In Syria, a kernel of democracy

The Iraqi refugee crisis in Syria helped open the door for aid and rights groups, serving as one catalyst in the strengthening of civil society.

By , Contributor

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    A worker carries a box of food aid for Iraqi refugees distributed by international organizations at a UN center near Damascus, Syria.
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Syria's one-party regime is not accustomed to vibrant public campaigns overturning government decisions.

But with the number of development organizations as much as tripling over the past six years, and the Iraqi refugee crisis awakening leaders to the need for outside help, Syria is gradually allowing aid and rights groups to operate more freely in the country. This has allowed such organizations to influence public discourse in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past.

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One of the most explicit examples of this came in May 2009, when the Syrian government proposed draconian restrictions on women's rights. The draft law would have effectively placed a woman's right to work, study, and travel outside the home in the hands of her father or, once married, her husband.

"It was very bad," says Bassam al-Kadi, director of Syrian Women's Observatory, a nongovernmental organization based in Damascus. "We named it the Taliban draft."

But women's organizations and civil society activists began mobilizing against it. By July, the proposal had been shelved, and the Ministry of Justice vowed to "reconsider the subject in coordination with all parties concerned."

To date, the draft has not been reintroduced. According to Mr. Kadi, "The regime considered the power balance in the country, and determined that there was no other way but to open doors to civil society."

More than a year later, while restrictions continue, activists are building more organizations and more effective networks, with support from some surprising quarters, including the president's wife.

Civic action in Syria as early as 1556

Civil society – the realm that allows citizens to organize around shared interests – is seen by many advocates as a key to democratic reform.

But it is not new to Syria. Civic endowments to support charitable works were in place as early as 1556, and by 1870 municipalities were organizing around civil society initiatives, says Nada Osman Alaeddine, project manager at the cultural organization Rawafed.

In recent years, Syria has lagged behind other countries in the region. But in a marked change, Syria's five-year plan for 2005-10 acknowledges that development organizations can play a positive role in society, proposing "radical changes in order to activate and enhance the capabilities of the civil society role in the coming stage."

Iraqi refugee crisis a catalyst

Among the many reasons for this loosening of restrictions, say some observers, is the government's recognition that it can't meet the country's needs without help from both local and international organizations.

According to Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University, a particularly acute crisis came with the flood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees into Syria, straining government. The first nine European NGOs allowed into the country are all working with Iraqi refugees, he notes.

While they may still face certain restrictions, including limits on foreign staff and possible monitoring of meetings with local organizations, the climate is still improved from previous years, when most international NGOs were effectively barred from the country.

Next step: reform of laws governing NGOs

The next step needed, say many activists, is reform of the Syrian laws regulating NGOs. The current laws, enforced by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, can impose politicized or bureaucratic restrictions and stifle the creation of new organizations, although many organizations choose to work without a license, carefully negotiating the obstacles this presents.

"Currently, there are only a few ways to register an organization, and our experience has shown that there are diverse ways for people to operate and interact with civil society," says Ms. Alaeddine, whose organization promotes cultural projects and provides resources for Syrian artists. The group is part of a network of Syrian NGOs called the Syrian Trust for Development, founded in 2007 and chaired by first lady Asma al-Assad.

At the trust's first conference, held in 2010, Ms. Assad called for "a fundamental change in the way the sector is regulated." Professor Landis is skeptical about the potential for broad reforms, however, noting that while Syria wants to expand the role of civil society, it is "still experimenting" with how much leeway to offer.

Will civil society bring democracy?

It remains to be seen if this new proliferation of NGOs will translate into political change. Landis, while championing the social value of their work, remains unconvinced. "Will they bring democracy to Syria? I don't think so," he says.

Alaeddine, for her part, is looking forward to the positive change her organization can bring to daily lives by providing young people with the necessary resources to invigorate Syrian culture.

"Development is a long process that requires patience and a grasp of the bigger picture," she says. "Young people are craving to become more engaged and involved in their community [and] seem to be highly aware of the cultural richness and creative potential around them."

Kadi, skeptical of international efforts, also sees a grass-roots impetus coming from Syria's rising generation. "Among the youth, we see civil society growing up without the same organizations, but with new people building new networks and starting new projects," he says. "For me, I'm happy to see new people take things into their own hands."

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