Until recently, Western policy toward Syria had been focused on supporting local governance and civil society bodies in the northwest of the country, so they might become mechanisms for a political transition. Yet this attitude has changed, as was apparent in the decision of the United States last May to withdraw assistance from the northwest and redirect it to northeastern Syria, in order to prevent a return of the Islamic State to areas from which the group had been expelled.
This shift has led to the emergence of civic groups in eastern Syria tasked with filling the gap in the provision of local services. These civil society organizations have become increasingly active, alongside councils affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and tribal structures. Indeed, they are moving to the forefront as intermediaries linking Western donors, tribes, and local communities.
Because stabilization needs in the area are high, these civil society groups have been compelled to prioritize services delivery over advocacy and human rights work. Airstrikes by the anti-Islamic State coalition last year left much of Raqqa and surrounding areas destroyed, without electricity or clean water, while the Islamic State booby-trapped infrastructure. This made the return of residents especially challenging. For example, a civil society group named Better Hope for Tabqa counted 64 destroyed homes in Ja‘bar, a village 50 kilometers west of Raqqa city where it is active. In response to the destruction in Raqqa and surrounding areas, around 30 civil society organizations engaged mainly in the removal of rubble, the rehabilitation of electricity grids and water networks, and the provision of psychological assistance to children and support for literacy programs. A few are also emerging in Deir Ezzor and are distinct from those implementing humanitarian assistance with United Nations support. Internally displaced citizens have been slowly returning to the northeast since October 2017, according to reports by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A similar pattern is evident in areas cleared of the Islamic State in rural Deir Ezzor Governorate.
Amid the political and security turmoil in eastern Syria, civil society organizations have been careful to concentrate on providing services rather than playing a political role. They have thus established local structures. Starting in June 2017, such organizations were set up mainly by Arab professionals or others—doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, teachers, and more—from the same localities, often hailing from the same tribe. For instance, members of one civil society organization, Inma’ al-Karama, belong to the Al-Afadelah tribe and its offshoots, one of the largest tribes in the area. They operate through a network of volunteers. Some members were active in local councils and relief organizations after the onset of the Syrian uprising, and survived under the Islamic State by keeping a low profile, working mostly in agriculture and the cattle trade. While members do not necessary hold common political views, they remain reluctant to be associated with SDF-affiliated structures, not wanting to be linked with the Kurdish political project in light of a possible return by the Syrian regime. However, they do cooperate with them to ameliorate local living conditions.
Following the Islamic State’s defeat in Raqqa, in April 2017 the SDF formed the Raqqa Civilian Council (Majlis al-Raqqa al-Madani), followed in November by the Democratic Civilian Administration of Tabqa. Both have an Arab majority under joint Arab-Kurdish leadership. The relationship between the civil society organizations and the SDF-led governance structures is characterized by mutual suspicion. The SDF structures have failed to attract skilled and educated youths and view civil society groups as recipients of resources that they themselves have failed to attract from Western donors, harming their ability to respond to local needs. Yet, SDF institutions have also been compelled by the United States to facilitate the work of the civil society organizations.
Civil society groups are required to register with the SDF in ‘Ain ‘Issa, and their licenses need to be renewed every three months. At times they are required to obtain permission before conducting their activities. Nonetheless, they benefit from higher levels of tolerance compared to what Arab civil organizations faced previously in Tell Abyad and Manbij. A worker from one organization underlined that employing a number of Kurds was a condition for operating in Tell Abyad.
In trying to build their legitimacy, SDF governance institutions have sought to use tribal figures to their own advantage. Although tribal structures remain present in eastern Syria, over decades the state-building process slowly replaced the old order, shifting individuals’ loyalty from tribes to localities. A reflection of this is the names civil society organizations have chosen for themselves, which highlight the localities in which the organizations are rooted: Better Hope for Tabqa, Al-Jarnieh, Inma’ al-Karama, and ‘Amaar al-Mansoura, to name but a few. Moreover, local tribes have faced major divisions since the start of the Syrian conflict, weakening the capacity of tribal leaders to exert influence. Yet, they are seen by the SDF and the population as playing an instrumental role in resolving conflicts or vetting those who collaborated with the Islamic State.
That said, within the current power structure in eastern Syria, tribal leaders and SDF councils are perceived as having limited influence when it comes to services provision. While individuals linked to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party within the SDF councils may have final decision-making authority, it is Western donors who decide on the scope of funding. And it is civil society organizations that have influence over donors thanks to the needs assessments that they conduct in their localities and their increasing capacity to adhere to the donors’ financial transparency conditions. This has built up donors’ trust, giving the civil organizations more clout by allowing them to act as influential, non-traditional intermediary structures with outside powers in eastern Syria. Tribal leaders, members of the community, and even SDF civilian councils have increasingly been seeking their services in rehabilitation projects and similar efforts.
Civil society organizations allow technocrats, activists, and skilled workers, who would otherwise be sidelined by the current governance structures, to be active and form the nucleus of a postwar civil society. Their position as well-known and respected individuals rooted in their localities, and in traditional tribal structures, grants them a degree of legitimacy. Although their influence is contingent on continued donor funding and pressure to allow them to function, they provide much-needed services in Syria’s politically unstable northeast. Until a political endgame is reached, policymakers should look into engaging with these groups in the decision-making processes involving their communities, as they are the ones best placed to convey local needs.