Staffan de Mistura, the new United Nations special envoy to Syria, made his first visit to Damascus in his post in September. He met with, among others, members of the Syrian Civil Coalition, a lobby of civil society organizations, activists and initiatives that seeks to influence decision-makers regarding policies and resolutions to transform the armed conflict in Syria into a peaceful conflict based on the first Geneva communiqué. That road map involved setting up a transitional governing body to “exercise full executive powers.”
At the September meeting, Majdoleen Hasan, a lawyer who represents the Syrian Civil Coalition, presented de Mistura a paper that outlined ways he could incorporate civil society in his pursuits in Syria. More recently, de Mistura told the press in Geneva in October that there was no plan for a so-called Geneva III “political momentum” at this stage.
Instead, he said, “What we are working on is listening, being in a listening mode, being in a position of understanding where is the current regional, global and national environment regarding possible political process, political process, if and when that can be started and facilitated by the UN.”
The main roles that the Syrian Civil Coalition outlined for civil society in finding a resolution in Syria are: Providing insights from a third, nonpolarized perspective on finding a common solution to ending the war; mediating among the polarized negotiating political parties; acting as an observer to the negotiations and supporting the negotiations track on matters requiring a neutral assessment of information, such as a list of detainees; and acting as a potential partner in executing some outcomes of the negotiations, especially on social matters or those requiring an outside actor, such as in a national dialogue or transitional justice.
The paper also presented five main requests for the next step in negotiations. These are:
1. Open more secure space for civil society to operate in Syria. Efforts by peaceful civilian activists are still carried out at great personal risk, encountering, for example, arbitrary detention, which has claimed some of the most important leaders in Syria. Mechanisms that can help us to mitigate this situation include the provision of UN protection for Syrian civilian activists and civil society groups who are committed to peaceful activity and refrain from violating international law; the appointment of a team in de Mistura’s office that can coordinate with Syrian civil society and support its activities within the mandate of the UN; and include gender experts in the team who can help Syrian women participate more in peace-building.
2. Expand the UN envoy’s mission inside Syria and its mandate. Our experience is that UN agencies’ presence in Syria has helped promote calm and provide “protection by presence” for civilians.
3. Reclassify Syria as a target for development programs, rather than simply humanitarian relief, under the UN Development Program. Development indicators in Syria have dropped drastically, which feeds the roots of the conflict. It also contributes to the deeply worsening education gap, which threatens any current stability and future recoverability and contributes to the decline in public life and deteriorating morale. Such a gap spawns violence and crime and the growth of new violent groups, who thrive in the climate of insecurity and decreasing social cohesion affecting the country.
4. Deploy a mission of UN international observers authorized under Security Council Chapter VI, similar to the observers mission deployed in Syria in April 2012. That mission had a tangible calming effect and more should be deployed in areas where violence is not acute.
5. Promote direct involvement of Syrian civil society in the negotiating tracks that represents a wide and balanced constituency and includes a gender perspective that also reflects the diverse orientations and needs of the Syrian people.
De Mistura emphasized at the September meeting in Damascus the importance of commitment to the 2012 Geneva communiqué, which he said was still valid despite the change of circumstances, and is the only point of international consensus achieved so far on Syria. He also stressed the need to start a political process as part of the fight against terrorism and for making peace. In addition, he stressed the vital role women are playing and the need for civil society to continue to keep a key role in the solution.
Indeed, we must maintain the presence of women in the political process. Otherwise, it will fail.
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Ghada Mukdad is a Syrian peace activist who has been living in Dallas, Tex., since 2012, where she is a member of the Syrian Civil Coalition advocating for an end to violence against civilians in Syria and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. She is a graduate of Damascus University, with a degree in English literature.