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Executive Summary

  • Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), exemplifies how international extremist jihadi organizations, such as Al Qaeda, have evolved in Syria. Informed by the experiences of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Iraq, HTS has developed a governance strategy that depends on building support from the local Syrian population.

  • In Idlib province (Syria), a few local administrative bodies that provide critical social services are affiliated with HTS. Others are affiliated with Ahrar al Sham and Jaysh al Fateh. Some, however, are affiliated with opposition Local Councils and civil society organizations.

  • Local Councils are responsible for local administration of services in coordination with the Syrian Interim Government. Currently, there are 156 Local Councils operating in Idlib province with the following administrative divisions: 9% City Councils, 30% Town Councils, and 61% Municipal Councils. Of these Local Councils, 86 operate in HTS-controlled areas—14% City Councils, 39% Town Councils, and 47% Municipal Councils.

  • Equipped with the combined experiences of its affiliated jihadi groups, HTS aims to gradually establish a permanent presence in Syria and create a state under “Islamic law” in one of three forms, an emirate, Islamic state, or caliphate.

  • HTS’ local governance strategy depends on three elements, 1) providing social services, 2) enacting coercive policies of public order, and 3) propagating its religious and political ideology. To support this strategy, HTS operates through four main bureaus, 1) General Administration for Services, 2) Military and security operations wing, 3) Dawah and Guidance Office, and 4) Sharia courts.

  • HTS establishes a relationship with the local population through cooperation (mutual interests), containment and infiltration policies, or exclusionary measures. The type of relationship is determined by HTS’ strength and control in a respective community, available resources, local support network, the strength of Local Councils, and the presence of other armed groups that support and protect Local Councils.

Introduction

Extremist Jihadi movements aim to seize territory in order to govern it; however, each movement has a different perspective on the type of governance, level of institutionalization, and mechanisms necessary to fulfill its vision for governing the territory. Some jihadi movements, such as the Islamic State, are aggressive and force a specific ideology on local communities. They spend less time providing basic goods and services, attending to the needs of the community, or managing their views on life or Islam. Other groups, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)([1]), pursue a relationship with the local communities based on mutual interests, managed by a combination of positive and negative incentives.

HTS, which formed from multiple jihadi groups including Al Qaeda, developed with essential insight and experience from various fronts of the “Global Jihad.” HTS used a combination of the following strategies to establish an effective local governance structure: providing social services, executing policies of coercion, and spreading its ideology—all through a specifically crafted structure cementing its presence in Syrian society for the long term.

No group understands the dangers of HTS efforts to establish local governance better than the Local Councils([2]), which in this case are faced with an extraordinary challenge. This study analyzes the possible impact of the HTS’s local governance on the Local Councils in Idlib province. This province was chosen for the case study for the following reasons: 1) it is the only province that is nearly completely outside of the control of Assad central state; 2) its geographic location, connecting coastal Syria with central and northern regions and Turkish border, is significant; 3) it has the most Local Councils of any other province controlled by opposition forces; and 4) it is the main stronghold for the HTS.

First, this study compares the governance methods of the HTS and Local Councils in the areas under HTS control. Second, this study explains how the HTS became involved in local governance and how it interacts with the Local Councils.

This study is part of a larger effort to understand the state of governance in all Syrian territories in order to reach a consensus on how to deal with these new circumstances during and after the political transition. This study compares local governance policies of HTS and the opposition Local Councils beginning with a description of how the HTS was formed and its involvement in local governance bodies. Next, this study offers a description of Local Councils that operate in HTS-controlled territories and examines the relationships between the Local Councils and the HTS. This study concludes with a number of recommendations on how to empower Local Councils in areas under HTS control to avoid their cooptation. This study was conducted based on interviews with Local Council members and analysis of open source information such as news articles, reports, and social media postings.

Formation of HTS: Specifically Crafted Structure

Some argue that HTS is merely a façade for Jabhat al Nusra (see section one below on the formation of Jabhat al Nusra), which attempts to curtail local and international pressure after the fall of Aleppo and the start of the Astana talks. Others claim that HTS is loyal to its core Al Qaeda leadership, and the reason for adopting the name HTS reflects recommendations from its central leadership to integrate into the local communities. Finally, some attribute the formation of HTS to a culmination of various groups competing to represent the “Syrian Jihad.” Because these perspectives offer only a partial understanding, our study provides a comprehensive analysis of HTS structure and governance as a major byproduct of Al Qaeda, a constantly changing cross-border Salafi Jihadi movement.

HTS has focused on the following major themes in order to establish itself in local communities: its relationship with the international community, jihadi experiences in Iraq, its relationship with Al Qaeda, competition with other rebel groups, and local support.

HTS developed its current structure as a result of three phases:

1.Jabhat Al Nusra – January 2012-July 2016

Jabhat al Nusra was formed in January 2012 with help by Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. The group adopted a patchwork of religious ideologies reviewed by Al Qaeda’s central branch. The leader of Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, made it clear that he wanted to avoid mistakes made during the Iraqi Jihad, and declared his commitment to Al Qaeda’s newfound ideology. In the beginning, Jabhat al Nusra refrained from publicly affiliating itself with Al Qaeda despite its public praise for the group. It also avoided international attention by presenting itself as a native Syrian organization. Jabhat al Nusra immersed itself in the local communities and concerned itself with society’s general demands, such as standing up to the Assad regime. The group also took advantage of the revolution to expand its presence in Syria, exercise its military strength, and create mutual alliances with the locals. The group also benefited from a significant boost in membership after the Assad regime released prisoners affiliated with jihadi movements.([3])

However, Jabhat al Nusra also has faced a number of challenges:

  1. Jabhat al Nusra’s designation as a terror group by the United States in January 2012 and by the United Nations in 2013
  2. Conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq in April 2013 following the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) and its subsequent caliphate in March 2014
  3. Jabhat al Nusra’s public acknowledgement of its loyalty to Al Qaeda, and the negative reaction from Syrian revolutionaries as a result
  4. Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015

Jabhat al Nusra dealt with all of these challenges and eventually adapted into a new organization in July 2016 under the name Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS)([4]).

2.Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) – July 2016-January 2017

Al Jolani personally announced the termination of Jabhat al Nusra and the formation of Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS), emphasizing that the new entity would have no ties to Al Qaeda. He explained that the organization made this decision to meet the demands of the Syrian people, who wanted to protect and strengthen the “Syrian jihad” and avoid claims from the international community that Al Qaeda elements exist in the Syrian opposition([5]) . It seems Al Jolani intended to improve the group’s relationship with the international community by announcing its independence from Al Qaeda and insisting upon its closeness to local communities. This new group presented an opportunity to regain local support for the jihadi project, for which support had dwindled following a series of Russian, regime and US led international coalition military strikes on opposition-controlled areas under the pretense that Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra forces were present in the area. This new group also sought to appease some locals who were displeased with Jabhat al Nusra’s interference in local affairs, which had created popular unrest.

JFS also emerged as a result of competition between Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham ([6]), to dominate the “Syrian jihad.” Al Jolani wanted to put pressure on Ahrar al Sham by draining its resources through a new jihadi coalition and bringing into question its jihadi qualifications.

But the presence of Abu Abdullah al Shami and Abu al Faraj al Masri, who are Al Qaeda linked Jihadi leaders inside Syria that were also affiliated with Jabhat Al Nusra, during Al Jolani’s announcement confirmed Al Qaeda’s implicit influence on JFS and provided the new group with credibility among jihadist organizations.

JFS endured repeated attempts to isolate and eliminate the group, especially following the eastern Aleppo deal (12/13/2016), Ankara’s cease fire deal (12/30/2016) and the Astana meetings (01/23/2017). The international community ultimately designated JFS as a terror group, even though it included non-terrorist factions close to the West, such as Nur al Din al Zinki. To prevent being targeted by the international community, JFS had no choice but to announce the formation of HTS at the start of 2017.

3.HTS – January 2017

HTS formed from a combination of opposition groups in northern Syria at the end of January 2017. These groups included JFS, Nur al Din al Zinki, Jabhat Ansar al Din, Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Liwa al Haq. A number of jihadi and Salafi leaders joined HTS, as well, including Abdul Razaq al Mahdi, Abu al Harith al Masri, Abu Yusuf al Hamwi, Abdullah al Muhaisni, Abu al Tahir al Hamwi, and Musleh al Iyani.

Furthermore, HTS emerged due to the continued competition between Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham. HTS attracted more than 25 opposition fighting groups from its competitors, 16 of which came from Ahrar al Sham([7]). Ahrar also lost a number of its prominent leaders to HTS including Abu Saleh Al Taha and Abu Yusuf al Muhajir.

The new group confirmed Al Jolani’s intentions to firmly establish the jihadi project in Syria and salvage its legitimacy. HTS adopted many of the revolutionary slogans used in local revolutionary circles([8]). Through its media campaign, HTS expressed approval for a conditional political negotiation and demonstrated a willingness to fight the “Khawarij,” who are a historically marginal yet significant group of Muslims that are considered more extreme and radical.

HTS comprises approximately 19,000 to 20,000 members, including administrators, fighters, and religious figures. HTS has a significant presence in some Syrian territories with well-known bases and checkpoints. In other areas, HTS has a limited presence where it merely patrols the area. HTS forces operate in Idlib province, southern and western Aleppo, Jarood al Qalamoon, eastern Ghouta, and Daraa province, minimally. (See map below for reference.)

 

Figure 1: Map of Territories in Syria as of May 15, 2017

Based on information surveyed and interviews, HTS operates through eight divisions, namely military, security, services, religious law, courts, media, finances, and politics. For each of these divisions, there is an office organized under the leadership of the “Shura Council.”

General Commander of HTS

Figure 2: HTS Command Structure

 

The HTS administrative structure suggests that the group is organized and tied directly to a central leadership body, which implies that HTS aims to establish a permanent Islamic governing structure. This structure is a direct threat to the Local Councils, the primary entities leading efforts to rebuild the nation.

HTS Management of Territory and its Relationship with the Local Councils: Road to Permanence

Jihadi movements with military wings seek to administer the territories they control in order to achieve their goals, but each movement differs in its approach to governance. In an attempt to avoid conflict, some jihadi movements focus on providing social services rather than forcing a particular ideology on local communities. Other groups take the opposite approach, regularly forcing locals to accept a specific ideology in order to secure a permanent presence. Here, it is important to shed some light on HTS’s experience with local governance, the methods and resources it requires to effectively govern, and its relationship with Local Councils in HTS-controlled territories.

HTS Perspective on Local Governance: Picking from the Most Successful Jihadi Practices and a Pragmatic Approach

HTS aims to establish a permanent presence gradually and to create an Islamic governing structure, such as an emirate, an Islamic State, or a caliphate. HTS’s governing structure is a collection of best practices gathered from its affiliate groups and other jihadi groups around the world ([9]).

In its attempts to establish a permanent presence through an Islamic governance structure, HTS affords the local community a status of great importance. HTS considers the local community a key actor, which has the capacity to carry forward the HTS project or bring it to an end. For this reason, HTS employs a number of strategies to gain support from the local community, such as 1) providing social services, 2) enacting policies of coercion, and 3) spreading a radical s ideology. Several factors that distinguish HTS from other groups include its level of presence and control in the areas it governs, the amount of resources invested in its governing structure, the results achieved, and the people responsible for making decisions and carrying out the project.

1.Providing social services: General Administration for Services

The General Administration for Services is responsible for providing social services in HTS territories. The administration was formed under Jabhat al Nusra in 2013, when the organization decided to separate from the Islamic Administration for Services ([10]).    The General Administration for Services is made up of several divisions established based on general geographical distribution (Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, etc). These divisions, similar to ministries, are connected to specific service offices, such as the Border Services Office, Desert Services Office, and Aleppo City Services Office. All of the offices are managed by a municipal administration, under the authority of the General Administration for Services. These local offices carry out the policies of the General Administration for Services ([11]). Through these offices, HTS interacts with the local community by providing important services. Some of these communities include Harem, Salqeen, Darkoush, and Talmins. In areas where HTS does not control the municipal offices, the General Administration for Services either directly coordinates with established service structures (via Local Councils) or independently provides the necessary services)[12]). If HTS is unable to provide services then Local Councils provide them, but HTS still maintains a significant influence over them ([13]).

Figure 3: Structure of the General Administration for Services ([14])

HTS knows well the importance of providing services to the local community in order to garner support and recruit new volunteers. HTS also knows that if it can provide basic services, it may weaken its competitors. Furthermore, if community members receive services from HTS, they may be more willing to accept the organization’s coercive methods of spreading its ideology. HTS cannot afford the high costs of providing all necessary services, so the group focuses on providing only the most important ones, such as electricity and water, through which it can significantly influence the Local Councils ([15]). In the meantime, HTS can diversify the kinds of services it offers as more resources become available, if such provisions will help the organization establish a permanent presence in the territories it controls.

HTS employs local civilians in social services jobs in order to maintain positive relations with the community ([16]). As for funding the services, HTS depends on its external support networks, both from the central leadership and from its supporters. HTS also levies taxes on the local community. Additionally, people passing through HTS-controlled territories must pay a road tax, which is especially lucrative in the crowded areas of northern Syria and along important supply lines( [17]) . Furthermore, organizations that want to operate in HTS territories must also pay for protection and permission to operate there ([18]). HTS also collects fines from those who violate its rules. In addition, HTS also buys and sells properties.

2.Policies of coercion: Violent and non-violent tactics

HTS also resorts to coercive measures against its adversaries. The organization justifies its coercive policies against those engaged in immoral acts, cooperating with the West or the Assad regime, and when applying Sharia law. HTS uses military force to execute its coercive policies, evidenced by its operations against opposition groups in northern Syria, including the Jabha Shamiya, Fastaqim, Suqoor al Sham, Jaish al Islam, and Jaish al Mujahideen ([19]). HTS security branches ([20]) also force locals to adopt the group’s worldview, and they punish those who do not comply.

HTS uses indirect coercion and non-violent means to force its worldview on the locals and create a shared ideology. This strategy is managed by HTS’s Dawah and Guidance Office, which is responsible for spreading the group’s ideology, and the media office, which is responsible for generating propaganda. The two offices organize and offer religious courses and programs in mosques and public places, where they can spread HTS ideology and organize protests against their competitors ([21]).

3.Ideology: The duality of courts and advocacy

Informed by the experiences of Al Qaeda, HTS gradually implements Islamic law, or Sharia, to avoid clashing with local populations ([22]). HTS depends on a two-pronged approach, comprising the courts and Dawah, to gain support from the locals. On one hand, HTS has inherited a court system established by Jabhat al Nusra in Salqeen, Sarmada, and Darkoush. By controlling the courts, HTS gains the locals’ trust by implementing policies according to its interpretation of Islamic law ([23]). This position of power also allows the group to act with impunity by exploiting religious ideology to justify unpopular actions, such as commandeering public goods or property, or those of its competitors ([24]). On the other hand, HTS depends on its Dawah and Guidance Office ([25]) to conduct ideological campaigns to convince local communities to support its project and adopt its vision. HTS has demonstrated greater success in spreading its ideology in rural areas compared to more populated areas in Idleb province, such as Muarat al Noman, Saraqeb, and Kafranbal. These areas have well-developed civil societies making it much more difficult for HTS to infiltrate them.

HTS’s Relationship with Local Councils: An Approach Based on Mutual Interest

Amid the ongoing conflict in Syria, Idlib province is significant for several reasons. First, it is the only province that is nearly completely liberated. Second, it is positioned in a strategic geographic location, connecting coastal Syria with central and northern regions. Third, it has the most Local Councils of any other opposition-controlled area. Fourth, and finally, it is the main stronghold of the HTS. Our description of the services provided in Idlib province includes the Civilian Services Administration of Jaysh al Fateh, the Committee for Services Management of Ahrar al Sham, the General Administration for Services of HTS, the Interim Government’s service offices, and the Local Councils, as well as other civil society organizations. There are currently 156 local sub-councils operating in Idlib province ([26]).

Figure 4: Distribution of councils by administrative divisions

There are also a number of councils in the villages and rural areas of Idlib province that are not recognized as full-fledged councils by the Interim Government’s Ministry of Local Administration or the Idlib Provincial Council. These councils were formed by either the leaders of these localities seeking support from aid organizations or military groups attempting to increase their legitimacy among the locals ([27]).

There are 81 Local Councils operating in territories heavily controlled by HTS in Idlib province. They are categorized by following administrative divisions. (Please see the figure below.)

Figure 5: Administrative Divisions of Councils Operating in HTS Controlled Areas

A large number of these councils are affiliated with the Provincial Council of Free Idleb, which is a part of the Syrian Interim Government ([28]). Some of these councils have no affiliation with the Interim Government. The remaining 450 the councils, including those in Harem and Salqeen, are affiliated with the HTS-controlled General Administration for Services.

All of the councils differ in their effectiveness and their roles within the community according to the following factors: capacity, legitimacy, size of the administrative unit, military operations, and its relationship with HTS. Each council aims to provide basic services to its communities including humanitarian aid, infrastructure renovation, health care, sanitation, education, civil defense, local security, and civil society organizations.

The local councils finance their endeavors through a number of sources, the most important of which are cash donations, work project grants, or in-kind donations. The support they receive from the Provincial Council—and the Interim Government overall—is limited and inconsistent. Therefore, Local Councils must generate funds through local taxes, investments in public property, and income from development projects. In addition, the Local Councils, especially those directly affiliated with HTS, receive both financial and logistical support from the HTS General Administration for Services ([29]) .

It seems that HTS acknowledges the significance of the Local Councils, and for this reason, it provides services and develops close relationships with the local community, international community, and parties providing financial support to humanitarian aid and development projects in Syria. Each of these entities are essential players in implementing a future political solution.

HTS’s goal to establish a state under Islamic law conflicts with the political goals of the Local Councils, which form the essential basis for a state. For this reason, HTS pursues a relationship of mutual interest with the Local Councils governed by the following principles: 1) the level of permanence and dispersion, 2) availability of resources, 3) amount of local support, 4) central role of Local Councils and their legitimacy, and 5) Local Council partners.

Based on these principles, the HTS adopted the following approach:

  1. Cooperation “mutual interests”: HTS develops relationships with the Local Councils based on areas of mutual interest, such as electricity and water—both of which the General Administration for Services controls ([30]). HTS and the Local Councils negotiate the terms of their agreements ([31]), and in some cases HTS may request money, services or logistical services from the Local Councils in exchange for electricity or water ([32]). In other cases, the General Administration for Services may provide Local Councils with logistical or financial support for certain projects ([33]). In territories where HTS does not exercise full control, such as Saraqeb, the organization must build a relationship with the Local Council in order to become a part of the armed coalition responsible for controlling the territory ([34]). HTS also prefers cooperative mutual interest-based measures in places such as Muarat Al Noman, where it does not have a majority of the local support ([35]). Because Local Councils are able to choose whether to align with HTS or its competitors in providing services to the community ([36]), HTS must cooperate with the Local Councils and avoid unwanted interference in local affairs ([37]).
  2. Containment and infiltration: HTS aims to contain and infiltrate Local Councils to use as a tool[38] in its efforts to forge a permanent presence in the region. HTS uses this strategy in territories where it exercises full control and has a military advantage. HTS also employs this tactic in regions where it does not have the resources to control administrative bodies that provide local services. In areas where HTS has strong local support, such as the rural areas of Idlib, the organization increases pressure on the Local Councils, especially when the councils are ineffective. HTS contains and infiltrates Local Councils by planting HTS-affiliated individuals on the council ([39]) or demanding that an HTS-appointed representative attain a seat on the council ([40]). HTS also employs subtler tactics by influencing the process ([41]) of making a decision within any given council or carrying it out ([42]). (Refer to endnotes for elaboration from Local Council members).
  3. Exclusion: In places where there is no resistance, where HTS exercises complete control of a territory, the organization terminates all Local Council operations and replaces them with its own structures ([43]). This strategy is especially true in high-value territory, near main supply lines and areas near the border, such as Harem and Darkoush. HTS also adopts this strategy in 1) areas where local support is contested, 2) areas with poor local services, and 3) areas in which Local Councils refuse to allow HTS to play any role, such as in Sanjar ([44]) and Salqeen([45]).

Strengthening the Local Council System: Civil Society, Effective Management, and Resources

Idlib is critical as a case study to measure the performance of Local Councils and the potential for development in the future. In general, Local Councils in Idlib face a number of challenges due to a lack of resources, fierce local competition, and conflicting policies of various parties involved in the Syrian conflict. Local Councils operating in areas under HTS control face the possibility of termination due to HTS’s policies of coercion and infiltration.

The following are general recommendations on how to strengthen Local Councils, especially those operating in areas dominated by HTS and those that are losing credibility among the local population. In order to prevent the Local Councils from falling prey to HTS’s strategy (mutual interest-based cooperation, containment and infiltration, and exclusion), Omran for Strategic Studies offers these recommendations:

  1. Productive Civil Society: Establish a strong civil society to support and collaborate with the council to prevent HTS from taking control of local administrative bodies. To build a productive civil society in Syrian communities, consider the following steps:
  • Teach the local population civil society empowerment skills through trainings and workshops on civil society activism and work.
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue, such as town hall meetings, in order to increase communication between civil society organizations and the Local Councils operating in areas controlled by HTS militarily.
  • Build public interest on issues of mutual concern, such as resisting efforts by armed groups, including HTS, to get involved in civil society activities. Local radio shows or newspapers can help achieve this step.

2.Effective Local Administration: Councils should have a clear structure and effective governance system that is protected from infiltration and capable of maintaining its operations in HTS-controlled areas. Consider the following steps:

  • Assist the Provincial Council of Idlib in streamlining all of its projects, solely through the offices of the Interim Government.
  • Provide training and financial/logistical support to the councils operating in HTS-controlled areas.
  • Protect areas that the Assad regime, its allied militias, and Russian forces attack—which they justify by claiming that the areas are under HTS control.

3.Improved Local Resources: It is important to develop the financial and human resources available to Local Councils to prevent them from having to negotiate with HTS for shared control. In order to improve and increase the councils’ available resources, consider the following steps:

  • Offer technical and theoretical training to qualified candidates to provide the council with necessary expertise. This includes for example trainings on good governance and public sector management.
  • Provide council members with consistent salaries.
  • Create new markets by developing alternative sources of electricity outside of HTS control.
  • Create a fund to invest in for-profit endeavors that would help generate funds for the council.
  • Train council members on how to manage public property and property taxes.

Conclusion

HTS is taking advantage of local administration to garner public support in an attempt to establish a state of its own under their version of “Islamic law”. Informed by the experiences of other jihadi groups and recommendations from Al Qaeda, HTS has formulated its own strategy for local governance. The approach combines positive and negative reinforcement measures, in order to secure support from the local community, through a perceived flexible administrative structure that can adapt as the situation in Syria changes. HTS poses a great danger for the stability of future Syria and the region because it seeks to establish a permanent grassroots presence through its local governance strategies—the foundation upon which to form a state—but the organization faces a number of challenges. To HTS, Local Councils are a significant asset because of the critical services they provide, even though the interests of HTS and Local Councils are often in competition. HTS also recognize that Local Councils are the official channels through which funds for aid and development will flow, both now and in the future. For these reasons, HTS pursues a relationship of mutual interest with the Local Councils. At times, HTS adopts a policy of cooperation when they are unable to take over full control; otherwise, HTS contains and infiltrates or excludes Local Councils altogether. HTS’ strategy threatens the existence of Local Councils and demands a serious effort to support these councils.

In order to maintain influence, Local Councils must effectively provide public services, gain support and legitimacy from the local communities, and institutionalize their cooperation with local forces pursuing a free and modern nation state. Furthermore, Local Councils must establish a clear and direct relationship with the Provincial Councils and the Interim Government. And, finally, Councils should attain adequate financial resources and depend less on donors. Only then will Local Councils be capable of overpowering HTS and supporting the creation of a free and modern nation state.


([1]) Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS.

([2]) Local Councils refers to the councils that are part of the Ministry of Local Administration under the Syrian Interim Government.

([3]) Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings, Date: July 27, 2016. Link https://goo.gl/otk0JT

([4]) JFS refers to Jabhat Fateh al Sham formed in January 2017

([5])Al Jolani outline four main goals of JFS, 1) ruling with God’s religion and establishing justice among the people, 2) uniting the forces of the mujahedeen and liberating the Levant from the regime and its allies, 3) protecting the Syrian jihad and continuing it in all legitimate ways, 4) relieving the suffering of Muslims and addressing their concerns at all costs, and 5) providing a peaceful and respectable life for people in the Islamic state. See the Announcement of JFS by Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, You Tube 07/28/2016 https://goo.gl/wDz7Os

([6]) Harakat Ahrar al Sham al Islammiya, commonly referred to as Ahrar al Sham, is a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist groups that joined to form a single group in 2011.

([7])Aaron Lund, The Jihadi Spiral, Carnegie Center, 02/28/2017 https://goo.gl/8ShXrp

([8])Ahmad Abazaid, The Great Competition: Ahrar Al Sham vs HTS https://goo.gl/Efr7qu

([9]) Daniel Green , Al Qaeda’s Soft Power Strategy in Yemen, The Washington Institute 01/23/2013 https://goo.gl/L8SGqq

([10])Challenges facing the local administration in Aleppo, Aljazeera, 3/31/2014, https://goo.gl/GmzdYc

([11])Announcement by the General Administration for Services/Office of the Technical Services on the Border in the Town of Harem, Official page of the Town of Harem, 04/20/2017, https://goo.gl/o8Yz6O

([12])Cooperation between the local council in Kafar Daryan with the General Administration for Services to connect an electricity line, Official page of the local council in Kafar Daryan, 10/19/2016 https://goo.gl/iOXzgP، and an electricity station in Saraqib, Radio al Kul, 2017/30/03 https://goo.gl/uO5bvg

([13])A member of the local council of the town of Sinjar mentioned that the council was structurally affiliated with the HTS controlled General Administration for Services on 05/17/2017.

([14])Structure of the Harem Town Council affiliated with the General Administration for Services, Official page of the Harem Town Council, 05/21/2016https://goo.gl/NfRXBG

([15])Maintenance work on the electricity stations in Al Zarba, Official page of the General Administration for Services. 05/01/2017 https://goo.gl/lpDP2K

([16])The Talmans Local Council President Fadel Burhan Omar said that there was a difference in the way HTS dealt with the Local Councils compared with Jabhat Al Nusra. Previously, the organization operated using military figures, but now it uses civilians. This information was gathered during an interview conducted over social media on 04/27/2017.

([17])Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings, July 27, 2016. https://goo.gl/otk0JT

([18])Information gathered through an interview conducted over social media with an individual working with civil society organizations in Idleb province on 05/22/2017.

([19]) Al Jolani’s Latest Plan: Fighting in Search of a Policy, Ahmad Abazaid, Idrak, 02/09/2017, https://goo.gl/4sTImj

([20]) HTS: Similar to Regime Prisons with Ideological Torture, Sultan Jalabi, Al Hayat, 05/13/2017, https://goo.gl/RWHsLq

([21]) Protests in Idleb in support of HTS and rejecting Astana 4, Micro Syria, 05/12/2017,https://goo.gl/cOJ6z7

([22]) Al Qaeda’s Shadow Government in Yemen, Daniel Green, Washington Institute, 12/12/2013https://goo.gl/qYjOeG

([23]) The Courts Ban the Sale of Any Real Estate Belonging to Muslims, Zaytouna Newspaper, 01/04/2017https://goo.gl/ANWN6c

([24])Yasir Abbasmay, How Al Qaeda Is Winning In Syria. War on the Rocks. 10/05/2016. https://goo.gl/kUSDvF

([25]) The Official Page of the Dawah and Guidance Office of Jabhat al 08/04/2016, https://goo.gl/JeMqU8

([26])An interview conducted via social media with Muhammad Khattab, Head of the Local Councils Administration in the Provincial Council of Idleb on 05/19/2017

([27]) Interview conducted via social media with Muhammad Salim Khudr, Local Council Member and PR Officer, 05/19/2017

([28])Naser Hazbar, former president of the Local Council in Muarat Al Noman, indicated that the council is structurally affiliated with the Interim Government and the Provincial Council in an interview via social media on 05/22/2017.

([29])The General Administration for Services is thanked for offering its support to make the water supply network operational again, Official page of the town of Kulli on Facebook, 02/21/2017 https://goo.gl/Zlaejz

([30])Said Gazoul, Sarmada Council in Idleb Pumps Water Again After Electricity Returns, SMART News, 07/21/2016, https://goo.gl/Udyai6

([31])Interview conducted via social media with Usama Hussein, former president of the local council in Saraqeb 05/21/2017

([32])Interview conducted via social media with Naser Hazbar, former president of the local council in Muarat Al Noman, 05/22/2017

([33])General Administration for Services helps the local council in Abu Thuhoor to create a garbage dump, 04/11/2017 https://goo.gl/xtIATZ

([34])In an interview conducted via social media with the former president of the local council in Saraqeb, Usama Hussein, he confirmed that a number of armed groups operated in the area, including Liwa Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb, Ahrar al Sham, and HTS. Liwaa Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb has been the main force since it is considered local, 05/21/2017.

([35])Naser Hazbar, former president of the local council in Muarat Al Noman, described previous Al Nusra and HTS efforts to force the locals to accept it as the main provider of services instead of the Local Council; however, the legitimacy that the council enjoyed and the support of the local civil society prevented the success of those attempts, 05/22/2017

([36])Yasir Abbasmay, How Al Qaeda Is Winning In Syria. War on the Rocks. 10/05/2016. https://goo.gl/kUSDvF

([37])Usama Hussein, former president of the local council in Saraqeb, confirmed that the Local Councils gained legitimacy by providing services, supporting civil society, and benefiting from a strong civil society movement in Saraqeb. The presence of political parties in Saraqeb also contributed to the Local Councils’ legitimacy. These were key factors in preventing HTS and other groups from interfering in council affairs, 05/21/2015

([38])Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Civil Society in Jabal al-Summaq. Syria Comment. Date 04/04/2017. https://goo.gl/ackML9

([39])Interview conducted via social media with Fadel Burhan Omar, President of the Local Council of Talmanas, DATE

([40])Yasir Abbas. Another "State" of Hate: Al-Nusra's Quest to Establish an Islamic Emirate in the Levant. Hudson Institute, Date: 04/29/2016. https://goo.gl/NTA6Li

([41])One of the members of the local council in Kafar Tkharim indicated that if the HTS wanted to influence the council in any way, it would resort to pressuring the council to change certain decisions. The interview was conducted via social media on 04/29/2017.

([42])Meeting of the local councils in the Misni district to discuss why the water project was cancelled by HTS, Official page of Majdalia Local Council on Facebook, 04/25/2017 https://goo.gl/h5PyMF

([43]) Omar Abdul Fattah, Sinjar in Idlib: JFS detains President of the Local Council Because it Does Not Recognize His Position, 03/01/2017 https://goo.gl/6r18s0, and after HTS refused the formation of the council it chased down members of the Salqeen civilian council and detained some of them as well, 02/21/2017, https://goo.gl/e8v1wz

([44]) Omar Abdul Fattah, Sinjar in Idlib: JFS detains President of the Local Council Because It Does Not Recognize His Position, 03/01/2017 https://goo.gl/6r18s0

([45]) HTS raids homes of local council member in Salqeen and detains a few, Zaytouna Newspaper, 02/22/2017, https://goo.gl/zejypf

Category Papers

Abstract: The Syrian uprising took the regional powers by surprise and was able to disrupt the regional balance of power to such an extent that  the Syrian file has become a more internationalized matter than a regional one. Syria has become a fluid scene with multiple spheres of influence by  countries, extremist groups, and non-state actors. The long-term goal of re-establishing peace and stability can be achieved by taking strategic steps in empowering local administration councils to gain legitimacy and provide public services including security.

Introduction

Regional and international alliances in the Middle East have shifted significantly because of the popular uprisings during the past five years. Moreover, the Syrian case is unique and complex whereby international relations theories fall short of explaining or predicting a trajectory or how relevant actors’ attitudes will shift towards the political or military tracks. Syria is at the center of a very fluid and changing multipolar international system that the region has not witnessed since the formation of colonial states over a century ago.
In addition to the resurrection of transnational movements and the increasing security threat to the sovereignty of neighboring states, new dynamics on the internal front have emerged out of the conflict. This commentary will assess opportunities and threats of the evolving alignments and provide an overview of these new dynamics with its impact on the regional balance of power.

The Construction of a Narrative

Since March 2011, the Syrian uprising has evolved through multiple phases. The first was the non-violent protests phase demanding political reforms that was responded to with brutal use of force by government security and military forces. This phase lasted for less than one year as many soldiers defected and many civilians took arms to defend their families and villages. The second phase witnessed further militarization of civilians who decided to carry arms and fight back against the aggression of regime forces towards civilian populations. During these two phases, regional countries underestimated the security risks of a spillover of violence across borders and its impact on the regional balance of power. Diplomatic action focused on containing the crisis and pressuring the regime to comply with the demands of the protestors, freeing of prisoners, and amending the constitution and several security based laws.

On the other hand, the Assad regime attempted to frame a narrative about the uprising as an “Islamist” attempt to spread terrorism, chaos and destruction to the region. Early statements and actions by the regime further emphasized a constructed notion of the uprising as a plot against stability. The regime took several steps to create the necessary dynamics for transnational radical groups (both religious and ethnic based) to expand and gain power. Domestically, it isolated certain parts of Syria, especially the countryside, away from its core interest of control and created pockets overwhelmed by administrative and security chaos within the geography of Syria where there is a “controlled anarchy”. It also amended the constitution in 2012 with minor changes, granted the Kurds citizenship rights, abolished the State Security Court system but established a special terrorism court that was used for protesters and activists. The framing of all anti-regime forces into one category as terrorists was one of the early strategies used by the regime that went unnoticed by regional and international actors. At the same time, in 2011 the regime pardoned extremist prisoners and released over 1200 Kurdish prisoners most of whom were PKK figures and leaders. Many of those released later took part in the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and YPG forces respectively. This provided a vacuum of power in many regions, encouraging extremist groups to occupy these areas thus laying the legal grounds for excessive use of force in the fight against terrorism.

The third phase witnessed a higher degree of military confrontations and a quick “collapse” of the regime’s control of over 60% of Syrian territory in favor of revolutionary and opposition forces. Residents in 14 provinces established over 900 Local Administration Councils between 2012 and2013. These Councils received their mandate and legitimacy by the consensus or election of local residents and were tasked with local governance and the administration of public services. First, the Syrian National Council, then later the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces were established as the official representative of the Syrian people according to the Friends of Syria group. The regime resorted to heavy shelling, barrel bombing and even chemical weapons to keep areas outside of its control in a state of chaos and instability. This in return escalated the level of support for revolutionary forces to defend themselves and maintain the balance of power but not to expand further or end the regime totally.

During this phase, the internal fronts witnessed many victories against regime forces that was not equally reflected on the political progress of the Syria file internationally. International investment and interference in the Syrian uprising increased significantly on the political, military and humanitarian levels. It was evident that the breakdown of the Syrian regime during this phase would threaten the status quo of the international balance of power scheme that has been contained through a complex set of relations. International diplomacy used soft power as well as proxy actors to counter potential threats posed by the shifting of power in Syria. Extremist forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra, YPG and ISIS had not yet gained momentum or consolidated territories during this phase. The strategy used during this phase by international actors was to contain the instability and security risk within the borders and prevent a regional conflict spill over, as well as prevent the victory of any internal actor. This strategy is evident in the UN Security Council Resolution 2042 in April 2012, followed by UNSCR 2043, which call for sending in international observers, and ending with the Geneva Communique of June 2012. The Geneva Communique had the least support from regional and international actors and Syrian actors were not invited to that meeting. It can be said that the heightened level of competition between regional and international actors during this phase negatively affected the overall scene and created a vacuum of authority that was further exploited by ISIS and YPG forces to establish their dream states respectively and threaten regional countries’ security.

The fourth phase began after the chemical attack by the regime in August of 2013 where 1,429 victims died in Eastern Damascus. This phase can be characterized as a retreat by revolutionary military forces and an expansion and rise of transnational extremist groups. The event of the chemical attack was a very pivotal moment politically because it sent a strong message from the international actors to the regional actors as well as Syrian actors that the previous victories by revolutionary forces could not be tolerated as they threatened the balance of power. Diplomatic talks resulted in the Russian-US agreement whereby the regime signed the international agreement and handed over its chemical weapons through an internationally administered process. This event was pivotal as it signified a shift on the part of the US away from its “Red Line” in favor of the Russian-Iranian alignment, which perhaps was their first public assertion of hegemony over Syria. The Russian move prevented the regime’s collapse and removed the possibility of any direct military intervention by the United States. It is at this point that regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia began to strongly promote a no-fly zone or a ‘safe zone’ for Syrians in the North of Syria. During this time, international actors pushed for the first round of the Geneva talks in January 2014, thus giving the Assad regime the chance to regain its international legitimacy. Iran increased its military support to all of Hezbollah and over 13 sectarian militias that entered Syria with the objective of regaining strategic locations from the opposition.

The lack of action by the international community towards the unprecedented atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, along with the administrative and military instability in liberated areas created the atmosphere for cross-border terrorist groups to increase their mobilization levels and enter the scene as influential actors. ISIS began gaining momentum and took control over Raqqa and Deir Azzour, parts of Hasaka, and Iraq. On September 10, 2014, President Obama announced the formation of a broad international coalition to fight ISIS. Russia waited on the US-led coalition for one year before announcing its alliance to fight terrorism known as 4+1 (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah) in September 2015. The Russian announcement came at the same time as ground troops and systematic air operations were being conducted by the Russian armed forces in Syria. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of an “Islamic Coalition” of 34 largely Muslim nations to fight terrorism, though not limited to ISIS.

These international coalitions to fight terrorism further emphasized the narrative of the Syrian uprising which was limited to countering terrorism regardless of the internal outlook of the agency yet again confirming the regime’s original claims. As a result, the Syrian regime became the de facto partner in the war against terrorism by its allies while supporters of the uprising showed a weak response. The international involvement at this stage focused on how to control the spread of ISIS and protect each actor from the spillover effects. The threat of terrorism coupled with the massive refugee influx into Europe and other parts of the world increased the threat levels in those states, especially after the attacks in the US, France, Turkey and others. Furthermore, the PYD-YPG present a unique case in which they receive military support from the United States and its regional allies, as well as coordinate and receive support from Russia and the regime, while at the same time posing a serious risk to Turkey’s national security. Another conflictual alliance is that of Baghdad; it is an ally of Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime; but it  also coordinates with the United States army and intelligence agencies.

The allies of the Assad regime further consolidated their support of the regime and framing the conflict as one against terrorism, used the refugee issue as a tool to pressure neighboring countries who supported the uprising. On the other hand, the United States showed a lack of interest in the region while placing a veto on supporting revolutionary forces with what was needed to win the war or even defend themselves. The regional powers had a small margin between the two camps of providing support and increasing the leverage they  have on the situation inside Syria in order to prevent themselves from being a target of such terrorism threats  of the pro-Iran militias as well as ISIS.
In Summary, the international community has systematically failed to address the root causes of the conflict but instead concentrated its efforts on the conflict's aftermath. By doing so, not only has it failed to bring an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria, it has also succeeded in creating a propitious environment for the creation of multiple social and political clashes, hence aggravating the situation furthermore. The different approaches adopted by both the global and regional powers have miserably failed in re-establishing balance and order in the region. By insisting on assuming a conflictual stance rather than cooperating in assisting the vast majority of the Syrian people in the creation of a new balanced regional order, they have assisted the marginalized powers in creating a perpetual conflict zone for years to come.

Security Priorities

The security priorities of regional and international actors have been in a realignment process, and the aspirations of regional hegemony between  Turkey, Arab Gulf states, Iran, Russia and the United States are at odds. This could be further detailed as follows:

•    The United States: Washington’s actions are essentially a set of convictions and reactions that do not live up to its foreign policy frameworks. The “fighting terrorism” paradigm has further rooted the “results rather than causes” approach, by sidelining proactive initiatives and instead focusing on fighting ISIS with a tactical strategy rather than a comprehensive security strategy in the region.
•    Russia: By prioritizing the fight against terror in the Levant, Moscow gained considerable leverage to elevate the Russian influence in the Arab region and an access to the Mediterranean after a series of strategic losses in the Arab region and Ukraine. Russia is also suffering from an exacerbating economic crisis. Through its Syria intervention, Russia achieved three key objectives:
1.    Limit the aspirations and choices of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in the new regional order.
2.    Force the Iranians to redraft their policies based on mutual cooperation after its long control of the economic, military and political management of the Assad regime.
3.    Encourage Assad’s allies to rally behind Russia to draft a regional plan under Moscow’s leadership and sphere of influence.
•    Iran: Regionally, Iran intersects with Washington and Moscow’s prioritizing of fighting terrorism over dealing with other chronic political crises in the region. It is investing in fighting terrorism as a key approach to interference in the Levant. The nuclear deal with Iran emerged as an opportunity to assign Tehran as the “regional police”, serving its purpose of exclusively fighting ISIS. The direct Russian intervention in Syria resulted in Iran backing off from day-to-day management of the Syrian regime’s affairs. However, it still maintains a strong presence in most of the regional issues – allowing it to further its meddling in regional security.
•    Turkey: Ankara is facing tough choices after the Russian intervention, especially with the absence of US political backing to any solid Turkish action in the Levant. It has to work towards a relative balance through small margins for action, until a game changer takes effect. Until then, Turkey’s options are limited to pursuing political and military support of the opposition, avoiding direct confrontation with Russia and increasing coordination with Saudi Arabia to create international alternatives to the Russian-Iranian endeavors in the Levant. Turkey’s options are further constrained by the rise of YPG/PKK forces as a real security risk that requires full attention.
•    Saudi Arabia: The direct Russian intervention jeopardizes the GCC countries’ security while it enhances the Iranian influence in the region, giving it a free hand to meddle in the security of its Arab neighbors. With a lack of interest from Washington and the priority of fighting terror in the Levant, the GCC countries are only left with showing further aggression in the face of these security threats either alone or with various regional partnerships, despite US wishes. One example is the case in Yemen, where they supported the legitimate government. Most recently in Lebanon, it cut its financial aid and designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Riyadh is still facing challenges of maintaining Gulf and Arab unity and preventing the plight of a long and exhausting war.
•    Egypt: Sisi is expanding Egyptian outreach beyond the Gulf region, by coordinating with Russia which shares Cairo’s vision against popular uprisings in the Arab region. He also tries to revive the lost Egyptian influence in Africa, seeking economic opportunities needed by the deteriorating Egyptian economic infrastructure.
•    Jordan: It aligns its priorities with the US and Russia in fighting terrorism, despite the priorities of its regional allies. Jordan suffices with maintaining security to its southern border and maintaining its interests through participating in the so-called “Military Operation Center - MOC”. It also participates and coordinates with the US-led coalition against terrorism.
•    Israel: The Israeli strategy towards Syria is crucial to its security policy with indirect interventions to improve the scenarios that are most convenient for Israel. Israel exploits the fluidity and fragility of the Syrian scene to weaken Iran and Hezbollah and exhaust all regional and local actors in Syria. It works towards a sectarian or ethnic political environment that will produce a future system that is incapable of functioning and posing a threat to any of its neighbors.

During the recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Istanbul the Turkish leadership criticized Iran in a significant move away from the previous admiration of that country but did not go so far as cutting off ties. One has to recognize that political realignments are fluid and fast changing in the same manner that the “black box” of Syria has contradictions and fragile elements within it. The new Middle East signifies a transitional period that will witness new alignments formulated on the terrorism and refugee paradigms mentioned above. Turkey needs Iran’s help in preventing the formation of a Kurdish state in Syria, while Iran needs Turkey for access to trade routes to Europe. The rapprochement between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as well as other Gulf States signifies a move by Turkey to diffuse and isolate polarization resulting from differences on Egypt and Libya and building a common ground to counter the security threats.

Opportunities and Policy Alternatives

The political track outlined in UNSC 2254 has been in place and moving on a timeline set by the agreements of the ISSG group. The political negotiations aim to resolve the conflict from very limited angles that focus on counter terrorism, a permanent cease-fire, and the maintenance of the status quo in terms of power sharing among the different groups. This political track does not resolve the deeper problems that have caused instability and the regional security threat spillover. This track does not fulfill the security objectives sought by Syrian actors as well as regional countries.

Given the evolving set of regional alignments that has struck the region, it is important to assess alternative and parallel policies to remain an active and effective actor. It is essential to look at domestic stabilizing mechanisms and spheres of influence within Syria that minimize the security and terrorism risks and restore state functions in regions outside of government control. Local Administration Councils (LAC) are bodies that base their legitimacy on the processes of election and consensus building in most regions in Syria. This legitimacy requires further action by countries to increase their balance of power in the face of the threat of terrorism and outflow of refugees.
A major priority now for regional power is to re-establish order and stability on the local level in terms of developing a new legitimacy based on the consensus of the people and on its ability to provide basic services to the local population. The current political track outlined by the UNSC 2254 and the US/Russian fragile agreements can at best freeze the conflict and consolidate spheres of influence that could lead to Syria’s partition as a reality on the ground. The best scenario for regional actors at this point in addition to supporting the political track would be to support and empower local transitional mechanisms that can re-establish peace and stability locally. This can be achieved by supporting and empowering both local administration councils and civil society organizations that have a more flexible work environment to become a soft power for establishing civil peace. Any meaningful stabilization project should begin with the transitioning out of the Assad regime with a clear agreed timetable.

Over 950 Local Councils in Syria were established during 2012-2013, and the overwhelming majority were the result of local electing of governing bodies or the consensus of the majority of residents. According to a field study conducted by Local Administration Councils Unit and Omran Center for Strategic Studies, at least 405 local councils operate in areas under the control of the opposition including 54 city-size councils with a high performance index. These Councils perform many state functions on the local level such as maintaining public infrastructure, local police, civil defense, health and education facilities, and coordinating among local actors including armed groups. On the other hand, Local Councils are faced with many financial and administrative burdens and shortcomings, but have progressed and learned extensively from their mistakes. The coordination levels among local councils have increased lately and the experience of many has matured and played important political roles on the local level.

Regional powers need domestic partners in Syria that operate within the framework of a state institution not as a political organization or an armed group. Local Councils perform essential functions of a state and should be empowered to do that financially but more importantly politically by recognizing their legitimacy and ability to govern and fill the power vacuum. The need to re-establish order and peace through Local Councils is a top priority that will allow any negotiation process the domestic elements of success while achieving strategic security objectives for neighboring countries.


Published In The Insight Turkey, Spring 2016, Vol. 18, No. 2

Category Papers

Executive Summary

Omran for Strategic Studies conducted a survey of the local councils operating in areas under opposition forces that include 105 local councils from the following provinces: Damascus, Rural Damascus, Aleppo, Idleb, Dara’a, Al Quneitra, Homs, Hama, and Lattakia. The scope of the questionnaire focuses on the nature of the role that local councils play in areas under control of nationalistic opposition forces specifically. The questionnaire also asks responders to take into consideration the international diplomatic and political efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis based on the assumption that local councils are a key factor for stability during the current crisis and in a future transitional phase.  
The results of the survey are as follows:

•    Local councils mainly fulfill a service role built upon the legitimacy they receive from the populace but at the same time hold great potential for political effectiveness.
•    The main mechanisms for forming local councils are general agreement and elections and there is a lesser dependence on appointments and individual activists’ efforts.
•    In general, local councils have good relationships amongst themselves as well as with nationalistic opposition groups.
•    Despite a general acceptance among local councils about the idea of negotiations, this does not translate into their acceptance of local truces.
•    A majority of the sample insisted on limiting the concept of negotiation to studying ways of establishing a transitional governing council.
•    A majority of the sample supports the Higher Negotiations Committee with the remainder of the sample taking an opposition position.
•    The local councils sample confirmed that the issue of Bashar Al Assad is the main issue preventing the success of any negotiations.
•    More than 2/3 of the sample prefers a decentralized administrative nationalistic governing structure for Syria in accordance with the local populace’s desire.
•    The services and civil peace are on the priority list for the local councils during the transitional phase.

Introduction

Local councils are one of the main products of the Syrian revolution since it expresses the change in the relationship with the capitol on one hand and a tool for managing the transitional phase on the other. Four years have passed since the creation of the local councils during which they achieved notable successes and passed through difficult obstacles. At the same time, international efforts are ongoing to push forward a political process through negotiations while investing in the local councils in this regard, taking into consideration the importance of local councils and their current roles giving them significant legitimacy from the ground. As such, it is of great importance to study local councils in their service and political roles with the objective of analyzing the nature of those roles and significant factors effecting each. In the end, there are recommendations on how to strengthen local councils as an engine for political momentum.

This analytical paper sheds light on the political role of local councils and its manifestations in the various local partial truces. The paper also attempts to analyze the relationship between local councils and both military and political opposition groups. In addition, the paper looks at local council positions on the negotiation process, specific criteria that local councils view as part of a political vision, their relationship with the Higher Negotiations Committee that represents the Syrian opposition and finally the obstacles facing local councils during the transitional phase.

Local Councils: Existing Service Role and Characteristics of an Emerging Political Role

Mechanism for forming local councils are limited to elections, general agreement, appointments, and individual activist efforts. The survey revealed that a majority, 57%, of surveyed local councils formed through a general agreement on a local level. 38% of the sample identified elections as the chosen mechanism. The results revealed the least dependence on appointments (3%) and individual activist efforts (2%) as mechanisms for forming local councils, both of which combined account for 5% of the respondents’ answers.

 

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**The fact that general agreements were the most used mechanism to form local councils is best understood as a result of the lack of security and stability in Syria, as well as the demographic changes in local communities which made it impossible for all the native residents of a locality to participate in elections. In addition, the general agreement mechanism allows local council members to avoid technical issues related to the election process (lists of candidates, election laws, voting centers, and vote counting). These technical processes require legal and technical expertise not widely available among the local councils.  When comparing these results with the results of a past study about local council needs conducted by Omran’s  Local Council’s Unit we found that there was a slight increase in the preference for elections with 35.75% in the previous survey and 38% in this recent survey.  This slight increase is as result of better organized local elections, higher participation, and better nomination processes – this is especially the case in Eastern Ghouta in Rural Damascus.


The roles played by local councils in areas controlled by nationalistic opposition groups depend upon the resources available to the councils, local support for the council, and a support network for fulfilling the council’s assumed role. The survey results showed that 57% of the respondents identified the councils’ roles as service oriented and focused on offering relief, infrastructure, health, and education services. The second largest group of respondents, 42%, identified the councils’ role as both service and politically oriented. These respondents identified the political activities of local councils as follows: public and political statements, attending political events, organizing protests, conducting community reconciliations, and conducting negotiations with the regime or other groups related to the regime. The remaining 1% of the respondents identified the local councils’ roles as purely political.

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**The service role of local council’s takes precedence over the political role despite the local council’s possessing great potential and strong political capital, as seen here:    
1.    Local legitimacy stemming from their representation of the local population through elections or general agreement;
2.    The notable success that local councils have displayed in filling the roles of state institutions in areas outside of Assad regime control and their ability to completely represent the political and ideological positions of local populations. Also, local councils are able to attract local talent and local leadership to participate in administrative affairs.
3.    Local councils have political legitimacy that extends from the regime’s acceptance of local councils as a legitimate party to negotiate with, as was the case in Zabadani, and in other cases international organizations and some nations depend directly on local councils to implement relief projects on the ground. Furthermore, local councils maintain working relationships with the political Syrian opposition and other local opposition actors who coordinate directly with the local councils on revolutionary and political matters.

The most significant challenges impeding a greater political role for local councils are:
1.    Local council members who believe that local councils should focus only on the service sector;
2.    Ongoing conflicts of interest between local councils and nationalistic armed opposition groups and political opposition groups.
3.    The lack of a stable political process in which the local councils can play an active and productive role other than providing service.


Local Councils and Opposition Powers: A Positive View on Intertwined Relations

In general, the survey results show that the sample has positive relationships with both the Syrian Opposition’s National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces and the Interim Government. The percentage of respondents who chose to describe their relationship with the NCORF as “Good” is 37%, while 25% described the relationship as “Bad” and another 38% as “Acceptable”. In regards to the Interim Government, 45% of the respondents described their relationship as “Good” while 21% described the relationship as “Bad” and another 34% described the relationship as “Acceptable”.

 

3

The local councils also maintain positive relations with the armed nationalistic opposition groups with 89% of the respondents describing their relationship with such groups as “Very Good” or “Good” while another 10% described the relationship as “Acceptable” and only 1% as “Bad”.

 

4


**The relationship between official opposition institutions and local councils are shaped by the following factors:

1.    Financial Support
2.    Political and international legitimacy
3.    Specific jobs and tasks
4.    Personal relations
Based on these factors, the positive relationship between the local councils and opposition institutions is explained as follows:
1.    Recognition by the local councils that any weakness in the role of the opposition institutions is due to outstanding factors, such as, regional and international state pressures more than shortcomings in the opposition itself.
2.    The local councils recognize the critical need for a central entity to organize the local councils and set their priorities. In addition, local councils need a political entity to provide a national platform to lead the political workings allowing the local councils to focus more on providing services and local administration.
3.    There are existing personal relationships between local council members and political opposition members as well as some of the local council members who are members of the official political opposition.
4.    Local councils depend partially on opposition institutions to communicate with supporters.

On another note, the relationship between local councils and the armed nationalistic opposition groups developed from a relationship of tension and conflicts of interest to a positive relationship with continued conflicts of interest but in varied forms. This change is best explained as follows:
1.    Armed nationalistic opposition groups recognizing the importance of the local council project in respect to administering civilian affairs and the need for the armed groups to assist local councils, which in turn increases the armed groups’ legitimacy.
2.    New councils and committees were formed to manage intervention by the armed groups into local council affairs giving the local councils increased independence and transparency when forming the council, choosing members, and setting priorities.


Local Councils and the Negotiation Process: Conditional Acceptance of a Political Solution Surrounded by Obstacles

The idea of a political solution gained wide spread political support, both regionally and internationally, especially following the increased security threats and exacerbating humanitarian crisis that were both spilling over the Syrian border. In the spirit of pushing the negotiation process forward the international community passed several UN resolutions and the Higher Negotiations Committee formed in Riyadh as a party to negotiate directly with the Assad regime instead of the Syrian National Coalition. The round of negotiations that followed these events did not produce any results in favor of moving towards a political solution. Since the local councils are the legitimate representatives of their localities and they have previous experiences negotiating directly with the regime, it was critical that we ask the local councils about their thoughts on the internationally sanctioned peace talks. 57% of the respondents accept on principle the idea of negotiating with the regime to reach a final solution while 38% rejected the idea and 5% did not give their opinion on the matter.  

5

It is notable that for local councils, accepting to negotiating with the regime for a final solution does not extend to the local councils accepting local truces with the regime. Two-thirds of the respondents rejected local truces with the regime because they believe those agreements fall in favor of the Assad regime while a little less than a quarter of the respondents expressed their support for local truces since the truces would revive the economies of besieged communities. Lastly, 15% of the respondents chose not to give their opinion on this matter.

6


**Since 2013, the Assad regime and its allies have engaged in a number of truces with local actors in areas outside of Assad regime control. These areas are strategically important for the regime, due to either geographic reasons or demographics, and this is clear since the truces are concentrated in the areas around the capitol, Homs, Dara’a and Hama. The number of truces are approximately – regardless if they are ongoing or ended – 27 and several more that are currently under negotiation in Quneitra, Rural Damascus, and Dara’a.

The regime resorted to limited truces as a temporary solution due to two basic factors:
1.    Military – Security: The regime found that it is unable to follow through on a complete military victory due to its lack of human resources and multiple active battlefronts in a number of distant geographic locations thus forcing the regime to seek out temporary truces in strategic areas while giving up control in others.
2.    Politics: The regime pushed forward a vision for an all-encompassing political solution built upon meeting demands including redistributing power roles and including representatives from various communities in governance. On a local level, the regime sought to meet mainly humanitarian demands. As such, the regime forced the hands of the local councils to accept truces so that they could secure marginal benefits, at the forefront of which was easing the human suffering caused by the ongoing conflict and a lack of international efforts to help in this regard. Local councils secured a number of things from the truces including lifting sieges, releasing of prisoners, stopping shelling, and reviving basic services.

As for those who refused the truces, two thirds of the sample, their position is best understood as follows:
1.    The negative impact from truces on local living conditions.
2.    The regime fails to abide by the terms of the truces, especially those that call for releasing prisoners, allowing humanitarian aid from entering the city, and free movement for residents of the locations agreed to the truce.
3.    There are no strong guarantees for implementing the truces and weak oversight mechanisms.
4.    There is a fear that the truces will have a negative impact on the revolutionary movement through infiltration and drowning the truce areas in various crises.  


Despite the local councils’ acceptance of truces with the regime, they did have a list of prioritized conditions that the regime should abide by in order for the councils to enter into agreement with the regime:
1.    A complete ceasefire and end to all aerial bombardment
2.    Pulling out all foreign militias.
3.    Releasing prisoners.
4.    Lifting the siege of besieged locations.
5.    Allowing humanitarian aid to enter targeted locations.

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At the same time, the regime continued to place the fight against terrorism as the single priority and the only path towards a political solution. The opposition and the opposition forces insisted on their original demands including forming a transitional body with full executive powers to manage the transitional phase. In regards to the negotiable priorities, a majority of the local councils, 89%, believed that the entire negotiation process should focus on the issue of forming a transitional body with full executive powers while only 9% of the respondents felt that the negotiation process should focus on both the formation of a transitional body and the fight against terrorism.

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In regards to the relationship between local councils and the Higher Negotiations Committee 55% of the respondents believe that the Higher Negotiations Committee represents the local councils while the remaining percentage of respondents took an opposite position.

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As for the negotiation process and procedures, a majority of the councils expressed their support for negotiations but do not look positively at the processes and procedures on which the negotiations arestarted including a number of issues preventing the success of the negotiation process:
1.    The issue of Bashar Al Assad’s future.
2.    A lack of international pressure on the Assad regime to move seriously towards a political solution.
3.    The lack of a party that completely represents local residents in the negotiations.
4.    The lack of unity among nationalistic opposition forces.
5.    A weak performance by the political opposition.

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**The acceptance of local councils to engage in negotiations with the Assad regime is based upon several factors:
1.    Local councils are convinced that it is too difficult for any side to achieve an outright military victory given the current political conditions after the Russian intervention with ongoing international pressure to seek out a political solution to the crisis.
2.    The local councils use the negotiations to gain some marginal benefits like humanitarian access and other conditions mentioned previously.
3.    The negotiations put the regime in a sensitive position and test the regime’s seriousness in reaching a political solution.

Local councils accept negotiations on a conditional basis and these conditions form a political breaking point for the local councils:
1.    A complete ceasefire and end to all military operations.
2.    Pulling out all foreign militias.
3.    Implementation of all the humanitarian demands made in UN resolutions including the release of political prisoners,  lifting the sieges on besieged areas, and allowing the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid.
4.    Lifting the siege of besieged locations.
5.    Allowing humanitarian aid to enter targeted locations.
6.    Maintaining the unity of Syrian territory and administering the country through a transitional body with no role for Bashar Al Assad.
7.    Restructuring the military and security institutions on nationalistic principles. Holding accountable all those responsible for committing crimes against the Syrian people.

The local councils tend to focus their demands during negotiations on security and military related requests instead of humanitarian requests. This is best understood as a compounding of the humanitarian crises resulting from the worsening security situation and thus stopping the escalating violence and military operations will give the local councils more opportunities to focus on providing services and address the growing humanitarian crises.
Furthermore, despite almost half of the sample supporting the Higher Negotiations Council the remainder of the sample, a significant percentage at 45%, which we cannot disregard, do not consider the Higher Negotiations Council as their representative. This is explained by two main factors:
1.    The way the Higher Negotiations Committee formed some councils felt marginalized.
2.    Weak communication between the Higher Negotiations Committee and the local councils, and the committee’s failure to update the local councils on the latest political developments since the local councils are the closest too and the legitimate representatives of local residents.


In the proposals for a political solution, the issue of the structure of the state and its administrative a structure vary between a decentralized political state and a decentralized administrative structure.  The survey results revealed that a little more than two thirds of the sample favored a decentralized administrative structure while approximately one third of the sample preferred a decentralized political state.

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The majority of respondents, 98%, also expressed the need for a nationalized regulatory framework while only 2% rejected this idea.

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**The local councils’ preference for a decentralized administrative structure as a concept for administrating the Syrian state stems from the local councils’ desire to maintain the state’s current borders and giving local communities greater powers in a decentralized administration that ensure their service, development and cultural needs. On the other hand, a decentralized political state will result in the creation of a weak political system comprised of several competing political blocs ending up in constant political turmoil. Also, local councils support the creation of a nationalized framework for organizing their work and are committed to participate on a national level with other councils; and councils are also convinced that they need an established and agreed upon nationalized framework in which to coordinate their priorities and to use a reference when distributing roles.


A Hopeful Role and Challenges in the Transitional Phase

The transitional administrative phase will depend on the local councils due to their legitimacy and their built up experience in managing various issues during the crisis.  As for their priorities during the transitional phase, we can list them as follows:
1.    Providing basic services
2.    Strengthening civil peace
3.    Providing local security and economic development
4.    Promoting the political process

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The survey results also reveal that the local councils recognize that their role during the transitional phase depends on their ability to effectively deal with various challenges, including:
1.    Lack of resources
2.    Political polarization and social division
3.    Gaining legitimacy
4.    Security challenges

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**The local councils’ prioritizing provision of services during the transitional phase is understood as a manifestation of the local councils’ considering their main role as a service provision role, just as we have seen in previous results. Also, recognize that services are the main need of local residents and the local councils’ successful delivery of services gives them more strengthen their legitimacy with the local population and then on a national level. Local councils also try to reestablish safety and security in their communities since a lack of which is the main obstacle preventing councils from fulfilling their service roles. In addition, local councils recognize that a major challenge during the transitional phase is a lack of resources, which explains the great demand for services that would bring stability for local residents.


Conclusion

Local councils assume three main roles:
1.    Service role
2.    Political role
3.    Development role

Despite the survey showing that the local councils operating in areas under control of nationalistic opposition groups preferred to focus on service provision, there are instances where local councils did assume political roles. In some cases, local councils published statements in which they took political positions reflecting those of the local population who gave the councils their legitimacy; they attended political activities; organized protests; conducted community reconciliations; conducting localized negotiations with the regime or its allies; and offering their opinions on the national political negotiations.

In light of the political movement to push for negotiations that reach a final political solution for the ongoing crisis it is of great importance to increase the role of local councils and invest in them to strengthen the negotiating strength of the opposition. This will in turn give the political process momentum and protect the results of the political process from a counter revolutionary movement attempting to stop the revolution. It is easy for any observer to notice that local councils have a great potential to establish political groups with significant grass roots support exceeding that of any existing political groupings.

To achieve what we just described there must be an immediate and strong show of support to increase the resources and enhance the capabilities of local councils enabling them to withstand various challenges by:
1.    offering financial and institutional advice on human resources capacity building and training;
2.     And improving the local councils’ relationships with revolutionary institutions, both political and military, based upon properly identified roles and the proper distribution of responsibilities.

Additional part of Survey Sample

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Methodology

1.    Sample Pool
We took our sample from amongst the various provincial and related councils located in areas outside Assad regime, Islamic State, Syrian or Kurdish (PYD) control. And especially taking into consideration the councils’ abilities to conduct administrative tasks in their areas.  
2.    Sample Size and Distribution
The sample size is a total of 105 out of 427 local councils including 62 council presidents, 32 executive council members, 11 local council members, and covers Rural Damascus, Aleppo, Idleb, Dara’a, Quneitra, Homs, Hama, and Lattakia. We chose the number of sub-council members in proportion to the number of sub-councils from province to province.  
3.    Sample Reliability
We took great care to formulate the right questions and present them in an objective way to all the respondents regardless of their personal opinions or their expectations about the survey’s results.
4.    Survey Time Frame
Collecting the entire sample took one month. We contacted local councils between 1-1-2016 and 2016-2-3 and then reviewed the questionnaires, entered the data, and evaluated the results.
5.    Analytical Methodology
 The analytical process is split into two sections accordingly with the stated goal of better understanding local council opinions and their knowledge of their service and political roles. In the first part of the analysis, we take into consideration the specific issues presented in the survey, such as the local councils’ influence on the political process, their opinions about political and revolutionary performance, and local councils’ political leanings. In the second part of the analysis, we focus on the administrative roles of local councils and the level of their commitment to the most important principles and responsibilities.

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