Syrian Civil Society Voices: A Critical Part of the Political Process

The Office of the Special Envoy’s Syrian Civil Society Support Room

Proceedings of the CSSR consultations in Geneva, January 2020. Photo credit: NOREF

Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen’s recent warning to the Security Council was dire: after a decade of conflict, the country’s humanitarian situation was “immense, and growing.” He painted a picture of economic destitution, displacement, detention and abduction, all taking place in the midst of a pandemic. As violent conflict, terrorist acts and human rights abuses continue, he cautioned, Syrians were inching towards “an even deeper abyss”. Alongside a nationwide ceasefire, a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political solution was desperately needed. With that in mind, he also underscored the importance of the work of the Civil Society Support Room, an initiative created by his Office in order to consult with the widest range of Syrian voices, including in the diaspora.

While the UN is an organization of Member States, it has a long history of working with civil society. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue to play a key role in bringing the work of the UN to people around the world, through their activities in such spheres as human rights, humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding.

Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), which guides the work of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE-Syria), calls for a truly inclusive Syrian-led and -owned political process that is facilitated by the UN in Geneva, which fully meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of all Syrians. While civil society actors have engaged with OSE-Syria since 2012, more robust inclusion was deemed necessary.

To this end, in January 2016, the OSE-Syria launched the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) as a platform through which a broad and diverse group of Syrian civil society actors could engage with and consult with one another, as well as OSE-Syria and other key international stakeholders, providing substantial insights and tangible ideas to the Special Envoy on issues related to resolution 2254.

OSE-Syria established a partnership with international peacebuilding organizations with extensive experience in mediation processes, namely Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution (NOREF) and swisspeace. The CSSR has also been providing regular opportunities for Syrian civil society to engage member states and UN agencies through dedicated advocacy sessions facilitated by the OSE-Syria CSSR team. The CSSR is supported by Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Sweden, and the European Union.

To date, some 1000 Syrian civil society actors have been consulted through this process and most remain actively engaged. While CSSR interlocutors are not considered part of the formal political process as such, their participation has contributed gradually to institutionalizing their role as informed, influential, and invested stakeholders and as critical partners in, and for, the future of Syria.

CSSR: a chance to deepen inclusivity

Members of the CSSR include Jomana Bazbouz of the Woman Support Association, which is based in Gaziantep, Turkey. For Bazbouz, the Room provides a valuable opportunity to contribute. “Efforts led by individual experts, activists and Syrian [civil society organizations] managed to impact advocacy efforts to support the humanitarian needs of civilians that were impacted by the war,” she told Politically Speaking. However, she also noted that, thus far, the CSSR’s ability to influence political efforts has been more limited.

CSSR “is an opportunity to meet with international actors involved in the Syrian file and drive them to play more balanced and effective roles,” said Aladdin Zayat, a civil society activist, based in Istanbul, Turkey. He added that engaging with CSSR “is a unique and significant experience which allows a future view of a Syria that respects and supports civic values.”

Marwa Jerdy, from the Nour Foundation, which is based in Damascus, said she felt that civil representation from government-controlled areas inside Syria is still lacking, compared with the larger representation of civil society members working in areas outside of government control, or even outside Syria.

Among the Syrians who have either participated or remain actively engaged in the CSSR, 42 per cent are women, while 44 per cent are based across Syria’s governorates. They represent humanitarian NGOs, human rights organizations, and groups leading peacebuilding and local dialogue initiatives. Some are also individual experts in a particular field.

Access, internet connectivity, and the ability to undertake international travels for CSSR consultations in Geneva and other regional hubs can be a challenge.

Virtual regional consultations and thematic working groups

Before COVID-19 travel restrictions, the OSE-Syria CSSR team travelled regularly to different regional hubs to consult with CSSR actors setting up NGOs and grass-roots initiatives. While COVID-19 prevented regional consultations from taking place through in-person consultations, the OSE-Syria CSSR team adopted a range of new online virtual platforms and tools, ensuring continuity and expanding the scope of inclusion for civil society actors based in hard-to-reach areas, and ensure that those who are unable to travel to Geneva or regional hubs, especially women, can still be included in the process.

In June, OSE-Syria launched a new round of CSSR regional consultations, with Syrians from a variety of political backgrounds, with women well represented and logging on from Syria, Germany, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States and elsewhere to participate.

During these consultations, Special Envoy Geir Pedersen and Deputy Special Envoy Khawla Matar addressed CSSR members and listened to their views on a number of substantive issues and priorities as seen from the broad and diverse perspective of civil society working actoss thematic fields. Matar noted that, in addition to the work of civil society actors, the unity of the international community was vital for the political process. The Deputy Special Envoy said that the OSE-Syria is pushing for the emergence of a means to bring together the main key external players to discuss how to enhance practical cooperation in Syria. This would be important alongside the efforts of Syrians, including those of delegations in the Constitutional Committee, as well as CSSR and members of the Women’s Advisory Board.

Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, Deputy Envoy Matar and EU High Representative Borrell engage on the margins of the Fifth Brussels Conference on the future of Syria, March 2021. Photo credit: swisspeace.

CSSR participants spoke on social and economic priorities, human rights, participation in the UN mediation process and ways they could further their support, as well as women’s participation, humanitarian access and protection, and confidence-building measures, including on the pressing issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons. Despite the diversity of their opinions and experiences, the ability of these civil society actors to engage in constructive and respectful exchanges, cooperate, and provide insightful advice was noteworthy, and once again brought to light their commitment to civil values, social cohesion, human rights and peaceful coexistence. Finding a political solution to the conflict and an end the decades-long suffering of the Syrian people remains their number one priority.

Also in June, the CSSR held the first of a series of virtual Thematic Working Groups (TWGs) on a customized digital platform entirely dedicated to CSSR participants and accessible through the CSSR website. The first TWG is set to discuss civic space and values, and will also present recommendations to OSE-Syria on legal and practical measures to enhance and expand civic space and ensure civil society inclusion in the political process.

The TWGs were designed in response to requests made by civil society actors to contribute substantively on issues relating to resolution 2254 and the mediation and facilitation efforts of the Special Envoy. They intend to enhance intra-Syrian civil society dialogue on substantive issues and provide broader opportunities for advocacy on a range of thematic issues.

Other TWGs will be launched in the coming weeks on other issues, including on legal and constitutional issues; protection priorities for Syrians; the economy, social cohesion, parameters to support the voluntary and dignified return of refugees and IDPs, women’s empowerment and youth.

As the Special Envoy noted in his briefing to the Council, his Office, and the civil society voices with which it engages, are all devoted to ending the conflict and the suffering of the Syrian people. Anas Joudeh of the National Building Movement in Damascus sounded a note of optimism as he reflected on the progress that had been made. “In the Syrian mentality now, there is a sense that civil actors are part of the political [process] and can discuss things such as the constitution, or the role of women, and many other things that Syrians didn’t discuss in the public sphere”, he told Politically Speaking. The CSSR network of Syrian activists, he said “could be the main approach, or one of the most important approaches or possibilities to [bring] Syrians together again”.

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