The “NGOisation” of the Syrian Revolution

Issue: 164

Julie Hearn and Abdulsalam Dallal

In March 2011 the Arab Spring arrived in Syria. Syrians had lived under the totalitarianism of the Asad family, first with the father, Hafez al-Asad (1971-2000), followed by the son, Bashaar al-Asad, for 40 years.1 This included a state of emergency since 1963, involving the notorious detention, torture and execution of political prisoners as well as the 1982 Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army killed tens of thousands.2 The Syrian Spring began with a spontaneous protest in al-Hareeqa market in the heart of the old city of Damascus, followed by small gatherings outside the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan embassies. These turned into simultaneous demonstrations across the country on 15 March 2011, a “Day of Rage”, and continued. It was the southern city of Deraa that would be called the “cradle of the revolution” after the state fired on peaceful demonstrators, killing four people. These were the first deaths of the uprising and instead of weakening resistance they strengthened it.3

Many Syrians called this massive popular mobilisation al-Thawrah ­al-Souriyyieh, the Syrian Revolution, like Thawrat al-Karamah, the Dignity Revolution in Tunisia, and Thawret 25 yanayir, 25 January Revolution in Egypt. Four months in, the Syrian Revolution was attracting a million protesters on the streets, despite 1,500 killed and 15,000 detained. The veteran revolutionary Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, writes: “It is appropriate to speak in terms of revolution because many Syrians are radically changing themselves while struggling to change their country and emancipate their fellow Syrians”.4 Many have written about rupturing the “kingdom of silence” including prominent opposition leader Riad al-Turk: “Now the street has spoken. The young revolutionaries have spoken… It is the people who have emerged from their silence today and undermined the walls of the kingdom of silence”.5

Not only had Syrians broken the captivity of fear but they were also experiencing a collective rebirth of creativity and potential, historically a key characteristic of revolutionary moments. Yara Nseir remembers:

There was such a positive atmosphere. It sounds incredible, but suddenly everyone had good ethics. People stood together. Their slogans were very beautiful. Remember this is a people who’d been brainwashed and kept apart for decades… In this context, what the people did was amazing.6

As Robin Yassin Kassab and Leila Al-Shami observe: “Syrians were discovering themselves and their country, anew…everyone on the streets now called for revolution, not reform”.7 The following organisations were formed: The Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union (SYRCU), the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution (SCSR), the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF). In 2019 the Syrian Revolution Network (SRN) had some 2 million followers on its Facebook page and over 200,000 Twitter followers. To mark the eighth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution its hashtag was #ثورة_وستبقى (Thawrah wa satabqa) #Arevolutionanditwillalwaysbe.

It is testimony to the scale and challenge of Syria’s revolution that it was met by the bloodiest counter-revolution in the region. Protests were not simply criminalised, they were immediately militarised, resulting in many army desertions as soldiers refused to shoot peaceful citizens and protesters were forced to arm themselves. This, in turn, led to the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 by a number of former high- and middle-ranking army officers. In late 2012 the FSA was made up of over 100,000 fighters in different brigades, united in their goal of overthrowing Asad. They were on the brink of victory, controlling 80 percent of the country’s territory.8 In a society where generations had only known authoritarianism and despite industrial-scale army killing, detention and torture, Syrian revolutionaries had organised sustained peaceful protests followed by military self-organisation, resulting in territorial possession and the final organ of self-rule: local government.9

International Socialism has analysed the revolution since its inception with an article in spring 2011, on “the return of the Arab revolution” and six subsequent articles alongside a Socialist Worker pamphlet published in July 2016. Our article follows on from these and Anne Alexander’s article in the previous issue of International Socialism, where she explores the lessons we can learn from the recent revolutions in Sudan and Algeria. She concludes that our collective aim must be:

To take all the concentrated learning and experience which ordinary people cram into “revolution time” about their capacity to remake society—their sense of their own power and beauty and purpose which our rulers are desperate to destroy—and preserve it for the next time so that others can learn from it too.10

Alexander highlights two crucial aspects of successful revolutionary organisation: the disintegration of the military and the formation of workers’ councils or “self-organisation that can quickly ‘grow over’ into self-government” in the words of Leon Trotsky.11 In Syria we saw both (but, as Alexander points out, the critical absence of workers’ strike power, an article in itself). At its height in late 2012 we saw hundreds of revolutionary councils showing concretely how they “could form the embryo of a different kind of state altogether” even under war conditions.12 This article takes that unique Syrian experience of revolutionary self-rule and examines the political processes through which Western aid contributed to its destruction.

Syria has tended to be analysed through the prism of Western security studies, with its emphasis on Middle Eastern terrorism, or the geopolitics of imperialism. This article, however, looks at events from a grassroots social movements perspective, homing in on revolutionary self-organisation and the impact of Western aid on it. Asad’s counter-revolution has resulted in the largest ever United Nations aid operation, estimated at $30 billion, alongside aid provided bilaterally by the United States, the UK, France and others. Since the 1980s, aid has been channelled increasingly through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rather than ­transferred directly to states. Academics use the term “NGOisation” to understand the consequences of this “aid chain” of states, international NGOs (INGOs), diaspora NGOs and local NGOs, in particular the incorporation of autonomous grassroots organisations into the official aid system.13 We recognise that humanitarian assistance from the Gulf states has played a significant role in Syria. However, due to its different political dynamics we focus here solely on Western aid.

We begin by documenting the local councils (LCs) in the Opposition-controlled areas as organs of self-government. We then explore five ways in which Western aid undermined these councils at the heart of the revolution. First, the vast majority of Western aid went to the Asad regime which, under the close supervision of its security branches, made sure that it was distributed to its civilian supporters and not its opponents. It thus used this aid very successfully to fund its counter-revolution. Second, Western donors chose to fund non-governmental organisations rather than the embryonic government structure of the Opposition because they wanted to avoid accusations of supporting terrorists or of being “political”. In other words, they set up a parallel aid structure, in competition with and undermining the revolutionary councils. Third, their well-documented processes of institutionalisation and professionalisation turned political protest into aid projects. Fourth, the concurrent global NGO discourse of impartiality deliberately depoliticises their work, transforming a political phenomenon of societal revolution into a “humanitarian crisis” and transforming the consciousness of the young revolutionaries who came to work for them into that of “neutral humanitarians”. Fifth, the NGO practice of “remote management” disempowered Syrians by taking away decision-making power from those on the ground and handing it to expatriate bosses in distant capitals, outsiders outside of the country, just at the point where Syrians had discovered their autonomy.

Our argument is that the West’s aid, channelled through NGOs, has undermined the revolution in a process we refer to as the NGOisation of the Syrian Revolution. It is an overlooked factor, which has contributed to the demobilisation of an alternative to Asadism, alongside the well-documented aspects of Syria’s counter-revolution. These include Russia and Iran’s military and economic assistance and the rise of sectarianism and terrorism, supported primarily by different Gulf countries but also facilitated by others.14

The article brings together, on the one hand, eight years of first-hand ­experience of working in the Syrian aid sector in eight NGOs during the destruction and loss of the country and countless late-night discussions among Syrian ­revolutionaries and, on the other hand, 25 years’ experience researching, publishing and teaching on NGOisation in the Global South. Our aim is to understand the subject from a revolutionary perspective and therefore we foreground the voices of different Syrian revolutionaries such as Ghayath Naisse, Omar Aziz, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Leila al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab. We focus on the Turkish-Syrian border opposition-controlled provinces of Aleppo and Idlib because this is where the majority of LCs were located, with aid coming in across the border. We do not include the PYD (Democratic Union Party)’s experiment in self-rule in “Rojava” because the PYD did not participate in protests against the Asad regime in March 2011. On the contrary, it cracked down on protests by Kurdish revolutionaries. Its oppressive and opportunistic politics helped it to be the de facto rulers of the majority Kurdish areas after the regime handed these areas to them.15

Local councils: experiments in self-rule

By mid-2012, Idlib and Aleppo provinces saw the military defeat of Asad’s army, the retreat of the regime’s local government and the start of a scorched earth strategy in which “the regime ceded control of large parts of the country to rebel forces, but sought to make them uninhabitable with constant barrel bomb raids and indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets”.16 Civilian revolutionary organisation stepped in with the formation, initially, of revolutionary councils or al-Majlis al-thawariyyah, later known as local councils (al-Majalis al-Mahalliyah). These often sprang from the local coordination committees (LCCs, Lijan Attanseeq al-Mahalliyyah “al-Tansiqiyat”), which had been set up to organise and document the initial pro-democracy protests.17 Revolutionaries now saw their attention focused on meeting the emergency needs of a village or town under attack. A joint report in 2016 by the Syrian Local Administration Councils Unit (LACU) and the Swiss Peace Foundation based on 50 interviews notes:

Respondents generally considered them a service institution with the main goal of securing basic services for the residents to alleviate the suffering caused by the armed conflict. Starting small, with only a few revolutionary activists and supporters, the initial aim was to provide temporary relief until a complete overthrow of the government would be achieved.18

The first LCs built on the decentralisation Legislative Decree 107, brought in by Asad in August 2011, were largely inspired by the revolutionary thought and practice of the late anarchist Omar Aziz. As early as November 2011, Aziz wrote a paper advocating independent, democratic grassroots self-rule and went on to help form the first LC in Al-Zabadani in January 2012 and then others in Barzeh, Darayya and Douma, Damascus province.19 Aziz understood the transformative potential that the revolution provided and wrote in the opening sentence of his paper: “A revolution is an exceptional event that will alter the history of societies, while changing humanity itself”.20 Shortly before he was arrested in November 2012 he declared: “We are no less than the Paris Commune workers—they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Aziz died in prison a few months later.21 In late 2017 there were some 400 LCs overseen by twelve provincial councils, with the majority in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, about 140 in Aleppo and 144 in Idlib (known as majlis muhafathat Idlib and Majlis Muhafathat Halap).22

Ghayath Naisse observed that: “These forms of control and administration from below are more developed in the Syrian Revolution than in any other process in the countries of the region”.23 In an interview in this journal in 2016, he reflected: “The important thing that characterised the Syrian revolution was that it was able to create…organs of self-organisation… In 2011, 2012 and even some of 2013, this was an immense phenomenon”.24 Also writing in 2016, Al-Shami claimed:

Throughout Syria, oppressive and hierarchical structures and institutions have been broken down and people are freely organising and self-managing their communities. Nowhere has there been a greater challenge to the concept of the nation state since the Spanish Revolution and Civil War in the late 1930s.25

In our view, the exceptional achievement of the LCs was that they were able to combine large-scale emergency service provision with revolutionary grassroots political praxis under war conditions for a number of years. Documenting LCs under the extreme conditions of urban siege, Chas Morrison observes: “Many Local Council staff take seriously their responsibility to assist civilians. Revolutionary idealism appears to be a significant motivating factor as they consider this an integral aspect of their struggle against president Bashar al-Asad’s regime”.26

In the vacuum left by the regime, LCs found themselves organising the following: the supply of bread (granaries, mills, bakeries); water and sewage; fuel and electricity; healthcare; education; roads and transport; housing and security as well as emergency relief.27 In order to do this, councils organised themselves internally into specialised departments under the leadership of a president. In November 2012 the exiled Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) were set up, providing funding and support to the LCs through the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU).28 As we have seen, in contrast to Asadism, the early LCs were based on horizontalism and mutual accountability. Where possible elections were held, often for the first time since 1954, and women were encouraged to stand for public office.

Anand Gopal documents in moving detail how this worked in the town of Saraqib in Idlib province through the life story of the LC’s first president, Osama al-Hossein. Hossein joined Saraqib’s first demonstration and became one of the original eight elected members of the LCC in 2011. Shortly afterwards he was imprisoned and tortured, and on his release went on to become the president of the twelve-member LC in December 2012. “Hossein continued to work long days to help revive Saraqib’s services, linking up with activists in other municipalities engaged in experiments of self-rule”.29 Despite being targeted and hit five times by the regime, “by 2016, Saraqib had been free of government authority for nearly four years, and in that time the town had experienced a flowering of art and political debate”.30 It was also one of the few LCs that had managed to levy taxes and defend its financial autonomy, and in July 2017 Hossein successfully organised its first election on a voter turnout of 55 percent.31 However, as we write, Idlib province, including Saraqib, is the last revolutionary enclave and is once again under barbaric Russian bombardment.32

As well as taking on the regular work of local councils in terms of service provision and governance, LCs found themselves under siege and aerial bombardment, specifically targeting medical facilities, schools and civilians, leading to over half of the population internally displaced and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. By June 2012 international humanitarian law had classified Syria as a case for humanitarian aid and, in late 2015, some 13.5 million Syrians, more than half the original population in the country, were estimated to be in need of aid.33 Life expectancy had fallen by a quarter in just four years, from 76 in 2010 to 56 in 2014.34 Physicians for Human Rights documented that between March 2011 and December 2018 there were 550 attacks on health facilities, and by August 2019, 912 health workers had been killed.35 Most recently, it is estimated that over 100,000 people have been detained or gone missing, many of whom will have been activists and their families, including LC workers.36

As José Ciro Martínez and Brent Eng point out, there are many strategic reasons for Asad’s total war policy, including military victory, displacing ­opposition populations, retribution for defiance and ensuring that there is never any future rebellion.37 However, they argue that central to Asad’s targeting of public infrastructure such as hospitals and bakeries is the destruction of viable political alternatives. “By systematically annihilating the administrative institutions and public services that shape rebel-civilian relations, the Asad regime delegitimises its competitors and prevents the emergence of coherent alternatives”.38 This is echoed by a 2014 report: “These were the first attempts by revolutionary forces to actually govern territory. The thinking went that…the opposition was well on its way to establishing a state within liberated territory that could serve as a model for the entire country”.39

How do we make sense, as revolutionaries, of LCs? At their most basic level, they are pragmatic instruments of survival in war conditions. At an ideological and political level, LCs have a democratic vision and values that challenge both Asad and the jihadists. As one Syrian interviewee observed, many LCs had become a “unique place between revolutionary and public institutions”.40 We concur with Al-Shami’s conclusion:

I think this is one of the really remarkable things about the Syrian revolution… how people are creating alternatives to authoritarianism…when they are being bombed by their own government, they are being bombed by foreign governments, they are under attack from Islamic extremists, they are being starved, they are being gassed.41

The rest of this article tells the untold story of how these experiments in self-rule were not only undermined by a militarised and ideological counter-revolution funded by Russia and Iran on the one hand, and several Gulf countries on the other, but also by the Western aid system. As we noted earlier, before his death in prison in 2013, the Syrian anarchist Aziz pointed out that revolutionary moments transform consciousness. Six years into the onslaught, local Idlib shopowners were offering free goods and services to those fleeing Ghouta; demonstrators continued to carry banners in solidarity with others and first responders and healthcare workers persisted in saving lives in the memory of those who had lost theirs. How was this revolutionary consciousness and practice transformed by the arrival of Western aid?

Western aid and “NGOisation”

Last April in East Ghouta, I heard a saying attributed to Ho Chi Minh: “If you want to destroy a revolution, shower it with money!” Money has played a hugely corrupting role, and has killed (or has come close to killing) the spirit of initiative, volunteerism and courage that arose during the first year of the revolution. This money is linked to the agendas of “supportive” foreign parties.42

There is a vast literature on the international politics of aid in the Global South and, particularly since the 1980s, its role in promoting neoliberalism.43 What we have seen is a massive shift in aid policy from assisting governments to seeking out and funding non-governmental organisations. NGOs range from international NGOs, closely connected to Northern governments, to independent Southern grassroots organisations. In the academic literature the term NGOisation has come to describe two related phenomena. The first was this unprecedented explosion of Northern-funded NGOs onto the centre stage of development, accompanied by a marked increase in their influence. This use of the term is about capturing the far-reaching external impact of NGOs on the fabric of a country and its domestic policy-making. Julie Hearn documented over 20 years ago how “involving the voluntary sector and non-state actors in the official aid system has had…major consequences”.44 Second, the same term was developed, particularly in the Indian and Latin American contexts, to describe the process whereby Northern aid was changing the internal make-up and identity of Southern NGOs, moving them away from their social movement roots. This internal “NGOisation” of dissent involves the well-documented processes of bureaucratisation, professionalisation and depoliticisation, resulting in ­“corporate NGOs”.45 In the African context, Julius Nyang’oro commented that many African NGOs have become “local managers of foreign aid money, not managers of local African development processes”.46

On first impressions, receiving free money would appear to be exactly what progressive grassroots organisations in the Global South need. However, it is never that simple. The concept of NGOisation is useful in navigating why. In the first instance, official aid is not free, it comes with the weight of the requirements of the international aid industry, initiating the organisation into its hegemonic technocratic culture of “projectism”. The placard is replaced by the project and activists are transformed into aid bureaucrats via countless training workshops. Kerstin Jacobsson and Steven Saxonburg write about “cadre-staff organisations that have learnt to play ‘the funding game’. This game entails writing applications, managing grants and meeting the accountability requirements of Western donors.” They continue:

Western assistance has prompted them to focus their attention on organisational rather than mobilisational matters. The parallel processes of institutionalisation and professionalisation tend to transform civil society organisations into hierarchical, centralised and corporate entities that focus on their own survival rather than trying to mobilise society.47

Based on recent interviews with the leaders of 45 local NGOs in Palestine and Morocco, Mona Atia and Catherine Herrold concur:

The development of project-based proposals with logic models and measurable outcomes channels organisations’ work into discrete, short-term projects with immediately visible results, leaving little room for the creativity, flexibility and long term horizons required to mobilise grassroots constituencies or engage in sustained collective action.48

The initiation into the technocracy of aid is accompanied by a loss of autonomy and power. On receipt of funding, activists hand over their hard won self-determination and, according to Atia and Herrold, become clients in a system of patronage:

We use the term “patronage” to describe the unequal power relationship between NGOs and their funders… The link between the funder and the grant recipient is hierarchical and “reinforce(s) vertical linkages” between patrons and grantees, at the expense of “horizontal linkages among associations”… Relationships of patronage occur when organisations lose their autonomy, become dependent on their funders, and increasingly implement their funders’ agendas.49

The final component of NGOisation is depoliticisation. Atia and Herrold conclude: “After patronage, NGOs felt constrained by what they could say and do politically and were reticent to engage in contentious collective action”. Palestinian NGO workers told them: “The West won’t fund groups that are rebellious, revolutionary, and think about how to change the status quo”. “As Palestinians we are angry. It [NGOisation] has changed our state of mind from community organising, creativity and independence to dependence”.50

In the Syrian context, by March 2017 there were 395 NGOs in the opposition-controlled areas, 206 outside Syria, 170 in the Kurdish PYD-controlled areas, 126 in the Syrian government-controlled areas and eight in other areas.51 In the next sections we explore how NGOisation paradoxically strengthened the Asadist state but weakened revolutionary self-organisation in the opposition-controlled areas by turning revolutionaries and activists into “humanitarians”.

Western aid and the Asad regime

NGOs are a relatively new phenomenon in Syria. Statist Baathism has kept the role of non-governmental institutions to a minimum. In its understanding of the social contract, particularly from the 1960s through to the 1990s, the state assumed all social responsibilities with the help of corporatist mass unions of peasants, workers and women in order to legitimate populist state-centered development. As Laura Ruiz de Elvira and Tina Zintl observe: “In Syria, as in other Arab countries, charities had been seen as superfluous and non-economic players under ‘Arab socialism’”.52 However, this was all to change. As Zintl notes: “While talk about civil society and NGOs was almost non-existent in Syria under Hafez al-Asad’s rule, the 2000s not only saw a significant rise of these activities per se but also of speeches and news coverage on them”.53 Ruiz de Elvira and Zintl show how the Tenth Five Year Plan for the years 2006 to 2010 formalised the transition from a planned economy to a “social market economy”, which would “require forging a new social contract among the vital forces in the Syrian society. These are comprised of the state, private sector and civil society organisations”.54 The fiscal crisis of the 1990s was behind the retreat of the state and the outsourcing of its social responsibility to private actors. The number of organisations registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MoSAL) almost tripled from 555 in 2002 to 1,485 in 2009.55

Importantly, this was a regime-sponsored civil society made up of modern professional development NGOs or “government-organised” NGOs (GO-NGOs), with the first lady Asma al-Asad as its flag-bearer.56 Her “Syria Trust for Development”, a platform made up of different NGOs, was successfully set up as a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme in 2011.57 While an independent al-mujtama’al-madani (civil society) was persecuted, the loyal al-mujtama’al-ahli (communal society) from above was encouraged.58 The biggest and the most popular organisation, found in almost every small town, was the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which was controlled by the Syrian Baathist regime. Its political role was to discipline associational life and to modernise authoritarianism. Once the war began, SARC and this GO-NGO infrastructure were indispensable in helping Asad survive the revolution.

In 2017, total humanitarian expenditures, including from both UN and non-UN sources, were equivalent to some 35 percent of Syria’s GDP. The scandal here is that Asad was a master at capturing such an important resource from the Damascus-based UN organisations in order to complement his military offensive. First, aid went to regime-controlled areas. In 2015 less than one percent of the total UN aid budget for Syria reached opposition-controlled areas. Second, in the lucrative aid procurement industry, contracts, such as for accommodation and mobile phones, went to Asad’s cronies. Finally, he ensured absolute control over the relief effort by establishing the Higher Relief Committee, overseen by the intelligence services, and limiting the list of “national NGOs”, with which the UN could work, to the GO-NGOs discussed earlier. This included shell companies disguised as charities, such as the Al-Bustan Association, owned by Asad’s cousin, the billionaire businessman Rami Makhlouf.59 Leenders and Mansour show how critical international aid was in reinforcing the regime’s claims on state sovereignty and strengthening its authoritarian resilience.60 Outcry at the UN was ignored and concerns are that Asad will replicate the same manipulation over international “reconstruction” funds now and in the coming years.61 We now turn to the impact of Western aid in the opposition-controlled areas.

The NGOisation of the Syrian Revolution

As we saw, once the regime was defeated in provinces such as Idlib and Aleppo, they came under the control of the opposition in 2012, who set up LCs. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami point out: “At the start, most were funded by donations from local or expatriate Syrians as well as levying taxes. As their needs increased they became reliant on alternative sources, often from NGOs or foreign governments”.62

In October 2012, France organised an international meeting in Paris for LCs and in December 2012 a hundred delegates from all over Syria met in Ankara, Turkey, supported by the US State Department.63 In November 2012 the exiled Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) were set up and recognised by over 130 countries. The SNC channelled international aid to the LCs through the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU).64 On the positive side, this allowed LCs to continue to exist. However, it came with the addition of external agendas and a loss of autonomy. A report on what it calls local administrative councils (LACs), based on 50 interviews and five focus group discussions, concluded:

A major concern mentioned by many respondents is the influence of donors on the priorities and implementation activities of the LACs… Some donors are said not to adequately consider the LACs in decision-making processes. As a result, LACs have only limited room to influence the planning and execution of their own projects.65

At this point, some Western powers were flirting with an alternative to Asad. However, the West was not the only interested party and quickly took fright at the messiness of the situation on the ground, a reality that Syrian revolutionary leaders had to contend with and navigate on an hourly basis. This is well illustrated by the experience of the highly respected Aleppo Provincial Council (APC), which began life as a revolutionary council. In March 2013 it held one-year term elections for its 29 council members from an electoral commission of 240. “The creation of a provincial council means that civilian affairs will be organised from now on at an institutional level, rather than by individual activists”.66 However, in the 2014 elections the Muslim Brotherhood bloc won at the same time that Ahmad Tomeh, perceived as a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser, headed the SIG.67 Others challenged the APC’s work and some former APC members set up their own independent NGOs. Western donors were uncomfortable with both the contested nature of the opposition and the growing influence within it of regional countries—specifically, Turkey and Qatar.

However, what proved to be the ultimate turn-off for the West was the rise of Islamist groups in 2013, initially funded by the Gulf States until they secured their own local funding. The introduction of policies to stem terrorism has made it a criminal offence to assist proscribed groups unknowingly as well as intentionally.68 Whilst the West had the luxury of turning away, Syrian revolutionaries found themselves working with and against other armed groups. Morrison notes: “The relations between these quasi-governmental offices and armed groups are contentious, overlapping and shifting, and there is no international agreement on how to distinguish an armed actor from an interim government worker”.69

As the West’s enthusiasm for LCs as an alternative grassroots government-in-waiting to Asad waned, a new funding vehicle for distributing humanitarian relief appeared in the form of NGOs. When the opposition took over the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib in 2012, they also took control of the border crossings with Turkey. This meant that International NGOs (INGOs) no longer had to wait for clearance from Damascus but could cross over into northern Syria to assist. This began with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) in September 2012. MSF started its activities by establishing and running medical projects in both Bab al-Salamah in northern Aleppo governorate and Bab al-Hawa in northwest Idlib governorate close to the border with Turkey. Then the International Medical Corps (IMC) along with the Qatari Red Crescent (QRC) began working in Syria with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps, which were primarily concentrated at the Syrian-Turkish border, as well as the hosting communities. Since then the number of NGOs has drastically increased. Parallel to the mushrooming of INGOs, Syrian Local NGOs (SLNGOs) started to come into existence. Between 600-700 local groups have since been created.70

Here we will document four aspects of the NGOisation process of the Syrian Revolution. First, is the weakening and marginalisation of the LCs as alternative state structures. A number of reports confirm the competition for funding between LCs and NGOs. Agnès Favier notes that the Syria Humanitarian Pooled Fund managed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gaziantep, Turkey, was available to Syrian NGOs but not to the LCs, which “are perceived by the UN agencies as a ‘political structure of the opposition’”.71 As a result, LCs were starved of funding and could not pay their staff while NGOs could, thus attracting LC workers away to NGOs.72 This then became a cycle where Western aid’s preference for NGOs rather than LCs strengthened the former at the expense of the latter, creating a competing parallel political structure of service provision and legitimacy. An added layer of irony here is that Western aid was provided directly to the political structures in Rojava but not to the opposition-controlled areas. Thus NGOisation strengthened those areas governed by Asad and the PYD and weakened those areas offering a popular, countrywide post-Asad vision of Syria.

Second is the transformation of activists into aid bureaucrats via projectism.73 Reflecting on contemporary daily life in the aid hub of Gaziantep, Ignacio Fradejas-García observes:

Most of the time, email after email is spent writing proposals, monitoring projects, controlling budgets and communicating with counterparts or teams inside Syria, or with donors and global managers at headquarters in global cities. Some receive other “aiders” or attend meetings at other NGO offices.74

Already in 2013 the Syrian academic Nayla Mansour had warned:

To secure funding the activist groups—first and foremost—struggle with the initial requirements of the donor. The organisational structures, processes, advance planning, strict contractual items, high-quality standards (often not adapted to the local context and the unstable security situation)…the activist is busy working in response to the mechanisms and frameworks of the donor organisation; a full-time job that…distracts him from all the basic political demands for which the people rose.75

Thus, the flip-side of aid bureaucratisation is depoliticisation. The revolution will be airbrushed out and replaced with the mantra of “neutrality, impartiality and independence”. Ruiz de Elvira observes in her research that:

In order to satisfy the donors’ neutrality demands, some Syrian social networks working in relief activities have ended up by replacing their original names, slogans or logos, by more neutral ones that do not make a clear reference to the uprising. In the same vein, some of them have simply removed from their offices the Syrian revolutionary flag.76

In our experience Syrian NGOers who had been outspoken anti-regime activists changed their Facebook cover pages to “humanitarian” mottoes. They further disdained any revolutionary indications in order to maintain the flow of funding and not to upset their donors. Several revolutionaries were denied jobs or renewal of their job contracts because they spoke out and criticised work done by NGOs.

In her ethnographic study of exiled revolutionaries who now work in aid, Ruiz de Elvira concludes that there is a “common revolutionary-humanitarian collective identity” that collides with the technocracy of aid, particularly forcefully in the acutely political context of Syria.77 Fradejas-García observes: “In Gaziantep, in meetings of NGO actors, one sometimes hears: ‘Hey folks, we are ­humanitarians, no politics here please’. Humanitarian principles are mentioned frequently to remind everyone of common values”.78 Ruiz de Elvira cites one humanitarian organisation leader speaking in 2017: “the NGOisation trend makes us deviate from our principles,” “we forget our cause,” “we now speak a politically correct language,” “we neutralise our discourse”.79 Revolutionaries have been forced to become adept at performing “apoliticism”, yet their driving force is political. At what point does their performativity become reality? As Yassin Swehat attests: “Imagine a council in an area being bombed not daring to write the word ‘revolution’ in a proposal in case it upset the NGO audience”.80

Finally, the ultimate insult to autonomy and self-determination came in the form of “remote management” by Western aid agencies and later by their Syrian counterparts. As a conflict zone becomes too dangerous, Western aid workers retreat to safe offices outside of the country, leaving local “partners” on the ground to shoulder the risk of death while still telling them how to do their job and, more importantly for the purpose of performativity, how to report it. Highly committed, skilled and experienced Syrians who initiated relief work as an integral part of revolutionary self-organisation and anti-Asad struggle found themselves at the receiving end of a distant command chain, becoming objects of orders. Remote management was developed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Rather than a “temporary measure or last resort under difficult circumstances”, the humanitarian sector has begun to see it as a “normal and integral strategic approach” in which “power remains in the hands of international staff”.81 Kimberley Howe and Elizabeth Stites point out that: “By mid-2013, active targeting of aid operations and humanitarian workers by the regime of president Bashar al-Assad and the rise of extremist groups had led to the removal of nearly all international staff operating within Syria and across the border from Turkey”.82


Over eight years into the revolution and Syrian revolutionaries are shattered individuals without any effective vehicles to drive forward their political aspirations. This is due to several internal and external counter-revolutionary factors. At the internal level, Asad’s killing machine was the bloodiest in Syria’s history. While it has been difficult for independent sources to provide an accurate death toll, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch estimate that about half a million Syrians have lost their lives. Syrian revolutionaries, however, believe that the number is much higher once combatants, those killed in detention and those who drowned in the Mediterranean are included.

Moreover, NGOs (both international and local) competed ferociously with SIG-affiliated LCs to become the only service providers on the ground. Meanwhile, the various political bodies of the opposition, including SNC and SIG, remained deeply fragmented and, in order to survive, they became handmaidens to the political aims of regional and international powers. Ironically, all these institutions would not exist if it was not for the revolution. However, ultimately, they collectively failed to advance an alternative to the Asad regime.

At the external level, Western “humanitarian aid”, both financial and ­material, channelled through NGOs, was key in suffocating the Syrian Revolution. It deeply affected the nature of the revolution as well as society in the opposition areas. The NGOisation of the Syrian Revolution killed the spirit of solidarity among revolutionaries. Through its processes of disempowerment, bureaucratisation, professionalisation and depoliticisation, the revolution was portrayed as a “humanitarian crisis” that could be addressed through NGO projects. Revolutionaries, who have been co-opted into the “humanitarian field”, betrayed the Syrian Revolution. The long-term impact of the NGOisation left the opposition without political representation and paved the way for Turkish intervention in the northern areas of Syria without facing any local objections. There were only externally funded NGOs without claws or teeth in charge of providing services to the population. As soon as Turkey intervened, it created its own puppet local councils in the rural areas of Aleppo and Idlib in order to govern them.

Having theorised the NGOisation of the Syrian Revolution, we should never forget the magnificent role that Western aid played to help the Asad regime and simultaneously weaken the opposition institutions. The manner of undertaking “humanitarian” intervention in the opposition areas not only smothered the mobilisation against the Asad regime but also contributed to promoting its centrality and legitimacy. While NGOs and the UN agencies in the opposition controlled areas worked independently, under the claim of neutrality and independence, they worked through the institutions of the Asad regime and its aid wing, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), in the regime-controlled areas. As such, the Asad regime did not lose its leverage and remained intact despite the international sanctions imposed by both the US and the European Union.

The final point we would like to raise is that Syrian revolutionaries should understand that the money provided by INGOs and donors was not purely for the sake of the Syrian people. There were always political objectives behind it. As Yassin al-Haj Saleh warned: “political money” is one of the four transformative factors that have “contributed to the destruction of the Syrian struggle’s national framework”.83 Western aid primarily silenced the revolutionaries and co-opted them into the NGO sector. Granting NGOs free money stripped Syrians of their political activism. Activists who established NGOs or worked for them became highly depoliticised in favour of maintaining the flow of funding and therefore their jobs. Moreover, as Western aid was channelled through NGOs, the latter increased in number. Their complete dependence on external funding poses two fundamental questions: first, how autonomous these NGOs are, and second, how effective they were in their response. Surely NGOs working in this way in Syria are neither independent nor effective. Their dependence on external funding affects the sustainability of their projects’ outcomes. As soon as funding stops, services stop.

With the NGO sector being a crucial job provider in the opposition-controlled areas, it rendered both civilians and the economy dependent on external aid. In 2017, UN agencies, the EU and international NGOs reduced their funding to the Syrian NGOs resulting in an increase in the unemployment rate. Syrians, since the arrival of NGOs in 2012, overwhelmingly agreed with donor requirements to maintain funding. They, for example, agreed to appear in photos carrying food baskets, receiving cash or signing documents. The shortage of funding not only deprives the opposition areas of services and promotes poverty, but it takes place in parallel with the regime’s progress. Having said this, Syrian revolutionaries may find themselves forced to accept a political compromise and agree with any political solution, imposed by the de facto circumstances of Asad’s progress and the lack of funding, as long as this solution meets their daily needs and ensures service provision.

As we write, the Asad regime forces, backed by Russian air power and the Iranian funded militias, have taken control over key areas in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces. These areas are witnessing the most devastating bombardment in the history of the Syrian Revolution. However, the US, Western donors and INGOs continue cutting their funds to these and the rest of the opposition areas. The “humanitarian” tendency seems to be on the same side of the international political goal towards Syria, keeping the Asad regime in place and preventing Syrians from establishing any alternatives at the political, military and the service provision levels.

Julie Hearn is a lecturer in politics and a member of the SWP.

Abdulsalam Dallal is a PhD student.


1 We use the Arabic spelling of “al-Asad/Asad”—see Ruiz de Elvira 2019.

2 Alexander and Bouharoun, 2016.

3 Pearlman, 2019.

4 Saleh, 2017, p30.

5 Quoted in Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, pp54-55.

6 Quoted in Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, p55.

7 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, pp55-56.

8 Assaf, 2012, pp11-12.

9 Naisse, 2013b.

10 Alexander, 2019, p38.

11 Alexander, 2019, pp35-36.

12 Alexander, 2019, p35.

13 Wallace, 2006; Hearn, 1998 and 2007.

14 Alexander and Bouharoun, 2016.

15 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, pp74-76.

16 Alexander and Bouharoun, 2016, p22.

17 Saleh, 2018, p143.

18 Hajjar and others, 2017, p7.

19 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, p68.

20 Aziz, 2011, p1.

21 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, p69.

22 Lister, 2017; Martínez and Eng, 2018, p242.

23 Naisse, 2013a, p1.

24 Naisse, 2016, pp64-65. See also Naisse, 2013b.

25 Al-Shami, 2016, p4.

26 Morrison, 2019, p2.

27 Morrison, 2019, pp6-14.

29 Gopal, 2018, p17.

30 Gopal, 2018, p22.

31 Gopal, 2018, p24.

32 Dallal, 2019.

33 Meininghaus, 2016, pp1454-1456

34 Syrian Centre for Policy Research, 2015, p42.

35 Physicians for Human Rights, 2019.

36 UN Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, 2019.

37 Martínez and Eng, 2018, p247.

38 Martínez and Eng, 2018, p237.

39 Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2014, p4.

40 Hajjar and others, 2017, p7.

41 Ward, 2016.

42 Saleh, 2017, p189, writing about April 2013.

43 Ismail and Kamat, 2018.

44 Hearn, 1998.

45 Choudry and Kapoor, 2013; Jacobsson and Saxonburg, 2013, p7.

46 Hearn, 2007, p1107.

47 Jacobsson and Saxonburg, 2013, p6.

48 Atia and Herrold, 2018, p1050.

49 Atia and Herrold, 2018, p1045.

50 Atia and Herrold, 2018, p1045.

51 Citizens for Syria, 2017.

52 Ruiz de Elvira and Zintl, 2014, p336.

53 Zintl, 2012, p33.

54 Ruiz de Elvira and Zintl, 2014, p336.

55 Ruiz de Elvira and Zintl, 2012, p7.

56 Ruiz de Elvira and Zintl, 2014, p344.

57 Bosman, 2012, p4.

58 Ruiz de Elvira and Zintl, 2014, pp343-344.

59 Sparrow, 2018.

60 Leenders and Mansour, 2018.

61 SJAC, 2019.

62 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018 p 72.

63 Favier, 2016, p8; Reuter, 2013.

65 Hajjar and others, 2017, p20.

66 AFP, 2013.

67 Hokayem, 2014.

68 Howe and Stites, 2018, p3.

69 Morrison, 2019, p2.

70 Svoboda and Pantuliano, 2015, piii.

71 Favier, 2016, p12.

72 Hajjar and others, 2017, p9; Morrison, 2019.

73 Mansour, 2014.

74 Fradejas-García, 2019, pp292-293.

75 Mansour, 2014.

76 Ruiz de Elvira, 2019, p47.

77 Ruiz de Elvira, 2019, p45.

78 Fradejas-García, 2019, p299.

79 Ruiz de Elvira, 2019, pp12-13.

80 Yassin Swehat, cited in Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2018, p152.

81 Fradejas-García, 2019, p289.

82 Howe and Stites, 2018, p6.

83 Saleh, 2017, p190.


AFP, 2013, “Syria Opponents Vote for Aleppo Council” (3 March),

Alexander, Anne, 2019, “Living on Revolution Time: Understanding the Dynamics of the Uprisings in Sudan and Algeria”, International Socialism 163 (summer),

Alexander, Anne, and Jad Bouharoun, 2016, Syria: Revolution, Counter-revolution and War (Socialist Worker).

Al-Shami, Leila, 2016, “Challenging the Nation State in Syria” Fifth Estate (summer),

Assaf, Simon, 2012, “Syria’s Revolution: Bloodied but Unbowed”, Socialist Review (October),

Atia, Mona, and Catherine Herrold, 2018, “Governing through Patronage: The Rise of NGOs and the Fall of Civil Society in Palestine and Morocco”, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, volume 29, issue 5.

Aziz, Omar, 2011, “A Discussion Paper on Local Councils in Syria”, The Anarchist Library,

Bosman, Marieke, 2012, “The NGO Sector in Syria—an Overview”, INTRAC Briefing Paper 30 (June),

Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2014, ‘Local Administration Structures in Opposition-held Areas in Syria’, Research Report, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Choudry, Aziz, and Dip Kapoor (eds), 2013, NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects (Zed).

Citizens for Syria, 2017, “Syrian Civil Society Organisations: Reality and Challenges”,

Dallal, Abdulsalam, 2019, “Last Stand of the Syrian Rebellion?”, Middle East Solidarity (13 July),

Favier, Agnes, 2016, “Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria”, in Luigi Narbone, Agnès Favier and Virginie Collombier (eds), Inside Wars: Local Dynamics of Conflicts in Syria and Libya (European University Institute), http://cadmus. eui. eu/bitstream/handle/1814/41644/Inside% 20wars_2016

Fradejas-García, Ignacio, 2019, “Humanitarian Remoteness: Aid Work Practices from ‘Little Aleppo’”, Social Anthropology, volume 27, issue 2.

Gopal, Anand, 2018, “Syria’s Last Bastion of Freedom”, The New Yorker (10 December),

Hajjar, Bahjat, Corinne von Burg, Leila Hilal, Martina Santschi, Mazen Gharibah, and Mazhar Sharbaji, 2017, “Perceptions of Governance—The Experience of Local Administrative Councils in Opposition-held Syria”, Swiss Peace Foundation (January),

Hearn, Julie, 1998, “The ‘NGO-isation’ of Kenyan Society: USAID and the Restructuring of Health Care”, Review of African Political Economy, volume 25, number 75.

Hearn, Julie, 2007, “African NGOs: The New Compradors”, Development and Change, volume 38, issue 6.

Hokayem, Emile, 2014, “Iran, the Gulf States and the Syrian Civil War”, Survival, volume 56, issue 6.

Howe, Kimberly, and Elizabeth Stites, 2018, “Partners under Pressure: Humanitarian Action for the Syria Crisis”, Disasters, volume 43, issue 1.

Ismail, Feyzi, and Sangeeta Kamat, 2018, “NGOs, Social Movements and the Neoliberal State: Incorporation, Reinvention, Critique”, Critical Sociology, volume 44, issue 4-5.

Jacobsson, Kerstin, and Steven Saxonburg (eds), 2013, Beyond NGO-ization: The Development of Social Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge).

Leenders, Reinud, and Kholoud Mansour, 2018, “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty, and Authoritarian Regime Maintenance in the Syrian War”, Political Science Quarterly, volume 133, issue 2.

Lister, Charles, 2017, “Turkey’s Idlib Incursion and the HTS Question: Understanding the Long Game in Syria”, War on the Rocks (31 October),

Mansour, Nayla, 2014, “My name is Kafranbel, and I Don’t Need Trainings in Needs Assessment”, Al-Jumhuriya (4 November, first published in Arabic May 2013),

Martínez, José Ciro, and Brent Eng, 2018, “Stifling Stateness: The Assad Regime’s Campaign against Rebel Governance”, Security Dialogue, volume 49, issue 4.

Meininghaus, Esther, 2016, “Humanitarianism in Intra-state Conflict: Aid Inequality and Local Governance in Government- and Opposition-controlled Areas in the Syrian War”, Third World Quarterly, volume 37, issue 8.

Morrison, Chas, 2019, “Providing Basic Services Under Siege: Preliminary Insights from Interim Councils and Medical Providers in Besieged Urban Areas of Syria”, Environment and Urbanization, volume 31, issue 1.

Naisse, Ghayath, 2013a, “Self-organization in the Syrian People’s Revolution”, International Viewpoint (1 July),

Naisse, Ghayath, 2013b, “Syria: A Revolt From Below”, Socialist Review (October),

Naisse, Ghayath, 2016, “Interview: Lessons of the Syrian Revolution”, International Socialism 153 (winter),

Pearlman, Wendy, 2019, “How the Syrian Uprising Began and Why it Matters”, The Conversation (14 March),

Physicians for Human Rights, 2019, “Medical Personnel Are Targeted in Syria” (8 September),

Reuter, Christoph, 2013, “Syrian City Embodies Absurdity of Civil War”, Der Spiegel (23 April),

Ruiz de Elvira, Laura, and Tina Zintl (eds), 2012, Civil Society and the State in Syria: The Outsourcing of Social Responsibility (Lynne Rienner).

Ruiz de Elvira, Laura, and Tina Zintl, 2014, “The End of the Ba’thist Social Contract in Bashar Al-Asad’s Syria: Reading Sociopolitical Transformations through Charities and Broader Benevolent Activism”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, volume 46, issue 2.

Ruiz de Elvira, Laura, 2019, “From Local Revolutionary Action to Exiled Humanitarian Work: Activism in Local Social Networks and Communities’ Formation in the Syrian post-2011 Context”, Social Movement Studies, volume 18, issue 1.

Saleh, Layla, 2018, “Civic Resilience During Conflict: Syria’s Local Councils”, Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, volume 11, number 2.

Saleh, Yassin al-Haj, 2017, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of Syrian Tragedy (Hurst).

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, 2019, “Documents Obtained by SJAC Show Role of Syrian Intelligence in Directing Humanitarian Aid” (1 August),

Sparrow, Annie, 2018, “How UN Humanitarian Aid Has Propped Up Assad”, Foreign Affairs (20 September),

Svoboda, Eva, and Sara Pantuliano, 2015 “International and Local/Diaspora Actors in the Syria Response: A Diverging Set of Systems?”, Humanitarian Policy Group and Overseas Development Institute Working Paper (March),

Syrian Centre for Policy Research, 2015, “Syria: Alienation and Violence, Impact of the Syria Crisis Report” (30 March),

UN Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, 2019, “Security Council Briefing on Detainees and Missing Persons in Syria, Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo” (7 August),

Wallace, Tina, 2006, The Aid Chain: Coercion and Commitment in Development NGOs (Intermediate Technology Publications).

Ward, Patrick, 2016, “Syria’s Forgotten Revolutionaries: An Interview with Leila Al-Shami” (21 June),

Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami, 2018, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto).

Zintl, Tina, 2012, “Modernization Theory II: Western-educated Syrians and the Authoritarian Upgrading of Civil Society”, in, Laura Ruiz de Elvira and Tina Zintl (eds), Civil society and the State in Syria: The Outsourcing of Social Responsibility (Lynne Rienner).