Syrian Voices Matter

Report of the

Syrian women and Syrian civil society advocacy mission to Europe

Rome – Brussels – The Hague

November 19 – 25, 2017


“Local initiatives are the key for the future of Syria,”

Mihaela Matei, Syria Desk, European External Action Service

  1. Introduction

To raise the voices of Track III Syrian civil society leaders with decision-makers and stakeholders in Europe, the Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD) organized an advocacy mission to Europe from November 19 to 25, 2017. The mission was the culmination of a year-long process that consisted of consultations with over 300 Syrians from diverse backgrounds on the ground in Syria, and from refugee communities in the neighbouring countries, as well as countless hours of discussions to produce relevant recommendations to share with high-level decision-makers on issues of concern to Syrians.

By bringing Track III Syrian civil society leaders face-to-face with key stakeholders in Europe, the mission amplified voices from Syrian women and civil society, introduced their recommendations and input to many European stakeholders, and built partnerships with high-level decision-makers and INGOs in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. The delegation took part in six public meetings with audiences varying from 20 to 120 people. In addition, eight meetings with policy makers and diplomats were organised, including with the Special Envoy for Syria from Italy and Belgium, the Deputy Head of the MENA division of the EEAS, as well as the Head of the Task Force for the 2018 UN Security Council membership of the Netherlands, and the Dutch Deputy Minister for Development Cooperation. Meetings were also held with various INGO’s in Italy and the Netherlands, and the delegation met with several Syrian refugee groups.

During CCSD’s mission to Europe, all of the key messages such as inclusion of IDPs and refugees into the peace process or the preconditions for early recovery activities, were rooted in the importance of directly connecting Syrian civil society leaders from the ground with policy makers and civil society leaders in Europe. Conducting meetings and advocacy face-to-face amplified the voices of these Syrian stakeholders, which too frequently get lost in the international analysis of geopolitics. Nearly every group and individual that met with the delegation commented on how relevant and impactful it was to hear directly from Syrians who have experienced the war. In addition, several concrete commitments from decision-makers were secured, such as the European External Action Service committed to engaging more Syrians in the discussion on the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), for Syria.

  1. Delegation

The delegation for the advocacy mission consisted of CCSD members as well as members of partner networks. A total of six people participated as delegates, four of whom were women: Two members of CCSD, one member of the I Am She Network, two members of the Syrian Civic Platform and one member of the Aman network. This was in addition to a support team.

  • Context

The good news is that you are powerful and you are going to make it.”

Ismaeel Dawood, Civil Society Officer, Un Ponte Per

As the conflict in Syria has continued, Syrians on the ground increasingly feel that international support for a political solution is waning. There is a growing concern that in Europe, policymakers and the public are less involved in the Syrian case, which is leading towards the ‘normalization’ of relations with the Syrian government. This is underscored by the fact that some countries are considering to re-open diplomatic relations with Damascus, and that early recovery and reconstruction are coming to the forefront of the agenda in various European Union discussions. This trend towards normalization could set a dangerous precedent, not only harming the prospects for sustainable peace and stability in Syria in the long-term, but also sending a clear signal that human rights violations and authoritarianism can go unpunished.

This concern about international disengagement from the peace process and normalization of relations with the Syrian government, was also raised by Syrians on the ground. As part of efforts to prepare messages for the advocacy mission, CCSD and its partner networks coordinated surveys and community consultations which reached more than 300 Syrians from diverse backgrounds on the ground in Syria, as well as from refugee communities in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the Iraqi Kurdistan region.[1] While many of these key community leaders expressed support for the short-term reduction in violence achieved by steps such as the De-Escalation Zones Agreement, they also expressed fears that such steps would de-stabilize Syria in the long-term, perpetuating and entrenching violence. This is because such steps are being produced by the Astana talks rather than the UN-led Geneva process. The Astana talks not only exclude Syrian women and civil society members, but also the European stakeholders that were met during the trip.


  1. Key advocacy messages, Europe, November 2017

Thank you for your energy and courage, we admire you.”

Johan Verkammen, Special Envoy for Syria, MFA Belgium

The delegate members of the advocacy mission to Europe in November 2017, focused on five themes with key messages to share with high-level decision-makers. The following messages were developed by the delegates in consultation with extensive and diverse networks of Syrians in Syria and neighboring countries. The following points were shared in every advocacy meeting during the mission.

  1. Address the issues that matter to Syrian civilians.

There are issues facing Syrian civilians who are living through the conflict in every area of the country. These issues are crucial to civilians and have a serious impact on their daily lives and play a key role in driving migration. These issues include detainees, air bombardment, siege, and human rights violations. If these issues continue to be marginalized from the peace process with no alternative mechanisms for focusing on them, Syrians will continue to feel abandoned by the international community, creating fertile ground for violence and extremism.

Key messages:

  • The international community must explore all mechanisms to combat the human rights violations that lead to extremism and conflict. Support the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) and others that arise.
  • We urged the European Union to establish a task force to provide not only financial support for besieged areas in Syria, but also to pressure Iran and Russia to end air bombardments and commit to ceasefires, among other issues.
  • Support the efforts of local civil society groups across the country. These groups are working on the issues that matter to Syrian civilians on the ground: detainees, ceasefires, humanitarian support, and the education system, among others. Furthermore, they have local legitimacy, they are familiar with local needs, and they have a concrete impact on the issues that matter to Syrian civilians.

2.     Support local civil society solutions.

Local civilian groups and leaders are taking action to support detainees, launch education projects and improve the conditions in IDP and refugee camps among many other things that are of the utmost importance to local communities. These local civil society efforts lead to better solutions in the short term because these groups can produce the most conflict-sensitive and sustainable solutions. They are on the ground and from the communities they work in, so they have insight, access and leverage. Their efforts also provide important space for diverse civilians to participate. When participating in positive efforts, people do not feel marginalized and their voices matter, providing a viable alternative to violence and extremist groups.

Key messages:

  • Support the efforts of local civil society groups through funding and capacity building. Direct at least 25% of aid to the efforts of local groups.
    • Support the efforts of local women’s groups and groups who are working on gender issues. This continues to strengthen not only the capacity of women leaders themselves, but also widens the space for women to make an impact in their communities. Women’s active involvement in decision-making has been shown to have many concrete and positive ripple effects, including combating violence and extremism.

3.     Support an inclusive peace process 

While the Geneva process may seem stalled, it is important to keep up the pressure supporting it. Reducing this pressure cedes space to exclusionary negotiations such as the Astana process. This, in turn, produces disillusionment and desperation in Syrian people on the ground, creating fertile ground for the spread of violence and extremism.

Key messages:

  • There is enormous value in continuing to engage diverse Syrian civilians in the peace process – especially to continue making advances on, for example, designing and envisioning a constitutional and electoral process. This will build Syrians’ capacity to transition the country faster when the door of opportunity opens. A particular focus on engaging women is also essential, as women’s inclusion has been shown to improve the outcomes of peace processes, as well as the sustainability of those outcomes.
  • Support the inclusion of women and civil society in the peace process – not only through the Civil Society Support Room and Women’s Advisory Board, but also through direct consultations with track III communities via civil society organizations and partners.

4. Support a long-term solution for early recovery and reconstruction, which must be led by a new governing body.

The EU and other key stakeholders who may be involved in Syria’s reconstruction, must base their early recovery and reconstruction efforts in the future on the solutions that will be sustainable in the long-term. Any efforts that are not linked with accountability for human rights violations and do not follow the signing of the peace agreement, will not build sustainable peace as it will legitimize dictatorship and perpetuate tensions and violence. In addition, any efforts that are not inclusive of women will perpetuate harmful gender norms. For that reason, it is essential to continue to support a peace process in Geneva that is more inclusive of women and civil society, as well as a transition to a new governing body that can lead the reconstruction efforts.

Key messages:

  • Early recovery must go hand in hand with increasing efforts to rebuild social cohesion and social capital at the local level. Refugees will only return if violence is absent. In most de- escalation zones, major tensions or violence are visible among different armed groups. In this context, early recovery and reconstruction in the future must be done in a very conflict- sensitive way so that it does not perpetuate violence or fuel violent extremism.
  • There must be a preparation phase led by Syrian civil society in order to identify their needs. Civil society must also be engaged in the implementation of early recovery and reconstruction efforts. It is essential that the preparation phase is gender- and conflict-sensitive. For example, while there are no functioning roads in Zabadani, the government has built roads in the neighboring town of Bludan, which is a government- supporting area. This has increased tensions between the two areas, illustrating why the reconstruction efforts should not be led by the Syrian government.
    • Civil society initiatives have already taken place, for example, on the key issue of Housing, Land and Property (HLP) issues. In Zabadani, for example, there has been an initiative related to property records.
    • There must be a particular focus on addressing political, administrative and economic corruption. This is another key issue that affects the daily lives of all Syrians, and which is crucial for the return of refugees as well as for the stability of the country. Support initiatives to encourage transparency and good governance at all levels and in all sectors, and ensure that mechanisms are in place to ensure public accountability.

5.Support the inclusion of IDPs and refugees in finding solutions.

Key messages:

  • Involve diverse Syrian refugees and IDPs – both women and men from different ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds – in the peace process.
  • In Syria’s neighboring countries, support refugees so they have more stability. Improve their legal situation through residency and work permits, as well as their health situation. Support refugees to enable them to support their home cities to keep them engaged. In particular, support women, as many are heading households and are the sole breadwinners for their families.
  • In Syria, support the inclusion of IDPs and women in particular, in local efforts in order to reduce tensions and build stability. For example, many people in the city of Aleppo were displaced to western Aleppo countryside and Idlib. The Aman Network, a network of civilian peace builders founded by CCSD along with our partner the Peaceful Change Initiative, promoted the inclusion of IDPs in elections for the local councils in those areas. This led to more inclusive governance and the local response to IDPs was better. Their involvement also enriched the work of local councils and civil society.

  1. Outcomes

We really want to engage with you to see what moves civil society. We have different roles but we have to listen to you.”

Marriet Schuurman, Head Task Force for 2018

UN Security Council Membership of the Netherlands

Hearing their personal stories, and knowing that they have first-hand experience of the conflict, gave a fresh perspective and renewed hope for these audiences, many of whom have diligently worked for a political solution in Syria for many years and for whom the recent developments have caused a loss of personal momentum. The policy recommendations made by the delegates were rooted in their first-hand experience, not only of the conflict, but of implementing effective local solutions.

Despite the deep personal tragedies experienced by delegation members, they all share the belief that a political solution based on Geneva Communique and UNSCR 2254 is the optimal way forward for Syria, and that the international support for the UN-led peace process must remain strong. This belief echoes the feeling of each member’s networks on the ground and the delegation emphasized this point in each of the meetings they held. In addition, they shared concerns about the humanitarian situation in Syria, especially in Idlib and the bombing and starvation techniques used by the Syrian government in Eastern Ghouta. They also strongly recommended that at least 25% of aid earmarked for Syria should be channeled to local Syrian civil society groups.

While meeting the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the delegation discussed the importance of keeping the Syrian file on the agenda of European policy makers, and the need to continue to push for a long-term solution in which civil society plays a larger role in preparing a constitutional process that will result in free and UN-supervised elections. In Brussels, the delegation had the opportunity to elaborate on the pre- conditions for early recovery and reconstruction support, and the policy priorities from the EU; in particular the need for a larger role for civil society in this process which should follow the signing of a peace agreement. The delegation emphasized that reconstruction must only start when a credible political process is underway, and that Syrian civil society has an important role to play in this. Also discussed was the Brussels Conference planned for April 2018 on supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, the need for increased dialogue among civil society, local councils and the Interim Government, as well as with external actors such as the EU.

During a meeting with representatives of the European Union External Action Service (EEAS), it was emphasized that the strengthening of Syrian civil society is a long term process. It will take time to empower civil society and local initiatives and more support is needed in that regard. In addition, EEAS asked for more engagement with CCSD and the networks in the discussion taking place regarding the international accountability mechanism for Syria, ‘IIIM (the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.

With representatives of the government of the Netherlands, the delegation shared their priorities regarding the UN Security Council and the upcoming chairmanship of the Netherlands government. These included the concern among Syrians regarding the humanitarian needs, especially in the de-escalation zones and the need for continued cross border humanitarian support. The head of the Task Force for the 2018 UN Security Council Membership of the Netherlands, stressed that Syrian civil society and especially women’s voices need to be heard more in the Security Council. It is crucial to keep the Security Council informed about the realities on the ground, and the impact within Syria of the decisions taken by international actors. It was stressed that a larger role for Syrian civil society is needed in reinforcing political dialogue that includes participation of all people in Syria.

V.   Next Steps

You are bound to become a key actor in the future of Syria.”

  1. Fabrizio de Michele, Special Envoy for Syria, MFA Italy

The mission offered important opportunities to strengthen contacts and cooperation with various policy makers and stakeholders. It also gave these key international stakeholders the opportunity to hear the viewpoints of Syrian civilian leaders who are living through the conflict. In order to continue to pressure governments and international stakeholders to keep Syria on their agenda, increased interaction is necessary. CCSD’s Vision for the Political Process, published in April 2018, will be instrumental in guiding advocacy efforts as it moves forward.

[1] CCSD’s Syrian Civic Platform (SCP) initiative published a special report on Syrian perceptions of the De- Escalation Zones Agreement produced by the Astana talks in October, 2017. It included a survey of over 170 Syrians on the ground, 33 percent of whom were women. The SCP conducted ongoing consultations with over 300 key Syrian community and civil society leaders on themes related to the political process. To read the Special Report on the De-Escalation Zones Agreement in Syria visit this link: agreement-in-syria/

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