Germany’s agenda for the country should be built on the notion of enabling Syrians: foster self-agency, increase women’s equal representation at peace talks, and give Syrian civil society a voice that gets heard.
A comment by Rahel Freist-Held
Joachim Rücker has recently been appointed as Germany’s new Special Representative for the so-called “Middle East Stability Partnership”. The aforementioned three elements should become crucial pillars of his new mandate. They build on the widely-shared understanding that the situation in Syria and in other conflict zones in the Middle East constitutes, first and foremost, a severe humanitarian tragedy. Therefore, Mr. Rücker’s action plan should aim at supporting the Syrians remaining in the war zones and at paving the way for a self-organized civil society which Syria will so direly need in the difficult years, even decades, to come.
Promote Syrians’ Self-Agency
Evidently, Germany and the entire international community should devise and follow a long-term strategy for Syria, reminding themselves of President Obama’s concept of “strategic patience”. Such a long-term strategy should include a comprehensive approach to supporting the remaining self-organised civil society in the small “islands of hope” within Syria and in the refugee camps bordering to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The majority of the displaced people in Syria are found in the regions of Damascus, Alep, Homs, Deir Ez-Zor and Idlib.
Through mostly financial aid, organised groups in these areas should be enabled to re-build basic infrastructure that includes i.a. educational institutions, facilities providing basic care, therapy, medical treatment, protection from sexual harassment and platforms to conduct social dialogue. In order for the received aid money to serve its intended purpose, a transparent and efficient infrastructure for distribution and controlling needs to be established on the ground.
The remaining infrastructure in refugee camps as well as in regions which have been spared by violence so far will not only provide possibilities of education and medical treatment. It will moreover empower and strengthen self-agency among the Syrian people. International organisations count some 6.5 million internally displaced people in Syria, of them many young people who have spent a large proportion of their lives embroiled in a war they did not cause. Therefore, it is vital to re-enable them to determine their own destiny. A strong, independent and connected civil society will be of great importance for the after-war period.
No Real Peace Process Without Women’s Representation
Taking a closer look at already organised civil society groups in Syria, it becomes evident that the main actors on site are women. Men were sent to fight, women and children were left behind. Interestingly enough, there has been little representation of women at peace talks and international conferences, although they assume key roles in the Syrian civil society and thus arguably have the best insights on what is urgently needed. Against this backdrop, it sounded almost cynical that the UN proudly announced the “historical moment” of having established the first Syrian Women’s Advisory Board to a Special UN envoy at the beginning of 2016. This UN initiative comes far too late. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction. An equal and more prominent representation of Syrian women will ultimately improve communication, coordination and cooperation between external and internal NGOs and governments. The necessity to give a stronger voice to women in conflict zones was also recognized and emphasized by the Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström, who recently put an action plan for a feminist foreign policy on her government’s agenda: “Women must be represented at all levels of society, in parliaments, local authorities, at the negotiating table, in board rooms and in peacekeeping missions, to name but a few.”
Give the Syrian Civil Society a Voice
Throughout the process of implementing the infrastructure in Syrian camps and “islands of hope”, an ongoing exchange of expertise, experiences and ideas between the respective hotspots is indispensable. This will not only help to spread knowledge. It will also foster solidarity among Syrians, something that will prove essential in an eventual after-war period.
“Syrian Civil Society Conferences”, with the support of external NGOs and donors, should be organized in the mid term. It is, however, important that such conferences are initiated and organised by Syrian civil society groups themselves. Ownership is key for such projects to build legitimacy. These conferences will mainly gather different civil society groups from Syria and will bring them together with external NGOs. A similar kind of conference was already organized in Damascus in 2010. Due to the worsening of the situation, however, a follow-up conference in 2011 became impossible to be held. It should be a prime objective of these debated to identify and address weaknesses of the facilities that had been established beforehand. The final report of each conference should then be sent to the United Nations and to international governments, ensuring a better and more efficient exchange of crucial information on how to rebuild Syria’s civil society.
The humanitarian situation in Syria calls for a comprehensive civil society action plan. Mr. Rücker and Germany should play a crucial role in promoting such an approach. Exercising “strategic patience” while enabling Syrian civil society will constitute a make or break issue as to whether the international community’s endeavours in Syria will eventually bear a sustainable and positive impact.
This article is the result of the author’s participation in the Open Situation Room at the Munich Security Conference 2016, conducted by the German Federal Foreign Office and Stiftung Mercator.
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