Civil society, aid organizations withdraw into the shadows as Syrian government reasserts control

Vehicles of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent enter Daraa on July 26. Photo by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

AMMAN: When pro-government forces recaptured the southwestern rebel stronghold of Daraa province in July, Muhammad Sabsabi’s colleagues tried to bury their pasts.

Some tried to flee. Many simply went underground.

Before the battle for the south began, Sabsabi—Turkey-based program manager for the Syrian NGO Children of One World that until recently provided crucial child protection services in opposition-held areas across the country—would keep regular contact with Daraa-based civil society staff.

But after a blitzkrieg aerial and ground offensive that saw one of the country’s largest rebel territories broken off bit by bit in a matter of weeks, that staff largely disappeared. Five employees who Sabsabi once coordinated with on a daily basis from his organizational headquarters, in Turkey’s southern city of Gaziantep, vanished into a shadowy world of forced reconciliation agreements and pervasive government surveillance that has smothered a once vibrant civil society operating in the south.

Sabsabi says now he simply tries to check in on former staff via social media whenever possible, ensured by the sound of their voices that they haven’t been arrested. He can’t ask any questions about their situations or whereabouts—both sides know that somebody could always be listening.

“Our employees are now hiding their identities from the regime and society at large,” Sabsabi says. “They can’t tell anyone that they worked with our organization, so it’s very difficult for us to get any information about them.”

With the collapse of the Syrian opposition in the south, local non-governmental organizations—displaced or with staff sent underground—now find themselves in a radically different political environment. Local NGO employees who once worked with organizations under the auspices of opposition-led local governance bodies in the south now find themselves as potential targets for Syrian and Russian security forces.

The experience of NGO workers in the south is part of a wider story of a Syrian government in resurgence, one that is rebuilding and re-bolstering institutions while ruthlessly cracking down on civil society after years of conflict and instability. While local NGOs have almost entirely disappeared from view, international NGOs in government-held areas also face an increasingly restrictive atmosphere—including labyrinthine registration procedures, security checks as well as a recent requirement to register under state-affiliated humanitarian groups that share close historical and political ties to the ruling Assad family.

For local NGOs, the dangers are very real. Some organizations in Syria’s southwest have seen entire cadres of former employees simply vanish altogether.

Alaa a-Din, an NGO manager with the Syrian Establishment for Human Care and Advancement (MASRAT), once oversaw the work of 14 local employees around Nawa in the western Daraa countryside—including childcare workers, psychological specialists and financial officers.

Staying on well into the waning days of the pro-government offensive on the south last summer, these workers and the children they cared for were displaced from the care center by two days of intense shelling over their base of Nawa in early July. A-Din was forced to shutter their struggling operations several days later.

Then, silence.

“It has been two months since we last had contact with our employees,” says a-Din, who is based in Gaziantep. “At the time of our last communication, they said that they couldn’t talk anymore and the connection was interrupted.”

“We don’t know their fates,” he adds. “There has been no further communication.”

Civilians flee their homes in Daraa during the pro-government offensive in June. Photo courtesy of Daraa Civil Defense.

Civil society in the crosshairs

A sprawling network of more than 150 NGOs once served as a lifeblood for the south, providing around a million civilians with critical humanitarian aid and other services across a huge swathe of Syria.

Known as the “cradle of the revolution” after early anti-government protests first erupted there in 2011 and subsequently spread out across the country, Daraa gradually came under the control of ascendent Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces the following year. The Assad government was muscled out of the region, replaced by a multilayered system of opposition-run local governance bodies and NGOs that gradually emerged with the help of cross-border foreign support.

In the absence of government-run hospital networks, local organizations like the Syrian Expatriate Medical Center (SEMA) were largely left to step in and fill the growing gap in medical services across the opposition-held provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.

Since 2015, SEMA ran a sprawling constellation of operations centers, assisting primary health clinics and hospitals across half a dozen locations in southern Syria and near the Naseeb border crossing with Jordan.

Mustafa al-Daraawi, an Amman-based SEMA program manager who requested that his real name be withheld to protect family members still in Syria, says the organization employed a staff of 200 up until the final days of the Daraa offensive.

The collapse was swift. On June 27, pro-government warplanes hit the eastern Daraa town of Ghariya a-Sharqiya, completely destroying a local SEMA-administered hospital there and killing three of its staff. The following day, their medical center in nearby Harek was hit in another air strike.

By July 6, pro-government forces had captured the Naseeb crossing, the last area where SEMA was holding out to provide emergency medical care to beleaguered civilians.

The organization subsequently shuttered all of its southern Syria operations. Hundreds of SEMA employees went into hiding.

“When we reached out to employees there, and they told us not to contact them again,” says a-Daraawi. “They asked us not to tell anybody that they were working with SEMA.”

Just five employees were able to secure safe passage to the opposition-held north, according to al-Daraawi.

Unlike previous reconciliation deals in other formerly rebel-held areas of the country, no safety guarantees were afforded to the thousands of civil society workers left behind in Daraa and neighboring Quneitra.  

In the case of MASRAT’s 14 employees, a-Din says, evacuation north wasn’t an option either.

“Every one of our employees remained in the [recaptured] areas,” he says. “Not one of them left.”

Despite government assurances that civil society employees would be treated as any other civilians, observers suggest they remain vulnerable amid mounting evidence that local reconciliation agreements have started breaking down.

Dozens of former rebel commanders and fighters, as well as Civil Defense volunteers and civilians, have been detained since the south entered into a series of reconciliation agreements with the Syrian government earlier this year.

“Agreements have not been fully upheld,” Bashar a-Zoubi, a former rebel negotiator who participated in reconciliation talks with the government over the summer, told Syria Direct last month.

“Violations are limited, but they are happening over and over again.”

Smoke rises over the Daraa countryside after pro-government shelling in June. Photo courtesy of Daraa Civil Defense.

Starting over again

During the often violent transitions from rebel to government control, Syrian NGOs previously operating under the opposition were often left with no good options.

In order for humanitarian organizations to continue their work in the country, the Syrian government has been demanding that they dissolve all cross-border operations before shutting down headquarters abroad, and then re-registering in Damascus.

“Most Syrian organizations are not interested in doing this, and there have been many complaints made about this process,” says Mohamad Katoub, advocacy manager with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

According to Katoub, who is based in Turkey, the government has posited the re-registration process as a solution for the gap left behind by vanishing humanitarian resources in vast swathes of the country since their recapture.

At the same time, the process inevitably means that organizations must turn over their books for lengthy investigation by Syria’s security apparatus.

Among a half dozen local NGOs directors who spoke to Syria Direct during the course of this investigation, every one of them refused to consider reopening and continuing humanitarian work under what they described as the government’s terms.

“We won’t work in areas that the regime is operating or controlling,” says a-Daraawi. “[Independent] NGOs are not able to work anymore in regime-controlled areas, and NGOs operating cross border from Jordan or Turkey are not eligible to register with the government.”

The options available to INGOs seeking to register and conduct work in government-controlled areas of the country are similarly limited. They are effectively given only one option: register under the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) as an implementing partner.

Aid workers and analysts question just how independent SARC is. While the organization itself predates the modern Syrian state that emerged from French occupation, SARC was subsequently dissolved and reconstituted in the wake of the 1963 Baathist takeover, becoming one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in Syria.

The organization currently employs upwards of 9,400 individuals and operates 14 branches throughout the country. Baath Party and security officials have long held many of the upper administrative positions in SARC—a trend that was solidified by a 2012 agreement between the UN and Syrian government which established SARC as an official government-linked humanitarian body.

Prior to the outbreak of the 2011 uprising and ensuing conflict, INGOs were permitted to work in Syria without registering under SARC—although organizations without this clearance found themselves at a distinct disadvantage, barred from attending UN coordination meetings in the country.

However, as the Syrian government has searched for new ways to skirt debilitating sanctions and access desperately needed reconstruction funds, lucrative NGO funds provide a potential cash windfall to fill gaps in operational costs elsewhere.

The World Health Organization (WHO) alone has reportedly handed the Assad government control of some $30 billion in operations funds, which observers suspect have been used to subsidize the war effort.

However, in requiring registration under and constant coordination with SARC, the government appears to be using the model as a way to gain further access to resources—all the while centralizing and controlling the process of humanitarian aid distribution.

“That’s not a normal practice for humanitarian organizations,” says Emma Beals, an investigative journalist who has researched Syria’s NGO landscape and the politics of reconstruction.

“They are supposed to operate like an NGO, and not a conduit to government missions in that way.”

Among other restrictions, humanitarian organizations are prohibited from undertaking field visits or instituting new programs without SARC’s permission. Damning evidence has also arisen over the course of the conflict, showing the hand that government officials play in the organization’s operations. A leaked letter from two years ago, approving an aid delivery by SARC out of Damascus, was signed jointly by the Ministry of Health and officers from air force and military intelligence—all groups which are subject to economic sanctions from dozens of governments around the world.

In 2016, a group of 73 Syrian NGOs suspended cooperation with UN agencies and issued a joint statement, expressing concerns about registering under SARC as well as the alleged political interference that has prevented care from reaching civilians in areas previously under opposition control, such as the Outer Damascus town of Madaya.

“It has become clear to many organizations that the Syrian government in Damascus has a significant and substantial influence on the performance of UN agencies based in Damascus, as well as their partners [in] SARC,” the NGO statement read, citing several high-profile incidents of alleged interference by authorities in Damascus.

A labyrinth of bureaucracy

Despite the byzantine complexity of the registration process, internal security checks and threat of operational interference by the Assad government, some INGOs have acquiesced to these requirements and registered under SARC.

A list kept by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seen by Syria Direct, shows that 15 international organizations have already completed the process and are now operating under SARC as implementing partners in government-controlled areas.

Dozens of others are in different stages of the registration process, according to humanitarian sources with knowledge of the matter.

Syria Direct spoke with a senior official from one INGO that was forced to shutter its humanitarian operations in the rebel-held north during the pro-government campaign to retake East Aleppo in December 2016.

The source agreed to speak on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic and fear that his comments could jeopardize ongoing efforts to attain clearance to work under SARC.  

For months, his organization has been navigating the registration process, one that begins with a months-long security investigation conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The investigation process itself remains cloaked in mystery.

“They might be consulting with the Russian government or other international sectors like UNHCR and SARC,” the NGO source says.

“The Syrian government has limited us to interacting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only. We don’t know to whom they are referring our case.” 

A source from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Damascus declined to comment.  

If an application is approved, the organization begins a new round of paperwork before being moved onward to coordinate with other ministries relevant to their line of work, the NGO source says.

Once completed, organizations can then register under the SARC umbrella.

“What’s important to the Syrian government is who you deal with,” he says. “We’ve heard about [local] NGOs working from Jordan in order to conduct work inside Syria, but they are all being rejected because they were coordinating projects with [opposition] groups in Daraa or in Idlib.”

“Any organization that cooperated with an [opposition] group...will be rejected,” he claims.

That excludes virtually any NGO that was conducting cross-border humanitarian work in the south, prior to its capture by Damascus in July.

For civil society workers like SEMA director a-Daraawi, the new political reality has brought about a painful realization.

Cut off from its work and the people it had tried to help, his organization’s history of charitable work in opposition-held home province means he may never be able to return home.

“People said to me that if I try to go back to Syria, I can’t tell anyone that I was working with an NGO,” says al-Daraawi.

“[People tell me], ‘Maybe say that you are a manual worker, an accountant, anything’,” he recounts.

“‘Just don’t mention that you were a humanitarian worker’.”

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.

Sage Smiley

Sage is a current Syria Direct Media Trainee. She is a university senior who will graduate in April of 2019 with degrees in Journalism and Arabic and a minor in Chemistry. Sage works at a radio station in the US and her great passion is public radio; she is rarely out of the company of her audio recorder.

Reem Ahmad

Reem is from Latakia. She studied law at the University of Damascus and left for Jordan to continue her studies, help refugees and shed light on humanitarian issues for Syrians.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani is from Latakia province. She studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor in Syria. She has worked at Syria Direct since 2015 and was named the 2018 Middle East and North Africa Laureate for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Women in News Editorial Leadership Award. Follow Noura on Twitter: @nanozain81