Syrian activist, Haytham alHamwi, recalls how in 2003 he decided to join forces with the young men and women of his hometown Daraya, in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, to organise a public cleaning campaign.
At 27, alHamwi hit the streets with dozens of youth, sweeping the roads and picking up trash. The campaign was a project of the Daraya Community Group, which al Hamwi and his friends established two years prior. They handed out posters warning against smoking and bribery in their town, and opened a library, which they called “Ways of Peace”.
Little did alHamwi know that he and his friends would end up in prison cells for the community work they were doing. “We did not have any political motives [at the time],” alHamwi told Al Jazeera. “The only political event we organised was a silent march against the US occupation of Iraq.”
At the time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had just assumed office, after his father Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria since 1971, died in 2000.
“When I was in prison, during the interrogation period, the officer asked me: What is your field of study? I replied, ‘preventive medicine’. He said: ‘Aha! There you go. I know your group isn’t a political party but if we leave you alone, you will become a political party. So, we’re going to imprison you from now as a preventive measure,'” alHamwi recalled.
In Syria, civil society groups, which are non-profit, non-governmental organisations working in the interest of citizens, like the one alHamwi helped set up, have long been targeted by the government. Under the 1958 Association Law, civil society is legally subject to supervision and requires approval of the security services.
In a period dubbed the “Damascus Spring“, after Bashar al-Assad inherited power, Syria saw the beginnings of a rise of civil society and calls for reform, but that was quickly crushed, with members of such groups facing arrests and bans.
“Civil society became a dangerous concept, which many associations shied away from by pursing non-political goals,” Rana Khalaf, an expert on Syrian civil society with the Chatham House, a UK-based policy institute, told Al Jazeera.
In 2000, Mutasem Syoufi, a native of Damascus, was one of the students who took part in establishing a political discussion forum called the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society. He called for reforms like many at the time.
Our first priority is to save souls. We want the Syrian case to stay alive. We’re not hopeful of any [political] settlement being reached any time soon, but we want to achieve something on the humanitarian front.
Mutasem Syoufi, director of Istanbul-based NGO
“Other than the fact that the government was sending people to prison for this, the regime outlawed the use of the term ‘civil society’. Civil society was being likened to Zionism and Masonry. There was a complete criminalisation of the term,” Syoufi told Al Jazeera.
In 2011, when the Syrian uprising against Assad broke out, the civil society scene in Syria flourished. As the war shifted from peaceful protests to a civil war between government forces and armed opposition groups, made up of army defectors and ordinary civilians, local peaceful activists mobilised to respond to the violence and human rights violations.
With the war entering its seventh year, hundreds of civil society organisations have developed both inside and outside of Syria, amid a security vacuum and harrowing bloodshed, to fill the role of state institutions meant to protect and inform civilians.
At least half a million Syrians have been killed in the war, and another one million injured so far. Hundreds of thousands are living in besieged areas with extremely restricted access to basic survival necessities, while at least 12 million – half of the country’s prewar population – have been forced to flee their homes.
Civil society activists are first-responders, doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists, teachers, among others. On the one hand, they provide relief aid and medical assistance to the millions who have been severely affected by the war. On the other, they are communicating the voices of Syrians on the ground by pressing for justice and democracy, a halt to the targeting of civilians, unhindered humanitarian access, and holding violators of human rights law accountable.
“Our first priority is to save souls. We want the Syrian case to stay alive. We’re not hopeful of any [political] settlement being reached any time soon, but we want to achieve something on the humanitarian front,” said Syoufi, who is now the executive director of The Day After, an Istanbul-based organisation working to help Syrians formulate a vision for democratic governance.
AlHamwi was in the UK pursuing a PhD when the uprising started. He is now the advocacy director of Rethink Rebuild Society, an organisation set up as a voice of the British Syrian community [Zena Tahhan]
But as major stakeholders in the war in Syria convene for political negotiations in the Swiss city Geneva this week to decide on the fate of millions of Syrians, those closest to the ground say their voices are not being heard.
As part of their advocacy and lobbying work, civil society activists have slowly pushed for representation in the ongoing political negotiations aimed at finding a solution to the war in Syria. They have played a majorly advisory role throughout the Syrian peace process by participating in the Civil Society Support Rooms (CSSR) at the UN headquarters in Geneva, set up by Staffan de Mistura, the chief UN mediator for Syria, and his team.
In such rooms, they meet De Mistura and conflict experts to discuss ways of implementing civil society demands. “We meet with experts who have knowledge about how civil society was able to impact similar conflicts in other countries. But the situation in Syria is different,” said Mazen Kewara, a Gaziantep-based vascular surgeon with the Syrian American Medical Society, the largest medical association in northern Syria, outside of areas under government control.
“The things we’re asking for are basic human rights. No leader starves his population to death – there are nations that starve other nations – but no leader besieges his own people, and starves them to death, or forcibly expels them,” Kewara told Al Jazeera, alluding to the multiple areas in Syria where civilians were evacuated after government forces imposed airtight sieges blocking the entry of basic supplies such as food and water.
Mazen Kewara, left, and Mutasem Syoufi at the last round of political negotiations on the war in Syria, in Geneva [Zena Tahhan]
As the conflict becomes increasingly complicated, and as both sides prove complicit in committing war crimes and targeting civilians, civil society activists say they should be present on the negotiating table as monitors to the political process. One precedent was the direct participation of civil society, particularly women’s groups, in Northern Ireland’s peace process in the 1990s.
“After all these rounds [of peace talks], now is the time for civil society to play an active and legal role in monitoring the negotiations,” said Kewara. “This is what we’re pushing for now.”
Kewara and Syoufi, are among several activists who have attended numerous rounds of political negotiations as representatives from Save Our Syria, a platform of some of the largest civil society groups based inside and outside of the country to pursue Syrian-led solutions to the war. They say the UN has expressed reluctance to include them in the negotiating process due to legal constraints.
“We’re speaking as outsiders to the political divide. This is the crux of the issue. Our suggestions should be taken into account and we should be able to apply pressure on the negotiating sides,” said Syoufi.
The issue with the inclusion of civil society in the negotiating process, said Khalaf, is that most decision-makers do not believe civil groups can have an impact. “Civil society is already pressuring the UN system. The bigger problem is with the international governance system and global actors and government power players taking the process away from the locals and peaceful actors in Syria.”
‘I believed in this message from the start’
On the ground, civil society groups are also constantly being sidelined and targeted. They were among the first victims of arrest, abductions and targeted killings during the uprising. In the battle for Aleppo between July and December 2016, the Syrian government, backed by the Russian airforce, bombed every single hospital in the former rebel-stronghold of east Aleppo.
The Syrian government largely restricts the operation of such organisations in areas under its control, which, activists say, has led many to accuse them of being “close to the Syrian opposition”.
“We criticise the opposition just as much as we criticise the regime when they are unjust to people and negatively impact them,” said Kewara. “These organisations are not linked to the opposition or the factions. These organisations found people who fled without homes, so they built shelters. They found people without hospitals, so they built hospitals. They found unvaccinated people, so they vaccinated them. The regime forbids these organisations and sees them as terrorist organisations,” he added.
In opposition-held areas, such groups have also been routinely persecuted, particularly by hardline armed groups such as the previously al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
“There are large scale arbitrary detentions taking place in areas under opposition control, and there are violations against public freedoms […] There is not one area under opposition control where they showed us an encouraging example of respect for public freedoms,” said Syoufi.
As negotiations resume this week, civil society will again be present, to convince politicians to prioritise civilian needs in the peace process, but say there is little hope for any solution in Syria in the near future.
“There is no international willingness to help this country accomplish what that the boys of Deraa asked for in the revolution,” said Kewara. “I am a doctor who participated in peaceful activism in Syria, treated patients, I was exposed to government oppression, and forcibly expelled from my own country. I cannot see my mother and my siblings who are still in Damascus. I hope that one day I would return to a government for all Syrians, that believes in freedom and justice.”
“What pushes me to continue is that I believed in this message from the start.”