WASHINGTON – Whoever leads the postwar political transition in Syria will need to take into consideration the impact of more than five years of fighting. The Syrian government, opposition forces, the Kurdish PYD, the so-called Islamic State, and the former al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) are all governing territory they control. The postwar transition will need to take these diverse governance dynamics into account.
Finding an effective political solution to the conflict in Syria must take into account how these wartime structures maintain security, provide goods and services and earn legitimacy in the eyes of the local population.
ISIS and the Syrian government are able to provide basic, if draconian, systematic and consistent security to many civilians in their territory. They maintain order and relative safety through their military, intelligence and police forces, none of which observe international human rights standards. The Syrian government has arbitrarily detained well over 100,000 civilians in areas it controls and killed many more. ISIS has killed thousands.
Kurdish areas are also relatively secure thanks to the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) internal police, the Asayish, and a de-facto truce with Syria and Russia to prevent airstrikes.
However, the government and its allies (Russia, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Afghan and Iraqi militias) attack opposition-held areas on a daily basis, making security the biggest challenge to governance. Cities under siege are particularly insecure. There are 18 areas under siege by the Syrian government at present, housing an estimated 600,000 people.
Aside from the attacks and siege, maintaining security is difficult in these areas where formal police forces are few, self-appointed armed groups, including JFS and other extremists, hold sway and courts apply varying versions of often ill-defined principles of Sharia law.
Providing Goods and Services
ISIS has been relatively successful in maintaining supplies of food, fuel, water, electricity and health services. Upon declaring a so-called caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, ISIS assumed control of existing state infrastructure, retained many of the skilled employees (engineers, doctors, etc.) and pumped money into some of the poorest regions of Syria. ISIS ensured fairness in local markets, low prices for necessities like bread and fuel and reportedly kept the streets cleaner than they had ever been, leading some to see ISIS as the least bad alternative compared to the Syrian government and the opposition.
In areas under President Bashar al-Assad’s control, services have been relatively reliable, but the government continues to ration electricity and even its soldiers’ daily meals. Rapid inflation has increased the prices of subsidized goods such as bread and fuel. The government has not been able to shoulder the additional costs but instead passes them onto the civilian population. Administrative services in government-controlled areas are available but often plagued with corruption and bribery – an endemic problem for the Syrian government even before the revolution.
The supply of goods and services have also been maintained in Kurd-controlled areas bordering Turkey, Kurds have taken control of governing institutions and have maintained a sense of normalcy. Kurdish is the language of instruction in schools.
The opposition has been less successful in this aspect of governance. Beginning in 2012, opposition groups formed local administrative councils to fill the gap left by the government’s departure by distributing humanitarian aid, building wells for potable water and maintaining sanitation systems. They continue to face many challenges: lack of funding, competition with local Sharia courts and armed groups and sieges, checkpoints, snipers and landmines preventing people from leaving to seek medical assistance or buy food and other necessary supplies. JFS struggles with the same problems, as most of its governance endeavors are conducted with other opposition groups.
Legitimacy is measured by the extent to which people accept the authority of governing actors, apart from the provision of goods, services and security. However, both in regime areas and ISIS-controlled areas, there is little evidence of legitimacy outside basic service provision. Both condition administrative services on loyalty. Protests still occur, despite the draconian consequences, but many Syrians have been pushed to the point of siding with whoever can keep them safe and fed. ISIS and the regime have won many minds in areas they control, but not the hearts.
The PYD’s authoritarian tactics have likewise earned it enemies inside the areas it controls. There are many documented cases of the PYD abducting, threatening and strong-arming opponents and dissidents. The PYD appoints local councils, applying gender and ethnic minority quotas in order to appear more inclusive and democratic, but whether Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens are actually represented is unproven.
In opposition areas, local administrative councils tend to enjoy a high level of legitimacy despite their operational shortcomings, because of their democratic character. Legitimacy is earned through resistance against ISIS and the government.
JFS earned credit for its resistance to the government in central and northern Syria. Its recent rebranding and renunciation of formal ties to al-Qaida is an attempt to emphasize its Syrian identity to a skeptical Syrian opposition and appear more legitimate. In southern Syria, the broad Southern Front opposition alliance has maintained a fragile truce with the government for some time, despite intense fighting farther north around Idlib and Aleppo. However, pressure from all sides have put this unified coalition increasingly in peril.
Syria’s Political Future
The international community’s role in Syria’s political future will likely be modest. The hundreds of thousands peacekeeping troops required by normal criteria for a country the size of Syria are simply not available. Nor would most Syrians welcome them. The cantons of the Kurdish Rojava region, the opposition’s local administrative councils, the highly structured and repressive security forces of ISIS and the regime and JFS’s Sharia courts are now entrenched in the Syrian landscape.
If there is a negotiated outcome, the international financial institutions, the European Union and the U.S. may be expected to carry the burden. The U.S. State Department announced on Tuesday that it would commit $364 million to various NGOs and relief agencies in the face of the recent assault by government and Russian forces on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, bringing the total U.S. aid to $5.9 billion since the start of the war. However, financial assistance for reconstruction will face budget constraints.
Syrians may someday get their wish to govern themselves, but under truly catastrophic circumstances and without much international help. Their wartime governance structures will be at least part of the basis on which they will have to proceed.