Search

 

Cablegate: Mapping Syrian Civil Society: A Wilderness Of

VZCZCXYZ0018
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #6342/01 3401517
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 061517Z DEC 05
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5951
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD 0523
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L DAMASCUS 006342

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

PARIS FOR ZEYA; LONDON FOR TSOU

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/12/2015
TAGS: PGOV KDEM KMPI PREL SY
SUBJECT: MAPPING SYRIAN CIVIL SOCIETY: A WILDERNESS OF
CONFLICTING INTERESTS AND SARG PRESSURES


Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Stephen A. Seche, per 1.4 b,d.

1. (C) Summary: Developments in Syria over the past 18
months have focused fresh attention on the need for USG
support for democratization and efforts to strengthen civil
society in Syria. As Post begins mapping out the different
players in civil society and the opposition for use in
identifying future interlocutors and programs to support, we
believe it is important to raise some of the challenges that
will face us in our dealings with Syrian civil society.
These include intense, ongoing SARG intimidation and
surveillance; ideological cleavages, especially between
secularists and Islamic groups; divisions over whether to
accept USG support and concerns with losing credibility if
viewed as too close to the U.S.; personal jealousies and
top-down management culture, as well as divisions between
civil society and the political opposition in Syria. Given
these factors, Post advocates an enhanced USG program of
assistance to Syrian civil society that would emphasize
sustained public expressions of support for fundamental
political and economic reform, even as we identify new groups
or individuals who could benefit from ramped up funding for
existing programs. Post would also like to see a more
ambitious use of regional projects with neighboring Arab
countries. Embassy Damascus looks forward to the input and
insights that Senior Advisor Denehy will provide as he begins
his meetings with local activists. Post's suggested mapping
exercise will be forwarded by email to relevant parties. End
Summary.

2. (C) In recent months, as dissatisfaction with the SARG's
repression of basic civil rights has grown, Post has
intensified efforts to identify key civil society and
opposition players who are likely to play a role in
democratization efforts in Syria. Part of that experience
has made it clear that there are real problems to be
confronted in any effort to increase our outreach to Syrian
civil society dramatically, or in proposing more ambitious
collaborative efforts among groups in civil society.

3. (C) SARG CONTROL OVER CIVIL SOCIETY: As our reporting
has indicated over the past two years, civil society in Syria
is very weak, suffering from years of systematic repression
by the SARG and its security services. The government
closely controls which fledgling organizations are granted
licenses to organize. Only organizations that toe the party
line are allowed any sort of political role or voice. Others
who aspire to such a role are refused licenses. The
government more routinely licenses organizations that stick
to anodyne activities divorced from anything distinctly
political (with the SARG using a very broad definition about
what constitutes political activity). There is, for example,
an active NGO focused on the environment that has unofficial
SARG blessing. (Note: The NGO's president consciously chose
an environmental mission as a way to develop civic activism,
knowing the subject matter would not /not alarm the SARG.
End Note.) A few SARG-licensed NGO's, like FIRDOS, which
focuses on micro-enterprise, are blessed with the official
patronage of First Lady Asma Asad. The number of independent
NGO's and civil society players with the capacity -- putting
aside for the moment the issue of willingness -- to develop
new projects that the USG could fund is very limited.

4. (C) ASKING FOR PERMISSION TO ORGANIZE: There is a
two-track system for controlling the licensing of new NGO's,
one controlled by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs,
which has nominal control over the licensing of NGO's, and
the other controlled by the security services. Both
Political Security Directorate (PSD) and General Intelligence
Directorate (GID), as well as Syrian Military Intelligence
(SMI) seem to exercise overlapping, sometimes unpredictably
enforced authority over civil-society activities. When the
activities of XXXXXXXXXXXX, the head of XXXXXXXXXXXX,
for example, became an irritant to the SARG, he was called in
on several occasions and interrogated by SMI head Asif
Shawkat himself. (Note: XXXXXXXXXXXX subsequently left Syria
and is now in the U.S., trying to run his organization
long-distance.)

5. (C) THE LEGAL ENVIRONMENT: Those activists who dare to
organize and pursue activities without SARG authorization are
acting illegally. Under the Emergency Law, in force since
1963, any legal right to assembly is suspended. Some
gatherings are tolerated by the government, for a variety of
complicated reasons (not seen as overly threatening;
identified as valuable window-dressing for a repressive
regime; or possessing some level of behind-the-scenes

"shelter" from a senior figure in the regime, often from one
of the security services). Some civil society activists get
around the strict laws by identifying themselves as a
publishing house, for which more malleable rules apply,
rather than as an NGO (e.g. XXXXXXXXXXXX, run by XXXXXXXXXXXX). Others, like women's activist XXXXXXXXXXXX, try to
stay beneath the radar screen, by restricting meetings to
very small groups and holding them in private homes.

6. (C) There are also laws restricting NGO's from receiving
funds from foreign government sources. While organizations
use a variety of financial subterfuges, and the SARG
sometimes looks the other way, the government can at any
moment use these laws, or threaten to use them, to shut down
an organization or intimidate its supporters Sometimes the
mere suggestion from "a friend" of the regime that the
current environment is not right for a USG-sponsored project
is enough to frighten already-cowed NGO leaders into
returning USG funds. This happened recently when acting
XXXXXXXXXXXX head XXXXXXXXXXXX notified PD that he would
be returning nearly USD 20,000 in unused MEPI funding after
being told by SARG proxies that the project -- XXXXXXXXXXXX -- was
ill-timed and unacceptable with respect to content. XXXXXXXXXXXX, another recipient of a MEPI grant, decided not to
proceed with the parts of his project relating to the
publication of essays and exhibition of photographs, after
the SARG interfered to heavily censor content. The source of
the funding was not raised, but this may have been an
additional irritant to the SARG.

7. (C) INTERNALIZING THE REPRESSION: Because of the level
of SARG suppression and surveillance, there is tremendous
suspicion and paranoia among civil society activists about
the independence of others in the movement. Activists fear
being reported by colleagues to the security services, which
can threaten imprisonment or closure of their organizations.
These internalized fears also keep civil society weak and
fractured.

8. (C) SECULARISTS VERSUS ISLAMIC GROUPS: Among civil
society activists and NGO's, there are profound ideological
cleavages, for example between Islamists and secularists.
(There are other more arcane ideological disagreements, some
factional in nature, for example, between different
communists groups in Syria.) Much of the driving force
behind the modern development of civil society in Syria has
come from the left, with many former communists and a range
of other leftists -- nearly all of them very secular --
channeling their energies away from a direct focus on
politics and towards building civil society. The most
glaring weakness in civil society on the left side of the
equation is the lack of any significant grass roots support.
(It is this recognition that drove many of the most
perceptive leftists to guardedly embrace a re-tooled,
moderate Muslim Brotherhood, over the past few years.)
Because the SARG has long feared any secular alternatives to
Ba'athism, it has generally demonstrated tremendous hostility
to such groups.

9. (C) SARG SUPPORT FOR ISLAMIC GROUPS: To counterbalance
these secular groups (and to counter the influence of Islamic
fundamentalists, both the traditional Muslim Brothers and the
upstart Wahabi/Salafists), the Alawite-dominated regime has
provided funding and encouragement for moderate Islamic
institutions, many of them civil society organizations.
These Sunni organizations include Salah Kuftaro's Abu Noor
Institute (founded by his deceased father, the former Grand
Mufti of Syria) and MP Mohammed Habash's Islamic Studies
Center. There are also civil society activists, either
former Islamists, or those sympathetic to Islamist
perspectives, like Haithem Maleh, one of the most important
human rights activists in Syria.

10. (C) DAMASCUS DECLARATION A CEASE-FIRE DOCUMENT: Between
the secularists and the Islamic activists, there are powerful
suspicions, resentments, and differences about approaches,
priorities, and future political and social objectives. In
the middle are a key group of moderates -- those who brokered
the Damascus Declaration in October -- who seek common cause
so as to strengthen their efforts and ability to resist SARG
repression. While the Declaration is a powerful bridging
device, whose influence will continue to play itself out,
many of the differences between these two groups remain, and
will complicate any effort to forge a civil society consensus
in the future.

11. (C) A DIVIDE OVER USG SUPPORT: A completely different,
somewhat ragged, cleavage exists between those who endorse
working with the U.S. and those who are suspicious of USG
intentions and do not want to be associated with American
policy or projects. For every XXXXXXXXXXXX or XXXXXXXXXXXX , who harbor some reservations about U.S. policies
but are generally well disposed to the U.S., there are others
who are more hostile and deeply skeptical about any benefits
that could accrue to Syrian civil society (and to a better
future in Syria) from cooperating with the U.S. Some of
these, like XXXXXXXXXXXX, are much more pro-European.

12. (C) While some attribute the cold shoulder XXXXXXXXXXXX got
from civil society and the opposition upon his return from
the U.S. to the nationalist political climate that the regime
stirred up in Syria post-UNSCR 1636, a lot of it resulted
from this long-standing suspicion of U.S. intentions and
skepticism about the benefits of cooperating with Washington.
Some activists like MP XXXXXXXXXXXX assert that there is
no problem in accepting USG help, but the U.S. needs to work
with the SARG in a transparent way in any effort to assist
civil society. Otherwise, such efforts will endanger civil
society and will not work.

13. (C) RAGING JEALOUSIES; DYSFUNCTIONAL MANAGEMENT CULTURE:
Certainly, XXXXXXXXXXXX also provoked intense jealousies among
rivals struggling for influence. That reality, however, also
highlights yet another divisive element in Syrian civil
society. Leaders of these organizations tend to be
one-man-bands, whose powerful egos dominate weak
organizations, and they do not "play well with others." Many
accused XXXXXXXXXXXX of opportunism in portraying himself -- they
believe unfairly -- as a prime mover behind the Damascus
Declaration. Few demonstrated any ability to look beyond
that arguable proposition and recognize that XXXXXXXXXXXX's
powerful articulation of their cause with senior USG
officials, based to some degree on fortuitous circumstances,
could be beneficial. Ethnic, sectarian, class, and family
divides often exacerbate personal or organizational
jealousies and make it more difficult to make common cause in
Syria. An institutional culture that emphasizes leadership
and initiative only at the top of an organization, rather
than network-building and delegation, also contributes to
this weakness. In addition, there is often an astonishing
lack of networking or even familiarity among civil society
leaders. At Embassy social gatherings, influential figures
sometimes meet each other for the first time.

14. (C) PARTIES OF ONE: Many who are identified as active
in civil society tend to be independent intellectuals like
Michel Kilo or artists like film director Nabil Maleh, for
example. They have no followers, in an organizational sense,
just readers or viewers. (And they often clash in private
and in print about their views.)

15. (C) CIVIL SOCIETY VERSUS THE OPPOSITION: Finally, there
is a divide of sorts between civil society and the political
opposition in Syria. Political activists like Hassan
Abdul-Azim and Riyad Turk, who are leaders in a five-party
opposition coalition (tolerated by the SARG), are directly
involved in politics, while many civil society activists
focus on more parochial activities. There are lots of
overlaps, of course, with many activists wearing different
hats, either political, intellectual, or operational, and
banding together to sign each others' petitions, or to
promote common action. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to lump
together many of these people in any common USG approach to
"civil society and the opposition," since they define their
interests and perceive their roles in Syria very differently.


16. (C) Economic reformers are a distinct category, separate
from other elements of civil society. Though there are
subcategories, most share the common characteristic of having
been educated in the West and have work experience in Europe
or the US. All are advocates of some variety of a
market-based economy and are uniformly critical of the pace
and scope of economic reform in Syria. The most influential
subset collaborates actively with the SARG in developing new
economic policy, but they do so as private citizens. They
believe that affecting economic change is best done from
within the existing system, but keep a careful distance from
a regime they view as corrupt. They fear public
collaboration with the SARG would discredit them internally.
They are even more wary of being perceived as too close to
the West in general and the US in particular. This group
would view attending any outside USG-sponsored activity or

accepting any USG funds NGOs they are affiliated with as
potentially seriously compromising their ability to advance
reform. Advocates of economic reform who work outside of the
system have a much lower profile and smaller base of support.
This group would be most open to anything resulting from the
mapping exercise but have far fewer levers to affect change.
A final group of economic reformers have accepted formal
positions within the SARG and have subsequently been
compromised in the eyes of many Syrians.

17. (C) CONCLUSIONS: The ideological fissures, the personal
jealousies, and SARG repression have all contributed to the
divided, weak state in which Syrian civil society finds
itself. An enhanced, sustained USG program of assistance to
Syrian civil society would emphasize identifying groups or
individuals who could benefit from ramped up funding for
existing programs, as well as an aggressive, creative attempt
to develop new USG programs, and identify promising NGO's and
innovative strategies for delivering funding.

18. (C) There are already strong private interests in
developing greater freedom for private-sector commercial
concerns. Programs to promote emerging and SARG-tolerated
entrepreneurial activity may be more successful than
supporting well-meaning civil society voices crying in the
desert. In addition to promoting a small publisher who
doubles as a civil society proponent (like XXXXXXXXXXXX ), we
might be able to identify a for-profit human resources
development organization that could conduct training programs
for civil society activists. Any kind of training for civil
society actors, including English language training, brings
people together on a regular basis and develops critical
skills. Success will hinge on our ability to harness and
influence individuals and groups with already existing
concrete interests in a more open society and economy.

19. (C) Post would also like to see a more ambitious use of
regional projects and training, where Syrian civil society
players could interact with peers from neighboring Arab
countries. Sending individual Syrians, or small groups made
up of carefully screened, compatible individuals to the U,S.,
for IV-type programs is also an option, although anything
more high-profile in the U.S. at this point might prove
problematic. Embassy Damascus looks forward to the input and
insights that Senior Advisor Denehy will provide as he begins
his meetings with local activists.
SECHE

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
World Headlines

 

Timor-Leste: UN Agencies Support Response In Wake Of Deadly Floods

United Nations agencies in Timor-Leste are supporting response efforts, as floods and landslides left widespread damage across the country, including in the capital, Dili. According to media reports, at least 21 people died in the country and many ... More>>

Myanmar: Stop ‘Widespread Violence’ Against Children, UN Officials Urge

Senior United Nations officials on Thursday strongly condemned the ongoing violence by Myanmar’s security forces against civilians, including children, as the members of the Security Council expressed alarm at the rapidly deteriorating situation in ... More>>

COVID-19 Origins Report Inconclusive: We Must ‘Leave No Stone Unturned’ – WHO Chief

The report from a team of international scientists assembled by the World Health Organization (WHO) to examine how COVID-19 first spread to humans was published on Tuesday, and was described by the UN health agency’s chief as a welcome start, ... More>>

Focus On: UN SDGs


Department Of Global Communications: UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Message For World Health Day 2021

5 APRIL 2021 As COVID-19 Reveals Immoral Inequities in Health System, Secretary-General Observance Message Calls for Applying Policies, Assigning Resources to Ensure Everyone Thrives Following is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ message for World ... More>>


Global Development: Responding To COVID-19 Pandemic, Young People Advocate For Bold Solutions

From climate action to addressing inequalities and building peace, youth leaders scale up efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 7 to 8 April 2021 Follow on UN Web TV Youth leaders, activists and youth-led organizations around the world ... More>>

SDG Action Awards: Winners Announced

Mobilizing, inspiring, and connecting individuals around the globe to #TurnItAround for people and planet Bonn, Germany, 25 March - The 2020 SDG Action Awards Ceremony, which took place on 25 March as a part of the fifth SDG Global Festival of Action ... More>>