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CSOs in NES Between Reality and Expectations

Mustafa al-Khalil

The concept of CSOs in its objective context in Syria before 2011 was unknown, except for elites made of politicians and intellectuals, and some of figures and currents loyal to regime authority. The regime that has abolished every single voice calling out the civil society to take its role, in driving Syria towards a state of citizenship and the rule of law.

The role of Syrian regime was not limited to abolishing any civil work cardinally in Syria, whether it was prominent or not. However, the most dangerous aspect is that it exceeded that limit of distorting civil work concept in its form and content. For that purpose, it created distorted bodies and presented it to the Syrian society over decades, as representatives of the civil society. In fact, the regime's security bodies, parties and institutions alike, view any social state outside the framework of these bodies, as a threat to the state, society and moreover the national security.

These bodies were; al-Ba’ath vanguard organization, Revolutionary Youth, the Women Union, the Labor Union, the Sports Union, the Artists Syndicate and the Students Union, and many others that were dominated and set their strategy to achieve their aims, by al-Ba’ath party. It is the only one allowed to work on the women, youth and society cases, the thing that led to undermining the equation of (the state- the citizens- the civil society), which was supposed to be conducted in a democratic civil state.

When al-Assad the son came to power in 2000, he promised the people in his presidential-oath speech a set of social, economic and political reforms, including the development of social society, according parties and associations working-licenses, granting media work a margin of freedom, however none of these promises came into action on the ground and no steps were taken towards a reality which allows a rebalance between the state and the civil society.

In spite of this, various associations and organizations sponsored by a number of intellectuals and politicians have come to the surface, most notably; Jamal al-Atassi forum for democratic dialogue. In additions to some forums which started to spread in Syrian cities like; Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia reaching to Qamishli. These organizations also include Human Rights organizations, defending democratic freedom committees, Syrian Center of Media and Freedom of Expression, Arab Center for Human Rights, Syrian league for human rights , Kurdish committees, Damascus center and many centers for women and children rights defense. The previous stage known as Damascus Spring was enthroned with Damascus declaration in 2005.

In Syria, the reality of civil work remained the same, until the revolution was erupted with the inception of 2011, then its course and concept were changed drastically, for it to come back in some areas controlled by the radical armed factions and to fall in an ideological clash with these factions, that viewed the civil work as blasphemy and atheism and even as representing a threat to Muslims. This period witnessed various assassinations and executions of activists and civil society members.

CSOs in NES is viewed as one of the most important turning points which had an impact over the naturally diverse and different social structure of the populations. These organizations could bring together the components in NES which varied culturally, ideologically and nationally, through seminars, meetings, dialogues and forums. The components that many parties attempted over decades to create predicaments, discrepancies and sensitivities among them. CSOs altogether with Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF have exerted a huge educational effort in this regard. This incited the observers to say that, if these seminars were generalized all over Syrian geography, it would leave prosperous results on the ground, which may incite an Intra-Syrian resolutions. This is due to the transparency in the dialogue, the thing that Syrians have been missing for decades and was the most desired by the patriotic Syrian-crisis advocates.

Regardless of the definition of civil society, which varies according to the role it is performing, that is basically related to the stage in which it is active, and the strategies that it operates accordingly. Since the start of CSOs' work for example in Raqqa, it was entirely directed to service work, because of the circumstances in the city after ISIS defeat, and as a result of war operations which resulted in massive destruction exceeded 90% according to journalistic and international reports.

In late 2017 and early 2018, Raqqa has entered- the city that the Islamic State/ISIS used to depend on it as its capital and global center of terrorism all along four years of taking over all life aspects- a new phase. It imposed upon the Autonomous Administration in NES, the newly-established civil society in Raqqa particularly and in NES, and even upon programs-support financing states, a drastically different approach from civil society goals. It was necessary to prepare the service aspect and restore the military operations - destructed infrastructure in order to secure a safe return for the population, and prepare the space for the existence of institutions and CSOs.

CSOs operating in Raqqa, whether local or international took the role of service institutions collaborating with Autonomous Administration institutions in NES, as it is unacceptable ( at least for the population) for the idea of civil work to be limited to seminars, lectures and dialogue sessions aspects, which calls for the equality between men and women and gender-based states, and speaking about conditions of state of citizenship. The idea of how impactful ISIS ideas might have played a role in this frame precisely, which were being emitted in the intellectual structure of the societies it took over. The most dangerous ideas is the rejection of the other (the different) even when the difference is slight, which is considered one of the prominent long- term organization ideology threats.

This public line ISIS is adopting and through which ISIS worked to turn out local element into an ideology, whom the organization calls- according to its standards- the Ansar. This line created a full readiness for them to accept the initiative to bomb the religious shrine of ''Owais al-Qarni'' in 2014. The shrine was located at the entrance of eastern Raqqa, close to the historical gate of Baghdad. The organization transformed it into a relic, for no reason other than a Shitte symbol. These radical ideas incited the organization to expel Kurds in the same year, and to attack Kobani, also to open an uncounted - for front with the Kurds of which faced a great loss in 2015. The thing that led ISIS to put Raqqa Christians before only two options, with no third choice; either to pay the tribute or to convert to Islam.

Hence, the destroyed infrastructure of Raqqa and surrounding circumstances, most notably the danger of the organization sleeper cells, transformed the civil society tasks into walking towards relief and service work as well as walking slowly towards holding dialogue seminars accuracy and precaution in fearful representation.

It is prejudiced to say that the civil society in Raqqa did not play its role, for being directed towards service work. It is incorrect to underestimate its role, for the work it has conducted, is not compatible with orientations and goals, of which the civil society mainly was found. Operating organizations in Raqqa in an analogue with Raqqa – civil society, which was formed in Ain Issa, in 2017 spring and before the end of Raqqa battle, with the region’s sons with all of its components, and one of the most important committees is the organizations office which facilitated international and local work, the office that played a huge role in an analogue with the rest of the council committees and municipalities in educational work fields and the inauguration of children – safety centers and people with special needs centers, empowering women, roads and public streets rehabilitation, returning drinkable water to Raqqa neighborhoods, contributing in the preservation of cultural and historical heritage through renovating historical monuments and the diversity of civil society work aspects to include the majority of the sectors, most prominently both health and agriculture sectors.

On the other hand, civil society role promotion constitutes the democratically realistic incarnation in NES generally and Raqqa particularly. For without the civil society and its satisfaction in work, democracy remains mottos which don’t belong to reality.

A state of competition between CSOs and the democratic civil administration institutions emerged from the role of the organizations in service fields. This had a positive reflection and rapid to a certain degree in rehabilitating the infrastructure and service-base in Raqqa. Raqqa is considered today as the most stable city in NES. With no exaggeration, we say that the level of services present is a record-level in comparison with the cities under the control of the Syrian regime. This is, in spite of reconstruction file and compensating people civilians for damage left on their properties, which is considered the most complicated file in Syria and the most notably challenges the Autonomous Administration face because of the expensive material cost of this file. On the other hand, the desire of these countries to set it within international and regional political standards, and relate it generally to political solution subject in Syria.

Despite all of the obstacles towards civil society work in Raqqa, and in NES generally, the space of civil work in this area in Syria is deemed to be the best all over the Syrian geography. Starting from the areas Turkish forces occupied in late 2019 (Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain) to Idlib which is controlled by Ahrar al-Sham reaching the areas controlled by the Syrian regime forces relying on a study issued by IMPACT organization.

The obstacles that hinder the work of the civil society in NES are graded as internal and some others as external. The internal ones are; the absence of planning and strategic foresight, the shortage of sufficiently qualified cadres, determining priorities in the orientation of work and activities, falling into the routine, especially when it comes to licenses and security perils of which the intensity is mitigated lately, and these are internal ones. These obstacles come into view more than its counterparts in NES, as being possessive of the oldest experience in this regard.

As for the external obstacles, military and political changes in NES are the most obstructive things to civil work in the region, the same of what happened in the wake of the Turkish occupation of the area which extend from Tell Abyad to Ras al-Ain in 2019, and also donating countries as missing a long - term strategy, which are mainly related to NATO countries. The sudden resolution of the American president Donald Trump two years ago of a part of the American forces withdrawal from NES, has triggered a huge effect in the work of CSOs. This withdrawal is considered as the connecting point in its work mechanism, what resulted in halting the international organizations operation in the area, halting support programs of participation and the provision of financial grants to organizations and local associations, the shortage of financial support from supporting programs and subjecting local organizations to donors policy, what led to wasting the capabilities of these organizations, despite money wastage in implementing projects that don’t harmonize the reality and requirements of the people of the area.

The number of officially endorsed CSOs is nearly 105 organization, with various fields of work, orientations and visions. Most of which recently turned, according to the circumstances requirements, to civil work gradually. Those in charge of the organizations, as in the rest of cities in NES, strive to find effective platforms in the expression of its points of views over economic and political reality. They expect to become representatives of the people of the region in international paths and conferences, which present itself as working for finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. The importance lies in hard work and walking on this direction, especially after the exclusion of Syrian Democratic Council from participating in the discussion about Syrian constitution draft due to the Turkish suspicious role, in its attempts to exclude ‘’SDF’’ from any realistic solution to the Syrian crisis.

This legitimate ambition of the CSOs in NES in its contribution in representing the people of the region and putting forward solutions to end the war in Syria remains as depending on how far CSOs organize themselves within determined visions and goals platforms and how serious those influential countries in the Syrian file are for participating all Syrians in the collaboration to find a final solution that stops bloodshed and Syrian-case trafficking, which the more it is delayed the more perilous its consequences become, in the present or in the future, not only to the Syrians but even to the regional countries.

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