THE BLOG

Syrian Nonviolent Movements Do Exist

03/24/2014 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2014

After three years of an accelerating Syrian conflict, the United States finally ordered Syria's diplomatic mission to suspend its operations in the U.S.. However, the policy and media focus on militant operations overshadow nonviolent Syrian initiatives, which overlooks the necessary factors for peace and reconciliation (as if nonviolent Syrians do no exist, but will suddenly emerge when that inroad for Syria is made possible). Syria nonviolent movements do exist -- and persist -- but without much attention.

In particular, the Syria & Justice Accountability Centre's (SJAC) joint report with Charney Research, which is the first comprehensive initiative to insert accountability into a political discussion by surveying Syrian citizens affected by the conflict, established a baseline for reconciliation. Facebook shut down pages of various nonviolent movements and civil society groups in Syria due to concerns of graphic content postings... among other things. Consequently, this creates a black hole of many activists' narratives, tools like the memes, #Syria_NonViolence_Map and #SyriaTracker, offer an alternative narrative -- which will more likely advance a reconciliatory dialogue. Consequently, this further alienates civil society efforts from what will be required once the Assad regime and opposition decide to renegotiate and move towards reconciliation -- even if that juncture is five years into the future.  

The Syrian nonviolence efforts largely stems from the trend of crowd-sourcing, or gathering information across various sources to consolidate into a single platform that conveys information in a more digestible way--like the "crisis map." With support from the Oxford Internet Institute, Omar Assil coordinated with Syrian diaspora from his base in the United Kingdom who support the Syrian Nonviolence Movement (SNVM), which believes in peaceful struggle as a way to achieve social and political change in spite of the resurgence of militant groups. After three months of sorting through data using Gephi and Sigma, the SNVM tool showed how nonviolence initiatives encompassed bloggers, local councils, graffiti artists, organized sit-ins, medical relief services and demonstrations. By the end of 2013, the map listed about 694 nonviolent initiatives and contacts -- if available.

"People started to feel that the nonviolence came to an end and that it's not useful in our case. We wanted to show them that it's still there and many of them are engaged in nonviolence activities in their daily life but they don't necessarily recognize that," explains Omar.

Local Councils operating in Syria confront a daily choice: resist armed resistance or resist peacefully within the confines of providing health services and food. On the one hand, other international organizations, like Norwegian Aid, have already reached out to nonviolence movements in response to the Syria Crisis. In Norwegian Aid's case, they used the tool, #Syria_NonViolence_Map, to coordinate aid efforts. 

On the other hand, local council groups, like in Kafranbel and Daraya, operate within their communities and pointedly tell resistance fighters that their priority is to provide services to those within the community. How can this level of nonviolent engagement maintain itself within a conflict zone? Activist leaders, like Raed Fares and Razan Radwan, need to travel outside of Syria to participate in speaking tours to raise awareness and funds to continue civil society programming.  Nonetheless, Fares, who works in Kafranbel, encounters risks operating even as a nonviolent participant -- a few weeks ago he managed to escape an assassination attempt. Others, like Ousama Charbaji from Daraya, whose initiative is listed on the tool, explain how their project publishes a magazine for Syrian children to promote psycho-social development as violent images interrupt their childhood. 

According to Omar and Ibrahim Assil, brothers, the creators of the #Syrian_NonViolence_Map, they realize that they may have to revisit who is listed on the map given that several local councils have disbanded or no longer fit their map's criteria of nonviolent resistance.  However the information and data they have collected is just as important as documenting the human rights abuses, captured by Mohamed Abdullah in another nonviolence initiative, because these will be the networks and people the international community will need to reach out to when, hopefully, the Syrian conflict ends.   

Mapping Versus Monitoring Peace & Relief Activities
Although the mapping tool is a great data collector, and allows like-minded peace initiatives to connect, there has been a downside. First, many of these groups have been targeted once they were visible online. At a December Syrian Diaspora event on development and relief, questions emerged on how to balance the benefits of transparency of using technology to show all developments and locations of citizens' initiatives without compromising the safety of those involved on the ground in food and aid delivery.

Second, the Assad regime not only has used food as a weapon of war, but has incarcerated, killed or force Syrian activists into exile. Aside from the regime, cyber-terror groups like the Syrian Electronic Army use electronic monitoring to identify and target foreign aid workers.

Given the dangers associated with a highly accessible tool, there is still some positive impact. Within six months of going live, The SNVMP received dozens of requests from organizations who use the map to connect with activists and source data or work on documentation and statistics of the revolution.

Similarly, another nonviolence movement, known on social media, is Syria Tracker -- or @SyriaTracker on Twitter. Syria Tracker is a Project within Humanitarian Tracker ( @HNTracker), which was co-founded by the U.S.-based Taha Kass-Hout and Hend Alhinnawi. Like Humanitarian Tracker's crowd-sourced platform, @SyriaTracker relies on "citizen diplomacy" by combining eye witness reporting with social media data mining techniques. Unlike Humanitarian Tracker, @SyriaTracker focuses on Syria to present a holistic view of what is happening on the ground.

Currently, official organizations like The United Nations and the U.S. Department of State use @SyriaTracker reports to gauge the humanitarian crisis. For example in 2013, @SyriaTracker first documented Syria's polio outbreak after receiving over 70,000 eyewitness reports. With all this data circulating on social media and by word of mouth, verifying data is the key challenge. That is the added value provided by @SyriaTracker, who focus on verification: Only 6 percent of the over 70,000 reports were published "as only verified info is shared", according to Alhinnawi. Consequently, their localized watchdog efforts alerted the World Health Organization to confirm the polio epidemic. Based on the response, and the allegations that the Assad regime continues to restrict access to relief efforts, Alhinnawi says that Humanitarian Tracker is developing a tool to track relief.

From Conflict & Development Relief to Development Relief & Reconciliation
Why is acknowledging the dwindling nonviolence efforts led by Syrians important? Given that development relief, reconstruction, and reconciliation will move in parallel post-conflict, the carryover force from the Syria crisis will be those players from the development realm -- including those few remaining from the non violent movements. Once the various sides agree to a cease-fire, the participants most likely to move forward in the peace process and implement conciliatory measures, will be those who do not have to drastically switch course and lay down weapons: the groups who persisted in their peaceful movement offline.