.

It is fitting here to put forth a few recommendations to promote this subject and put it in the service of the public interest, rather than having work in the civilian sphere, in its entirety, comport itself on the assumption that it is a space for profiteering and building up one's name. Some of the steps would include:

• Attempting to put pressure on donors to support projects oriented on development and service to the public, and giving these precedence over peace-building and conflict resolution workshops, without discounting the value of the latter.

• Working to make peace-building and coexistence-oriented activities both based on expertise and well laid-out – such as, for example, printing magazines and newspapers and flyers that aim to firmly root coexistence and civil peace, giving them a role akin to media outlets that would observe political, social and economic transformations connected to the conflict, and have their authors propose solutions and advance their journalistic experiences.

• Creating a sorting process for activists invited to workshops, based on their specialisations, so that an activist in the field of psychological support for children (for example) is not admitted to a workshop on how to craft news pieces, or some other workshop on how to design programme budgets!

• Working to truly interconnect organisations, and creating close and deep alliances between organisations that have a presence on the ground, and doing away with the myth, fancied by some, that a single organisation can cover the entire map of Syria from north to south and east to west.

Civil work requires forbearance, and follow-up, and persistence on the part of those undertaking it. That may be a good thing, because this kind of work will in the coming period throw out a good number of those who blow through the steps, the greenhorns, and those who switch around jobs and professions. It will also confer considerable experience to the operational organisations; they will lean towards specialisation, and the phenomenon of polymath and multifaceted activists will become extinct.

* Special thanks for the translation to Leila Al-Shanfara, a French analyst and Arabist, and occasional blogger at @leila_shanfara and

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad