Why We Need to Support Civil Society in Syria

   •    October 26, 2012

This post is by Kristin Williams and Rebecca Miller.

Kristin Williams and two Syrian women

I (Kristin) pose with two former university students who dropped their studies to escape the violence. They impressed me with their enthusiasm and drive to participate in the rebuilding of Syria. (Inclusive Security / Rebecca Miller)

In a recent Foreign Policy article (“Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns”), author Justin Vela seems unconvinced by the worth of recent efforts to provide “nonlethal support” to the Syrian opposition. According to Vela, this training and communications assistance (led by the U.S. State Dept. and a few NGOs) is deemed “useless to those fighting the insurgency.” The title of his piece alone implies these workshops are of little value in the midst of war.

Of course, supporting nonviolent activism and providing military assistance are not mutually exclusive. But experiences throughout the Middle East since early last year prove that a robust civil society can facilitate progress toward stability and prevent countries from sinking back into dictatorship.

Vela and other critics overlook the proven value of supporting civil society activists. In Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Maria Stephan (who leads the State Dept.’s trainings for the Syrian opposition) and Erica Chenoweth examined more than 300 case studies from the last century. They found that nonviolent resistance is more than twice as effective as armed struggle (a 53% vs. 26% success rate). Countries with nonviolent uprisings are also more likely to emerge with democratic governments and have a lower risk of relapsing into civil war.

Syrians can’t wait for a game-changing event before they consider what they want their country to look like after the war. We were recently in Gaziantep, Turkey, and spoke with female Syrian refugees. These women—whose normal lives as teachers, housewives, and university students were disrupted as they fled the violence—support the revolution but fear the possibility of being left behind if and when it succeeds. They look around the region and see that in places like Egypt, though women were at the forefront of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, their role in governing and in society took a huge step backward once the protests subsided.

The Syrians we’ve spoken to—male and female alike—have differing opinions on whether to support outside military intervention, but all are adamant about mobilizing now to ensure they’re prepared to shape the country’s future.

We’ve seen how effective early organization is in other countries. In the midst of horrific violence in October 2011, Libyan women from all walks of life formed the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, a mechanism for activists to connect and develop shared priorities. They conducted dialogue, training, and advocacy campaigns, especially around women’s political participation and role in constitution-writing.

In this year’s parliamentary elections in Libya, many observers were surprised when women won nearly 17 percent of the seats. This was no accident: for many months the LWPP and others had advocated to the transitional government for structural commitments to guarantee their increased political representation. If Libyan women had waited until all violence subsided to start organizing, they would have missed the opportunity to influence the future of their country.

Not only does convening activists help build much-needed skills, it helps them place themselves within the larger struggle—something which, in Syrian towns and cities isolated from each other by the insecurity of movement and communication, is crucial. One Syrian activist who recently attended a conference with participants from throughout the region expressed profound appreciation for the sense of solidarity it gave her to continue her difficult work.

The best argument for nonlethal support is that Syrians themselves are asking for it. The women we’ve spoken with are eager for capacity-building and indeed were very specific about what skills were necessary in their particular context: political engagement, advocacy, media, and dialogue skills, among others.

Many of the workshops that have occurred, while funded by the State Dept. or international NGOs, have been home-grown projects, developed and implemented by Syrians themselves. There’s no more ringing endorsement than that.

Programs that bolster civil society may not sound as captivating or bold as sending in antiaircraft weapons, but in fact they are bolder. Standing up in the midst of violence, building consensus among disparate groups, demanding dignity and rights—these are brave and difficult actions. Instead of devaluing them we should support them now more than ever.

Rebecca Miller is a senior program officer at The Institute for Inclusive Security where she leads Inclusive Security’s work to support women leaders’ participation in peace processes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. She also strengthens Inclusive Security’s partnerships with like-minded organizations and mainstreams gender in the peacebuilding community.

Kristin Williams is a writer and program associate at The Institute for Inclusive Security where she helps bolster women’s leadership in the Middle East and North Africa and makes the case globally for women’s substantive participation in the peace and security decisions that affect their lives.

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