Civil society in Syria: Curbed by armed groups

Civil society in Syria: Curbed by armed groups
Civil society activists have been threatened and murdered as militant groups have taken over areas previously controlled by the Syrian opposition.
4 min read
12 April, 2015
Activists have been persecuted in Syria [AFP]

A large number of civil society groups formed between mid-2012 and the end of 2013 in areas under Syrian opposition control. These groups have tried to highlight the civil democratic face of the Syrian revolution by organising civil activities.

However, these groups were undermined as armed groups, including the Islamic State group (IS) began asserting control over areas held by the opposition. Civil groups were especially affected after they criticised the behaviour of extremist armed factions, who subsequently banned all civil society activities in areas they controlled.

Civil society activists were forced to join extremist factions, and some were kidnapped or killed. For example, the activist Wael Ibrahim, known as Abu Mariam, was executed by IS who accused him of throwing away a IS banner during a protest in Aleppo.

Activists in Raqqa were forced to escape after IS took control of the city. Those left behind faced being kidnapped or killed. One of the most prominent activists kidnapped by IS in Raqqa was Firas al-Haj Saleh, who came from a family famous for its fierce opposition to former Syrian President Hazef al-Assad's regime and that of his son Bashar.

Civil society groups have therefore had no support for their right to express their opinions or vote for political representation in elections.

Below is a summary of the experiences of two civil society groups: the first started in Aleppo under the name of Lahoun Wa Bas ["this is enough"]. The second started in Raqqa under the name of Harakat Haqquna ["our rights movement"].

Aleppo activists: Lahoun Wa Bas

     A campaign was organised to provide psychological support for children affected by the conflict.

After the Syrian regime retreated from most of Aleppo and armed factions multiplied in the city, an extremist group execution Mohammad Qatta, a 14-year-old, in al-Shaar district. They accused him of apostasy. A group of civil activists organised a campaign called Lahoun Wa Bas. They carried out protests demanding that the city's "religious committee" punish the boy's killers.

A number of other campaigns were organised to protest against Qatta's murder. "Do not become a partner in chaos" was organised because the killers escaped in an unlicensed car. It demanded that the municipal authority starts registering vehicles and issuing number plates. It also organised a sit-in at the municipal building, handed out leaflets and organised a petition that was signed by about 5,000 people.

The "I want my school" campaign was also organised demanding that armed groups leave the schools they had turned into military bases. As a result, a number of schools were handed back.

However, campaign activists who protested against extremist factions and IS were threatened and persecuted. Many fled to the Turkish city of Ghaziantep after IS kidnapped an activist.

Harakat Haqquna: "Masked men stay away"

The Haqquna movement was established in Raqqa on 23 March 2013 after regime forces left the city. The movement was formed by a group of activists living in Raqqa to highlight the non-violent side of the Syrian revolution and affirm the civil aspects of the revolutionary struggle. They did this by trying to raise awareness of election laws and democratic culture, and by stressing civil society's right to oversee elections.

The movement organised a number of civil campaigns in the city including "freedom squares are not execution squares". This happened after a number of activists were murdered by extremist groups to terrorise residents. The campaign lasted for three days. A tent was set up where activists could "mourn for the country" and condemn the violents actions.

A campaign was also organised in cooperation with other civil society groups to provide psychological support for children affected by the conflict. It did this by setting up plays and children's competitions in 14 of Raqqa's neighbourhoods. However, after IS extended its influence over the city and arrested seven of the movement's members, the movement stopped all its activities in the city.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.