Damascus, Syria (NI) – Imagine a town or region that has been wrested from government control and is now in the hands of the rebels. One image that comes to mind is the bleak, sterile, murderous society imposed by ISIS in parts of Syria’s northeast. But across whole regions of the country, ordinary Syrians are struggling to build a culture that is humane and vibrant, democratic, plural and just.
Even now, after four and a half years of war, groups are working day in day out to lay the foundations for a better Syria. Subversive graffiti, radio stations, schools, field hospitals, groups offering psycho-social support to children, centres for the education of women – all these initiatives have emerged from Syria’s new civil society. Remarkably, this has happened despite the barrel bombs that the regime continues to drop on rebel-held areas.
In eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold in Damascus, the Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau provides medical care to a starving, besieged community. It has also documented and reported chemical attacks on civilians. Despite a lack of medicine and equipment, these men and women refuse to give up. Their presence reassures local people who have nowhere else to turn.
In Maaret al-Noaman, a strategic city in the northeast, a woman called Muznah runs an educational centre that offers women literacy courses as well as vocational training in nursing and hairdressing. Some attendees are single mothers who, thanks to these courses, are able to find work and support their children. ‘Older women thought that life had already passed them by,’ says Muznah, ‘yet here they are reinventing themselves, making the best of a very dire situation.’
In the Damascus suburb of Daraya, a group of young female journalists have started an outspoken independent weekly newspaper, Enab Baladi, the first of its kind in liberated areas.
In December 2014, we established Planet Syria: a network of over 100 civil-society groups working across the country, in order to make these, and other voices, heard. By knitting groups together, highlighting their stories of creativity and resistance, we aim to strengthen the movement and lift its profile.
These Syrians are begging to be supported in their journey from passive subjects of an authoritarian state to active citizens in charge of their own destiny. We’re asking policymakers to engage with the people who have clung to the righteousness of their struggle for social justice even as the uprising has turned into a complicated war. Patient humanitarian work and nonviolent activism cannot compete for media attention against the gory snuff videos put out by ISIS; but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.
It’s true that many of these groups have seen their work disrupted by radical militias who have risen from Syria’s chaos. But the main impediment to civil society are the barrel bombs, which continue to bury Syrians under the rubble of destroyed neighbourhoods. If liberated rebel-held areas were protected from Assad’s daily onslaught through a No-Fly Zone, for example, the nonviolent civil activism and self-governance that has been established in Syria would start to flourish, refugees would return, and an alternative order to that of Assad would begin to emerge. Unless the bombs are stopped, Planet Syria won’t have faith in the demands of the international community, or any internationally backed peace process.
At the start of this uprising there was a moment of great promise. Many ordinary Syrians have since tried to build on that. Anyone who claims to care about Syria has a duty to support them.