After the Assad regime’s chemical attack in Idlib and the US cruise-missile strike on a Syrian airbase on April 7, the familiar round of questions is again being asked: What should the United States do next? Should we hold diplomatic talks with the Russians and the Syrian government, or should we continue military action against Assad? These are both tired tactics that reinforce a false dichotomy of either militarism or big-power diplomacy. It’s a conversation that caters to both US and Russian imperialism rather than Syrian agency—and we should look beyond this state-centric binary for ways to elevate Syrian self-determination more directly.
Luckily, there’s a way to do exactly that.
If we truly want to help Syrians end the war, we need to put them at the center of our discourse. There are other possibilities beyond appealing to the same regimes that have been responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people over the past six years. Syrians need and deserve our solidarity at a grassroots level right now. Activists have already established a framework to build a free civil society. All we need to do is to help reinforce their efforts.
All across Syria, groups of organizers have been building alternative social and civic infrastructures since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. In mostly rebel-held areas, these groups have formed autonomous city councils, set up their own unique systems of governance, and developed their own networks to keep schools running, maintain open and safe public spaces, and facilitate a free intellectual life.
Among the examples: Al Qiyam Cultural Foundation, a grassroots institution that has initiated educational projects in Homs since 2013, launched a public lecture series in January on the political history of Syria. In eastern Ghouta, a suburb outside of Damascus, activists are starting a new initiative called Bidi Madrasti, or “I want to stay in school,” which will work to keep children from quitting school and encourage them to continue their education. In Inkhel, a suburb near the southern city of Deraa, the Ajyal (“Generations”) Cultural Center recently opened a public library with 7,000 books on its shelves.
Independent Syrian media continue to have a presence in the country. There are roughly 30 publications still functioning in parts of Syria, most of them distributed online. These papers publish local news as well as essays critical of the Assad regime, ISIS, Al Nusra, and other jihadi groups. Citizen actions across the country are also reported in these papers. They are available online at the Syrian Prints Archive, a project aimed at preserving print publications that began at the start of the uprising. Enab Baladi, an independent Syrian news outlet that has been operating since 2011, has also held workshops to train journalists in investigative reporting.
In Saraqeb, a group called Saraqeb Youth produced a series of satirical plays on the realities of life under siege by the regime and armed jihadi groups. Other artistic initiatives continue to emerge in southern Damascus, where young people have performed comedic sketches critical of regime forces brokering a “peace deal” in the area.
Women’s organizing for greater civic participation and representation has also been reported by Enab Baladi and a weekly news publication called Tamaddun, or “Progress.” A few months ago, women began campaigning for increased representation on the free city council in Douma, a city northeast of Damascus. The Syrian Civil Defense (famously known as the White Helmets) in Deraa also strongly depend on women to maintain the organization’s day-to-day functions, from saving civilians to informing citizens on the best ways to protect themselves from air strikes.
Many of these initiatives are not able to consistently maintain their activity due to sieges by the regime and by extremist groups like ISIS and Al Nusra. But by centering their work in the conversation, we are prioritizing Syrian agency rather than US and Russian imperialism. Their project, which should also be ours, is to push back against Assad’s efforts to force the Syrian population into desperation. When Syrians are no longer subject to food shortages and a lack of medical care, or deprived of the means to sustain their livelihoods, they will be able to more effectively organize and end the war themselves. Instead of thinking about which state we should back, we can continue the pressure to stop the bombing and violence from all parties in Syria and foster conditions that would make it possible for Syrians to pursue civic endeavors. In other words, we should support homegrown humanitarian and civic initiatives that are working to give Syrians access to health care, education, and basic living necessities and enable self-sufficiency.
There are a couple of concrete ways we can support Syrian civic activism. First, we can donate to organizations that fund Syrian-led humanitarian efforts. The Syria Campaign, a UK-based NGO, runs humanitarian programs and helps finance civic initiatives, including the Syrian Civil Defense, so they can continue operating. The Syrian American Medical Society provides health services in as much of the country as it can. The Karam Foundation, founded by Syrian-American Lina Sergie Attar and staffed largely by Syrians, also runs several humanitarian programs as well as ones that reinforce self-sufficiency, including providing scholarships to Syrian-refugee students, selling products made by Syrian women in Damascus, and helping cultivate farms and gardens in the countryside.
Outside of giving to these organizations, we can support Syrian self-determination by actually following and amplifying their work. Stories written by Syrian journalists outside of regime territory are often overshadowed by articles from other writers who are not in Syria and who are unaware of these efforts. In many cases, they offer decontextualized analysis that waters down the immense crimes of the Assad regime. There are dozens of independent publications and Syrian journalists telling the story of what’s happening inside the country every week, but very little (if any) attention is paid to them.
Thus, another opportunity for those of us who are Arabic speakers is to translate journalism coming out of Syria into English, and to share the work of Syrian journalists in our networks and on social media. This kind of solidarity not only helps to disseminate information outside Syria about the experience of the war and the civic infrastructure that’s been built as resistance; it also helps to sustain the dangerous and important work these Syrian journalists and activists are doing.
As small as these fledgling initiatives might seem, they’re the product of a strong sense of self-determination among Syrians that mainstream narratives do not recognize. Our job, as people outside of Syria witnessing the horrors of the war there, is not to fall into the trap of either diplomatic or military intervention. Rather, it is to support the humanitarian and civic work being done, at great risk, by and for Syrians—and to help bring that work to an international audience. It is important to stand against imperialist military intervention, but that is not enough. We need to practice solidarity with those working to build a free and autonomous society for all Syrians. An end to the war depends on it.