Omran Center for Strategic Studies organized a workshop in partnership with and hosted by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). The workshop discussed international cooperation prospects on institutional reforms necessary to restore stability in Syria. This workshop took place at GCSP on 21-22 September 2017.
The workshop brought together 35 experts and researchers from the US, Russia, Germany, the UK, France, Australia, Switzerland, and Syria. The participants gathered for two days to exchange views on stability in post-war Syria.
The vibrant discussions focused on the place of Syria in the West-Russia global power contest; institutional reforms within the political transition; prospects of cooperation on reconstruction; local governance; de-radicalization and counter-terrorism; and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR).
The workshop is part of the Syria and Global Security project, jointly run by Omran and GCSP. It is an initiative to offer a platform for collective informed discussions on Syria that eventually could build bridges between experts and researchers in order to bring peace and security to Syria, and the region.
Important Note: The Sha’ytat Tribe is internally divided, as some are aligned with Government of Syria forces, while others are aligned with the SDF.
Turkey said last week that its campaign in Idlib was nearly complete, but recent talk over further expansion in Aleppo’s countryside signal that its operations in northern Syria may be far from over.
A map of control in northeast Syria, showing front lines between the opposition, Kurdish forces and the Syrian government. By Omran Center -Nawar Oliver
After establishing a presence in northern Idlib and western Aleppo over the past month, Turkish troops and Turkey-backed rebels are now looking to expand their area of control along the border by moving further east into Aleppo’s countryside, a rebel spokesman told Syria Deeply.
Although Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country’s operation in northeast Syria was nearly complete, Ankara recently dispatched reconnaissance teams to new areas, and some rebels reported being in talks to hand over their positions to Turkish forces, according to a military spokesman for the Syrian opposition faction Nour al-Din al-Zenki.
Ankara began its cross-border operation with the purported aim of enforcing a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which was agreed upon by Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana in September. So far, its troops have deployed only in areas separating the opposition and Kurdish forces. The Turks have not moved into front-line areas between rebels and the Syrian regime.
According to Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq, Turkey is looking to replicate this strategy further east. He told Syria Deeply that Nour al-Din al-Zenki had already agreed to hand over its positions in rural Aleppo to Turkish forces.
He added that although it had not been determined exactly where the Turkish troops would be stationed, Ankara was looking to establish observation posts in the Sheikh Aqil Mountains, located in the al-Bab district, which Turkey liberated from the so-called Islamic State last year.
Ankara has also dispatched reconnaissance teams to Nour al-Din al-Zenki positions in the adjacent districts of al-Tamoura and Anadan, northwest of Aleppo city, but had not yet taken them over, Abdul Razzaq said. The military spokesman also cautioned the agreement could fall through if Aleppo residents objected to the Turkish presence.
It was not immediately clear what Nour al-Din al-Zenki stands to gain from the agreement. “Turkey’s deployment in Idlib is part of the de-escalation zone agreement reached in Astana, and Zenki is a signatory to this deal,” Abdul Razzaq simply said.
When asked about the significance of these positions, Abdul Razzaq said they were a clear indicator of Turkey’s attempts to encircle the Kurdish-held region of Afrin. “If the Turkish army’s priority was ensuring de-escalation, then Ankara should have first deployed on the front lines between the opposition and the regime, instead of on the front lines with Kurdish separationists,” he said. “Everyone knows that Kurdish forces are Ankara’s greatest concern when it comes to its southern borders.”
Speaking to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last month, Erdogan said that although Turkey’s Idlib operation was nearly complete, “the Afrin issue is ahead of us … We can come suddenly at night. We can suddenly hit at night.”
A map showing Turkish positions in Idlib province as well as front lines between Turkish forces and Kurdish groups based in the adjacent Kurdish-held region of Afrin. By Omran Center-(Nawar Oliver)
Turkey’s planned expansion comes after weeks of operations in northern Idlib and western Aleppo that have resulted in the establishment of at least three Turkish posts in areas adjacent to the Kurdish-held region of Afrin.
Omar Khattab, a military spokesman for the Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, said that Turkish deployment in Idlib has been carried out in coordination with the al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which withdrew from areas of Turkish operations.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Syria Deeply last month that HTS agreed to surrender positions to the Turkish army to prevent a costly all-out war with Turkish troops.
Ahrar al-Sham’s military spokesman said he was not authorized to disclose the exact coordinates of these positions, but Ahmad Saoud of the Free Idlib Army’s Division 13 Brigade said Turkey has built a launching-pad base in the Sheikh Barakat Mountain in Dar Simeon.
The position is only a few miles from Kurdish militia forces based in Jendaris and is located roughly 7 miles (12km) from the Turkish borders. A video posted by the activist-run Smart News Agency on October 24 shows Turkish bulldozers and armored vehicles operating in the area.
Turkish troops have also dispatched forces to the village of Salwa, which is near the border of Afrin, according to Abdul Razzaq. The activist-run Thiqa News Agency has posted a video on social media networks showing Turkish armored vehicles moving in the area.
Rebel sources said that Turkish troops have also purportedly deployed in the village of Fadrah near the Sheikh Barakat Mountain.
Turkey’s operations in northern Syria are laying the groundwork for the establishment of a border buffer zone that stretches from the Atmeh border crossing as far east as Jarablus. Following the Euphrates Shield Operation last year, Turkish-backed forces gained control over the Jarablus, Azaz and al-Bab in Aleppo’s countryside. Current expansion in Anadan, Tammoura and Sheikh Aqil will help Turkey connect its positions in Northern Idlib with Euphrates Shield territory in Aleppo’s countryside.
In another indication of Ankara seeking to entrench itself along this stretch of the border, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported last week that Turkey has reportedly trained some 5,632 Syrian volunteers to work as police officers in the area. Some volunteers have already been dispatched to the areas of al-Bab, Azaz and Jarablus, Anadolu said.
Mr. Yaser Tabbara board member of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies. And by Sinan Hatahet answered several important question in regard of Raqqah operation and what is the current condition after U.S. and their ground Allies "PYD" took control of the city from "ISIS". Mr. Yaser talked about the current relationship between the U.S. and "PYD" specially after raising "Ocalan" picture in the city by some "PYD" fighters. Mr. Yaser also talked about the Syrian Regime reaction on "PYD" taking control of the City, and what are the possible scenarios for the Regime in regard of Raqqah
This book is a result of a 10-month long project that included a series of papers, consultations, and workshop on security sector reform. The objective of this book is to clearly identify the relevant cognitive, political, social, and technical conditions for transforming Syria’s security structures given the current situation in Syria. An executable vision in this regard should be driven by common interests of all actors, and must divert the conflict from political competition among the warring parties—local, regional, and international—allowing them to identify compatible conditions for local security in coordination with a centralized security architecture that is also in line with regional balances. The primary research questions of this book were:
1. How compatible is the Syrian political situation with the current security sector? What are the conditions in the proposed political scenarios relating to the nature of the new political system in Syria that will prevent the repetition of previous failed attempts?
2. Do the existing security structures in the various parts of Syria under the control of varied groups have the ability to deal with constantly changing security threats? Are they changeable?
3. What roles and programs are required from the community to engage and participate in the formation and maintenance of a security strategy?
4. What is the potential for security reform in Syria and the nature, level, and goals of the plan to execute such reforms?
This book is organized in three chapters.
The first chapter sets out the main concepts and policies required for a security sector transformation. It includes steps for restructuring the security sector, and disarmament and reintegration programs, while drawing on the experiences of other post-conflict countries. Additionally, it identifies the primary catalysts for security sector transformation, such as a strong civil society and transitional justice programs.
The second chapter evaluates existing security architectures in zones controlled by the opposition, regime, and Democratic Union Party (PYD) “self-administration”. This chapter further assesses the current security structures and their effectiveness and capacity to achieve their declared security goals. It also discusses centralized and decentralized operations and functions of security.
The third chapter deconstructs challenges in transforming the security structures in Syria, in order to ultimately present a practical and achievable proposal. The last part of the chapter puts forward a proposed security vision and action plan based on a set of strategic objectives that ensure a cohesive security sector that can operate effectively and allow communities to participate in their own security operations. It also provides a timeline with three phases of reform measures— the pre-transition or “peacebuilding phase”, the transition phase, and the stability phase.
Mr. Yaser Tabbara Researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, poses the question of international accountability in Syria's war, after a regime soldier has been prosecuted for a war crime. Mohammed Abdullah claimed asylum in Sweden in 2015. But activists recognized him from online photo, smiling, surrounded by dead bodies. So, instead of receiving refuge, he got an eight-month prison sentence for mistreating corpses.
Yaser Said: 8 month for something so horrific is a little bit more than a slap on the rest, but still it is significant being the first incident of international accountability for such crimes, he added that the lack of evidence are considered a major problem and a weak link for the universal jurisdiction. He answered the question of "what about the head commander committing these crimes?"; International criminal justice lacks enforceability, the Russian and Chinese have been putting the main obstacles to the international criminal court, that is purely because political reasons.
Yaser ended the interview saying that not all soldiers should be banned from asylum, it's all depend on their acts on the ground and on what they were force to do while the regime was committing his crimes, and to attain absolute justice is something most of the Syrian have given up on
Dr. Ammar Al Kahf on 7th of October talking about Turkey's Idlib Operation, he said that there was a delay of the operation in order to contain elements from HTS "Al Qaida" and not to start a fight with them in order to save many life's of civilians, he added that the Astana agreement and three partners "Turkey, Russia and Iran" have different objective and this is not a strategic alliance in any way, but a very tactical step by step approach on containing the HTS forces at the time been, on the issue of Assad there is a political process that’s under going, and he is already lost credibility because of the fact that Russia and Iran are speaking on behalf of the regime and the his not on the table, he ended saying that there are life to save in Idlib and the agreement in Astana says that no Iranian or Russian troops will enter Idlib but they will be in charge of the border control of the de-escalation zone, he also added that one of the major objective in Idlib is to block any SDF advancement from Afrin.
In recent weeks, the so-called Islamic State has suffered a string of defeats in eastern Syria. It has lost swaths of territory in Deir Ezzor city to advancing pro-Syrian government forces and has been driven from villages and oil fields on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River by a U.S.-backed paramilitary group.
The two simultaneous but separate offensives by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian government loyalists may have resulted in quick gains in their first few weeks, but fighting is ongoing in many parts of the province, much of which remains under complete militant control.
ISIS still controls roughly 74 percent of the Deir Ezzor province and commands two main strongholds in the areas of Boukamal and Mayadin, south of the provincial capital. The group also controls a resource-rich region east of the Euphrates River that contains most of the oil and gas fields in the province.
With a long and grueling campaign still underway to expel the militant group from its last bastion in Syria, Syria Deeply examines the battle for Deir Ezzor by looking at the main groups, their objectives and their advances in the region.
Syrian government loyalists are the main fighting force in Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding countryside. Their forces consist of two specialized Syrian army divisions: the Republican Guard and the 17th Reserve Division, which is responsible for northern and eastern Syria.
A number of pro-government militias are assisting, including the Baath Battalions, a Syrian paramilitary group that fought rebels in Aleppo province last year. The Galilee Forces (a Palestinian militia), the National Defense Forces(one of the largest pro-government militias operating in Syria), and the Syrian al-Qassam group’s elite forces.
The Lebanese Hezbollah and a number of other Iran-backed groups are also fighting alongside the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor, as are a number of local tribes, most notably the al-Shaitat tribe. Russian warplanes are providing aerial cover for pro-government advances, and Moscow announced on Thursday that it has deployed special forces to assist the Syrian army.
Infographic breaking down the multiple groups fighting alongside the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor. (Nawar Oliver)
On the eastern banks of the Euphrates River, a contingent of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, known as the Deir Ezzor military council, is also fighting ISIS. It is supported by U.S.-led coalition warplanes and U.S. special forces embedded within its ranks. The Deir Ezzor military council is made up mostly of Arab fighters from Deir Ezzor, but is supported by Kurdish fighters of the SDF.
Although the SDF and the Syrian government have framed their respective operations in Deir Ezzor as primarily a battle against ISIS, each side has other objectives.
For the Syrian government, recapturing Deir Ezzor has been a main priority since the start of 2017, and gaining complete control over Deir Ezzor city, the largest city in eastern Syria, would be a symbolic victory.
Control over the oil-rich region on the southeastern flanks of Deir Ezzor province would also secure key natural resource revenues for the Syrian government.
The province is located along part of Syria’s border with Iraq, so controlling the area would help the government reassert its authority over the quasi-totality of its frontier with its southeastern neighbor. Increased government influence in Deir Ezzor would also help Iran secure a land bridge between Iraq and Syria, especially via the city of Mayadin, which provides a land route from Damascus to Iraq.
The government’s push in Deir Ezzor is also aimed at preventing a Raqqa scenario. In other words, the Syrian government is trying to keep U.S.-backed forces in Syria from carving out a zone of influence in the eastern province after ISIS withdraws.
For the SDF and its primary backer, Washington, the battle for Deir Ezzor is largely posturing against Assad’s forces. The group announced its operation in Deir Ezzor only days after pro-government forces breached ISIS’ siege on parts of the city, signaling to the government that its advance in the province would not go uncontested.
Although the SDF has said it would not enter Deir Ezzor city and would leave the area to pro-government forces, the group is seeking to expand its influence in the oil-rich parts of the province on the eastern banks of the Euphrates and in ISIS strongholds near the border with Iraq. This push is driven by Washington’s aim to secure the Iraqi border and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the region.
In recent weeks, pro-government forces have pushed into Deir Ezzor city from the west, along the al-Sukhna-Deir Ezzor highway, and achieved significant territorial victories in the provincial capital and its countryside. They have pushed ISIS militants back from areas around a military garrison known as Brigade 137, have breached a three-year siege of Deir Ezzor’s military airbase and a number of adjacent neighborhoods, and have also secured the strategic Deir Ezzor-Damascus highway.
Map of control for Deir Ezzor province that also shows advances by pro-government forces and the SDF. (Nawar Oliver)
The Syrian army said over the weekend that its forces have captured at least 44 villages and towns since launching the assault on Deir Ezzor earlier this month. According to the Syria Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), pro-government forces control roughly 64.3 percent of the provincial capital, while ISIS militants control 35.7 percent. Russia’s Defense Ministry, however, said last week that pro-government forces are in control of at least 85 percent.
They have also made significant gains on the western banks of the Euphrates, in Deir Ezzor’s northwestern countryside, where they have captured more than 60 miles (100km) of former ISIS territory, the SOHR said last week.
Pro-government forces also crossed into the eastern bank of the Euphrates last week, reaching within 3 miles (5km) of SDF-held positions.
The government’s advance suggests three short-term objectives. By expanding control on the western and eastern banks of the Euphrates, the Syrian government is trying to seal the eastern and western gateways to the city, thereby besieging ISIS in a pocket in the provincial capital.
It is also trying to complicate SDF advances in the region by preventing the group from reaching ISIS positions on the western axis while also blocking any potential SDF push down the east bank of the Euphrates.
The advance on the eastern banks of the Euphrates is also driven by an attempt to secure oil and gas fields in the area, most notably the al-Omar oil field, Syria’s largest and most lucrative field.
Current advances, however, do not signal an imminent push south toward ISIS strongholds in Boukamal and Mayadin. It would appear then that the real battle in ISIS’ best-fortified stronghold is delayed.
Over the past two weeks, the SDF has pushed into Deir Ezzor province from the northeast using the Hassakeh-Deir Ezzor Highway, gaining full control of Deir Ezzor’s industrial zone and capturing a major gas field in the area.
The Conoco gas plant, Syria’s largest, came under full SDF control on Saturday, after days of fighting ISIS militants in the area. The plant had the largest capacity of any in Syria prior to the conflict, producing up to 459 million cubic feet (13 million cubic meters) of natural gas a day.
SDF forces are now moving away from Deir Ezzor city and advancing toward the Iraqi border. On Sunday, the push to capture the town of al-Suwar began, according to the SOHR. The area is a strategic junction which provides land and supply routes connecting SDF positions to ISIS strongholds in Boukamal and Mayadin. A coalition spokesman said over the weekend that these two ISIS strongholds, some 50 miles (80km) west of the Iraqi border, are the SDF’s eventual goal.
The race for gas and oil fields in the eastern banks of the Euphrates has increased tensions between Russia, the U.S. and their respective allies over resource-rich parts of Deir Ezzor.
The SDF said on Monday that Russian warplanes bombed their positions in the Conoco gas field, killing one SDF fighter and wounding two others, just two days after the U.S.-backed forces captured the area.
That same day Moscow blamed U.S. policy in Syria for the death of Russian Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov in ISIS shelling near Deir Ezzor one day earlier.
“The death of the Russian commander is the price, the bloody price, for two-faced American policy in Syria,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said. “The American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of [ISIS] … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.”
This is not the first time that the two sides have traded jabs over attacks in east Syria. Earlier this month, the SDF and the Pentagon accused Russia of shelling an SDF position in Deir Ezzor’s industrial zone. Last week, Russia said that it would target SDF positions in east Syria if pro-government forces come under fire from the group.
Moscow’s warning came after Russia accused the SDF of opening fire on Syrian troops and allied forces on the eastern bank of the Euphrates twice last week. Moscow has also accused the SDF of hindering government advances in the area by opening upstream dams to prevent its allies from crossing.
In an attempt to prevent an outbreak of clashes, U.S. and Russian generals held a face-to-face meeting to discuss operations in Deir Ezzor last week.
“The discussions emphasized the need to share operational graphics and locations to ensure … prevention of accidental targeting or other possible frictions that would distract from the defeat of ISIS,” Col. Ryan Dillon said.
Monday’s attack undermines earlier talks and signals that the U.S. and Russia have yet to reach an agreement over the oil-rich zone coveted by all sides. With Monday’s attacks, it would seem that oil-rich areas east of the Euphrates will serve as a testing ground for U.S. and Russian de-confliction arrangements.
If the two sides fail to delineate areas of respective control then sporadic fighting will continue to obstruct the campaign against ISIS in the area and will leave both sides vulnerable to militant counterattacks.
Written byHashem Osseiran, Nawar Oliver
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), exemplifies how international extremist jihadi organizations, such as Al Qaeda, have evolved in Syria. Informed by the experiences of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Iraq, HTS has developed a governance strategy that depends on building support from the local Syrian population.
In Idlib province (Syria), a few local administrative bodies that provide critical social services are affiliated with HTS. Others are affiliated with Ahrar al Sham and Jaysh al Fateh. Some, however, are affiliated with opposition Local Councils and civil society organizations.
Local Councils are responsible for local administration of services in coordination with the Syrian Interim Government. Currently, there are 156 Local Councils operating in Idlib province with the following administrative divisions: 9% City Councils, 30% Town Councils, and 61% Municipal Councils. Of these Local Councils, 86 operate in HTS-controlled areas—14% City Councils, 39% Town Councils, and 47% Municipal Councils.
Equipped with the combined experiences of its affiliated jihadi groups, HTS aims to gradually establish a permanent presence in Syria and create a state under “Islamic law” in one of three forms, an emirate, Islamic state, or caliphate.
HTS’ local governance strategy depends on three elements, 1) providing social services, 2) enacting coercive policies of public order, and 3) propagating its religious and political ideology. To support this strategy, HTS operates through four main bureaus, 1) General Administration for Services, 2) Military and security operations wing, 3) Dawah and Guidance Office, and 4) Sharia courts.
HTS establishes a relationship with the local population through cooperation (mutual interests), containment and infiltration policies, or exclusionary measures. The type of relationship is determined by HTS’ strength and control in a respective community, available resources, local support network, the strength of Local Councils, and the presence of other armed groups that support and protect Local Councils.
Extremist Jihadi movements aim to seize territory in order to govern it; however, each movement has a different perspective on the type of governance, level of institutionalization, and mechanisms necessary to fulfill its vision for governing the territory. Some jihadi movements, such as the Islamic State, are aggressive and force a specific ideology on local communities. They spend less time providing basic goods and services, attending to the needs of the community, or managing their views on life or Islam. Other groups, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)(), pursue a relationship with the local communities based on mutual interests, managed by a combination of positive and negative incentives.
HTS, which formed from multiple jihadi groups including Al Qaeda, developed with essential insight and experience from various fronts of the “Global Jihad.” HTS used a combination of the following strategies to establish an effective local governance structure: providing social services, executing policies of coercion, and spreading its ideology—all through a specifically crafted structure cementing its presence in Syrian society for the long term.
No group understands the dangers of HTS efforts to establish local governance better than the Local Councils(), which in this case are faced with an extraordinary challenge. This study analyzes the possible impact of the HTS’s local governance on the Local Councils in Idlib province. This province was chosen for the case study for the following reasons: 1) it is the only province that is nearly completely outside of the control of Assad central state; 2) its geographic location, connecting coastal Syria with central and northern regions and Turkish border, is significant; 3) it has the most Local Councils of any other province controlled by opposition forces; and 4) it is the main stronghold for the HTS.
First, this study compares the governance methods of the HTS and Local Councils in the areas under HTS control. Second, this study explains how the HTS became involved in local governance and how it interacts with the Local Councils.
This study is part of a larger effort to understand the state of governance in all Syrian territories in order to reach a consensus on how to deal with these new circumstances during and after the political transition. This study compares local governance policies of HTS and the opposition Local Councils beginning with a description of how the HTS was formed and its involvement in local governance bodies. Next, this study offers a description of Local Councils that operate in HTS-controlled territories and examines the relationships between the Local Councils and the HTS. This study concludes with a number of recommendations on how to empower Local Councils in areas under HTS control to avoid their cooptation. This study was conducted based on interviews with Local Council members and analysis of open source information such as news articles, reports, and social media postings.
Some argue that HTS is merely a façade for Jabhat al Nusra (see section one below on the formation of Jabhat al Nusra), which attempts to curtail local and international pressure after the fall of Aleppo and the start of the Astana talks. Others claim that HTS is loyal to its core Al Qaeda leadership, and the reason for adopting the name HTS reflects recommendations from its central leadership to integrate into the local communities. Finally, some attribute the formation of HTS to a culmination of various groups competing to represent the “Syrian Jihad.” Because these perspectives offer only a partial understanding, our study provides a comprehensive analysis of HTS structure and governance as a major byproduct of Al Qaeda, a constantly changing cross-border Salafi Jihadi movement.
HTS has focused on the following major themes in order to establish itself in local communities: its relationship with the international community, jihadi experiences in Iraq, its relationship with Al Qaeda, competition with other rebel groups, and local support.
HTS developed its current structure as a result of three phases:
Jabhat al Nusra was formed in January 2012 with help by Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. The group adopted a patchwork of religious ideologies reviewed by Al Qaeda’s central branch. The leader of Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, made it clear that he wanted to avoid mistakes made during the Iraqi Jihad, and declared his commitment to Al Qaeda’s newfound ideology. In the beginning, Jabhat al Nusra refrained from publicly affiliating itself with Al Qaeda despite its public praise for the group. It also avoided international attention by presenting itself as a native Syrian organization. Jabhat al Nusra immersed itself in the local communities and concerned itself with society’s general demands, such as standing up to the Assad regime. The group also took advantage of the revolution to expand its presence in Syria, exercise its military strength, and create mutual alliances with the locals. The group also benefited from a significant boost in membership after the Assad regime released prisoners affiliated with jihadi movements.()
However, Jabhat al Nusra also has faced a number of challenges:
Jabhat al Nusra dealt with all of these challenges and eventually adapted into a new organization in July 2016 under the name Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS)().
Al Jolani personally announced the termination of Jabhat al Nusra and the formation of Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS), emphasizing that the new entity would have no ties to Al Qaeda. He explained that the organization made this decision to meet the demands of the Syrian people, who wanted to protect and strengthen the “Syrian jihad” and avoid claims from the international community that Al Qaeda elements exist in the Syrian opposition() . It seems Al Jolani intended to improve the group’s relationship with the international community by announcing its independence from Al Qaeda and insisting upon its closeness to local communities. This new group presented an opportunity to regain local support for the jihadi project, for which support had dwindled following a series of Russian, regime and US led international coalition military strikes on opposition-controlled areas under the pretense that Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra forces were present in the area. This new group also sought to appease some locals who were displeased with Jabhat al Nusra’s interference in local affairs, which had created popular unrest.
JFS also emerged as a result of competition between Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham (), to dominate the “Syrian jihad.” Al Jolani wanted to put pressure on Ahrar al Sham by draining its resources through a new jihadi coalition and bringing into question its jihadi qualifications.
But the presence of Abu Abdullah al Shami and Abu al Faraj al Masri, who are Al Qaeda linked Jihadi leaders inside Syria that were also affiliated with Jabhat Al Nusra, during Al Jolani’s announcement confirmed Al Qaeda’s implicit influence on JFS and provided the new group with credibility among jihadist organizations.
JFS endured repeated attempts to isolate and eliminate the group, especially following the eastern Aleppo deal (12/13/2016), Ankara’s cease fire deal (12/30/2016) and the Astana meetings (01/23/2017). The international community ultimately designated JFS as a terror group, even though it included non-terrorist factions close to the West, such as Nur al Din al Zinki. To prevent being targeted by the international community, JFS had no choice but to announce the formation of HTS at the start of 2017.
HTS formed from a combination of opposition groups in northern Syria at the end of January 2017. These groups included JFS, Nur al Din al Zinki, Jabhat Ansar al Din, Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Liwa al Haq. A number of jihadi and Salafi leaders joined HTS, as well, including Abdul Razaq al Mahdi, Abu al Harith al Masri, Abu Yusuf al Hamwi, Abdullah al Muhaisni, Abu al Tahir al Hamwi, and Musleh al Iyani.
Furthermore, HTS emerged due to the continued competition between Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham. HTS attracted more than 25 opposition fighting groups from its competitors, 16 of which came from Ahrar al Sham(). Ahrar also lost a number of its prominent leaders to HTS including Abu Saleh Al Taha and Abu Yusuf al Muhajir.
The new group confirmed Al Jolani’s intentions to firmly establish the jihadi project in Syria and salvage its legitimacy. HTS adopted many of the revolutionary slogans used in local revolutionary circles(). Through its media campaign, HTS expressed approval for a conditional political negotiation and demonstrated a willingness to fight the “Khawarij,” who are a historically marginal yet significant group of Muslims that are considered more extreme and radical.
HTS comprises approximately 19,000 to 20,000 members, including administrators, fighters, and religious figures. HTS has a significant presence in some Syrian territories with well-known bases and checkpoints. In other areas, HTS has a limited presence where it merely patrols the area. HTS forces operate in Idlib province, southern and western Aleppo, Jarood al Qalamoon, eastern Ghouta, and Daraa province, minimally. (See map below for reference.)
Figure 1: Map of Territories in Syria as of May 15, 2017
Based on information surveyed and interviews, HTS operates through eight divisions, namely military, security, services, religious law, courts, media, finances, and politics. For each of these divisions, there is an office organized under the leadership of the “Shura Council.”
General Commander of HTS
Figure 2: HTS Command Structure
The HTS administrative structure suggests that the group is organized and tied directly to a central leadership body, which implies that HTS aims to establish a permanent Islamic governing structure. This structure is a direct threat to the Local Councils, the primary entities leading efforts to rebuild the nation.
Jihadi movements with military wings seek to administer the territories they control in order to achieve their goals, but each movement differs in its approach to governance. In an attempt to avoid conflict, some jihadi movements focus on providing social services rather than forcing a particular ideology on local communities. Other groups take the opposite approach, regularly forcing locals to accept a specific ideology in order to secure a permanent presence. Here, it is important to shed some light on HTS’s experience with local governance, the methods and resources it requires to effectively govern, and its relationship with Local Councils in HTS-controlled territories.
HTS aims to establish a permanent presence gradually and to create an Islamic governing structure, such as an emirate, an Islamic State, or a caliphate. HTS’s governing structure is a collection of best practices gathered from its affiliate groups and other jihadi groups around the world ().
In its attempts to establish a permanent presence through an Islamic governance structure, HTS affords the local community a status of great importance. HTS considers the local community a key actor, which has the capacity to carry forward the HTS project or bring it to an end. For this reason, HTS employs a number of strategies to gain support from the local community, such as 1) providing social services, 2) enacting policies of coercion, and 3) spreading a radical s ideology. Several factors that distinguish HTS from other groups include its level of presence and control in the areas it governs, the amount of resources invested in its governing structure, the results achieved, and the people responsible for making decisions and carrying out the project.
1.Providing social services: General Administration for Services
The General Administration for Services is responsible for providing social services in HTS territories. The administration was formed under Jabhat al Nusra in 2013, when the organization decided to separate from the Islamic Administration for Services (). The General Administration for Services is made up of several divisions established based on general geographical distribution (Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, etc). These divisions, similar to ministries, are connected to specific service offices, such as the Border Services Office, Desert Services Office, and Aleppo City Services Office. All of the offices are managed by a municipal administration, under the authority of the General Administration for Services. These local offices carry out the policies of the General Administration for Services (). Through these offices, HTS interacts with the local community by providing important services. Some of these communities include Harem, Salqeen, Darkoush, and Talmins. In areas where HTS does not control the municipal offices, the General Administration for Services either directly coordinates with established service structures (via Local Councils) or independently provides the necessary services)). If HTS is unable to provide services then Local Councils provide them, but HTS still maintains a significant influence over them ().
Figure 3: Structure of the General Administration for Services ()
HTS knows well the importance of providing services to the local community in order to garner support and recruit new volunteers. HTS also knows that if it can provide basic services, it may weaken its competitors. Furthermore, if community members receive services from HTS, they may be more willing to accept the organization’s coercive methods of spreading its ideology. HTS cannot afford the high costs of providing all necessary services, so the group focuses on providing only the most important ones, such as electricity and water, through which it can significantly influence the Local Councils (). In the meantime, HTS can diversify the kinds of services it offers as more resources become available, if such provisions will help the organization establish a permanent presence in the territories it controls.
HTS employs local civilians in social services jobs in order to maintain positive relations with the community (). As for funding the services, HTS depends on its external support networks, both from the central leadership and from its supporters. HTS also levies taxes on the local community. Additionally, people passing through HTS-controlled territories must pay a road tax, which is especially lucrative in the crowded areas of northern Syria and along important supply lines( ) . Furthermore, organizations that want to operate in HTS territories must also pay for protection and permission to operate there (). HTS also collects fines from those who violate its rules. In addition, HTS also buys and sells properties.
2.Policies of coercion: Violent and non-violent tactics
HTS also resorts to coercive measures against its adversaries. The organization justifies its coercive policies against those engaged in immoral acts, cooperating with the West or the Assad regime, and when applying Sharia law. HTS uses military force to execute its coercive policies, evidenced by its operations against opposition groups in northern Syria, including the Jabha Shamiya, Fastaqim, Suqoor al Sham, Jaish al Islam, and Jaish al Mujahideen (). HTS security branches () also force locals to adopt the group’s worldview, and they punish those who do not comply.
HTS uses indirect coercion and non-violent means to force its worldview on the locals and create a shared ideology. This strategy is managed by HTS’s Dawah and Guidance Office, which is responsible for spreading the group’s ideology, and the media office, which is responsible for generating propaganda. The two offices organize and offer religious courses and programs in mosques and public places, where they can spread HTS ideology and organize protests against their competitors ().
3.Ideology: The duality of courts and advocacy
Informed by the experiences of Al Qaeda, HTS gradually implements Islamic law, or Sharia, to avoid clashing with local populations (). HTS depends on a two-pronged approach, comprising the courts and Dawah, to gain support from the locals. On one hand, HTS has inherited a court system established by Jabhat al Nusra in Salqeen, Sarmada, and Darkoush. By controlling the courts, HTS gains the locals’ trust by implementing policies according to its interpretation of Islamic law (). This position of power also allows the group to act with impunity by exploiting religious ideology to justify unpopular actions, such as commandeering public goods or property, or those of its competitors (). On the other hand, HTS depends on its Dawah and Guidance Office () to conduct ideological campaigns to convince local communities to support its project and adopt its vision. HTS has demonstrated greater success in spreading its ideology in rural areas compared to more populated areas in Idleb province, such as Muarat al Noman, Saraqeb, and Kafranbal. These areas have well-developed civil societies making it much more difficult for HTS to infiltrate them.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Syria, Idlib province is significant for several reasons. First, it is the only province that is nearly completely liberated. Second, it is positioned in a strategic geographic location, connecting coastal Syria with central and northern regions. Third, it has the most Local Councils of any other opposition-controlled area. Fourth, and finally, it is the main stronghold of the HTS. Our description of the services provided in Idlib province includes the Civilian Services Administration of Jaysh al Fateh, the Committee for Services Management of Ahrar al Sham, the General Administration for Services of HTS, the Interim Government’s service offices, and the Local Councils, as well as other civil society organizations. There are currently 156 local sub-councils operating in Idlib province ().
Figure 4: Distribution of councils by administrative divisions
There are also a number of councils in the villages and rural areas of Idlib province that are not recognized as full-fledged councils by the Interim Government’s Ministry of Local Administration or the Idlib Provincial Council. These councils were formed by either the leaders of these localities seeking support from aid organizations or military groups attempting to increase their legitimacy among the locals ().
There are 81 Local Councils operating in territories heavily controlled by HTS in Idlib province. They are categorized by following administrative divisions. (Please see the figure below.)
Figure 5: Administrative Divisions of Councils Operating in HTS Controlled Areas
A large number of these councils are affiliated with the Provincial Council of Free Idleb, which is a part of the Syrian Interim Government (). Some of these councils have no affiliation with the Interim Government. The remaining 450 the councils, including those in Harem and Salqeen, are affiliated with the HTS-controlled General Administration for Services.
All of the councils differ in their effectiveness and their roles within the community according to the following factors: capacity, legitimacy, size of the administrative unit, military operations, and its relationship with HTS. Each council aims to provide basic services to its communities including humanitarian aid, infrastructure renovation, health care, sanitation, education, civil defense, local security, and civil society organizations.
The local councils finance their endeavors through a number of sources, the most important of which are cash donations, work project grants, or in-kind donations. The support they receive from the Provincial Council—and the Interim Government overall—is limited and inconsistent. Therefore, Local Councils must generate funds through local taxes, investments in public property, and income from development projects. In addition, the Local Councils, especially those directly affiliated with HTS, receive both financial and logistical support from the HTS General Administration for Services () .
It seems that HTS acknowledges the significance of the Local Councils, and for this reason, it provides services and develops close relationships with the local community, international community, and parties providing financial support to humanitarian aid and development projects in Syria. Each of these entities are essential players in implementing a future political solution.
HTS’s goal to establish a state under Islamic law conflicts with the political goals of the Local Councils, which form the essential basis for a state. For this reason, HTS pursues a relationship of mutual interest with the Local Councils governed by the following principles: 1) the level of permanence and dispersion, 2) availability of resources, 3) amount of local support, 4) central role of Local Councils and their legitimacy, and 5) Local Council partners.
Based on these principles, the HTS adopted the following approach:
Idlib is critical as a case study to measure the performance of Local Councils and the potential for development in the future. In general, Local Councils in Idlib face a number of challenges due to a lack of resources, fierce local competition, and conflicting policies of various parties involved in the Syrian conflict. Local Councils operating in areas under HTS control face the possibility of termination due to HTS’s policies of coercion and infiltration.
The following are general recommendations on how to strengthen Local Councils, especially those operating in areas dominated by HTS and those that are losing credibility among the local population. In order to prevent the Local Councils from falling prey to HTS’s strategy (mutual interest-based cooperation, containment and infiltration, and exclusion), Omran for Strategic Studies offers these recommendations:
2.Effective Local Administration: Councils should have a clear structure and effective governance system that is protected from infiltration and capable of maintaining its operations in HTS-controlled areas. Consider the following steps:
3.Improved Local Resources: It is important to develop the financial and human resources available to Local Councils to prevent them from having to negotiate with HTS for shared control. In order to improve and increase the councils’ available resources, consider the following steps:
HTS is taking advantage of local administration to garner public support in an attempt to establish a state of its own under their version of “Islamic law”. Informed by the experiences of other jihadi groups and recommendations from Al Qaeda, HTS has formulated its own strategy for local governance. The approach combines positive and negative reinforcement measures, in order to secure support from the local community, through a perceived flexible administrative structure that can adapt as the situation in Syria changes. HTS poses a great danger for the stability of future Syria and the region because it seeks to establish a permanent grassroots presence through its local governance strategies—the foundation upon which to form a state—but the organization faces a number of challenges. To HTS, Local Councils are a significant asset because of the critical services they provide, even though the interests of HTS and Local Councils are often in competition. HTS also recognize that Local Councils are the official channels through which funds for aid and development will flow, both now and in the future. For these reasons, HTS pursues a relationship of mutual interest with the Local Councils. At times, HTS adopts a policy of cooperation when they are unable to take over full control; otherwise, HTS contains and infiltrates or excludes Local Councils altogether. HTS’ strategy threatens the existence of Local Councils and demands a serious effort to support these councils.
In order to maintain influence, Local Councils must effectively provide public services, gain support and legitimacy from the local communities, and institutionalize their cooperation with local forces pursuing a free and modern nation state. Furthermore, Local Councils must establish a clear and direct relationship with the Provincial Councils and the Interim Government. And, finally, Councils should attain adequate financial resources and depend less on donors. Only then will Local Councils be capable of overpowering HTS and supporting the creation of a free and modern nation state.
() Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings, Date: July 27, 2016. Link https://goo.gl/otk0JT
()Al Jolani outline four main goals of JFS, 1) ruling with God’s religion and establishing justice among the people, 2) uniting the forces of the mujahedeen and liberating the Levant from the regime and its allies, 3) protecting the Syrian jihad and continuing it in all legitimate ways, 4) relieving the suffering of Muslims and addressing their concerns at all costs, and 5) providing a peaceful and respectable life for people in the Islamic state. See the Announcement of JFS by Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, You Tube 07/28/2016 https://goo.gl/wDz7Os
()Aaron Lund, The Jihadi Spiral, Carnegie Center, 02/28/2017 https://goo.gl/8ShXrp
()Ahmad Abazaid, The Great Competition: Ahrar Al Sham vs HTS https://goo.gl/Efr7qu
() Daniel Green , Al Qaeda’s Soft Power Strategy in Yemen, The Washington Institute 01/23/2013 https://goo.gl/L8SGqq
()Challenges facing the local administration in Aleppo, Aljazeera, 3/31/2014, https://goo.gl/GmzdYc
()Announcement by the General Administration for Services/Office of the Technical Services on the Border in the Town of Harem, Official page of the Town of Harem, 04/20/2017, https://goo.gl/o8Yz6O
()Cooperation between the local council in Kafar Daryan with the General Administration for Services to connect an electricity line, Official page of the local council in Kafar Daryan, 10/19/2016 https://goo.gl/iOXzgP، and an electricity station in Saraqib, Radio al Kul, 2017/30/03 https://goo.gl/uO5bvg
()Structure of the Harem Town Council affiliated with the General Administration for Services, Official page of the Harem Town Council, 05/21/2016https://goo.gl/NfRXBG
()Maintenance work on the electricity stations in Al Zarba, Official page of the General Administration for Services. 05/01/2017 https://goo.gl/lpDP2K
()The Talmans Local Council President Fadel Burhan Omar said that there was a difference in the way HTS dealt with the Local Councils compared with Jabhat Al Nusra. Previously, the organization operated using military figures, but now it uses civilians. This information was gathered during an interview conducted over social media on 04/27/2017.
()Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings, July 27, 2016. https://goo.gl/otk0JT
() Al Jolani’s Latest Plan: Fighting in Search of a Policy, Ahmad Abazaid, Idrak, 02/09/2017, https://goo.gl/4sTImj
() HTS: Similar to Regime Prisons with Ideological Torture, Sultan Jalabi, Al Hayat, 05/13/2017, https://goo.gl/RWHsLq
() Protests in Idleb in support of HTS and rejecting Astana 4, Micro Syria, 05/12/2017,https://goo.gl/cOJ6z7
() Al Qaeda’s Shadow Government in Yemen, Daniel Green, Washington Institute, 12/12/2013https://goo.gl/qYjOeG
() The Courts Ban the Sale of Any Real Estate Belonging to Muslims, Zaytouna Newspaper, 01/04/2017https://goo.gl/ANWN6c
()Yasir Abbasmay, How Al Qaeda Is Winning In Syria. War on the Rocks. 10/05/2016. https://goo.gl/kUSDvF
() The Official Page of the Dawah and Guidance Office of Jabhat al 08/04/2016, https://goo.gl/JeMqU8
()Naser Hazbar, former president of the Local Council in Muarat Al Noman, indicated that the council is structurally affiliated with the Interim Government and the Provincial Council in an interview via social media on 05/22/2017.
()The General Administration for Services is thanked for offering its support to make the water supply network operational again, Official page of the town of Kulli on Facebook, 02/21/2017 https://goo.gl/Zlaejz
()Said Gazoul, Sarmada Council in Idleb Pumps Water Again After Electricity Returns, SMART News, 07/21/2016, https://goo.gl/Udyai6
()General Administration for Services helps the local council in Abu Thuhoor to create a garbage dump, 04/11/2017 https://goo.gl/xtIATZ
()In an interview conducted via social media with the former president of the local council in Saraqeb, Usama Hussein, he confirmed that a number of armed groups operated in the area, including Liwa Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb, Ahrar al Sham, and HTS. Liwaa Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb has been the main force since it is considered local, 05/21/2017.
()Naser Hazbar, former president of the local council in Muarat Al Noman, described previous Al Nusra and HTS efforts to force the locals to accept it as the main provider of services instead of the Local Council; however, the legitimacy that the council enjoyed and the support of the local civil society prevented the success of those attempts, 05/22/2017
()Yasir Abbasmay, How Al Qaeda Is Winning In Syria. War on the Rocks. 10/05/2016. https://goo.gl/kUSDvF
()Usama Hussein, former president of the local council in Saraqeb, confirmed that the Local Councils gained legitimacy by providing services, supporting civil society, and benefiting from a strong civil society movement in Saraqeb. The presence of political parties in Saraqeb also contributed to the Local Councils’ legitimacy. These were key factors in preventing HTS and other groups from interfering in council affairs, 05/21/2015
()Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Civil Society in Jabal al-Summaq. Syria Comment. Date 04/04/2017. https://goo.gl/ackML9
()Yasir Abbas. Another "State" of Hate: Al-Nusra's Quest to Establish an Islamic Emirate in the Levant. Hudson Institute, Date: 04/29/2016. https://goo.gl/NTA6Li
()One of the members of the local council in Kafar Tkharim indicated that if the HTS wanted to influence the council in any way, it would resort to pressuring the council to change certain decisions. The interview was conducted via social media on 04/29/2017.
()Meeting of the local councils in the Misni district to discuss why the water project was cancelled by HTS, Official page of Majdalia Local Council on Facebook, 04/25/2017 https://goo.gl/h5PyMF
() Omar Abdul Fattah, Sinjar in Idlib: JFS detains President of the Local Council Because it Does Not Recognize His Position, 03/01/2017 https://goo.gl/6r18s0, and after HTS refused the formation of the council it chased down members of the Salqeen civilian council and detained some of them as well, 02/21/2017, https://goo.gl/e8v1wz
() Omar Abdul Fattah, Sinjar in Idlib: JFS detains President of the Local Council Because It Does Not Recognize His Position, 03/01/2017 https://goo.gl/6r18s0
() HTS raids homes of local council member in Salqeen and detains a few, Zaytouna Newspaper, 02/22/2017, https://goo.gl/zejypf