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May 2013, Pages 65-66

Waging Peace

Looking at a Post-Assad Syria

(L-r) Mona Yacoubian, Rafif Jouejati, Honey al-Sayed, Leila Hilal and Elizabeth O’Bagy spotlight efforts to build a new Syria. (Staff photo D. Hanley)

THE STIMSON Center and the Middle East Institute co-hosted a March 7 panel discussion to examine “Syria Beyond Assad: Building a New Syria from the Grassroots,” at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. Syria is disintegrating before our eyes, and the conflict could spill over into neighboring countries, warned Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser on the Middle East at the Stimson Center. As the second anniversary of Syria’s uprising approached, more than a million refugees have fled and 70,000 Syrians have been killed. Yacoubian asked panelists to describe the challenges civilians face as they try to build the foundations of a post-Assad Syria.

Rafif Jouejati, director of FREE-Syria, who works with women and other minority rights groups, said her fears of an Islamic takeover post-Assad were put to rest on her recent trip to Syria. At a miserable refugee camp she met with fierce-looking, black-headband-wearing leaders of a Free Syrian Army brigade who, she said, treated her as an equal during their lengthy discussions. When her hijab fell off, she recalled, they never missed a beat, continued with talks and respectfully escorted her back across the border.

Rebels have opened up hospitals where none existed, and many of the staff are women, Jouejati said. In fact, women are overcoming their own conservatism to help rebuild Syria, she opined. On any day there are 300 Syrians being trained as managers, urban planners, media specialists and other leaders in various projects meant to empower Syrian society.

Jouejati came away absolutely convinced that the Syrian people will overcome their current difficulties. Syrian women who have lost husbands, brothers and children in the fighting will be the backbone of the revolution and lead the recovery of civil society, Jouejati concluded.

Honey al-Sayed, co-founder and board member of ROYA Association For a Better Syria and producer/host of Radio SouriaLi, discussed Syria’s media prior to the uprising, when journalists could not cross a red line to discuss taboo subjects. “Civil society cannot continue without a free media,” al-Sayed stated, so today Syrians are working from apartments in Damascus or Cairo to provide news online or via Skype to anyone who has access to electricity. Reporters come from different backgrounds and religions but they share one agenda, al-Sayed said: “love for our country, unity and diversity.”

Leila Hilal, director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force, said she hasn’t visited Syria since the uprising, but has studied the emergence of local councils in opposition-controlled areas. After armed resistance groups liberate a village it is often local civilian leaders who take over to try to restore public services, Hilal said. Sometimes local councils and rebel commanders coordinate security for a community. While some villages have welcomed opposition fighters, others have resisted armed fighters from entering their towns or neighborhoods fearing regime airstrikes or other retaliation. According to Hilal, the local councils and committees that have emerged in liberated villages have little in common with each other, so building consensus among them to create a new Syrian social contract may be difficult.

Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War,  spent time with different armed opposition groups on her recent trip to Syria. As the opposition secures areas in the north they hand over control to civilian councils. The fighters don’t want to be responsible for governance or delivering essential services, O’Bagy stated. She suggested that the rebel takeover of al-Raqqa in the northeast will be the first test case of how rebels and civilians work together to govern a provincial capital.

O’Bagy argued that many opposition fighters are just civilians who took up arms to defend their communities. She guesses that after the conflict ends those civilians will return to their regular lives and not fight over the governance of villages and cities.

—Delinda C. Hanley