Syrian Civil Society on the Front Lines Against Extremism
Salma Kahale (left) and Oula Ramadan speak at MEI.

Syrian civil society groups have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in the five-year war, and can count few friends among the violent actors on the ground. Nevertheless, their work and determination continues unabated, with little external attention, recognition or support. Syrian civil society will have an important role to play in any post-war settlement. Two Syrian civil society activists, Salma Kahale and Oula Ramadan, were recently hosted by the Middle East Institute during their visit to Washington and shared their insight into the tireless, and often unnoticed, efforts of Syrian civil society.

MEI: Tell us about your organizations and the work they’re doing inside Syria.

Salma Kahale: I work with Dawlaty, a Syrian NGO that supports activists and young people working to engage in democratic transitions. We work to foster greater understanding of concepts related to transitional justice, civic education, and organizing in ways that resonate with these activists on a personal level. We also provide a platform to listen to Syrians about the violations they have faced, how they envision the violence ending, what their priorities are for the future, and what role they see for themselves post-conflict.

We engage with Syrians both regionally and at the local level. We have staff in six provinces inside Syria as well as two centers where we provide a space for activists to get engaged, lead their activities, and hold workshops so they can organize. We also do a lot of work through social media, sharing art that is related to the revolution and documenting the efforts taking place on the ground in Syria to resist authoritarian and extremist entities.

Oula Ramadan: The Badael Foundation is committed to strengthening grassroots civil society groups inside Syria through non-violence. We have provided consultation and training to over 200 civil society grassroots groups in different areas inside the country and supported numerous peace initiatives seeking to contain and deescalate violence. Badael means “alternatives.” In the face of social and political forces like militarization, violence, and the Assad regime, our philosophy is that alternatives to these things do exist, and we just need to look and be creative in finding them.

Along with Dawlaty and others, we are also co-founders of the Planet Syria campaign, which works to mobilize people around the world to show solidarity with the Syrian people, especially on achieving two goals: stopping barrel bombs, and convening inclusive peace talks. Along with our advocacy work, we conduct and share research on civil society activities and other conditions on the ground in Syria to help inform activists, policymakers, and organizations as they plan their interventions.

April 29, 2016 - Discussion on "Syrian Women in Civil Society and Politics" at MEI featuring Salma Kahale and Oula Ramadan.

MEI: What are some of the challenges being faced by Syrian civil society organizations and activists?

Ramadan: One challenge is the lack of awareness of the work they do. There is a lot of coverage about what's happening in Geneva, the advances and retreats of forces fighting on the ground, the fight against ISIS, and so on, but there is hardly any information about civil society activism inside Syria.

We've been working to support these groups for more than three years now, and we have seen that civil society organizations are doing amazing work on the ground in the face of significant operational challenges, particularly security against armed groups and airstrikes. There are also major challenges related to mobility. Travel is difficult between regions inside of Syria, and tightened border restrictions have limited movement between neighboring countries.

Turkey, for instance, does not permit civil society activists who are not involved in direct humanitarian medical work to cross its border, which makes it much more difficult for them to move to surrounding countries for training, communicating with international NGOs, and meeting with policymakers. They have resorted to smuggling across the border, but this has become very dangerous for them, and the restrictions are increasing every day. Jordan is very strict as well. There is a long process that any activist has to go through before they get the permission to enter.

There are also challenges when it comes to financial support. Most money is being channeled to the major international NGOs whose offices are outside the country, while very little reaches grassroots organizations working at the local level. Grassroots civil society organizations are truly on the frontlines against extremism and deserve the support needed to help them grow and become sustainable.

MEI: How should women be more involved in the peace talks?

If there are not enough women in the peace process now, they will have no role in the future.

Ramadan: Having women at the negotiation table is very important because I can assure you that if there are not enough women in the peace process now, they will have no role in the future. The Women’s Advisory Board created by Staffan de Mistura is not a sufficient answer to this need. Women need to be meaningfully involved in every single issue on the table. You will not find any feminist men fighting for women's rights and gender equality in the constitution, so it’s up to women to bring their agenda for the transitional phase to the table.

MEI: What is the message you sought to convey to Washington during your visit?

Kahale: We want to convey that there is an active Syrian civil society on the ground. They are providing services and pushing for democratic transition, but they are also on the frontlines fighting extremism.

On the political level, we ask that Congress and the U.S. government put more pressure on the different actors, particularly on the Assad regime, to negotiate. The United States, as well as the international community in their roles as backers for numerous resolutions on Syria, need to actually uphold their responsibility to protect civilians.

Second, Syrian civil society and all civilians need a respite from the shelling and barrel bombs, and to allow humanitarian aid to get in.

And third, the government can implement mechanisms that allow for funding to go directly to Syrian organizations. To become sustainable, funding to civil society organizations needs to be longer term, and not just piecemeal project funding.

MEI: What were your impressions and observations from bringing your message to Washington?

It's sad that there's so much focus on ISIS and not on ending the conflict and the war in Syria.

Kahale: I think there is some understanding of the need to support Syrians, but there isn't as much of a sense of urgency. Of course, it has been five years since the beginning of the conflict, but every day that passes the situation is getting worse. For civil society and communities that are trying to resist extremism and violence, the space between ISIS and the regime keeps narrowing. We're losing opportunities to make meaningful change.

Ramadan: It's sad that there's so much focus on ISIS and not on ending the conflict and the war in Syria. Sometimes it's not clear for me whether the American administration is actually willing to take further steps to protect Syrians—who are after all the first victims of ISIS—and how much they are willing to not only protect civilians but also put more pressure on Assad. It's been five years. What has been done in that time?

Of course, the United States has a lot of influence and the power to do more than it has. We need to see more action and a different approach to combating ISIS by ending the conflict in Syria.