Governance and Resilience: Countering IS and Stabilizing Eastern Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 20

(source: thenational.ae)

Under the previous Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Damascus balanced its relationship with tribes in the Der Ezzor area by building relationships with certain traditional tribal leaders. Loyalties were secured through parliamentary seats, and by helping secure broader tribal allegiance through favor and reward.  This agreement began to unravel, however, when the regime lost control over the Der Ezzor province with the start of the revolution in 2011, and later due to a series of actors and developments over the last seven years.

Destruction of the Social Structure

In June 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of the province, but it was short-lived as the Syrian regime retook the Der Ezzor city in July. The second liberation of the province began in early 2012, but many residents fled due to the heavy fighting, and local tribal leaders lost much of their influence and connection to the Syrian regime. [1]

Under the FSA’s control of the province, especially after 2012, each tribe formed its own armed group and managed the local economy by dividing regional oil resources between themselves. As a result, the FSA’s control over the region was not centralized, allowing other actors such as the al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al Nusra (today known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS) to secure its own areas of influence. [2]

When Islamic State (IS) took over the province in 2014, it destroyed remaining tribal leadership structures and built new alliances under its control. It committed massacres against certain tribes in Der Ezzor, most notably the al-Shaitat tribe massacre in which IS killed more than 700 members, specifically targeting boys 14-years-old and older. This resulted in an escalation of bloody conflict between and among the tribes (Zaman al-Wasl, August 12, 2014). [3]

At the same time, IS established new governing institutions to manage the daily life of the people, including a taxation system and an educational system beginning at the elementary school level. The presence of IS continued to change the dynamics of local society, and as a result, a large number of residents fled the area. IS created new tribal leadership structures to strengthen its rule of the society and control the relationship dynamics between the tribes.

Beginning in late 2014 the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated most of Der Ezzor from IS control (Al Arabiya, July 15, 2014). This began another political struggle when both the U.S.-backed Kurds and the Turkish government began to compete over the building of a governance body for the province. The Turks supported building a local council in Turkey to represent Der Ezzor in an effort to secure loyalty to Turkey in Der Ezzor through this local council and their relationship with tribal and community leaders still based in Der Ezzor (Baladi, August 10, 2017). At the same time, the Kurds formed a civil council based on a Kurdish understanding of a social contract that they are currently working to fully articulate and establish (Deir Ezzor24, September 25, 2017). [4]

It should be noted, at a certain point, the Der Ezzor local council based in Turkey was willing to return to Syria and encourage other refugees and internally displaced people to follow their lead. They asked the U.S. government through back channels to give them guarantees for their safety and to support their return as leaders of their tribes.  The United States, however, did not respond to this offer, which was interpreted by the local council as a “no.” [5] As a result, the exiled leadership of Der Ezzor became further fragmented and made the possibility of unifying leaders and the communities of Der Ezzor more difficult.

Kurds Attempt to Govern Jazira Region

Further to the north, the Kurdish populated areas also began to change. The Kurdish communities were already politically divided, and so political parties adopted different responses to the Syrian conflict and built independent alliances with regional and international powers, including with Turkey, the United States, the Kurdish Regional Government, and the Syrian regime (Enab Baladi, May 4, 2015). Out of these alliances, the Kurdish-U.S. alliance remains the strongest due to their shared security goal of defeating IS. Outside of this objective, there is no clear shared political agenda. The United States has never promised to support any Kurdish entity in Syria.

In the Jazira areas under the control of the Self Administration Authority (SAA), they have pursued a governance system building off of old governance structures, but with a Marxist influence that divides the area into provincial cantons and communes and enforces norms that do not take into consideration differences between communities and socio-economic challenges. [6] One example of this is the women’s law issued by the SAA. A progressive law by comparison to others in the region, it prohibits many historic Arab-Islamic traditional practices. This includes polygamy and unequal inheritance practices. [7] This has increased tension with traditional tribal groups, creating increased tension and distance between the governance system and locals. The situation has resulted in further deepening the trust deficit between the Arabs and the Kurds. [8]

The Regime in Der Ezzor

Meanwhile, the regime has been working to build more relationships with tribal members and has issued policy it calls “fighting the American occupation” (Deirezzor24, July 4). To implement this policy, the regime is supporting tribal diversity, mainly the Albakkara people through tribal leader Nawaf al-Bashir. Damascus is reasserting the role of the al-Ba’ath party and its ideology among the tribes. The regime’s alliance building is further strengthened by the Iranian strategy of using militias to control areas along the Euphrates River through a religiously driven social service system. The system is focused on converting more villagers from Sunni to Shiite (PDC, August 24).

Within this context, the inhabitants of the Der Ezzor province are living among diverse ethnic and tribal divisions and tensions, and competing spheres of influence and governance strategies.  Those remaining in the SAA governed and U.S.-influenced areas in the Der Ezzor province are increasingly isolated and have developed a strong Arab-Sunni victimization narrative as a result of the increased ethnic and sectarian divisions emerging in the area. This has further decreased these different communities’ interest and willingness to be integrated into the SAA system, resulting in a divided Der Ezzor province—less resilient and more vulnerable to the resurgence of malevolent actors, including IS, the regime and its allies.

The United States and Stabilizing Eastern Syria

Within this climate, the United States is pursuing a stabilization policy based on rebuilding the old tribal system in the region and restructuring it under the Kurdish Authority represented by the SAA. However, the approach of building up the civil council through tribal alliances cannot stabilize the region since the tribal leaders no longer represent the society they are trying to govern, as described above. [9] For this reason, the current U.S. strategy risks further dividing the population, resulting in an escalation of tension between the remaining tribes, while failing to resolve the political and security vacuum these competing governance structures have created in the province. This will likely result in a resurgent IS once all of Der Ezzor has been liberated by the U.S.-backed SDF and leave the region vulnerable to being retaken by the Syrian regime and its ally, Iran. [10]

Instead, the United States should assume a stronger role and use a different and more unifying governance approach, resilient to outside destabilizing forces. The current divisions and competing spheres of influence could be addressed by reshaping the civil council composition the United States is trying to rehabilitate through ensuring inclusive and locally representative civil councils. Currently, the only factor keeping this bad situation from deteriorating further is the presence of the U.S. Army. Once they leave, it is almost guaranteed further chaos and disorder will follow.

Notes

[1] in my last trip to Der Ezzor in August 2011 right after the regime retook the province, the city looked like a ghost city, some areas were completely empty, the destruction in buildings and prosperities was clear and seen

[2] See research by Ayn Almadina]

[3] An interview Oct, 12th 2018  with the executive director of Deir Ezzor24: According to him, Ja’afar Al-Khalifa  fighter from Al Saitat tribe, who gave a pledge to ISIS, is responsible of this massacre.

[4] See social contract document http://cantonafrin.com/ar/pages/Charter%20of%20the%20social%20contract.html

[5] The author attended one of these skype meetings

[6] An interview Oct, 10th 2018 with a former high senior officer at the Self -Administration Authority

[7] Ibid.

[8] An interview on October, 5th 2018 with a civil society activist in Der Ezzor

[9] An interview Oct, 12th 2018 with Omar Abu Laila, the executive director of Deir Ezzor24

[10] Ibid