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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.

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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.

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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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