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UN-led mediation in Syria and civil society

Marie-Joëlle Zahar and Sara Helmüller explore challenges of civil society inclusion in peace efforts in Syria. Armed conflict in Syria is multi-layered, involving a multiplicity of national actors and of regional and geopolitical interests.
Marie-Joëlle Zahar and Sara Helmüller explore challenges of civil society inclusion in peace efforts in Syria. Armed conflict in Syria is multi-layered, involving a multiplicity of national actors and of regional and geopolitical interests. International narratives have exaggerated external actors’ influence, underplaying local agency and diversity. Syrian civil society has been labelled as either close to government or close to the opposition, with Damascus branding further ‘opposition' civil society as terrorists. Recent UN mediation efforts have tried to break this mould, for example through the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) – an independent platform of Syrian civil society actors that come together to influence the political process. But while civil society may have helped to broaden intra-Syrian talks, they have not reconciled fundamental splits among the conflict parties and can risk sending misleading messages of progress and legitimacy.

Multi-layered conflict

In the months after Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, peaceful demonstrations calling for reforms and regime change were increasingly violently repressed and militarised, pitting a fragmented opposition against the Syrian government. Regional powers quickly stepped into the fray, projecting their rivalries onto Syria and jockeying for regional preeminence. Iran provided support to the government, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supported the increasingly organised opposition.

Beyond the region, the conflict has laid bare differences among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Initially, Western powers thought that President Bashar al-Assad’s departure was imminent. They made it clear that his government had lost legitimacy and that they heavily supported the opposition, albeit with growing concerns about the emergence of radical groups. Fearing a repeat of recent events in Libya, where humanitarian intervention provided the cover for regime change, Russia and China opposed any efforts that could provide the legal basis for a Western-led intervention. Russia subsequently provided assistance to the Syrian government and intervened militarily in September 2015. Against this background, the rise of extremist forces, such as the al-Nusra Front and Islamic State, offered justification for further American and Russian involvement.

The multi-layered nature of the Syrian conflict has had profound impacts on Syrian society. Regional and international power games and their corresponding narratives have taken a heavy toll on social cohesion and contributed to reinforcing subnational identities among Syrians. At the same time, external involvement has also rendered ordinary Syrians and their diverse interests more ‘invisible’, as both the media and analysts have described the conflict in broad geopolitical terms, overlooking the agency of Syrian actors, including civil society organisations, who were painted as proxies of foreign agendas.

This has not only impacted the ways in which Syrian civil society has mobilised, but has also affected relations between civil society and external state and non-state donors, as well as the ways in which the three previous UN mediators designed their processes to support civil society inclusion.

Civil society mobilisation in Syria

Before the conflict, Syrian civil society mostly comprised charities and government-controlled NGOs. Between 1959 and 2010, only around 1,074 organisations were registered in Syria. In the early days of Bashar al-Assad’s accession to power in 2000, regime critics were also active issuing calls for liberalisation in what was termed the ‘Damascus Spring’ – although they would soon be silenced. With the start of the peaceful protest movements in 2011, activists created many new civil society organisations. As the situation deteriorated, and as the state and its services were either ousted or withdrew from opposition-controlled areas, local coordination committees developed from loose initiatives between young activists to become well-organised networks taking care of humanitarian aid and service provision. Of the many humanitarian, peacebuilding and development initiatives that ensued, some were institutionalised into formal NGOs, usually registered outside Syria, while others continued to work more informally.

Because demands for change started with popular protest movements, many Western capitals equated Syrian civil society with the Syrian opposition. As the opposition became increasingly fragmented and militarised, many civil society organisations expressed concerns about the use of military means to oppose the regime. In spite of this, many Western capitals made no distinction between peaceful civil society actors and political opposition groups who subscribed to the military struggle. Nor did all civil society actors feel represented by the various opposition movements. Moreover, only civil society organisations established after 2011 or that operated in areas beyond government control were generally visible to Western powers and donors. As a result of these factors, the West tended to overlook Syria’s pre-2011 civil society organisations, as well as groups that were less formal or accessible.

Over time, outside actors became more aware of the diversity and complexity of Syrian civil society. However, binary narratives that portrayed the conflict as a struggle between two sides shaped international understandings of Syrian civil society as either ‘close to the government’ or ‘close to the opposition’. Allies of the Syrian government, meanwhile, portrayed civil society organisations ‘close to the opposition’ as terrorists, as illustrated by debates over the function of the White Helmets. These narratives have had an impact on the ability of organisations to function and collaborate, and have narrowed the geographical space in which civil society actors have been able to implement their programmes and activities. They have also exacerbated friction between organisations located in government- and opposition-controlled regions.

Civil society inclusion in the mediation process

The multi-layered nature of the Syrian conflict and its geopolitical dimensions have influenced how UN mediators have included civil society in the peace process. Initially, the description of the conflict as a proxy war comforted mediators in the belief that a solution could not be primarily national, between the government and its fractious opposition, but that it needed the ‘blessing’ of regional and international powers. This was particularly reflected in the approach of the first two UN-Arab League mediators, Annan and Brahimi, who sought to get regional and international parties to lean on their Syrian allies and bring them to the negotiating table.

Annan and Brahimi led what can best be described as ‘exclusionary’ processes. Annan’s peacemaking effort culminated in his convening of the Action Group for Syria – which included government representatives of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the US, Turkey, the LAS, the UN, the European Union, Iraq (in its capacity as LAS Summit Chair), Kuwait (in its capacity as chair of the LAS Council of Foreign Ministers) and Qatar (as Chair of the LAS follow-up committee on Syria). The group’s meeting on 30 June 2012 – better known as Geneva I – resulted in the publication of the Geneva Communiqué, an international plan for an immediate ceasefire and an outline for peaceful transition. Yet, while Annan repeatedly highlighted the importance of including civil society actors in efforts to find peace, no Syrian civil society representatives were formally consulted in the process.

Following Annan’s resignation, new UN-LAS joint envoy Brahimi faced the reality of a heavy escalation of violence. It took him 18 months to bring the conflict parties together in the ‘Geneva II’ negotiations of late January to early February 2014. Although Brahimi met with some civil society actors, particularly women members of various organisations brought together on the sidelines of Geneva II by UN Women and the Netherlands government, he did not invite them to the talks. Like Annan, Brahimi stressed civil society’s and particularly women’s involvement as crucial, but focused on working with the main conflict parties and their regional and international supporters. The Geneva II talks broke down after only a few days and Brahimi resigned shortly thereafter. Both sets of efforts – in which civil society groups were not formally involved – failed to make any significant progress or reduce the violence.

The third mediator, de Mistura, took a different approach, seeking to include civil society while at the same time continuing to work at regional and international levels. After a failed attempt at brokering a local ‘freeze’ in fighting in Aleppo, de Mistura invited a number of civil society organisations to meet with him in the framework of the ‘Geneva consultations’ – an attempt to broaden discussions on next steps to resolve the conflict. De Mistura further institutionalised civil society’s participation when intra-Syrian political talks resumed under his auspices in January 2016. He established the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) as a space at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in which to invite a diverse group of Syrian civil society actors whenever UN-led talks were happening. They would engage in dialogue among themselves and with the mediation team, UN member states, UN agencies, international experts and NGOs, and potentially also the official delegations of the parties. Over the years, the CSSR has grown in scope and now has held meetings not just in Geneva but also in the region. It has developed into a platform of Syrian civil society actors that come together to influence the political process.

De Mistura’s attempt to include Syrian civil society reflects the challenges that such a complex geopolitical conflict creates for inclusion. On the one hand, de Mistura was aided by the fact that by the time he took office, civil society was increasingly acknowledged as diverse and comprising distinct actors with their own interests and views, diluting perceptions of civil society as being part of ‘the opposition’ and partisan. On the other hand, de Mistura continued to focus on the conflict parties and their regional and international allies, and in fact the decisions on the format of inclusion and on which civil society actors to involve in the Geneva talks in part reflected the fact that some influential governments continued to resist the idea of having civil society at the table. This illustrates the power of the conflict parties and regional and international actors to affect decisions on inclusion.

Contributions and challenges of civil society inclusion

Syrian civil society participants in the intra-Syrian talks through the CSSR have made important contributions to the peace process. They often consult with their constituencies or networks before travelling and report back on what has been discussed in Geneva, providing linkages between the talks and the broader Syrian public. Civil society actors have also been essential to broadening the spectrum of views that influence the intra-Syrian talks. Even though this influence is mostly indirect, civil society actors bring perspectives and expertise that the main conflict parties do not represent. They enable the mediation team to design a more context-sensitive process – whether on urgent local needs and priorities, legal and constitutional issues, elections, detainees, missing persons and abductees, transitional justice, or other topics, this local knowledge and expertise provides important information about the reality on the ground. Civil society also offers a more nuanced understanding of Syrian perspectives on issues essential to the sustainability of any peace deal.

At the same time, civil society actors’ presence in Geneva helped de Mistura garner support for the political process and distinguished the UN-led talks from parallel initiatives, especially the Astana talks sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran since December 2016 as well as the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, Russia, held in January 2018. Thus, at a time when other initiatives sometimes appear to be taking the momentum away from UN conflict-resolution efforts, civil society inclusion actually bolsters the claim that the Geneva political process is the only process endowed with legitimacy.

Entering a high-level political negotiation arena has elevated the visiblity and role of some civil society and individuals, even though they were not meeting directly with the conflict parties during the talks. As a result, some civil society actors expressed scepticism about participating in the CSSR from the outset due to concerns over the politicisation of their work – particularly the risks of being linked to certain parties to the conflict – or for personal security concerns. Others were thrust in the political limelight and had to navigate uncharted territory of political sensitivities that sometimes created tensions between them and their constituencies. Furthermore, try as they may to avoid this, some civil society actors still fell captive to the binary readings of the conflict which worked to deepen cleavages between them.

Concluding reflections

An end to the war in Syria fundamentally depends on the willingness of the conflict parties and their main allies. But analysts highlight that the Geneva process is increasingly being overtaken by the Russian-led diplomatic initiative. In the meantime, on the ground, the Syrian army backed by its Russian and Iranian allies has regained control over most opposition-controlled areas. The conflict may be in its endgame, but Syrian civil society actors’ participation in conflict resolution will remain crucial for the legitimacy and the sustainability of peacebuilding.

The contributions that civil society actors make to the intra-Syrian talks clearly indicate that their inclusion in the CSSR stems from more than the UN deeming it the right thing to do. Civil society representatives have brought valuable information and perspectives to bear, and former UN Special Envoy de Mistura considered consulting with them a political necessity. Indeed, institutionalised civic inclusion has set the Geneva process apart from other attempts at ending the Syrian conflict. Not only does this potentially ensure broader Syrian support and legitimacy for the UN-led process, but it may also play a role in securing the public acceptance of any peace agreement signed in Geneva. Thus, the norm of inclusion also has pragmatic, realpolitik consequences.

But civil society inclusion also has its limits. When the conflict parties are unwilling to resolve the conflict peacefully and to engage in serious negotiations, civil society inclusion cannot substitute for a process in disarray. To the contrary, their continuous inclusion into a stalled process risks sending a wrong impression of progress and legitimacy and may mask fundamental challenges instead of addressing them.

It is difficult to draw conclusions on the longer-term effect of civil society inclusion in the intra-Syrian talks. But the CSSR has certainly set important standards. It has helped to underline and constantly push the boundaries of the space allowed for civil society itself, and can provide a model for civil society inclusion in other peace processes involving multilayered conflicts. The CSSR has allowed the UN to navigate the troubled waters of inclusion in a context where conflict parties did not want civil society to be involved, and where regional and international dynamics risked blinding mediators to the local dimensions of the conflict. As many contemporary conflicts exhibit similarly multi-layered dynamics, the challenges encountered in the Syrian process should be carefully assessed to allow for conflict-sensitive design of future inclusion mechanisms.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.