By Didi Alayli.

What are the challenges faced by civil society activists in highly constrained and politically charged contexts? (How) can we help? These two questions could broadly summarise the recent work carried out by a team of INTRAC researchers and consultants working with Syrian activists.

As the conflict enters its fifth year,  INTRAC has been asked by the British Council, as a follow up to its Active Citizens programme (a key part of its wider Governance and Civil Society work), to engage with a group of social activists based in Syria and explore with them the impact of what they do, the changes they have made to people’s lives and the constraints under which they work on a daily basis.

As also documented in the 2014 report “Activism in Difficult Times“, one of the main challenges faced by civil society activists in the current climate is to defend and promote their values of social inclusion and peaceful co-existence in a highly divided context (politically, religiously, socially) where any previous ideas of neutral space between civil society groups and citizens have all but disappeared.  Hence the recurring question: “yes but who do you belong to?”

But despite the numerous setbacks they experience, including limits on their ability to move around  freely and safely, the drive and commitment of these young people was clear: “our society needs us the most, to keep holding the parts together and taking things to a better level (…) Our passion is what keeps us going”.

The question remains as to what difference civil society can make in such circumstances.  Do these young people sound overly idealistic to their communities?  Or are they in fact advocating the only viable solution to this long and bloody conflict?  At a practical level, many Syrians have benefitted from the group’s activities and continue to do so; some have even been motivated to set up their own social projects to address the needs of their communities, producing a continuous ripple effect of benefits.

Alluding to the (enforced) weakness of indigenous civil society prior to the conflict, one activist stated: “this crisis has made a great opportunity to feel the importance and the role of Syrian civil society”.

When asked if they had a message for the outside world, our team was told: “the next step is to give us the space to work on peace and end the violence”.