Syrian Civil Defense: A Framework for Demobilization and Reconstruction in Post-Conflict Syria

By Sloane Speakman, Guest Columnist


As various factions in Syria’s civil war meet in Geneva this week to restart stalled negotiations, renewed attention is being given to what post-conflict Syria would look like. But while high-level diplomats discuss this distant reality, local organizations in Syria, like the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), are already working to rebuild their communities. While the men and women of the SCD have attained widespread popularity and acclaim for their lifesaving role in urban search and rescue operations inside Syria,[1] these teams also offer a framework for demobilization and reintegration for the hundreds of thousands of fighters in Syria after hostilities end. James Le Mesurier – the former British military officer behind Mayday Rescue, which trains and equips these teams – believes that their successes in rebuilding and maintaining communities in conflict could result in their serving as a “reconstruction carta for Syria” after hostilities end.[2] Despite the many challenges that would face such an endeavor – including issues of maintaining neutrality and local credibility and ensuring inclusion in a broader post-conflict agreement – these teams possess real potential to provide avenues for reintegration in post-conflict Syria. Moreover, the success of these teams challenges the international community’s long-held view of stability operations from a security-first lens, which has placed greater emphasis on building police and military capabilities over other needs like reconnecting electricity lines or rebuilding roads.

SCD teams began forming in late 2012 and early 2013 in response to the increase in indiscriminate bombings of civilian populations in areas like Aleppo, Idlib and Dera’a. After an airstrike, members of the community – teachers, nurses, bakers, tailors, pharmacists – would dig through the rubble to rescue survivors and recover bodies. Today, there are 96 Syrian Civil Defense teams and 2,500 self-identified members, including women, across the areas of Aleppo, Idlib, Lattakia, Hama, Homs, Damascus and Dera’a. The mission of these White Helmets, as they are called, is to “save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.”[3] Indeed, there are many stories of White Helmets risking their lives to save regime soldiers or recover bodies of those fighting for Assad.[4] With start-up funding from the US State Department’s Conflict and Stabilization Operations bureau, the teams have saved more than 15,500 lives since their formation.

These teams possess many of the factors that made past demobilization efforts successful, such as the transition of the Kosovo Liberation Army to the Kosovo Protection Corps. Firstly, they have become a highly professional organization. Over the last two years, the teams have undergone over 30 training courses, including advanced courses in trauma care, command and control and crisis management.[5] As a result of these trainings, conducted in Turkey, and soon, Jordan, the SCD is widely perceived as a respectable, reliable and professional force. Secondly, the SCD teams began as a grassroots movement with a strong sense of local ownership that has amassed significant local support. Team members come from the local community and protect the towns in which they were born and raised. This sense of local buy-in is a critical piece to their legitimacy and effectiveness.

Still, in a conflict that has become increasingly defined in sectarian terms, costing over 220,000 lives and displacing more than 9 million, significant challenges would belabor such an effort. Such challenges include issues of maintaining organizational neutrality and professionalism after hostilities end; preserving local ownership, while also being effectively managed under central leadership; and being included as part of the broader reconstruction strategy in post-conflict Syria.

First, while the SCD teams declare that they will save any life, regardless of political affiliation or sect, the reality is that these teams operate in areas targeted by government forces. Le Mesurier admits it is unrealistic to expect the SCD members, the majority of whom come from majority Sunni communities, to remain neutral on a personal level. A perpetual problem with these programs is the failure to be inclusive, as seen in failed demobilization efforts in Libya.[6] While the beliefs of the individual SCD members may be biased, Le Mesurier argues that impartiality comes in their willingness to save all people, regardless of personal beliefs. Though the concept of impartiality is a contentious one – with scholars such as Richard Betts and Alan Kuperman challenging its existence in conflict altogether – the perceived neutrality and professionalism of the SCD has made them widely popular in Syria.[7] Maintaining this perception and making significant efforts to be inclusive of all sects and minorities after such a bloody and divisive conflict will be key if these teams are to play a role in rebuilding the country.

A second challenge that will threaten this effort is the balance between maintaining their current level of local ownership in the face of the inevitable political hurdles and the need for effective, centralized leadership in the new Syria. Over the last two years, the leadership and management of these teams has improved significantly, thanks to the training efforts of Mayday Rescue and other organizations. But if and when Syria begins its post-conflict transition, these organizations will need to become part of the formal state structure. European scholar Erik Petersen states in his in-depth review of the Kosovo program that poor management and organization created a dependency on international organizations that crippled its effectiveness and legitimacy.[8] The balance between local credibility and centralized structure will be a challenge if these teams want to become the national force for reconstruction.

Lastly, while the SCD desires to remain politically neutral, it is critical that they be included as part of the broader framework in the larger strategy for reconstruction. The lack of direction, strategy and national unity around these efforts plagued similar organizations in both Libya and Kosovo. To be truly effective, the SCD should be seen as a key piece in a larger strategy that encompasses not just reconstruction projects, but also general development in a way that will streamline the impact of national reconciliation efforts. Additionally, the organization will need to formalize its doctrine and procedures and develop a long-term vision of its role in post-conflict Syria.

These successes challenge the international community’s security-centric model of reconstruction which has prioritized physical security at the expense of other sectors and local needs like reconnecting electricity or rebuilding roads. While the importance of physical security in the aftermath of a conflict should not be downplayed, civilian and defense reconstruction efforts cannot be pursued independently of one another.[9] The United States has spent billions of dollars on training foreign militaries and police forces – which have often become symbols of abuse or corruption – while civilian efforts have consistently been left ignored or underfunded. These initiatives require greater interagency cooperation and a significant paradigm shift from our current DoD-centric focus to a more holistic approach. Ultimately, organizations like SCD and their trainers empower local actors in a cheaper, more effective way that the model under which the United States currently operates.

In the end, though these teams will face significant challenges in the post-conflict setting, they also possess real potential to serve as a framework for demobilization and reintegration. These teams’ successes in rebuilding local communities made them one of the most trusted groups in Syria.[10] Moreover, they challenge the international community’s security-centric model of reconstruction which has prioritized physical security at the expense of other sectors and local needs. Of course, the terms of the end of hostilities will greatly affect what this program would look like; but the model of Kosovo shows that reintegration programs can succeed, even in situations of “great political uncertainty and instability.”[11] Despite our long-held belief in the primacy of physical security above all else, it is time to adopt to framework for stabilization operations that truly empowers local actors and promotes stability on multiple fronts.



[1] Matthieu Aikins, “Whoever Saves a Life,” Medium (September 2014).

[2] James Le Mesurier in an interview with the author, by phone in London and Amman (12 April 2015).

[3] Syrian Civil Defense website,

[4] White Helmets website, “Unarmed and Neutral,” See also, Anna Lekas Miller, “Syria’s White Helmets: The most dangerous job in the world,” Waging Nonviolence (25 September 2014).

[5] Interview with Le Mesurier.

[6] “Libya: The next failed state,” The Economist (10 January 2015) and Andrew Engel,” Libya as a Failed State: Causes, Consequences, Options,” The Washington Institute (November 2014)

[7] See Richard Betts, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention,” Foreign Affairs (1994) and Alan Kuperman, “The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda,” Brookings Institution (2004).

[8] Erik Petersen, “The Kosovo Protection Corps: In Search of a Future,” Centre for European Security Studies (2005), page 13-14.

[9] Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction, United States Institute for Peace, United States Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (2009).

[10] Le Mesurier.

[11] Anna Di Lellio, “A Civil Alternative: An Evaluation of the IOC KPM Program” Beyond Intractability (July 2005).

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