“We are resilient people. We still believe in human dignity and in a better future for ourselves and others. We have a cause, and it is a just cause. I think that the Syrian revolution liberated us from an inferiority complex we had toward the other people of the world. We don’t wait for others to solve our problems now, or to define for us what is just and what is fair. We are struggling for our emancipation, without illusions.”2
(Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 3 April 2017)
The Syrian cause is a just one, indeed. The totalitarian Syrian regime and its security apparatus, which have over decades been enforcing emergency laws, banning public meetings and restricting free speech, put any Syrian who might be considered critical of the government at the risk of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture and death in detention.3 Any attempt at political or civic activism has been a dangerous and courageous endeavour, as is evident from the crackdown on movements like the Damascus Spring, which evolved after Bashar al-Assad assumed Syria’s presidency in 2000.4 Furthermore, the subsequent demands for political reforms – the peaceful protests emerging in 2011 also known as the Syrian Revolution – were brutally repressed to an extent that the country has been torn by war ever since.5 What evolved is the largest displacement crisis since World War II.6 Hence the Syrian cause came to mean the protection and support of its (displaced) people and their basic rights.7 Syrians8 are mainly hosted by their neighbouring countries, while Lebanon is a particularly interesting case, because both countries have a history of migration and occupation.9 Lebanon – a fragile state where one out of four people is a refugee – struggles with the impact of the increase in population.10 Its already scarce resources are further strained, having to provide for both Syrians and Lebanese, and the refugees’ presence exacerbates the domestic political situation.11 When looking to the international community for assistance, Syrians are stalled while regional and international political players negotiate over their heads. Although their situation in Lebanon is a trying one – perhaps particularly because of that – the country witnesses the evolution of a new Syrian civil society: By means of civil society organisations (CSOs), which can include loose community groups as much as professional non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Syrians can take a stand for their own interests in public life.12 As al-Haj Saleh proclaims, Syrians are struggling for their emancipation, and organising themselves in Lebanese exile might present an opportunity for them to achieve it.
1 Acknowledgements to Zeina, Lorna, Ameenah & for transnational solidarity. Sincere thanks to the interviewees for taking their time and sharing their expertise. Thanks for all the valuable advice of the team of FES, Hozan, Caro and more. And to Beirut, for her hospitality with a distinct Syrian flavour.
2 Yassin al-Haj Saleh, as cited in: Hussain/ Hisham (2016). Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a prominent Syrian intellectual and dissident who had been jailed for 16 years as a student activist in Hafez al-Assad’s time, and whose activism in the current uprising eventually exiled him to Turkey. cf. ibid.
3 Cf. Amnesty International (2017); Cambanis (2007); Human Rights Watch (2015).
4 The Damascus Spring was a movement in which discussion forums, initiated by public political figures, demanded political reforms. They emerged when Bashar al-Assad promised reforms, after he assumed the presidency following his father’s death. The Damascus Spring introduced the term “civil society” (mujtama’ madani) to Syria. Only after a few months, its leaders were arrested and discussion forums were banned. This had the effect that Syrian society from then on understood “civil society” as opposed to the regime, and at the same time the regime enforced additional repressive measures, even on protests such as against the US-American invasion in Iraq. cf. Khalaf/ Ramadan/ Stolleis (2014), pp. 7-8; Pollard (2014), p. 63.
5 Various warring parties commit war crimes in Syria, with al-Assad’s government and his allies being one of the deadliest forces; besieging cities, targeting medical facilities and aid convoys, and using chemical weapons. cf. Goldman (2017).
6 Cf. Reybet-Degat (2016), p. 62.
7 Therefore, when this paper refers to the Syrian cause, it means these two dimensions; the struggle against a totalitarian regime, and the demands to protect and provide for its population in all of the Syrian diaspora.
8 The term “Syrians” in this paper refers to everyone who identifies as Syrian or a “hyphenated” identity, such as Syrian-Palestinian, or who does not identify as Syrian but is a Syrian citizen residing or having resided in Syria and is or was therefore subjected to the same circumstances of a repressive state and a brutal war. When referring to the “Syrian Community,” this paper mostly means the population of Syrians in Lebanon in direct relation to the civil society which represents it, if not specified otherwise as the “larger Syrian community,” which refers the diaspora.
9 Syria hosted Lebanese refugees after the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, and Syrian troops entered the country as part of a peacekeeping mission. The troops ended up staying in Lebanon for 25 years, even after the war ended in 1990, continuously being in control of the Lebanese government. cf. The New York Times (2005).
10 Cf. Girard (2016), p. 11; Reybet-Degat (2016), p. 62.
11 Cf. ibid.
12 This definition was adapted by the official definition of civil society by the World Bank: Civil society refers “to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.” cf. The World Bank (2013). 13 Cf. Citizens for Syria. e.V. (2015); Hamzet Wasel (2017). 14 Cf. Citizens for Syria e.V. (2015). 15 Cf. Welander (2015).