THE LEVANT – By Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj – The Syrian civil war has emerged as one of the conflicts most heavily covered by media, yet least understood. The claims and counterclaims of massacres, conspiracies, and mayhem abound. Following from afar, the international mainstream news portrays Syria as if it ceased to exist as a society, and a certain ‘normalization’ of the war has set in. However, while clichés continue to oversimplify the complex situation and thus indirectly fuel the violence, one should take a closer look at the emerging civil society working inside the country on peace initiatives among Syrians from different political and religious backgrounds. These civil society groups are taking the responsibility of holding the society together into their own hands. They are preserving a humane space where Syrians still accept each other as equal citizens despite the hate perpetuated around them.
In the midst of this chaos, many Syrians – individually and in groups – are taking a stance against reductionist narratives, resisting the temptation to dehumanize each other, rejecting the peer pressure of adhering blindly to one’s own sect or clan, contesting hate speech, and ultimately refusing to be utilized as fodder for war. The emerging peace initiatives take different shapes and forms. Youth groups are disseminating the values and skills of active citizenship to promote social cohesion; others are working on innovative communication strategies to demonstrate the costs of war and raising awareness on the devastating impact of continued hostilities.
In Daraa, in the south of Syria, where fighting has disrupted normal school, several young activists have opened a learning center to teach the values of peace and coexistence alongside basic ABCs. They fundraise for their activities as best they can among Syrian expats and bring scarce resources from across the border to do theater and to produce a local youth newspaper. Their efforts were so successful that they were able to expand to nearby towns and open two new centers. In Tartous, in the west, activists have decided to cross the sectarian dividing lines between the local villages and are working with teenagers on developing active citizenship values like civil responsibility, inclusiveness, and respect for difference through informal education programs and play groups. Often, they bring trainers from other zones to ensure that Syrian youth are interacting together. In Aleppo, in northern Syria, an alliance of civil society organizations has divided the responsibilities of humanitarian relief among themselves sharing whatever resources they are able to raise equally among the different sectors of the city and bridging the political dividing line between the eastern and western parts of the city. At critical moments, they negotiated with the local authorities representing rebel and loyalist forces to ensure that minimal basic water and electricity services were still flowing in the city’s grid from one end to the other.
Further east in Rakka, a youth group is braving the radical Islamist group known previously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now as the Islamic State. In secret, they organize sport training for girls as part of their secular learning agenda. Local notables in a town north of Damascus were able to broker a deal with both the regular army and the rebels to halt hostilities. Youth groups in the town are working with rebels to counter radicalism by operating a cinema club and showing movies that promote peace. And the list goes on.
Peace activists are using their own resources to help mitigate the devastating impact of the crisis. They do their work in silence often out of fear of being targeted by the different belligerents. Naturally, this work undermines the hate narratives needed to legitimize violence. However, their work remains very localized and disconnected from the formal peace process. The international community ought to take notice and support civil society in Syria to create greater momentum and develop strategic alliances that can influence the top-down political process being advanced in Geneva. Politicians in the West need to follow the lead of ordinary Syrians risking their lives every day to bring peace to their communities. The regional and global stakeholders should find the moral prerogative to break their political deadlock and the courage to negotiate an end to their proxy wars in Syria. Only then might Syrians have a chance to bridge their own divides and reach workable solutions to achieve peace.