Civil Society Should Not be Locked Out of Syria Talks

This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post:

As talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict got off to a shaky start in Geneva a few days ago and have now been suspended until February 25, Secretary of State John Kerry has urged “both sides to make the most of this moment.” Kerry knows, of course, there are many more than two sides to the conflict. The Geneva talks are set up broadly to put President Bashar al-Assad’s government and a dizzying array of opposition factions under the umbrella of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in some sort of dialogue, albeit indirectly to start.

Some major players in the fight are not in the Geneva talks – ISIL for instance, and some of the major Kurdish groups. But there is also no formal role in the talks for Syrian civil society. Kerry is right that the initiative’s goal should be creating “the basis for an inclusive, peaceful, and pluralistic Syria,” but it’s hard to see how any informed political deal can be found without direct input from those battling to hold what’s left of Syrian society together.

Negotiations for Northern Ireland’s largely successful peace process in the 1990s involved the direct participation of civil society, notably the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. Civil society provided vital input that helped end Ireland’s sectarian violence. But for now Syria’s civil society is left out of the rooms where its fate will be decided.

United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said he hopes that women’s groups and other civil society players will eventually be brought in, likely in advisory roles. But activists should not be relegated to token players. For the talks to succeed, they should have a recognized, official role. So far there is no formal mandate for the HNC to consider recommendations from civil society. Putting civil society’s concerns and proposed solutions at the heart of negotiations is essential to producing a sustainable deal.

Hundreds of Syrian civil society organizations, local and regional, large and small, have signed onto a call broadly supporting the HNC position outlining what should happen in the talks. Organizations backing this call include The White Helmets, volunteer first responders who rescue and offer medical help to bombing victims. Local councils trying to introduce democracy and fight corruption, women’s organizations, and groups of lawyers and writers also joined in. Over a thousand individual activists have publicly supported the initiative. The declaration urges “that there be no role for Bashar al-Assad and those responsible for persecuting the Syrian people” in any transitional body set up by the talks, a condition that the U.S. government appears to have backed away from.

The civil society organizations also identify other preconditions to any successful outcome of the negotiations, including ending the barrel bombing of civilians, lifting the areas under siege, releasing all political detainees and full details on what happened to those forcibly disappeared.

The human rights activists I met with last month in Gaziantep on the Turkish side of the Syrian border worry that there will eventually be a political deal that suits the major world and regional powers, but civil society priorities will be an afterthought. “Whatever happens it should be opposite of Iraq,” said one, referring to the postwar mess in the neighboring country.

If we’re lucky the Geneva talks might prove to be the beginning of the end, but the chance of delivering a solid deal that will stick depends on the early involvement of the country’s medics, students, engineers, and other civil society representatives. Syria’s problems are too big to be left to politicians alone.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on February 4, 2016


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