The deepening brutality of the war steadily empowered its most radical forces, and by 2013, a growing extremist Islamist movement had hijacked the legitimate Syrian revolution. Today, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State capture the world’s attention with their ominous flags, their international terrorism campaigns and their vicious public killings. Global public opinion seems to have largely accepted the idea that in this war there is a choice only between Assad and the religious extremists. Yet there is a third force in Syrian society that continues to hold its own, even it has been largely overshadowed by the actions of the regime and the jihadists. This is Syria’s civil society.
Over the past six years, Syrian civil society groups have achieved the impossible while operating under desperate conditions. They have created institutions of self-government and schools free of the Baathist principles that pervade the state-approved curriculum. They have organized community services such as street cleaning and food gardens. In areas where the government has cut off water supplies to punish the opposition, these grass-roots groups have even built their own water sanitation systems. It is organizations such as these that have given the Syrian people outlets to continue their activism through peaceful means, to combat authoritarianism with weapons other than guns and bullets. Instead, they offer hope, knowledge and a sense of belonging.
The world has bought into the false notion that wars are won on the battlefield. But the war of sustainable ideas in Syria is waged by its civil society groups. Instead of asking Syrians to live a life of complete allegiance to the Baathist regime, these institutions are encouraging citizens to run for local office or to engage in critical thinking about schooling. Local initiatives such as these were unheard-of under Baathist rule. As a result, many Syrians finally understand, for the first time, how it feels to take some measure of control over their lives.
I will never forget the early days of the revolution. I remember the stark image of Ghiath Matar, who passed water bottles to Syrian soldiers who were ordered to kill peaceful protesters in the town of Daraya. His actions there did much to make people aware of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, an organization of which I am a proud member and one that has remained alive despite efforts by both the regime and the armed opposition to quell our cries for freedom.
We also have the examples of Maimouna Alammar and Osama Nassar, two brave activists who helped to establish the Violations Documentation Center, an organization that collects evidence on the cases of those who have been abused, arrested or killed — an extremely difficult task in a society at war. The Horras Child Protection Network, which also operates in besieged eastern Ghouta, provided educational and psycho-social support services to more than 18,000 children last year alone. The White Helmets, the grass-roots civil defense group, have saved more 78,000 lives and became the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary. And then there is Abdelsalaam Dayif, a heroic doctor from Syria Relief & Development (an organization I co-founded), who travels every week between Aleppo and Idlib, providing medical aid to victims of constant barrel-bombing attacks. These are just a few of many. The list goes on.
Over the past several years, these institutions have directly confronted armed groups. In July 2016, to name but one example, civil society organizations protested the beheading of a teenage boy by members of Nour-el-Din Zenki, an armed rebel group that had previously received U.S. support. In response to the public outrage, the rebels were forced to condemn the killing.
Given the chance, there is little doubt that most Syrians would take the side of organizations such as these. They haven’t surrendered. It is because of their noble work that Assad and the Islamic State alike are targeting them, singling them out, attacking them and jailing them.
Unfortunately, the future of these organizations is now at risk — and not just because of their enemies at home. Some of these groups depend on funding from the United States, the United Nations and our European allies — funding that now may be cut.
This would be scandalously shortsighted. These are the people who will pass on the legacy of the revolution to the next generation. They will take the lead in rebuilding society so that those of differing faiths, beliefs and ethnicities can live under one flag once again. Assad will not be able to patch Syria back together because he does not have the moral legitimacy to do so. The leaders and activists of Syria’s vibrant civil society do. And they will bring Syria through its transition into democracy because that is what they have been doing since the war began. Let’s help them to continue doing it.