Abstract: The fall of Aleppo is not the end of the opposition in Syria, but perhaps marks the beginning of a Russian attempt to consolidate spheres of influence that are controlled by its regional allies and then push for a political track within its interpretation of political transition. What all actors understand is that it is no longer an option to return to the conditions prior to 2011. The Syrian opposition and its allies still have important cards to play including the empowerment of Local Administration Councils that gain legitimacy from the electorate and able to conduct stabilization programs that are essential during the transition. The opposition still control key strategic locations that should be empowered or a managed cease fire should be implemented to stop the misbalancing of powers.
The Syrian uprising has witnessed several phases each with different features and challenges. They ranged from the non-violent resistance phase, to the militarization, to the spread of cross-border ideological radical groups, to the internationalization of the conflict, the Russian intervention, and finally the consolidation of spheres of influence and control. Political negotiations can be characterized to have gone through phases beginning with the Geneva Communique in 2012, which calls for the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, then the Geneva I, II, and II talks took place starting January 2014 until 2016 where negotiation rounds were stalled every time because of the insistence of the Assad regime to frame the talks for fighting terrorism and not the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers. Towards the end of 2015 and throughout 2016, there were a series of meetings called for by Russia and the United States in Vienna and other European capitals where a new international group was formed called the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that called for a cessation of hostilities as a first step to re-start political negotiations with four main tracks: Humanitarian, Security, Refugee Resettlement, and civil society. A joint commission was formed by Russia and the US to oversee the cessation of hostilities process and the cease-fire agreements. During this process the United Nations Security Council approved the Russia-US agreement in the ISSG and issued UNSC Resolution 2254 calling for political negotiations with a strict timeline, where a cease fire takes place and ISIS and Jabhat Nusra will be targeted, political negotiations to reach a transitional body that ratifies a new constitution and holds elections to inaugurate a political transition. So far the UNSC 2254 has not been on schedule and that brings us to the last phase where Russia, Iran and Turkey met in
December 2016 and issued the Moscow Declaration. The agreement comes after the fall of Aleppo and puts out a more serious attempt to push a political transition process.
This expert brief argues that the fall of Aleppo was a result of a systematic policy by Russia to consolidate territories under the regime control, the Euphrates Shield zone, the Southern Front, the Kurdish controlled zones, then propose a political track according to its interpretation of “political transition”. In the face of the Russian policy, there was no other well-planned policy, underpinned by necessary means, implemented by other local, regional or international powers. The role of Iran is limited within the scope of the Russian policy, yet remains critical and strong on the ground, especially in its control of transportation routes to Lebanon. Additionally, the Russian diplomacy is far more aggressive and consistent with a clear determination for a political track without a regime change paradigm.
For Syrian opposition groups, the fall of Aleppo also puts forward a set of critical challenges and offers fewer options for diplomatic maneuvering while maintaining the balance of power through a freezing of hostilities or a nationwide cease-fire that freezes spheres of influence and control thus creating ground for negotiations. The Syrian opposition should adapt to the new conditions by generating new tools and mechanisms to deal with the new phase. Supporters of the Syrian opposition should also create conditions where Syrian “agency” and local actors are involved in the peace-making and stabilization process from the bottom-up.
The fall of Aleppo was a coordinated effort allegedly aiming at creating new conditions for a political track to be approached according to the Russian terms. This effort can be characterized by the following features:
1. A consistent marginalization of societal demands and aspirations while prioritizing a security based approach at any price, including forced evacuations of residents in Aleppo as well as Daraya, Zabadani and other regions. Local agency is often ignored and assumed to be a “proxy” to outside forces. This is why Russia has attempted to create a “Moscow 1 Syrian opposition”() and “Homaimim opposition”() to legitimize a “political track”; while realizing these groups’ inability to represent relevant Syrian actors in control of territories and borders.
2. The priority of the regime and its allies was to re-gain control of Aleppo at any price while postponing efforts to fight ISIS in order to freeze zones of influence and presumably reach a political agreement that would then focus on fighting ISIS and Jabhat Fath al-Sham. This explains the minimal reaction by the regime and Russia to ISIS re-capturing Palmyra.
3. The “Grozny” approach() during the latest military operation to regain Aleppo after over two years of failed attempts by the Assad regime ends a phase that was featured by the maintenance of the balance of power approach in the management of the conflict. While it was clear the opposition failed to present governance solutions to address security threats, the current scenario puts excessive political and military pressure on the opposition to offer concessions and agree to a Russian framed political track. This will lead to further radicalization and for increased recruitment by terrorist groups who manipulate a victimized narrative.
Additionally, this will lead to further chaos and fragmentation of opposition held areas making it incapable of implementing any transitional programs.
The opposition choices are very limited. They need to be empowered to exercise self-criticism and review its positions and strategies of addressing the political track, including not falling in haphazard mergers between armed groups without a clear agreement on roles and responsibilities as well as relationships with local societal actors. It is of strategic importance now more than ever to empower Local Administration Council that are the only representative bodies in Syria today, as they are structured from the bottom up(). Field research shows a high positive correlation between citizen involvement and participation in local councils and the ousting of terrorist groups(). Moreover, Local Councils are service providers with clear political roles in representing citizens’ views and limit the control and influence of armed groups. Stabilization programs should rely on local councils and civil society organization more than on armed groups.
The recapture of Aleppo by militias allied with Bashar Assad was not possible without the air support of the Russian Air Force. The forces allied with the regime are very fragmented and disorganized that they could not alone recapture the city of Aleppo(). There were several attempts during the past 12 months to recapture the city but none was successful precisely because the Russians had different calculations and did not trust the ability of ground troops to take full control. The amount of military warfare waged on Aleppo was unprecedented and excessive, thus indicating a difficult front they were unable to previously capture without its full destruction and evacuation of all its citizens. The Assad regime remains very fragmented and does not have a monopoly to the “use of force” anymore thus suffering from diminished legitimacy. Information from the ground indicate that the Aleppo operation was fully managed by Russian and Iranian officers, while marginalizing Syrian-regime militias from decision making circles().
Assad in fact has regained a city of rubble devoid of its native population. This poses important questions regarding the upcoming negotiations processes and the place of the evacuated residents in it. Great uncertainty covers the refugees return before the start of any political process, hence affecting the legitimacy of the process. Indeed, Aleppo was strategically very important to the opposition, but it is not the end of the struggle. The opposition is still in control of most borders, major transportation routes, the Southern Front, Euphrates Shield zone, and Idlib. Numbers of armed forces in opposition areas are not to be taken lightly.
Territorial Control Map - Syria - 15 DEC 2016, No (1)
Another element to be considered is the new evolving Turkish role that focused on securing its borders and national security through the Euphrates Shield operations that are now close to Al-Bab. These forces draw the limits of Turkish military options to the objective of fighting ISIS and ending any possibility of PYD connecting the area between its Kobane and Afrin cantons, hence creating a territorially contiguous Kurdish enclave along Turkey’s borders. While Aleppo has historic, political and economic significance to Turkey, the Turkish role shifted to become a mediator to help create a ceasefire agreement and support on humanitarian efforts. Perhaps the best scenario is a controlled and consolidated territory in the north of Syria where no foreign fighters or other radical Islamist fighters can operate. This serves the objective of stabilizing the conflict and providing new options for a political settlement. This also requires an empowerment of local councils in these zones that provide local services and empowering civilians against militants which seeds for democratic values and institutions.
The Moscow Declaration and the Challenges Ahead
The Moscow Declaration established a new set of expectations by actors who are present on the ground as compared to previous attempts by a larger setting such as in Vienna and Geneva. The Declaration also increases the importance of creating a platform for Syrian opposition groups to avoid previous mistakes and consolidate their bodies and decision-making processes. The new phase requires different diplomatic and military tools and mechanisms; and the current Syrian opposition structures and negotiation strategies fall short of meeting the challenges of the current phase.
The moment also requires a plan to deal with Jabhat Fath al-Sham (previously known as Nusra Front). Syrian groups should end all communications and coordination with this group, and work to push them out of inhabited areas of Idlib. This could be done by highlighting the role of representative local councils as the civilians “horses for peace”, while pushing the militias to be regulated under the new civilian administration in order to deliver security. Holding elections as means to re-establish localized governance is a stepping-stone to stabilization programs. This also requires the limiting of armed groups interferences in public life and the provision of public services. The model presented by the Euphrates Shield in re-organizing Free Syrian Army groups, professionalizing them, and limiting their mandate to fighting terrorism can be adopted at least temporally. These programs should not wait a political track. It should serve the purpose of consolidating opposition areas, countering terrorism, and re-establishing order and rule of law. This will empower the opposition to be better equipped as a “state” not as “opposition” to enter negotiations as a reliable partner. Many claim this is unrealistic, but I claim that a political will and a paradigm shift by opposition groups, local councils, and armed groups can make this a reality.
For a sustainable peace plan to be maintained, all relevant actors on the ground should be involved and not treated as a “proxy” with countries “guaranteeing” positions on their behalf. Assuming that a resolution could be reached by forming a government with members from different “sides” of the conflict overlooks the true societal nature of the uprising and assumes that citizens can go back to the former rules of governance and the former forged social contract. A new social pact based on decentralization of governance and administration should be agreed upon by Syrians. This means all foreign fighters beginning with the 41 militias() supported by Iran including Hezbollah and their re-located foreign families should leave Syria. This requires a systematic process and a full plan that does not only rely on hard power and use of force. Syrian actors should be empowered to take responsibility of their local cities and towns and not allow them to operate freely. Additionally, the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates cannot be won without a unified Syria, an end of the current system of governance, a new military-security philosophy, and the exit of Shia militias that reinforce the ISIS narrative and increase its recruitment world-wide. The presence of these terrorist militias is the main reason for the imbalance of power in Syria that lead among other reasons to the spread of ISIS.
It is not over yet. The opposition still hold several important cards that should be wisely maintained for the best of all parties. There still remains strongholds for the Syrian opposition that require careful negotiations to ensure that it is not lost and does not undergo a similar fate to that of Aleppo, by including them in a nation-wide ceasefire and implementing an agreement for a weapon-free zone with Russian guarantees. These areas including the Eastern Ghouta in Damascus Suburbs, and Idlib as a center for refugee resettlement and economic reconstruction. The liberation of Raqqa will also determine the trajectory of the conflict and the nascent control zones, refugee outflow policies and programs, and counter-terrorism programs. All the forgone are potential cooperation issues between the foreign stakeholders and the Syrian opposition in order to reverse the vicious cycle of conflict.
The conflict in Syria will not end with fall of Aleppo and the new round of political talks unless relevant actors “local agency” is involved and have a buy-in to the transition plan. Local actors include Local Councils and influential figures and civil society groups. The political process cannot proceed without applying the same rule to all sides of the conflict; the exit of all foreign fighters. The weakest element in the equation is the Asad regime that has been deeply fragmented with multiple militias and loyalties within its composition thus making it incapable of fulfilling any agreement they sign on to, without guarantees by Russia and Iran. A true transition plan should address the demands of the local citizens and establish a new beginning for the reconstruction of Syria.
Published In ALSharq Forum, 29/12/ 2016: https://goo.gl/ecsOjf
() The Russian Foreign Ministry hosted Moscow 1 and 2 meetings and invited opposition figures such as former government official Kadri Jamil, with the purpose of creating a legitimate body to take part in political negotiations but with demands limited to democratic changes in government to include more people rather than demands held by protestors. This group can be characterized as a group of individuals with little ties to relevant actors on the ground. This group alone cannot implement a peace truce but were brought to dilute the positions of the “opposition” and show a Russia-aligned group that could be a partner in the future.
() Homaimim Russian base in Syria has been a hub hosted by the Russian Defense Department to bring together Syrian “opposition” that live in regime held areas and create “shell” bodies that represent their limited demand for inclusion and diversity while being more aligned with the Russian narrative of the conflict. These members represent primarily interest groups that are linked with the regime and not any actor that has the power to implement or “sell” an agreement with relevant actors on the ground.
() In 1994-1995, Russian forces invaded the city of Grozny to stop the armed uprising and use lethal force and all destructive tools. Many refer to Grozny as it seemed a policy being implemented in the recapture of Aleppo where the eastern city was fully destroyed without any distinction of those being attacked and using all type of weaponry.
() In the survey conducted by the Local Administration Council’s Unit (LACU) and Omran for Strategic Studies in Summer of 2015, 405 local councils were interviewed and asked about their governance structures. This number reflects those councils we were able to reach, but represents 90% of local councils in operation. About one-third of these interviewed say councils’ members are voted by local constituency and two-thirds by local consensus of local actors and civil society. These Councils are tasked with provision of basic services to local residents, including local governance, permits for NGO’s operation, public infrastructures, local safety, rescue services (White Helmets was started by Local Councils), education, and health services.
() An example could be seen in the Southern Front where there are 76 local councils on the city and village level and the agreement between local councils and armed opposition groups allowed for Nosra to have little if any existence in areas governed by local councils. Another similar example is perhaps, Daraya (Damascus Suburb), and Maarat Noman (Idlib).
() Omran for Strategic Studies Information Unit researchers in Aleppo reported large number of fighters pouring into the military fronts from al-Nujaba Shiaa Militia, and that the ground control command was with Iranian militias with minimal official Syrian Army presence. Also see: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/12/middleeast/syria-analysis-tim-lister/
() Personal interview (Mohamad from Homs originally, does not wish to be named) with defected soldier who was stationed in Al-Qusair after its fall, then stationed in Deir Azzour before defecting, interview date August 25, 2016. He revealed that in military operation rooms where Hezbollah officers preceded, they did not allow Alawite Syrian officers to stay in the room during operational planning, and also forced them to taste food cooked before Hezbolla officers eat.
() Omran for Strategic Studies Information Unit map of foreign militias allied with the regime including numbers and training locations, unpublished, dated Nov 25, 2016.
Systemic, functional, and structural change in the security services is a crucial issue that awaits objective solutions that take into account the rapidly shifting circumstances and variables throughout Syria. Because security reform is a complex process, it will be remedied – in light of Syria’s particular situation – by neither pre-packaged reform theories nor theses that ignore the nature and importance of national security while overlooking the necessity of cohesion and preventing collapse. Rather, theories are needed that entail a professional nation-wide effort consistent with local, regional, and international security requirements as well as the nation’s overarching goal: the construction of a coherent security sector.
This study finds that the Syrian state does not possess a “security sector” from a technical definition perspective sufficient enough to deserve reform. As it stands, security work in Syria falls into two categories: The first concerns forces of control and repression. Among these are the Air Force and Military Intelligence Directorates, which are divisions of the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces; the General Intelligence Directorate, which is a division of both the National Security Bureau and the ruling party (the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party), while political security forms a division of the Ministry of Interior. The second category is military-security networks (such as the Republican Guard, the 4th Armored Division, and the Tiger Forces) that bear the responsibility of engineering the security process, determining its relationships and foundations, ensuring the regime’s security, and carrying out all measures and operations within society whenever there is sign of a security threat. Accordingly, two flaws and aberrations can be identified: The first relates to the security structure’s fragmentation, which in the past has helped curtail community activity, while also limiting its progress and development. The second issue relates to the function of these services, which is characterized by fluidity and boundlessness, with the exception of its permanent role consolidating and bolstering the regime’s stability. Indeed, any reform process of these services must target their function and structure at the same time.
Security is necessary and important in the context of any transition process, but this is particularly the case in a place like Syria, which operates as one of the sensitive regional and international counterbalances. To be sure, it is the most important of the state’s functions, whether in terms of maintaining social stability, protecting the country, or preserving its identity and culture from any encroachments. This need for security underscores that it is out of the question to dismantle security services, end their work, and not rebuild a national alternative with a cohesive structure and functions, as some are proposing. This is particularly true for the next phase of the new Syria, which has seen an increase in schemes that seek to cut across its national borders. Thus it seems that the requirement most consistent with the dualism of both rejecting the existing approach and confirming the necessity of security is the restructuring of the security services in the next phase so that they keep pace with those of developed countries that serve both the citizens and the nation.
This study shows that restructuring measures should be based on principles of change, smooth transition, and cohesion – for fear that a sudden change could have repercussions for the cohesion of the country. This will ensure that the security services resume working within the national framework and complement state institutions. Certainly, these measures are a reflection of a series of political arrangements that signal the real desire for change and political transition. Consequently, they are void of any competitive, acquisitive or authoritarian calculations. To this end, the study proposes three phases for carrying out the reform and development process: The first phase relates to the legal system, which will ensure the principles of integration, rebalance, change of function, and strengthened oversight. The second phase is linked to the development of the human, administrative, and technical structures. As for the third stage, it will comprise a set of measures that aim to complete the construction of a cohesive and functional security sector.
Ever since the Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria in 1963, its Military Committee has relied entirely on the intelligence services as a tool for strengthening its governance and entrenching its base. During the reign of Salah Jadid towards the end of the 1960s, Abd al-Karim al-Jundi (President of the Security Services and the National Security Bureau at the time) followed the policy of kidnapping and torturing the party’s opposition. After coming to power in March 1971 following his coup November 1970, Hafez al-Assad used the security services to control security, politics, culture, the economy, and even religion, turning them into powerful appendages of his authority that pervaded the nation, society, and public life. His son, Bashar al-Assad, did not deviate from this path, as these apparatuses continue to follow all of the same policies that endeavored to limit citizens’ activities by using security restrictions and surveillance. These institutions, in addition to the military establishment, were the regime’s first and last lines of defense by virtue of their firm discipline and operational engineering, which enabled them to create the Syrian Army’s sectarian structure. This has enabled the army to control leadership and power centers populated by Alawites and those who owe their absolute loyalty to the regime. This type of engineering became clear following the disagreement between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, who almost overthrew him in the 1980s. Following the event, Assad restructured the army and security services, adjusting security operations so as to consolidate his rule and undermine both political movements as well as the overt and covert ways for people to reject his regime.
In 2011, the Syrian uprising broke out having been caused largely by a hidden, yet growing, popular discontent directed towards the security services’ destructive and authoritarian practices that denied even of the most basic human rights. The security services followed these developments – seeing the gatherings of demonstrators as no more than “riff-raff, rebels, and terrorists” – and served as the main force to carry out policies of repression and systematic violence against the revolutionary movement. With the spread of the movement and the sharp spike in the level of the conflict, the international community has desperately attempted to put established rules in place to initiate a “political process” along a negotiated path. However, this process is still stalled as of the time that this study was prepared. All signs indicate that the necessary political solution, according to the international community, includes “preserving state apparatuses, chief among them the institutions of security and defense.”
As mentioned above, the study of Syria’s security situation, as well as discussion about the need for functional and organizational change in the security services, represent a compound problem that must be unpacked. Indeed, any political path that anticipates solutions to the Syrian crisis without taking into account the security component – along with its excesses and questions about its role in the Syria’s transition and future – will not work. Therefore, this study attempts to provide an accurate description of the security services’ current functions and program so as to touch upon the most significant levels of discernable deficiencies, as well as the conclusions that can be derived from this that will help create an objective picture of the security issue for the future.
Assumptions: The study proceeds from a number of assumptions, namely:
Study Approach: This study follows both descriptive and behavioral approaches to show the philosophy and reality of the security services, their current organizational and functional nature, as well as the desired outcome. In identifying flaws and structural setbacks, the study relies on interviews with officers, individuals, and dissident security experts. Their insights constitute an essential documentation for finding out information about security operations and their methods, which the study considers to be a key foundation for the cohesion of the security services and their complete loyalty to the regime. Moreover, the study uses a comparative method in presenting its examination of the most important security reform experiences in Arab Spring countries in order to measure them against Syria, explore their most important lessons and conclusions, and carry them over as necessities that should be recognized and taken into consideration during Syria’s own security reform process.
Previous Studies: The most important studies published concerning security reform issues in Syria can be summarized as follows: The first is entitled Syria Transition Roadmap, published by Syrian Expert House and the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in 2013, the ninth chapter of which details the restructuring of Syria’s security services by surveying the following:
That said, this study was completed in the context of the ongoing conflict in 2013, which has subsequently become more complex in light of certain types of crimes, the sheer volume of accumulating security issues, and the number of security threats from either religious or ethnic sources that have begun to overlap. Moreover, these complications are further compounded by the appearance of specific challenges, some of which relate to the continuing effects of security reform in Arab Spring countries, not to mention the multiple actors and stakeholders in areas of Syria that experience relatively stable forms of governance and local administration.
Similarly, the “Day After Project” designed to support democratic transition in Syria in 2013 published an important chapter on “Reforming the Security Sector,” which proposed dissolving the current security services and establishing new intelligence agencies (both for military and foreign affairs). The project proposes a 14-month timetable for initiating reforms based on the theory of jettisoning the security structure and establishing new security formations assigned local security functions, such as that of civilian police forces. The study subjected the security landscape to deconstruction and restructuring theories while at the same time pointed to the absence of a so-called “security sector.” The study further indicates that all security services are divisions of control belonging to different institutions, the most important being the army, Ministry of Interior, and the Ba’ath Party. Based on this view, the main actors in control of security and its institutions are networks engineered by the regime so as to ensure that these institutions serve to strengthen its authority. In this way, the regime relies on specific Alawite families that compete amongst themselves to show their loyalty and maximize their private interests. This structure makes it a strategic matter to break up these security networks while simultaneously creating a cohesive security sector based on the necessity of functional and structural change to the security services.
Yezid Sayigh’s Carnegie Center studies, which monitor and analyze the dynamics of security reform in Arab Spring nations, constitute an essential perspective that this study relies on to extract the most significant obstacles and issues that resist reform processes. His most important studies include: Crumbling States: Security Sector Reform in Libya and Yemen and Dilemmas of Reform: Policing in Arab Transitions. In these studies, Sayigh deconstructed the security reform processes in these countries, which he saw as faltering for several reasons. Perhaps the most prominent factors he identified were the legacies of dictatorial and factional regimes and the politicization of transition processes. Moreover, he recognized the significance of these governments’ focus on terrorism and their unwillingness to take on any other serious security agenda or consider the political economy dilemmas of this process, particularly with regards to costs.
The Emergency Law enacted in 1962 and the declaration of a State of Emergency on 8 March 1963, along with subsequent constitutional amendments introduced under Hafez al-Assad in 1973 allowed the security services to exceed the powers granted to them by the laws and decrees under which they were created. They thus became a means to impose repression, commit acts of torture, restrict freedoms, and suppress public opinion, and moreover inflict heavy setbacks on Syrian society. As a concept, “security” means constant research and investigation for the sake of stability and civil cohesion. Under Hafez al-Assad, however, this principle was completely ignored and replaced by a conception of the security services as the private security of the ruling authority, whereby security agencies and other military and civilian sectors were either subjected to its control or created from scratch in order to control domestic interactions on all levels and forcibly exclude them from effective participation in the public sphere.
A survey of security work and conduct during the rule of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad reveals that the philosophy of security activity involved a binary of: loyalty to the regime and private interests, which constituted the real guarantee that they would remain the principal actor in all domestic interactions and an absolute bulwark of the ruling regime.
The main features of this philosophy are as follows:
1.Absolute Powers and the Link Between Community Activity and Security Trends:
The security services have received complete independence and wide-ranging powers in all aspects of political, economic, service, and social life as well as have adopted several methods of intervention. Perhaps the most important method is devotion to the principle of so-called “Approvals and Security Studies.” The essence of this principle is that it gives the security services the right to “object” to all community practices and demands, which results in intrusion into the simplest aspects of everyday life, from obtaining a street vendor’s license, to registering real-estate and inheritance information, to holding membership to parliament, to promoting army officers, forming cabinets, or even appointing judges. Just getting a public sector job, no matter how small or large, is contingent upon security research results that are determined to be positive towards the regime’s political position.
2.Competing for Loyalty and Inter-Agency Hostility
In asserting his control over the security services, Hafez al-Assad relied on the strategy of generating hostility and creating an atmosphere of competitiveness between the different security agencies and their senior officials. Performance indicators were linked to standards of absolute loyalty and obedience. In order to create a special interest sphere for security officials, they were given access to all levers of the state, which provided them with obscene wealth. At the same time, an entire file was prepared for each and every “corrupt individual and transgressor,” which facilitated the process of seamlessly terminating them if their ambitions grew too large. As for the era of Bashar al-Assad, he went about sowing conflict and mutual competition within his areas of influence and control. Control over border passages was distributed so that each one was subordinate to a specific security agency that rules and controls it and its revenue. Accordingly, boarder passages with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are each respectively subordinate to the General Intelligence Directorate, Air Force Intelligence Directorate, Military Security, and Political Security.
3.Compounded Fear of the Security Forces:
Over time, the condition of fearing security, embodied by the culture of fear propagated by the security services themselves, grew by leaps and bounds, as did weariness about surveillance within institutions. This transpired as a contradictory sectarian structure was enshrined within the decision-making centers of each government branch. Moreover, this pervasive fear spread as the culture of “reporting” deepened in society and within the security establishment itself – as making mistakes, whatever they may be, was constantly feared. Within the community, restrictions proliferated that hampered people’s activities, keeping them bound and fearful of taking any collective or individual action. As for internal fear, it comes from signs of negligent performance of either security tasks or any action in which loyalty and belonging to the ideology and doctrine of the “nation’s leader” is minimized.
4.Duties Related to the Ruling Regime’s Security
Totalitarian and autocratic states impose major duties and burdens on the security services, which bring them into alliance with the ruling regime. These duties connect their fates with the survival of the regime, putting the regime’s security ahead of its internal security issues on different social, political, safety, and economic levels. This has increased the number of abuses committed by security services, inflated their roles in carrying out repression, and deepened their connection to systematic legal and human rights violations. Over the past few decades, a certain security doctrine has been propagated that justifies the transformation of the state’s security functions into a goal in and of itself that is separate from the rest of the roles and functions of the state. The allocations for essential state functions, such as education and health services, have in many cases been reduced so as to provide greater resources for security, which maintains its survival at the helm. In this way, it ignores the foundations for building security services, which should be preserving the security, peace, and the stability of the nation and its citizens.
5.Restricting Political Activity
Throughout Assad’s rule, the security strategy has aimed to promulgate the philosophy of separating society from politics, both in word and deed, rendering it the exclusive domain of the ruling family and its supporters while denying and marginalizing the middle class and subjecting its intellectuals and innovators to strict surveillance. This approach has effectively linked the middle class to several organizational structures that fall under the umbrella of the Ba’ath Party, thus making it interact with, and become influenced by, only a small partisan circle. Those who fall outside of this circle, are numerous and unsuccessful because of their lack of access to state tools and mechanisms, not to mention their direct targeting at the behest of security institutions.
The security services strove to reduce politics to the figure of Hafez al-Assad in theory, practice, and approach, while also working on disseminating “his values and achievements” among all society’s classes and institutions. This focus bordered on deification, which resulted in an absence of true political representation, instead replacing it with another deceptive and rigid politics based on authoritarian and self-interested balancing acts and calculations.
6.Exhausting and Overwhelming Bureaucratic Structures
The regime has relied on a policy of controlling the capital city and the rest of Syria’s provinces according to the principle of overwhelming their administrative, service, and social structures with a massive number of branches, each with different overlapping and contradictory authorities and multiple functions. This has generally left citizens to come up with their own living solutions within the margins opened up by “red lines,” “national security,” and “national unity” cultures that have left them susceptible to exhaustion if they stray outside of them. It may reach the point that citizens continue to turn to the security services over a long period of time without ever getting their problems attended to, simply because mutual coordination between these services has been eliminated without any legislative or legal action. Furthermore, most branches dispatch several agents to follow and monitor the work of other official security services. This lays the foundation for contradictory policies, favoritism, and deepens the culture of reporting, which aims to either let a certain agent carry out other agents’ work or to coordinate with them to ignore “offenses committed” for their own collective benefit.
As a general outcome, the philosophy of security work in Syria is based on enshrining a group of security rules, customs, and standards that completely bind Syrian society, render it immobile, and push it to deduce the limits of what is permissible and forbidden when it is not exposed to regime security. This process has always involved intervention from security and defense institutions to manage political and government affairs until they literally become the source for laws that govern society. This hampers the developmental or reformative action that restructures the authoritative system of action and links its functions to serving citizens and their advancement. The figure on the left clarifies the levels of security work and shows the role each plays within this philosophy.
The security and intelligence services are comprised of four general directorates that are supervised by the National Security Bureau (NSB). The main headquarters for all of the services is located in the capital and includes four central branches. Falling under this directorate are branches located in every province that contain offices with specializations corresponding to those of the central branches. In other words, the branch is a microcosm of the general administration. The figure below clarifies the security services’ general structure.
This is the office that took the place of its former counterpart by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 36 in 2012 shortly after the bombing of “the Crisis Cell operation room in the National Security building” in 2012 which was responsible for the security agency’s plan to counter the uprising and protest movement. The NSB was assigned the task of “drafting security policies in Syria” and presided over by the former director of the Directorate of Intelligence Major General Ali Mamlouk.
The Regional Command of the NSB was previously presided over by Mohammed Saeed Bakheitan, who is considered one of the members of the old guard that kept their leadership seats in the Ba’ath Party’s 10th Regional Congress alongside Farouk al-Sharaa, General Hasan Turkumani, and Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar. The former NSB had been subordinate to the regional command of the Ba’ath Party, convened weekly, and decided on a number of important issues pertaining to the country’s security. After the 2012 Presidential Decree, the NSB was made directly subordinate to the President’s Office and, under Mamlouk’s leadership, it shifted from being responsible for coordinating the security services and submitting general periodic reports and summaries to being more focused on leadership and guidance.
The General Intelligence Directorate (GIC) was previously named “State Security” and established by Decree no. 14 in 1969 after Hafez al-Assad assumed power. The directorate is directly subordinate to the president under the name “Unit 1114” without going through any state body or ministry except when coordinating with the NSB. The GIC encompasses 12 central branches in addition to active sub-branches in each province. Furthermore, the directorate includes the Higher Institute for Security Sciences, which was established in 2007 so that state representatives and diplomatic missions undergo intensive security trainings. The GIC is notable by its large number of civilian contractors and its officers, who are assigned by the Ministries of Defense and Interior.
According to the law that established the GIC, it is a civilian department even though all active military personnel are commissioned by the Ministries of Defense and Interior and hence report to them financially and organizationally. As for other civilian members of GIC, they are subject to the State’s uniform workers code. Accordingly, military officers overwhelmingly dominate positions of power, leadership, and agenda-setting posts, while civilians carry out administrative work in branches under the authority of military personnel. The percentage of Alawites among managers and heads of departments is approximately 70%, whereas the remainder belong to other sects. Recruits in the Syrian Army are selected to go to the directorate and tasked with guarding and protecting administrative workers.
Structure of the General Intelligence Directorate
The Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense administratively, financially, and in terms of obtaining armaments. However, the Minister does not have any authority over it. Conversely, the MID is involved with appointing the Minister of Defense, his deputies, chiefs of staff, and dictates the transfer of army officers and personnel. Meanwhile, the MID’s chief is appointed by the president. Upon its establishment, the MID was made responsible for military units, borders, as well as the security of officers, personnel, and military installations. The Chief of the MID is currently Mohammad Mahla, who was appointed in 2015 following his predecessor Rafiq Shahadah’s tenure.
The MID, which is considered to be the Syrian Army and Armed Forces’ security division in society, goes by the motto “safeguarding the principles and values of the establishment,” which it uses as a pretext to instill an ethos that “Assad’s army is sacred.” At the same time, this approach is used to justify its role as an overseer and partner of other security services in their efforts to police local activity via determinants that bolster the regime’s authority. The directorate’s officers – the majority of which herald from a variety of different military units – are tasked with monitoring the behaviors of military personnel based on standards of loyalty and adherence to the regime’s command. The MID also constantly investigates any potential reform initiatives that may be carried out by commissioned or non-commissioned officer ranks, volunteers, and conscripts.
Structure of the Military Intelligence Directorate
First: Central Branches operating in Damascus:
Second: Provincial Branches: These branches are spread throughout each province and, depending on the need, may have sub-departments, divisions and units in each administrative district of the province. Each branch is assigned a number.
A noteworthy and important observation in the MID is that approximately 80% of commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, and personnel are Alawites, and the majority of them are commissioned by army units to MID with the exception of some conscripts who are assigned duties such as guards, gatekeepers, and raiding targeted sites. The MID is also in charge of the military intelligence school, which trains MID volunteers and personnel.
The Air Force Intelligence Directorate (AFID) was established during the early days when Hafez al-Assad took office and remains the regime’s most loyal state body. It is famous for possessing the strongest manpower and best technical skills of all of the security directorates. AFID contains the lowest percentage of non-Alawite officers compared to other directorates. While AFID is theoretically subordinate to the Ministry of Defense in terms of its administration, finances, and armaments acquisition, the Minister of Defense does not have any authority over it. On the contrary, AFID, along with the MID, oversees the Minister’s work and has an important role in his appointment. Major General Mohammed al-Khuli has remained AFID’s head for a long period of time after Hafez al-Assad relied on him during security operations against his opponents after seizing power. This directorate’s main responsibility is to protect the Syrian Air Force, the president’s airplane, and to provide security when he is outside of the country.
Structure of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate
AFID contains six subordinate branches in Damascus, its own investigations branch, and six branches in the provinces :
These branches each have corresponding departments spreading throughout provinces that do not house a main headquarters. They also have other departments and sub-units in other regions and administrative districts and villages according to the need.
While the Political Security Directorate (PSD) financially and administratively falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, but it does not report to it in terms of its professional performance. Furthermore, PSD has a supervisory authority over the Minister of Interior, his officers and staff including all police units. In other words, it is practically independent in that it can communicate directly with the President. Indeed, this directorate is the most pervasive in society, interacts the most with civilians, is most widespread among citizens, and spans the entire country and all segments of society. Moreover, the directorate carries out copious exchanges with civilians, demanding work and construction permits approved by PSD, which has a vast reservoir of the regime’s information about citizens. This drives PSD officers and personnel to exploit their influence, accept bribes, and impose “tribute” on citizens on a massive scale. PSD officers and personnel are chosen by the Ministry of Interior, with the exception of the PSD head, who is appointed by a Presidential Decree. Major Generals Adnan Badr Hassan, Ghazi Kanaan, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun are among the most prominent of PSD’s former chiefs. Currently, the Druze Major General Nazih Hassoun, who was appointed following the tenure of his predecessor Rustum Ghazali, serves as PSD president.
It has become customary for the PSD president to come from the security or military services’ leadership. Unlike its counterparts, the directorate is more of an administrative apparatus than a fieldwork civilian one in that it, to a large extent, serves an administrative intelligence role. Its responsibilities are entirely domestic in that it does not carry out any activities abroad like other directorates (with the exception of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Branch, which monitors Arabs and foreigners within the country). The directorate’s provincial branches are named after the provinces themselves (for example, the Political Security Branch of the Damascus Suburbs) instead of being assigned a three-digit number.
Structure of the Political Security Directorate
The directorate is made up of a number of branches in Damascus as well as the following branches located in the rest of the provinces:
It is worth mentioning that most of those who belong to the PSD are graduates of police academies and colleges and interact directly with citizens to conduct special reports and studies. The percentage of Alawites in the PSD and its branches is less than their percentage in other directorates according to estimates by PSD defectors.
The ruling regime has assigned the task of security strategies oversight to certain military units that profess absolute loyalty to the regime primarily as a result of special arrangements followed in the recruitment of its human resources by relying mostly on Alawites, as well as the nature of tasks assigned to them including inter-agency and intra-agency oversight. The regime also grants these units unrestricted powers to firmly put in check aspects relating to criminal and societal security that are not within the jurisdiction of the traditional official police force. One can assess the regime’s security policy by closely analyzing these networks that were mastered and attached directly to the regime. The most important units include:
First: Republican Guard
The Syrian Republican Guard Forces (RG) are considered the most prominent of the Syrian Army’s elite divisions as well as its most heavily armed. Their main task is to protect the capital from any internal or external threats. Thus, they are the only military unit allowed to enter Damascus.
Confirmed information on the RG is scarce, however some reports indicate that they are distinguished by their strong armaments. Furthermore, they are composed of nearly 10,000 soldiers spread throughout several different brigades and its officers are given a portion of Syrian oil revenues to maintain their loyalty. The establishment of the RG dates back to the end of the 1970s after armed clashes broke out in Hama and Aleppo between Hafez al-Assad’s regime and his Muslim Brotherhood opponents.
The RG maintain a high degree of Bashar al-Assad’s confidence, as he has pursued the same approach as his father in terms of appointing leadership positions of its brigades and regiments to members of specific Alawite families in Syria. For instance, at present, Major General Bassam al-Hassan heads the RG, which are tasked primarily with protecting Damascus City and preventing any local or foreign forces opposed to the regime from evolving within the city. The RG also dictates security rules and relationship schemes that govern inter-branch engagements as well as the relationship between citizens and the regime on the other hand. It is also considered to be the official state body responsible for the coordination of military and militia activities in Syria after the outbreak of the uprising, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Shiite Iraqi militias.
As the RG’s leadership is considered among the most prominent leaders nationally, its forces has intervened and thwarted serious threats and societal security risks including the Kurdish Uprising in 2004, the Alawite-Ismaili clashes in 2005, as well as Druze-Bedouin conflict in 2001. The RG forces are organized with several regiments and brigades operating independently but report administratively to the leadership of the RG. Its units and divisions are known with names and numbers ranging from 101-106. The most prominent include the following:
Perhaps the most important reasons behind the strength and cohesive nature of the RG that binds its forces together (which some security experts see as capable of carrying out a bloodless coup) are the following:
Second: The 4th Armored Division
This a division of the Syrian Army subordinate to the First Corps. It receives special training and support to make it the regime’s strategic safeguard. It was founded during the rule of Hafez al-Assad when his brother Rifaat, who led the “Defense Companies” responsible for the Hama massacres in 1982, established it. The Defense Companies were later integrated and merged into the Division after Rifaat was “exiled” in 1984.
According to French media sources, the 4th Armored Division consists of 15,000 fighters, the vast majority of which are Alawite. Moreover, the division is considered to be among the top units of the Syrian Army in terms of training and artillery, possessing the most up-to-date heavy weaponry, such as Russian T-72 Tanks.
The Division is made up of several brigades and regiments with headquarters at the main gateways of Damascus. The 555th Paratrooper Regiment led by Brigadier General Jamal Yunes, the 154th Regiment led by Brigadier General Jawdat Ibrahim Safi, the 40th Armored Brigade, and the 138th Infantry Brigade are all stationed in Muadamiyat. Zabadani, on the other hand, is home to the following battalions: military police, chemistry, engineering, monitoring, and training camp. Meanwhile, the 41st Armored Brigade is stationed in Yaafour and the 42nd Brigade is located in al-Sabboura. It should be noted here that all leaders of these brigades and regiments are Alawite. The 4th Armored Division’s forces’ most important responsibilities and security functions include:
To complete this summary, it should be noted that the 4th Armored Division is the only power whose responsibilities are limited to areas outside of Damascus. Its headquarters is located in as-Sabboura and it is not permitted to enter the capital, which stems from the concept of military sectors organizational structure with assigned responsibilities. Currently, Brigadier General Maher al-Assad leads the division and most of its officers are connected in some way to the RG, Ministry of Defense, Officers’ Affairs Bureau, and the Officers Branch.
Third: Tiger Forces (cross-military and security unit forces):
The “Tiger Forces” is a cross-agency special unit that intersects through military and security agencies. It is structured with three main elements: security and military core, volunteer and recruited Alawite manpower, and a customized administrative framework (Ministry of Defense) with an unrestricted authority to freely operate. This force has a wide margin of action and was formed to carry out a number of military and security duties, which include:
The Tiger Forces were formed as an alliance between AFID, the army, and the 4th Armored Division in 2013. They receive clear social support from most Alawites, funding from Rami Makhlouf’s Bustan Association, and coverage from state media outlets. Led by Brigadier General Suheil Al Hassan, the Tiger Forces enjoy a wide range of authorities and powers, including the ability to mobilize all state institutions – including civilian and military airports – to carry out their duties. Tiger forces have intervened in most areas of military conflict, including the Damascus Suburbs, Hama, Idlib, Homs, or the Latakia suburbs.
These are a group of official state agencies already existing or recently formed for the purpose of blocking and curtailing the revolutionary movement’s work and supporting central agencies with updated and accurate information. The presence of these agencies is indicative of the transformation and deployment of executive branch institutions to serve the interests of the regime and its security agencies of infiltrating and weakening revolutionary forces and push it to change coarse away from its intended objectives. Some of these agencies and bodies include:
This directorate was formed in early 2011 after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. It is closer to being a special task force comprised of: Landline and Cellular Communications Surveillance Branch (known as Branch 225 of the MID), Signals Branch 211, Technical Branch from the GID, and other technical branches in other directorates, in addition to al-Ghadeer Project that is under Iranian Management. All wiretapping and jamming projects stationed in different directorates were also merged into this directorate.
Its primary mission is to surveil all landline and cellular communications, internet, and television programs concerning topics on the revolutionary movement. The directorate also furnishes other security agencies with information collected from monitored communications, grants licenses for importing communication devices, and resolves conflicts between different directorates. It is also clearly noted that most recruits to this newly formed directorate are Alawite.
Since the start of the uprising, all personnel and employees in the Ministry of Interior have been enlisted as informants for the PID. Furthermore, the ministry was tasked with the responsibility of helping and aiding some security branches by making arrests, conducting raids, and breaking up sit-ins by force of arms.
These are divisions, sections, and branches of the Ba’ath Party spread throughout Syria and tasked with collecting security-related information and reports and providing it to the security directorates and the NSB. The regulated deployment of Ba’ath Party leaders and members in society helps the regime control all social activities and trends, particularly by granting the party complete powers of oversight, coordination, and surveillance over its auxiliary grassroots organizations, such as the Revolutionary Youth Union, the Students Union, the Workers’ Unions, and the like.
In every military unit, from the corps, directorates, and divisions, to the smallest military unit, there is a security services officer who is stationed there to secretly surveil everything that occurs within his unit among his officer colleagues, his superiors, subordinates, and even their families and civilian acquaintances. The deployed officers submits reports pertaining to the simplest matters of everyday affairs to the MID or the AFID so that they, in turn, can investigate the issue further. Most of the time, the MID and AFID carry out their measures without verifying the credibility of the information in such reports.
After the spark of the Syrian uprising, the Syrian regime, with direction from Iran and coordination with the RG, resorted to forming so-called National Defense Forces or People’s Committees, which transformed during the crisis from military bodies to auxiliary security institutions with their own special prisons and investigation commissions. These groups are essentially an army of mercenaries, crime lords, and unemployed citizens who have been hired to fight alongside the army and the security services. These individuals enrolled in the National Defense / People’s Committees not out of belief or faith, but to earn an illegal livelihood by carrying out theft, looting, blackmailing, and kidnapping. In addition to their work as informants for the army and security services, most of the time the information they provide is frivolous and sectarian, the goal of which is to prove their loyalty to Assad. These reports cannot be contested by other agencies and are rather taken as is and used as bases for random arrests and even murders.
Based on what has been previously mentioned, it is noticed that all of the Syrian state’s facilities and institutions during Assad’s rule are essentially at the disposal and control of the security services directorates that serve the President’s interests, other individual interests, or both at the same time.
The abuses and violations committed by Syrian security agencies have mounted on all levels: socially, economically and politically to the extent it has become a systematic and a well-known culture and practice expected by all security officers and agencies. These abuses can be categorized on five levels, all of which create a climate of suppression and corruption in society. These levels are listed below:
Security work has been bound by the objective of tracking “direct violations” and monitoring social and economic functions according to fluid standards not regulated by any specific legal foundation. Furthermore, upon examining duties and performance outcomes of security agencies it becomes clear there is no indication of any strategic plan on all levels:
Several “laws” have been coached into society’s public awareness that have been derived from the security services’ collective practice and culture, from its detainment procedures, to its investigations and accompanying inhumane methods used to extract confessions, and to its abuses of detainees. These practices were legalized and normalized, particularly after the power structure was consolidated during the events of the 1980s through practices that were engaged in by individuals and adopted by the security establishment as a whole. The most significant elements of this culture include:
Security agencies’ heads and commissioned officers are appointed on a sectarian and confessional basis so as to preserve power within those groups. For example, the majority of personnel and officers in AFID are Alawite, and the majority of officers and key personnel in critical departments and divisions of other security directorates are Alawites. On a secondary level, other minorities are also disproportionately appointed to key influential positions. Loyalty, rather than competence, remains the main basis for appointments. There are nonetheless sensitive positions within the security services that must remain dominated by Alawites, such as Branch 251, which is the internal branch in the GID. This also goes for the MID’s Branch 293 and the SID’s Investigation Branch. In fact, it has been impossible for any non-Alawite to head any of these branches.
The institutionalized practices of non-coordination across agencies resulted in officers and agents abusing their powers by exploiting private and public state institutions, facilities and resources. This lead to the incapacity of societal oversight, the restriction of any public engagement, and the forced nonparticipation of citizens. On the other hand, the decentralized nature of security related decision making processes such as investigating and detaining, makes citizens liable for questioning on the same matter at multiple security branches, effectively crippling any societal movement with a prevailing security culture.
The constant interference of security agencies in the work of the police force, anti-drug units, and all other institutions including civilian and service providing bureaus as well as the judiciary has contributed to the wide spread phenomenon of “blatant encroachment” by these agencies on the power and authority of both governmental and private institutions for personal interests not related to intelligence work. This has also contributed to the propagation of practices that result in personal gains and material benefits while turning a blind eye to administrative, professional, and even penal crimes. At the same time, this conduct has deepened the culture of favoritism, malicious informant reporting, and led security personnel to exploit their authority that is sanctioned by the regime, namely to blackmail businessmen, manufacturers, and investors. All of these actions stem from a lack of an oversight authority over security personnel and restricting any disciplinary actions to internal procedures dependent on the discretion of their superior officers. It should also be noted that procurement contracts for the purchase of technical equipment needed by security agencies is done secretly without government supervision through deals between officers and security agents with domestic or foreign entities. This makes corruption and embezzlement ever present and unavoidable, while cases of security information leaks for the purpose of blackmail and direct material benefit have increased due to lack of respect for confidentiality within security service departments.
Over the past few decades, the Syrian security services have been the “big stick” in the hand of the regime and have been used, from the beginning, to deepen its authority, dominate the country, and eliminate its opponents. They have earned the terrifying reputation as the first guarantors of government stability. As a result of the role they have played in strengthening and protecting the President rule, they have gone on to significantly expand their powers by interfering in all aspects of social, economic, political, and religious life. This also has spread corruption, favoritism, and illegitimate wealth accumulation throughout the security services’ different detachments, turning them into a distinguished social class apart from the rest of society. Consequently, what makes the security services deficient is their prevailing work philosophy and security doctrine, which serves the needs of the ruler more than those of the ruled.
There are two main sources of the security service’s failings and aberrations that can be identified. The first source lies in their complex and deeply invasive structure, which has helped curb the societal activities and limited its ability to advance and develop. The second source pertains to their fluid and unrestricted functioning mechanisms, except when it pertains to the duty of protecting and preserving the regime stability.
Other reasons behind the deviation of the security agencies in Syria from fulfilling their objectives, includes the following:
These continual failures and defects have swelled discontent and intensified popular resentment among Syrians towards security agencies and their overarching unrestricted authority over civilian life in the past few decades. This has rendered the continuation of the security services’ past structure and function impossible in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising and the policies of repression and corruption that have followed along with it. This is particularly the case ever since the security services began enlisting the Shabiha, ex-criminals, and Alawite youth to confront popular protests. In the face of this level of corruption combined with the transformations witnessed in Syria’s decaying infrastructure, the collective conviction that there is no need for security services in the future has deepened.
In spite of the horizontal deployment of the military and security services on the local structural levels, as well as their violent modes of operation, the Syrian uprising has revealed a number of facts that indicate signs of failure in the agencies’ professional conduct according to its own said functions. These indicators can be itemized in the following points:
The “general strategy” adhered to by security networks and agencies in dealing with the uprising relied on pushing society towards their sphere of “control and influence.” From this, several systematic policies have emerged to achieve this end without regard to losses of human life, tradition, economic power, and state institutions. The figure below illustrates the security agencies’ geographical spread at the start of the uprising.
Security agencies have also exaggerated their ability to “achieve success” by draining and exploiting other state institutions to achieve their own ends. This has thrown other state agencies into the heat of conflict with the uprising. Military and security options have only prevailed from the perspective of the political, media, and administrative agencies that justify and legitimize their actions.
No serious study only develops visions and strategies for improving the performance of security agencies without first clearly providing answers to the primary question at hand with regards to the subject of reform and development. Does the Syrian state possess a security sector or does it merely have a group of agencies and networks that work in the regime’s favor?
The notion of a security sector/system refers to a system that encompasses all of the state’s institutions and other relevant bodies, and that undertake the role of ensuring the security of the state and its citizens. The most important of these bodies include:
Based on this definition, the Syrian state does not possess a security sector to be reformed. The requirement of a viable, effective, and beneficial security sector is a key demand during any transition process to a safe and stable state. If scrutinized closely, we will discover that security work in Syria falls into two categories:
First: Control and policing divisions: The MID and AFID are divisions of the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces, the GID is a division administered jointly by the NSB and the Ba’ath Party, whereas the PSD is a division of the Ministry of Interior.
Second: Regime Military-Security Networks: This particularly relates to the RG and 4th Armored Division, which shoulder the burden of engineering security operations, regulating their foundations and relationships, ensuring the regime’s security, and carrying out all procedures and operations within society when any security threats arise.
Accordingly, the official security agencies, as well as the legal system regulating their operation– whether in terms of legitimizing or legalizing certain societal security responsibilities – are the target of the reform (or deconstruction) process. This will occur in line with clear social considerations and standards and on the basis of building a truly cohesive security sector.
Despite the particularity of every country undergoing transition, the localized characteristics shared between Arab countries that have experienced widespread social unrest are numerous. At the top of this list is the concept of security and its associated institutions and formations. Demands for reforming and building a new security sector consistent with a dynamic community is a fundamental instigator behind the spread of demonstrations. In this context, the outcomes of these countries’ reform processes can be derived as an objective dimension, the details and observations of which should function as lessons in reforming Syria’s own security services. The process of reforming the security sector in Arab countries still faces a number of complex issues, which Yezid Sayigh, in his study on the dilemmas of reform and policing in Arab transitions,encapsulates in several topics, the most important of which are as follows:()
As a review of the faltering, halfhearted attempts at security sector reform in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen after 2011 shows, their interim governments neither leaned instinctively toward openness nor methodically pursued wide-ranging dialogue with the security sector, political partners and rivals, or civil society. This presents a negative reality in the face of promoters of change and reconstruction of an appropriate security sector capable of dealing with all urgent and unexpected variables, particularly outcomes posed by the binary of extremism and confrontational policy choices.
The most important lessons gleaned from the experiences of Arab Spring countries that should not be neglected during Syria’s own reform and what comes before it can be condensed, in spite of the density of the information on them, into the ten following lessons:
Deep-rooted challenges that hinder security sector reforms on multiple levels stem from a deteriorating state of affairs of a “failed state,” caused by two factors:
The first is the hijacking of security agencies by the regime forcing it to adapt and implement its security and military policies as dictated by the security/military networks detailed above. Additionally, the regime intentionally left a vacuum in the societal functions of the state as a result of prioritizing military and political dimensions by most relevant actors that did not take any action to prevent societal divisions and polarization, and the politicization of public services for the benefit of the regime even in the basic affairs of daily life.
The second factor relates to the monopolization of power by religious, social, and economic groups that are most loyal to the regime and their domination in key decision-making posts within state institutions while completely eliminating and crushing other opponents and depriving them of government services. This naturally reinforces pragmatist perspectives that effective reform policies should be comprehensive and not enacted individually since the process of rebuilding the state and a constructing a democratic governance system are essential requisites for the rehabilitation of security sectors and subjecting them to objective government oversight.
There is no doubt that all of these challenges that continue to impose itself on the scene during the years of conflict will become an exhausting factor in any reform procedures and processes. This demands unity of national perspectives and positions with regards to the new national security strategy. Of these challenges we can highlight the following:
It is worth reaffirming the assumptions of this study here, as it is not possible to discuss the restructuring of security agencies in Syria without first discussing the form that the Syrian state will take after the war. There is more than one scenario concerning this question: a centralized state, an administrative decentralization, or a federal or confederate system. What has been outlined is consistent with both scenarios: administrative decentralization or a central state.
Based on what has been mentioned above with regards to the security agencies’ serious flaws and deviances both structurally and functionally, calls to fully dissolve and do away with the security services entirely have become more frequent. This is because of a growing conviction among some segments of society that there is no need for these apparatuses any more. This position may seem reasonable as an immediate reaction by many to the grossly abusive practices and attitudes of security agencies witnessed by Syrians, as well as its systematic chronic failures to protect citizens and preserve humanitarian values. The agencies have proven to only work on bolstering its absolute loyalty to the regime and protecting its authority tirelessly by repressing all activities that undermine the regime’s continued rule. This can be viewed from the perspective of the close link and mutual interest shared by the regime and security agencies, such that the absence of either one leads to a loss of interests that are deemed by security agencies as “legitimate and ongoing”.
In spite of the objective justifications for these calls, security is an absolute necessity and of utmost importance in the context of any transition process, particularly in Syria and its position as a sensitive regional and international counterbalance. Generally speaking, the most significant function of the state is that of providing security in order to attain social stability, shielding the country from security breaches that threaten its social cohesion, and protecting the sovereignty of the state. Safety and security in any country is the foundation of sustainable development and without it the country will face tremendous challenges especially in post-conflict phases when society is exhausted and distracted while simultaneously undergoing reconstruction and rebuilding processes. The absence of real and sustainable development puts a stop to reform processes and thus an absence of social, economic, and political stability.
The proposal to dismantle security agencies and networks and cease all its operations without rebuilding a national alternative with a coherent structure and functions that are closely related to its nature must be ruled out, particularly during the next phase of new Syria that has witnessed many cross-border projects that attempted to deeply root itself within Syrian society. Therefore, the theory of dismantling the existing security agencies will lead to the complete collapse of the state. Hence, the demand most consistent with the “rejection of its practices and approach / necessity of security” binary appears to be the imperative of restructuring security institutions in the next phase so that they maintain a reasonable matching standard of operation to that of other advanced countries based on solid foundations of serving the nation and its citizenry.
The term “restructuring” is defined as making the necessary correction to the administrative, technical, economic, and financial structures and systems of a given agency in such a manner that allows it to remain in operation achieve its appropriate benefits. The main goal of restructuring an institution is to increase its efficiency and benefits that correspond with its new objectives and the requirements of the next phase. In this context, the process of restructuring security agencies involves rebuilding them in a manner consistent with the public’s interest to be protected from threats to their security and stability, and safeguarding the free operation and growth of civic activities and institutions. Thus, the restructuring process must include the following:
Any country’s national security derives its theoretical and practical frameworks from two main principles that represent the core of the state’s existence. The first is sovereignty, which is defined as the country’s control of full jurisdiction over its territory independent of any other authority, as long as this jurisdiction is not restricted by international laws. National security functional domain is considered a direct outcome of its sovereignty in that it is an idea based on the state’s legal authority to defend itself and protect its security by taking all necessary measures. The second principle relates to the state’s essential and vital interests, which refers to a very fluid concept that at its core grants the state higher privileges and inherent authorities to fulfill its interests over all other individuals and groups, therefore, state security represents the prime domain of its interests. National security may at times become an obsession that is then constructed within the core political doctrine of the state, thus influencing its approach and practice by dealing with security as a mean and end goal at the same time. This is especially observed when the state adopts a terminology of conspiracy theories or obsession with threats and enemies in its domestic and foreign strategies, which is the justification used by police states. The orientation of a police state is reflected in many practices and norms, the most prominent of which is its suspicion and lack of confidence in the intentions of others and violent conduct domestically and abroad. In the context of preserving national security, the state further justifies actions on many fronts and often creates situations that distract from internal chronic crises or deficiencies within itself thus justifying intrusions into private spheres, purchasing new arms and weaponry and attempting to militarize society. The most dangerous and predominant goal of these types of regimes is that of violently curbing freedoms and reducing authority to an individual to justify totalitarianism.
Establishing the national pact, that determines the dimensions and scope of the mutual relationship between the security agency and society and clarifies its mandate, rights, and responsibilities, is a necessary prerequisite for initiating the reform process. To this end, this study recommends a number of fundamentals that this social pact should incorporate:
The goal of restructuring the Syrian security agencies in the future can be summed up in the protection of the state and citizens or “national security”, rather than exclusively protecting certain individuals and groups at the expense of national security. Accordingly, the specific objectives of restructuring security agencies can be outlined as follows:
First: Ensuring the safety and security of the country and its citizens through a series of measures and policies that reinforce objective conditions for achieving stability. Among these measures are the following:
Second: Building and developing the professional capacities for security sector personnel to elevate the standards of operation of the security sector consistent with the requirements posed by the transitional period through the following steps:
Third: Ensuring the synchronization and collaboration between the justice and security sectors: This is one of the most important factors for the success and advancement of the security sector that will curb its unlawful and disenfranchising powers, and limit its intrusive and authoritarian aggression over societal policies, provided that justice sector institutions also undergo rigorous reform processes that isolate it from the regime and its networks. The most important measures in this regard are as follows:
Fourth: Confronting all potential security risks and threats in Syria by adopting a series of counter-measures and policies, the most important of which include:
The diagram to the right illustrates the stages and necessary measures for the restructuring process that are based on principles of change and a seamless coherent transition, in fear of unexpected results of sudden changes on the integrity of the country. It also ensures that security agencies are restructured within the national framework and complementing other state institutions. These processes shall reflect a series of political agreements representing the true will for change and political transition without any controlling or authoritarian ambitions.
Phase I: Issuing a set of legislation and decrees that are necessary for the restructuring process to address the following points:
Phase II: Launching systematic reforms to internal structure to include the following steps:
Phase III: Constructing the remaining components of the security sector and establishing complementing working conditions between the security and civil sectors:
An Overall Vision for the “National Public Security Agency”
From what was mentioned above, after the restructuring of the security agencies, two new security apparatuses will be created:
The limits of cooperation between these two agencies is based on the principle of “information sharing” according to the mandate for each agency while collaborating to protect the state domestically and abroad, and protecting its sovereignty.
National Public Security Agency
This agency is concerned with safeguarding the country’s domestic security, protecting state institutions, preventing security breaches and information leaks, uncovering espionage, coordinating with the state institutions such as education, media, and economic institutions in service of the national interest, and preserving the unity and integrity of the nation and society. It comprises two agencies. The first is the Domestic Intelligence Agency, and the second is the Foreign Intelligence Agency. This is clarified in the figure below:
First: Domestic Intelligence Agency (DIA)
The Domestic Intelligence Agency (DIA) encompasses intelligence and operational functions. Its intelligence activity centers around the following measures:
The DIA’s operational activities focus on information gathering and source management. One of its most important objectives is preserving the security and secrets of the state, and the political, economic, and security resulting ramifications. Additionally, it provides border control services to monitor inward and outward movements, safeguards all national political activities whether of the authority or other local political entities, uncovers and prevents sabotage activity, and provides security for important national sites (such as ministries, electricity plants, factories, etc.) and critical military and civilian targets.
Operational activities are assigned according to the following departments:
Second: Foreign Intelligence Agency (FIA)
The Foreign Intelligence Agency (FIA) is tasked with protecting and maintaining state interests abroad, and managing external intelligence stations. It includes the following departments:
Political consensus over the importance of security sector reform both structurally and functionally is a primary basis for the success of the transitional process towards a state with real institutions under the rule of law. Therefore, national dialogue about the paths, mechanisms, and forms of transition away from political polarizations while focusing more on security threats facing the state and its citizens is an essential step. A truly national dialogue works to recognize unique and local conditions that may lead to a total collapse of the state, and explores strategies and mechanisms to avoid becoming a failed state while being fully conscious of the requirements and requisites of regional security, by means of highlighting the goal and priority of solidifying local and regional stability, and reinforcing mutual collaboration and coordination with civilian components or with relevant agencies in neighboring countries.
In order to transition away from a state of “cancerous swelling” by existing security agencies towards a coherent national security sectorthrough a relatively smooth process, it is necessary to take several steps and measures on civilian, military, and security levels that stem from a necessity of interconnectedness and synchronization between the overall reform and transition processes and national trends and constructive societal and political interactions. This realization further facilitates reaching a true political solution, and in this sense the current negotiations track in Geneva -that continues to debate non-essential issues because of the US-Russian talks - does not indicate a commitment to establish a transitional period that ensures real change on political, constitutional and social levels. This is stalling the progress of reform. Serious work by the international community to discuss the core issues at hand -and not avoid or sideline them- will help create a conducive environment with necessary factors for regaining societal and national stability.
There is no doubt that questions regarding security reform (systematically, functionally, and structurally) are among the most important questions awaiting objective responses that take into account the emerging conditions and escalating variables that shook Syria. This process, in and of itself, is complex and will not be fixed – based on Syria’s unique situation – using or borrowing prepackaged reform theories, or models and schemes that ignore and undervalue the nature and importance of national security, on one hand, or theories that overlook the necessities of maintaining cohesion and preventing full collapse and chaos on the other. This requires a professional, national effort that both recognizes the demands and requirements set forth by local, regional, and international security structures and seeks to build a cohesive security sector.
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.
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.
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
Dr. Ammar Kahf commented on the latest developments in Aleppo where over 300,000 residents are now under seige. Dr. Kahf said the regime and its allies have been systematically using hunger nad starvation and beseiging cities as a tool of war. A sustainable solution should be reached through UNSC 2254 without Assad and by establishing order and stability
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.
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.
**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.
**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”.
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”.
**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.
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.
**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.
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.
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.
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.
**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.
The majority of respondents, 98%, also expressed the need for a nationalized regulatory framework while only 2% rejected this idea.
**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
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
**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.
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
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.
Dr. Ammar Talks About Kerry's Role in Reaching a Politial Solution in Syria and De Mistrua's Meeting with Kerry in Geneva