Update

Demystifying the Syrian Conflict: Post-ISIS Areas – Panel Summary

Nicole Khawaja, May 2018

Speakers:

  • Assaad Al Achi, Baytna Syria
  • Haid Haid, Chatham House
  • Rana Khalaf, Independent Consultant

On 1 March, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘Demystifying the Syrian Conflict’. The aim of the conference was to shed light on four key themes that are sometimes oversimplified or little understood in public discourse.

The third theme is the dynamics in post-ISIS areas, especially as they differ across the northeast of Syria and with corresponding governance structures, resources and power dynamics.

While ISIS has been militarily defeated in the area, Haid Haid highlighted that many of its fighters have now joined other militias, while others have been released back into local communities without proper plans for justice, reconciliation and rehabilitation. Some now employ guerrilla warfare and insurgency tactics to destabilize and recruit. Assaad Al Achi also emphasized that the vacuum left by ISIS is being filled by competing models of governance in Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Turkish-controlled areas. Without significant investment in these areas and a coordination of governance efforts, there is a high risk that ISIS will reappear.

Deir ez-Zor is currently divided along the Euphrates River, with the east controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the west by regime-aligned militias. The council in the east is affiliated with the SDF and is formed of different local tribes, reflecting their importance in shaping power dynamics. Assaad Al Achi also argued that developments in the east of Deir ez-Zor are also shaped by the struggle for resources, primarily oil and the al-Amar field, and to a lesser extent gas. However, the challenge of exporting the oil and profiting from it at a regional and local level remains.

Areas outside of Deir ez-Zor are predominantly led by the PYD politically and the YPG/YPJ militarily, says Rana Khalaf. While the PYD’s first aim is to achieve security on the ground, its models of governance differ between the areas it controls. This depends on the strength of local patronage systems, tribal structures, the degree of civil resistance and ethnic composition. 

In Raqqa, for example, great importance is given by external observers to the local council’s power and legitimacy, which Rana Khalaf argues should not be the case. Khalaf points to the mukhtar who provides vouchers for foodstuffs, and to the PYD’s development and relief agency, which gains legitimacy through the support of international NGOs, as others providing services.  Haid Haid echoes this, highlighting the urgent difficulties the Raqqa Civilian Council faces in lack of funding, perceived legitimacy and resources.

Haid suggested backing jamai’aat, local technocrats working on reconstructing their areas already supported by international NGOs and international governments, as a way of making Raqqa liveable again and restoring services. This also avoids potential conflicts around working with political actors such as the PYD, and as Assaad Al Achi mentioned, circumvents failed top-down attempts to coordinate the efforts of the Raqqa Civilian Council, backed by the international coalition, and the Raqqa Provincial Council, backed by Turkey and Russia. All speakers agreed on the importance of empowering local people and restoring their agency at a community level.

However, Haid warned against partnering with one local actor and trying to expand their influence outside their own local community, as the US had done when choosing a partner against ISIS. The key is to focus on local groups and work with them in their respective areas. Rana Khalaf also emphasised the importance of looking at discourse, and local grievances.

If the US were to change its posture in the region, the impact would be significant. On resources, Assaad Al Achi argued that those operating oil fields would turn to the regime as that is where most of the knowledge and influence is. Haid Haid gave the example of Afrin to highlight the key players that would remain, namely Iran, Russia, the regime and Turkey, all of whom have different agendas.

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