Nicholas Haslam is head of Syria at Adam Smith International, a global company that delivers impact, value and lasting change through economic growth and government reform. Since 2015 he has been engaged in supporting the Syrian opposition, managing European and North American assistance to councils, the Free Syria Police, and civil society in the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, Dar‘a, and Rural Damascus. Prior to his work on Syria, Haslam worked in East Africa and the Horn of Africa on stabilization issues. He is a graduate of Cambridge University (B.A. 2005) and the Johns Hopkins University—Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (M.A. 2007). Diwan interviewed Haslam in mid-June to get his perspective on what lies ahead in Syria, particularly with regard to areas held by the opposition and local governance in these districts.
Michael Young: Do you feel that autonomous areas in Syria controlled by the opposition may become a semi-permanent fixture? If so, where are these likely to emerge?
Nicholas Haslam: Over the coming months we can safely assume that remaining opposition territory—covered by the northwest deescalation zone and the deescalation area in southern Syria—will come under mounting pressure. The Assad regime is intent on recovering all territory still in opposition hands and has launched an offensive to retake parts of the south.
At the same time the Turkish government is becoming more militarily entrenched in the northwest, with twelve observation posts now in place, the deal over Manbij and Tel Rif‘at, the establishment of a new National Front for Liberation, which receives major assistance from Turkey, and so on.
Where does this leave the opposition? In the northwest we might well see a cementing of front lines upheld by Turkey, though questions exist as to whether the Turks will seek to hold onto southern Idlib. Such a situation would grant a degree of autonomy to the northwest, a sort of de facto decentralization of administration and service delivery, in which opposition power structures persevere. South Syria is more vulnerable to regime recapture and reintegration, though even there the situation may demand more than the usual regime tactics of bombardment, surrender and “reconciliation deals.” The United States is seeking to salvage the deescalation agreement and extract guarantees from Russia about the persistence of opposition institutions.
However, autonomy isn’t sustainable in the long run and Syrians can only be brought back together under one roof through a political solution between them. Although Track I negotiations are stalled and a political agreement in Geneva seems unlikely in the near term, the opposition should keep its eyes on formal decentralization and constitutional reform. Recent progress on the constitutional committee in Geneva could offer an opening though it’s too soon to tell.
MY: Turkey now controls a large swathe of territory in Syria’s north, with a large number of refugees in and around it. Do you anticipate that it will try to use this territory to shape political outcomes in Syria?
NH: Turkey has a clear interest in maintaining a safe haven to prevent further refugee flows and to allow current refugees to return to Syria. It also wants to contain the influence of the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party, which it considers to be a part of the Kurdistan Workers Party opposing the Turkish government. So it seems likely that Turkey will leverage its territorial presence both in negotiations with the United States over the northeast, and with the regime and Russia over the slow reintegration of Syria’s disparate regions.
For the opposition the salient issue is how Turkey envisions the northwest within Syria as a whole. The Turkish government is increasingly shaping opposition government according to its own objectives. In the wake of its Euphrates Shield operation inside Syria, all representative councils and police effectively report to Turkey and in some places services are provided directly by the Turkish state. Afrin appears to be evolving according to a similar model.
In western Aleppo and Idlib Governorates Turkish influence is slighter, but there are signs that Turkey will seek to expand its reach by manipulating armed groups, molding local and provincial councils, and backing new bodies such as the Idlib Political Committee. Assuming a degree of autonomy, the Turkey-dominated northwest may thus follow a model of decentralization on Turkey’s own terms.
MY: Does the opposition have institutions allowing it to run areas it controls in the long term? What are the most important of these institutions?
NH: Provincial and local councils, the Free Syrian Police, civil registries, and others have throughout the war kept up the practice of government in opposition territory—now down to the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, Dar‘a, and Quneitra. At immense cost to themselves, and despite the odds, they have offered ordinary Syrian citizens a modicum of safety, security, and the basics of government. Crucially, they also constitute a model of accountability, transparency, and respect for human rights that was absent before the war. They represent an alternative manner of government to which millions of Syrians have aspired. That is the reason that the regime has so consistently targeted them with its bombs—they have been a threat to regime survival.
Though there is no longer a realistic prospect of a political transition or of comprehensive national-level reform, it is important to consider how to preserve the gains of the opposition both in autonomous regions of Syria and through the political process. Bodies such as the Free Syrian Police stand by the value that their services continue to bring to their communities and the reforms that they might contribute to a decentralized state.
The concept of community policing, for example, has transformed the values and incentives of Syrian policing. The principle of civilian oversight runs through local and provincial councils. Civil records give formal identity to people in opposition areas and need recognition. Furthermore, all these institutions have, with international backing and in line with the Geneva Communiqué and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, tried to preserve and reform state structures so that what exists in opposition Syrian is consistent with the legal and institutional framework of the Syrian state. Law 107 (or the Law of Local Administration) was approved by Syria’s parliament in Damascus and subsequently adopted by the Syrian Interim Government, the opposition’s national government. It resonates well with the opposition, given its firmness on local accountability and could offer a path to decentralization consistent with the Syrian state. The Free Syrian Police, likewise, operates in a manner consistent with the Police Services Law and civil registries in opposition areas are aligned with the Civil Affairs Law. If a political settlement materializes, the presence of preserved and reformed institutions will assist in the reunification of the country, with minimal deviation from Syrian law.
MY: Would outside countries be willing to sustain areas under opposition control, and if so for how long?
NH: Most Western governments, plus those of post-election Turkey and the Gulf states, remain politically behind the opposition and opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However appetite for sustaining opposition government varies. In general, material support for the opposition is waning. Most European governments have committed some funding, and of course Turkey’s involvement is on the up. But the U.S. and British governments have already signaled their intention to withdraw stabilization assistance from northwest Syria.
How long support carries on is contingent on an array of considerations in Western capitals as well as in Ankara. The dangers of instability and extremism and the probability of further refugee flows should necessitate an ongoing commitment. Then there is the question of the sustainability of Western policy: Western governments have put hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, into opposition Syria over the past six years. But there’s Syria fatigue among governments and the willingness to take risks to advance one’s interests is falling.
If Western governments were to sustain the opposition, which I think they should, it would really be a question of two things: First, ensuring that councils, the Free Syrian Police, and so on survive until such time as Syria’s territorial questions are resolved or a political settlement is achieved, or both. And second, making sure that the reforms to the Syrian government by the opposition are recognized in negotiations and are upheld in any future policy and material support aimed at Syria. Doing so will reduce the chances of further marginalization and suffering in Syria and give Western governments options should they need to reengage. Moreover, in an already troubled environment, it will give Syrians the best chance of shaping the government of the future.
MY: Are autonomous opposition-controlled areas a possible solution to the refugee problem and sectarian cleansing elsewhere by the Assad regime?
NH: Instability, flows of internally displaced persons, armed group antics, and the threat of extremism are facts of life in opposition areas as much as they are in regime areas. They are the trials that opposition government faces and the reason why government is important. Deescalation has succeeded in reducing attacks from the air but low-level conflict goes on.
Autonomous areas, if policed and protected from aerial attack, could indeed offer a further degree of stability for Syrians. Many internally displaced persons from parts of Syria recaptured by the regime, most recently Ghouta, have ended up in the northwest, and the latter could carry on being a safe haven for people fleeing violence elsewhere. Turkey is certainly hoping that a more stable northwest will be a reason for the return of some of the 3 million or more refugees it hosts.
But autonomous areas cannot be a permanent solution. They will not prevent sectarian cleansing by the Assad regime without some form of international protection; they cannot solve the challenge of internal displacement; and, self-evidently, they cannot offer a home to all Syrians who have left the country. The only way to begin to piece the country back together again, and thereby to unpick those problems, is a political solution between Syrians.