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Civil society in Syria keeps the wheels turning

Ibrahim Ghazal has passed on his knowledge to other members of the Taftanaz local council, of which he is president, and to a number of other local councils in Idlib province.

After decades of a strict and brutal regime, few people in Syria had any real degree of knowledge concerning civil society and organisation building. Norwegian People’s Aid has provided courses and support to the local councils who deliver services in the opposition-controlled areas of the war-torn country.

The terrible civil war in Syria is now in its fifth year. What began as a peaceful uprising against one of the world’s most oppressive regimes has turned into a civil war which keeps taking dreadful new twists and turns. Over two hundred thousand people have been killed, mostly as a result of the Assad regime’s airstrikes and barrel bombs, while ISIL has shocked the world with brutal murders and the savage persecution of minorities.   

Facts about Norwegian People’s Aid courses for democracy activists

The project is being run from 2013 – 2015 with support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Course subjects include conflict resolution, negotiation, project management, organisational development, control and evaluation, and communication.

Over 100 people have become course instructors and have passed on their knowledge by means of over 300 further courses in Syria.

Some of the instructors were selected by Norwegian People’s Aid and the network of its partner organisations; others were chosen by the Syrian National Coalition, which is part of the democratic Syrian opposition.

Over 6000 activists have taken part in the courses, almost 1000 of them women.

Courses have been held in 11 of Syria’s 14 provinces. Most take place in Idlib, Aleppo and Deraa.

All the same, in those parts of Syria controlled by opposition forces – what the revolutionaries like to call «liberated zones» – ordinary people continue to keep the wheels turning. Health services, teaching, electricity and bread supplies are maintained by local councils, the members of which generally had little or no experience of public administration before the war forced it upon them. In places such as Aleppo, where the first local council was set up, civil society stands firm, providing services despite daily hostilities between the regime and opposition groups. 

Courses for local councils

In order to strengthen civil society, Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) has provided an extensive programme of courses and tuition for local council representatives in collaboration with the government in exile (MOLA, the ministry for local administration in Syria). Participants, identified and selected by MOLA and NPA contacts, have taken courses which include project implementation, organisational development and project monitoring and evaluation. They are afterwards obliged to pass on what they have learned to others in Syria.

“For the last four decades, the regime in Syria has worked hard to prevent the development of civil society. During and after the revolution, a group of activists emerged and we have begun to build a civil society. As we had lived so long under the control of the regime, we saw the need to build up the capacity of civil society,” says Muthanna Nasser, one of the local council representatives in Aleppo. He is one of the participants that Norwegian People’s Aid has helped to become a course leader and he now teaches organisation building, conflict resolution and project management to other activists in Aleppo.

Despite the fact that course participants in Syria do not receive any pay, interest has been high and the courses very well attended.

“The courses from Norwegian People’s Aid have given the local councils the capacity to provide services of a high quality and standard to the local population. Norwegian People’s Aid is among the organisations which have been the greatest supporters of civil society development in Syria,” says Nasser.

Conflict resolution important

Ibrahim Ghazal is president of the Taftanaz local council in Idlib province, Syria, and another NPA course leader. He speaks of how challenging it is run local councils in Syria, not simply because many areas are prone to bombing and other attacks from the Assad regime, but also because there are innumerable different factions and agendas.

“People in the opposition were not aware of how important it is to have good skills in terms of conflict resolution. They thought it was just a question of mediation between the regime and the opposition. It is, however, just as important to have good conflict management between the various groups in the opposition,” he says.

The attack on Taftanaz

The town that Ghazal comes from, Taftanaz, is an example of how challenging the conditions that the local councils work in can be. Its inhabitants were among the strongest opposition voices at the beginning of the revolution and, in early 2012, Taftanaz suffered a three-day long attack from the Assad regime.

“First they bombed us, then they came at us with tanks and soldiers, fire-bombing residential areas. 75 people were killed, some of them in my own family,” Ghazal tells us.   

Although he and his closest family survived, the house they were living in was burnt to the ground along with hundreds of others. The local infrastructure, sewerage system and electricity supply were all destroyed. The town was home to 22,000 people but only around 100 remained after the attack.

Crucial needs

In January 2013, the Syrian opposition forces managed to drive Assad’s troops from the town. A local council was formed to deal with public tasks such as repairing infrastructure and reinstating health services.

“The first thing we did was to map out residents’ needs. The electricity system was almost totally destroyed but there were many other crucial needs too. We divided the town into zones, identifying houses which were still inhabitable. We repaired whatever could be repaired in terms of electricity cables and water supplies and started encouraging those who had fled to return and bring life back to the area,” says Ghazal.

See Assad’s aircraft every day

The knowledge and contacts he picked up from the courses run by Norwegian People’s Aid have considerably helped his work. Ghazal has taught the other council members about organisational structure and they have collectively laid strategies for the work to come. Other local councils in the Idlib province have also asked him to come and give courses to them. One of the things the Taftanaz council has used its new competence to do is to put forward an application for funds to buy a mobile crane, so the electricity system in the town can be properly repaired.

“There was a lot of backwards and forwards in developing the application and project but Norwegian People’s Aid finally gave us the support we needed. Having the mobile crane makes it much easier for the local council to fulfil the needs of local people,” says Ghazal. 

Now around 70% of those who were internally displaced have returned. People fleeing other areas of Syria have also arrived. Taftanaz today is home to around 16,000 inhabitants.

“The town is relatively safe today but we see fighter aircraft from Assad’s forces fly above us almost every day. It’s like they are saying “We’re keeping an eye on you”,” says Ghazal. Various targets close to the town continue to be bombed on almost a weekly basis. 

Can solve problems

Altogether, over 6000 Syrian activists have participated in NPA courses, among them almost 1000 women. Ibrahim Ghazal is grateful for the support he and the Taftanaz council have received.

“The training from Norwegian People’s Aid has taught me that it’s easy to fear the unknown but if you understand the problem, it is possible to plan ways to solve it,” he says. 

23.04.2015 | Julie Offerdal