Towards Citizen-Oriented SSR: A Needs Assessment with Syrians in Germany

06. Juni 2019   ·   Nora-Elise Beck, ​Lars Döbert​

A security needs assessment conducted with Syrian nationals residing in Germany demonstrated that citizens view themselves as central to SSR processes. Not only do they have clear visions and demands for security provision, they also expect it to respond to their needs. SSR processes should follow security needs assessments, which aim to understand what reforms are necessary to ensure citizens feel safe and secure, particularly in post-conflict environments.

In its guidelines on “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, [and] Building Peace”, the German government emphasizes that the objective of security sector reform (SSR) is to enhance the security of the population, “with adequate participation of women and men”. However, rather than asking citizens to contribute to the security sector only when their participation is deemed necessary, they should consistently play a central role in it – both as beneficiaries and actors. Limited inclusion of citizens risks jeopardizing the desired effects of SSR processes by failing to assess and address the security needs of all citizens – women, men, girls and boys. This is why we recommend a comprehensive, all-encompassing approach to security needs assessments.

A comprehensive security needs assessment with Syrians in Germany

In Syria, for example, the security sector has historically failed to respond to the needs of all citizens. Rather than protecting citizens, security institutions purportedly tasked with promoting civilian security have instead been used to oppress, terrorize and kill. This decades-long abuse of power contributed heavily to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the ensuing humanitarian crisis.

During the conflict, various parties, especially state security institutions, continued to systematically target citizens. Despite the lack of a realistic window of opportunity for engaging in SSR in Syria, the country remains a relevant case study for assessing citizens’ attitudes towards state security provision, and can thus serve as an example underscoring the importance of citizen-oriented SSR. In light of mass atrocities and abuses, do Syrians still trust state security provision? And, furthermore, how do they envision an ideal security sector in post-war Syria?

We conducted a security needs assessment with Syrians living in Germany (the largest Syrian diaspora group outside of the Middle East), aiming to gain insight into their visions for an ideal Syrian security sector – regardless of how and when the war ends.

In 2018, we initiated our security needs assessment as an Arabic-language web-based survey. It consisted of 63 questions specifically designed to understand citizens’ needs and identify entry points for citizen-oriented SSR efforts. A total of 2,318 users opened the questionnaire, and we received 619 completed survey submissions.

The survey results delivered four main findings:

Trust in state security provision despite traumatic experiences

Survey participants were highly critical of state security provisions in Syria both before and during the civil war. 91 per cent stated that the existing security sector should be rebuilt from scratch. Before the war, most participants felt protected only by their families, some by their community. "The family was the only source of protection […]. The Syrian regime did not provide any kind of protection to citizens. On the contrary, it was a regular source of threat to stability”, explained one participant. This sentiment is corroborated by a stunning statistic: Even before the outbreak of conflict in 2011, only 12 per cent of Syrians felt protected by police.

Towards Citizen-Oriented SSR: A Needs Assessment with Syrians in Germany

Although many Syrians have had traumatic experiences with the state security apparatus in their own country, two thirds of survey participants still believe the state – on a broad, ideological level – should be a protective resource for those in danger. As such, the majority of Syrians in Germany remain supportive of statehood writ large, and affirm that government should be the primary actor in ensuring safety and justice for its citizens.

The request for citizen-oriented security

When asked to identify characteristics of a functional security sector, participants named broad, overarching principles such as accountability, rule of law, oversight, and commitment to serving the population amongst their priorities. Syrians generally valued accountability over efficiency, claiming that a law-abiding apparatus under civilian oversight functions more effectively than one simply fast in response. Furthermore, participants stressed that a security sector dedicated to serving citizens is more effective than one that merely doles out services. This suggests that “enhancing and enabling” the security schematic via training and equipment provision, as advocated the German government, may not be sufficient for improving trust and legitimacy, particularly in a post-conflict environment.

Towards Citizen-Oriented SSR: A Needs Assessment with Syrians in Germany

Irrespective of their personal faith in state security provision, a resounding 98 per cent of participants stated that security providers should respond to the needs of all citizens in post-war Syria. A reform of such magnitude requires a comprehensive identification and recognition of diverse security needs, and a commitment on the part of security providers to address them.

Citizens consider themselves to be central actors in SSR processes

Defining which institutions belong to the security sector is critical in determining procedures for subsequent reform and oversight thereof. While a narrow definition of the sector only includes core security providers, e.g. the military and intelligence agencies, a broad definition extends to other actors, such as civil society and the media. The majority of participants in our survey regarded the “security sector” in the latter, broad sense. They particularly emphasized the strong roles of civil society, the media, and parliament in security provision, expressing a desire to be part of citizen-oriented security sectors and to contribute to their reform.

Towards Citizen-Oriented SSR: A Needs Assessment with Syrians in Germany

Demands for citizen-oriented SSR are also reflected in how Syrians envision effective oversight of the security sector. In order to be able to trust the security sector, most participants prefer that civil society (76 per cent) and the parliament (73 per cent) be charged with oversight. Civilian oversight of this form aims to ensure that citizens’ perspectives are incorporated in security provision and that civil society actively participates in defining and creating security policies. In order for this schematic to function effectively, of course, parliament and civil society would need to be both acutely aware of and equipped with the capacity to exercise their roles as watchdogs.

Multilateral assistance strengthens citizens’ trust in SSR processes

The participation of foreign actors in supporting SSR can strongly influence levels of civilian trust in reform efforts. This is particularly the case for states like Syria where the security sector is paradoxically so closely tied to state-sanctioned civilian abuse. Most of our survey participants indicated a preference for SSR assistance from multilateral organizations over bilateral cooperation: 50 per cent would involve the European Union (EU) and 43 per cent the United Nations (UN). 

Towards Citizen-Oriented SSR: A Needs Assessment with Syrians in Germany


Given the present political situation in Syria and the dependency of the Syrian regime on the brutality of its security sector, a German or Western engagement in a citizen-centered SSR in Syria seems highly unlikely in the near future. However, our study demonstrates that, despite this degree of futility, citizens do have clear visions of ideal security provision. Their needs must be the basis for any SSR process, regardless of when and where it occurs.

Thus, the following four lessons result from the findings:

Recommendations: Security needs assessments as precondition for German SSR assistance

First and foremost, the German government should only support SSR processes based on citizen-centered security needs assessments. These assessments should be completed before funding, designing or implementing any SSR intervention. Questionnaire-based assessments should be complemented by focus group discussions, preferably providing for gender, age, and residency-differentiated analyses.

Second, the German government should center its SSR support on citizen-oriented and community-based approaches, such as community-policing and close coordination with local actors. Germany’s support should not disproportionately focus on “enhancing and enabling” through training and equipment, as outlined in its guidelines, but rather strengthen accountability, legitimacy and service-orientation of security sectors.

Third, oversight on all levels is key for any successful SSR process as it improves transparency and accountability of security institutions. The German SSR efforts should strengthen citizen-based approaches to foster civilian and parliamentary oversight, either by supporting the set-up of oversight mechanisms or by training civil society and the parliament to exercise their oversight roles effectively.

Fourth, the sustainability of SSR also depends on the legitimacy of involved foreign actors. In addition to its bilateral support initiatives for SSR, the German government should build on its influence in multilateral organizations, such as the EU and the UN. It should foster partnerships for a unified European approach and application of the EU’s foreign policy instruments. Based on its future SSR government strategy and its current non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council, Germany should also take advantage of its status to place citizen-oriented SSR more prominently on the agenda of the UN.

Security Sector Reform Syrien

Nora-Elise Beck

Nora-Elise Beck is co-founder and managing partner of Lanosec.

​Lars Döbert​

Lars Döbert is co-founder and managing partner of Lanosec.