Over eight years ago, Syrian men, women, and children took to the streets, often holding hands or clutching roses, calling for political reform. Wahed, Wahed, Wahed, al-Shaab al-Suri Wahed, they chanted — “One, One, One, the Syrian People are One!” But the regime did not listen; instead, we were shot at, gassed, and later bombed. As regime violence escalated, the uprising gradually militarized and what had been a local movement driven by society soon became a vicious conflict driven in large part by foreign governments. Then came al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Hezbollah and soon enough, the lives, thoughts, and desires of ordinary Syrians mattered little.
Today, much of what remains of opposition territories is being obliterated by some of the heaviest aerial bombings seen in years in Syria. More than three million people, two-thirds of whom are internally displaced, are being bombarded hourly by artillery rockets, barrel bombs, and fighter jets in Idlib and neighboring areas in Hama and Aleppo. More than 400,000 have been displaced in three months, and more than 760 killed. Medical organizations on the ground say more than 50 hospitals and clinics have been targeted and forced to close or limit operations, while a similar number of schools have also been bombed. The perpetrators, the Assad regime and Russia, are acting with near-total impunity. Media coverage of this onslaught has been limited and what little there is has focused on the violence itself, but the voices of Syrians have been markedly absent.
Likewise, whether talking about the many Geneva peace talks held since 2012; U.S.-Russian negotiations for cessations of hostility; or the Astana negotiations for “de-escalation,” the input of ordinary Syrians has been minimal at best. Despite having thrived through the past eight years of conflict, Syrian civil society has been an after-thought for most. We Syrians are not just victims; we are part-in-parcel of whatever comes next. We Syrians, on all sides, deserve not just to finally have our agency recognized, but to have it be at the heart of efforts to determine a peaceful and just future for our country.
In recent months, we have gathered together as part of “Voices of Syria,” a project facilitated by the Middle East Institute to gather the voices of Syrian civil society and drive their views and experiences into a more holistic policy discussion. In a recent set of engagements with ordinary men, women, and children inside Syria and among its refugee populations, our findings were profound. When asked about their priorities, these Syrians did not highlight counter-terrorism, diplomatic negotiations or international sanctions; they wanted to address issues like youth and education, women’s rights, social justice, and their desire for a safe and stable future for Syria. World leaders, diplomats, and the general public could learn some valuable lessons by listening to such voices.
Of course, politics and diplomacy are necessary, but the pursuit of these efforts should be based more heavily on the experiences and expectations of Syrians. The crisis our country has experienced since 2011 is extraordinarily complex, but it is also quite simple. Though options for resolution have dwindled in recent years, it is clear that today’s status quo is neither a sustainable nor sensible policy. No political process, let alone a negotiated settlement, will matter much unless Syrian civil society is consulted from the start.
Beyond efforts to end the crisis itself, the international community should also acknowledge the invaluable role Syrian civil society can play in more immediate challenges — from resolving ethnic and political tensions in the northeast, to addressing thorny issues like internally displaced persons and refugee rights, gender representation, education, transitional justice, anti-corruption, and the impact of economic sanctions upon society. When it comes to the ongoing crisis in Idlib — where civil society has thrived more than perhaps anywhere else — the voices of civil society should prove invaluable in determining how best to resolve the area’s various dilemmas.
Syrian civil society is more than just a phrase thrown around by academics and humanitarians. We are real people, living real lives, many of us amid unparalleled adversity. Syria is our nation, just as America is to many of you. Syria is not merely a line drawn along a map — it is our homeland and the famed “cradle of civilizations.” We, the Syrian organizations we represent, and millions of other Syrians stand ready to contribute to determining a safe and just future for our country, if only our voices would be heard.
We, the undersigned:
Lina Sergie Attar