IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2016



Country Profiles

Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


Internal Politics and the Evolution of the Conflict in Syria

Daniel Serwer

Director of the Conflict Management Program
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington DC

Katherine Preston

Middlebury College

Rose Youhana

School of International Service American University, Washington DC

Syria has been at war for more than five years. The conflict started as a peaceful resistance movement, largely conducted by young people infected with the spirit of the Arab Spring that brought down Presidents Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt early in 2011. The protesters wanted an end to government oppression and a transition to democracy. The Syrian government responded with a violent crackdown, arrests and torture, even while President Assad claimed empathy with Syrians’ aspirations. By the fall of 2011, a violent revolution had broken out, with both peaceful protesters and insurgents demanding an end to the Assad regime, which has now governed Syria for more than 45 years.

The war has degenerated into a multi-sided fight among government forces, non-extremist secular and Islamist opposition brigades, extremists at least until recently associated with al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra[1], other extremists associated with the Islamic State, and Kurdish forces sometimes allied with opposition Arabs and sometimes with the government. Iran and Russia are backing the Syrian government. The Iranians provide oil, Revolutionary Guard advisors and commanders as well Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite fighters. The Russians also provide advisors and, since the autumn of 2015, air support to Syrian army forces as well as financial support. The US, Turkey and some Gulf states are backing what they regard as non-extremist rebels, though some Gulf backing appears to go also to extremists. But for the US in particular the main fight is against extremists (especially the Islamic State but also Jabhat al-Nusra), not the Syrian government.

This is an extraordinarily complex and difficult situation. Repeated efforts of high-level UN special envoys have failed to bring about a political solution or even an enduring ceasefire. The effort, now led by veteran UN official Staffan de Mistura, continues on the basis of a June 2012 UN communiqué that called for a “transitional governing body with full executive powers.[2] The International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which includes, among others, the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is supposed to produce a plan to create this transitional body and manage the transition by 1 August, 2016.

While that deadline may or may not be met, whatever transitional governing arrangement eventually emerges from the many Syrian wars now in progress will have to take into account the current governance and political situations on the ground in various parts of the country. This paper is intended to provide a snapshot, based mainly on secondary sources in English, of those very varied and complicated political circumstances.

Government-Controlled Areas

About two-thirds of Syrians remaining in the country reside in government-controlled areas, which comprise approximately 20% of its territory[3]. In these areas, Syria is still a highly centralized autocracy. The Parliament, elected in April 2016, is a talk shop and rubber stamp. Political mobilization in most government-controlled areas is rudimentary and largely controlled by the Baath Party of President Bashar al-Assad, even though the constitution in force since 2012 nominally introduced political pluralism. Some other parties do operate within narrow limits. Political prisoners are thought to number in the hundreds of thousands; at least 117,000 according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR),  while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimates as many as 500,000.[4] Power is concentrated in the President’s office among a small number of close associates and family members. The security agencies are directed by loyalists, though some of the forces no longer appear to be entirely under centralized control. Provincial and local governments answer to Damascus.

Governance in government-controlled areas continues to function at a minimal level. State agencies are still the primary providers of subsidized bread, fuel, healthcare, and education. Devaluation of the Syrian pound has sharply increased the prices of bread and fuel.[5] Subsidized bread nevertheless helps the government to maintain some degree of respect and legitimacy.[6] The same holds true for other services. The government concentrates these services in areas where it still maintains security and popular support.[7] State-run administrative officers have been co-located with security forces to provide Syrians with legal documents necessary to marry, register property and travel outside of the country.[8] The government’s legitimacy within areas it controls is mainly due to its maintenance of security and provision of minimal services.[9]

Security for state-run institutions is provided by various security forces either supported by or affiliated with the government or its allies. [10] Sporadic insecurity plagued government-controlled areas between January 2012 and April 2014. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported numerous cases of indiscriminate car bomb attacks, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, and unguided rockets launched into heavily-populated civilian areas and areas where no known military targets were present.[11] Security since then has improved, especially in regions that have been under constant or steady government control. Syrian administrative offices are heavily protected by state security forces, including military and air force intelligence bodies.[12] Territories under the government’s control have become safe havens for Syrians fleeing violence, even supporters of the opposition, who move both for safety reasons and to get access to services that have effectively been cut off from all areas outside of the government’s control.[13] The government also relies heavily on military support from local militias who have formed Popular Committees, or shabihas, in an attempt to mirror the mobilization and militarization of the Syrian opposition.[14]While these shabihas are largely made up of Syrians they also include foreign militias that support the government, including the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah and the Iraqi Badr Brigade.[15]

The most well-known and largest network of pro-government militias organizes under the National Defense Forces (NDF), which is perhaps the most diverse in membership ranging from Sunni Arab tribal groups to Alawite and Christian militias.[16]

Inflation and accompanying devaluation have left their mark on the government’s war effort: a soldier’s average monthly salary amounts to 18,000 Syrian pounds, approximately $383 in 2011 but today no more than $28.[17] Salary increases have not kept pace.[18] This has forced Syrian soldiers and administrators toward corruption in order to sustain themselves financially, weakening already enfeebled institutions.[19] 

Opposition-Controlled Areas

Governance in opposition-controlled areas is far from uniform. It generally involves armed groups, many locally (and generally Syrian) manned, local civilian councils and courts that share responsibility for providing minimal government services, including security, justice, health, food, electricity, water and education.[20] The relative power of the armed groups, civilian councils and courts varies from place to place and from time to time. The armed groups have produced what may become the key actors in the post-war rebuilding of the Syrian State: local military and field commanders. Popular in the areas where they operate, they also often have a profound understanding of the circumstances that led to revolution and the subsequent civil wars.[21]

Governance in governmentcontrolled areas continues to function at a minimal level. State agencies are still the primary providers of subsidized bread, fuel, healthcare, and education

The emergence of local administrative councils (LACs) in opposition-controlled areas dates back as early as January 2012 when the Damascene neighbourhood of Al Zabadani established what is considered the first LAC.[22] This led to the establishment of other LACs in Saraqib (Idlib province) and in Marea and Al Bab (Aleppo province). The purpose of these councils is to fill the gap left by the departed regime forces and administration and to respond to heightened demand for humanitarian assistance, despite near-constant aerial bombardment.[23] The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (Etilaf) has overseen the establishment of LACs throughout opposition-controlled areas and often recognizes them as the sole authority where they operate.[24] Etilaf’s legitimacy is however shaky. Many Syrians do not think that it represents them and instead answers to the international donors that support it. The Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) was established in December 2012 and has been delivering aid through, and supporting, LACs.[25] LACs today deal with severe financial limitations, a problem which exacerbates the already difficult task of providing aid and services to besieged towns.[26] Despite this shortcoming, LACs enjoy a particularly high level of legitimacy from local communities because their primary objective is to ensure life-preserving services.[27]

The maintenance of security has proven the most difficult task for all actors in opposition-controlled areas.[28] Because these areas house various anti-Assad actors, from moderate armed groups to Islamist groups to LACs, maintaining any degree of systematic or regular security is exceedingly difficult. The government’s continuous shelling and barrel bombing of opposition-controlled neighbourhoods and towns, even those run by civilian LACs, has severely impaired governance in opposition-controlled areas, causing exodus to neighbouring towns, safer regime-controlled areas and neighbouring countries.[29] More than half the country’s population is now displaced from their homes, mostly from opposition-controlled areas. Insecurity also stems from threats by Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, who have been known to target civil society and local councils.

Justice in opposition-controlled areas operates primarily through Sharia-based and courts often run by Islamist groups like Jaish al-Mujahedeen and Jabhat al-Nusra.[30] Their responsibilities range from resolving local civil disputes to usurping the role of LACs by providing humanitarian aid and other services. Some Sharia courts draw on the deference paid to them to marginalize the work of LACs and civil society actors by declaring them illegal in the areas where they operate.[31] The work of these Sharia-based courts depends heavily on the cities where they operate, the governing actors with whom they coexist, and the types of cases they choose to oversee. In March 2014, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) detailed the work of the Sharia court in Kafr Nabel (Idlib province), which coexisted at that time in an area controlled by the Fursan al-Haq Brigade, allied with the Free Syrian Army, and the Suqur al-Sham brigade, allied with the Islamic Front.[32] This particular court did not operate under any charter or bylaws, but derived its rulings and corresponding punishments from various texts on Islamic jurisprudence. While these Sharia courts can sometimes be the only judicial authority in the cities where they operate, their legitimacy is not always recognized particular among secular Syrians.[33] One Kafr Nabel resident shared her views on the local court, “This uprising is for the overthrow of al-Assad, not of Syrian law.”[34]

Some human rights and civil society groups contend that civilian LACs are well-poised to act as the legitimate governing bodies in post-war Syria. But they today face serious obstacles: parlous security as well as competition with Sharia courts and armed opposition groups. Legitimacy throughout Syria depends on ability to provide security and other services. The ongoing war and limited resources threaten to undermine the opposition-affiliated LACs.

Islamic State-Controlled Areas

The Islamic State (IS), aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) or Daesh, declared a caliphate on the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria in 2014. IS is a highly centralized, autocratic theocracy led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who adheres to a Salafist jihadi ideology and seeks to govern in accordance with a strict interpretation of Sharia law. Its fighting forces, numbering between 19,000-21,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria,[35] are mostly non-Syrian, coming from more than 100 countries. The Islamic State has lost a good deal of territory in both Iraq (47% of its maximum holdings) and Syria (20%) over the past year. Its recruiting capacity is also thought to have declined sharply, as has its revenue, derived in large part from ‘zakat’ extorted on the territory it controls. Its capital in Syria is Raqqa, though Baghdadi declared the caliphate from Mosul in Iraq.

When the Islamic State moves into a new area, its first step in establishing governance is to open a da’wah office (outreach office or literally translated as invitation). [36] Da’wah offices initially serve the dual purposes of building rapport with the local population and acting as a hub for intelligence gathering on IS rivals in the area.[37] Dawah activities can involve any kind of charitable work or outreach, but are mostly comprised of proselytizing IS’ interpretation of Islam.[38] In 2014, IS claimed to have eleven separate da’wah offices just in its Wilayat Aleppo[39] (in Aleppo and Raqqa Wilayat refers to territory that IS controls and defends, but in other areas Wilayat can refer to an area where IS is merely present).[40] Da’wah events and service provision are widely publicized on social media to build rapport with locals and strengthen the IS brand. After establishing a presence in the town via da’wah, IS begins systematically eliminating all potential opposition. In Raqqa, this involved assassinating and kidnapping of members of the local council and civil society groups, suicide bombings that targeted rival armed groups and coercive negotiations with local tribes. Throughout 2013 in Raqqa, IS slowly took over the provision of public services after ‘reforming’ the Local Council through acts or threats of violence against its members and their families.

Following its declaration of a caliphate in June 2014, IS established at least 14 ministry-like institutions called diwans.[41] These diwans often incorporated existing IS governance structures, such as da’wah offices, Islamic police forces and Sharia courts. In addition, IS established new diwans,such as Public Relations and Tribal Outreach. IS also incorporated existing public infrastructure – for instance, the Office for Public Services (diwan al-khadamat al-muslima) which oversees the delivery of electricity, water and other essential services.

In terms of government effectiveness, IS is often seen as the least bad alternative.[42] IS repairs sewage lines, power lines, and electrical power stations[43]; provides subsidies on necessities like bread;[44] and delivers substantial amounts of humanitarian aid in what are often very poor areas. IS effectiveness in many of these areas is unparalleled in Syria at the moment.[45] The opposition’s reputation for corruption and ineffectiveness and the Syrian regime’s targeting of civilians have left IS as a lesser evil in the view of some of Syria’s civilian population.

IS depends on coercion more than any other governance strategy to ensure compliance of the governed. Acts of violence and violent threats against other armed groups or prominent locals constitute direct coercion. The public executions that have made IS infamous also serve as indirect coercion – raising the local perceived costs of resisting IS.[46] IS coercion “extends to the forcible collection of taxes, seizure of houses, manipulation of livelihood sources and control of resources such as oil.”[47]

IS obsession with security has created one of the most stable environments in Syria. IS brutally removed all possible opposition in Raqqa and firmly established a monopoly on violence in the area. As the only remaining armed group in Raqqa, IS provides security through its Islamic Police Force[48] and the morals police, or hisba. The hisba focuses on rectifying alleged violation of public morality–such as drinking and commerce during prayer times.[49] Serious violations such as blasphemy are referred to a higher Islamic court. The Islamic Police Force is tasked with promoting internal security and daily governance, including manning checkpoints, writing traffic tickets, and investigating crime.[50] All cases are initially evaluated by an independent jurist, who may then send cases to the IS Sharia court system, but priority is given to ‘informal mediation’.[51] While the hisba cause problems for locals that do not buy into the IS view of Islam, the local police is a legitimacy for IS. Initially, the police force cracks down on groups responsible for looting and corruption, giving civilians a welcome reprieve from the chaos of the war.[52]

Amnesty International reports that common criminals are frequently brought to hidden detention centres, tortured, and imprisoned for extended periods with no knowledge of their alleged crime or any semblance of due process.[53] Despite this, IS courts enjoy considerable legitimacy from civilians across Syria, because the courts are seen to be less corrupt than the secular courts of the opposition or the Assad government.[54]

Beyond the sheer terror of living under daily threat of public execution or disappearance, most Syrians do not support extremist interpretations of Islamic law. Rather than soften its hardline ideological stances as Jabhat al-Nusra has done, IS seeks to change the minds of its populace. IS media campaigns and da’wah office activities aim to persuade Syrians to support IS rule as legitimate, despite its severity. IS has the additional hurdle that its fighting force is mostly foreign and its aims are not contained to Syria. 

The IS ‘social contract’ for Syrians is clear. According to Mara Revkin, it provides very limited individual rights, security and public services in exchange for unquestioned allegiance in the form of either military conscription or tax payments.[55] In the culture of fear that IS has created in its territories, any honest measure of public opinion is impossible. The parallel to Saddam Hussein’s Republic of Fear is all too obvious.[56]

Nusra Controlled Areas

While the Islamic State has dominated Western media and academic attention since 2013, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has slowly expanded its influence and authority across Syria since its founding in the autumn of 2011. Like IS, JN intends to establish an emirate, but not now. It instead adheres to the doctrine of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who attributed the defeat by US-led coalition forces of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2007 to ISI’s swift application of strict Sharia law and violence against potential Sunni supporters. JN leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani has tried to integrate JN into the Syrian opposition through cooperation on the battlefield and in the courthouse. JN goes to great lengths to portray itself as a Syrian organization. While JN does benefit from foreign fighters, JN has always emphasized the role of Syrians within the organization. In early 2016, Charles Lister estimates JN forces were 70% Syrian and 30% foreigners.[57]

JN has succeeded in controlling wide swathes of territory in Idlib province and is heavily involved in independent and joint governance projects with opposition forces throughout western Aleppo, Deraa, and rural Damascus. JN governance starts, as with IS, through its da’wah office. Beginning with one-off charity events JN develops its linkages to the community into lasting institutions designed to provide essential services.[58] In areas where it is firmly established, JN also repairs sewage systems and electricity lines – tasks involving technical sophistication.[59] Similarly to other armed groups, JN advertises their public services and charitable actions on a variety of different social media platforms.

Beyond the sheer terror of living under daily threat of public execution or disappearance, most Syrians do not support extremist interpretations of Islamic law. Rather than soften its hardline ideological stances as Jabhat al-Nusra has done, IS seeks to change the minds of its populace

It is nearly impossible to verify that these services are regularly provided when the camera is off. Indeed several accounts indicate that in many places under JN control people do not have permanent access to basic services.[60] Activists in JN-controlled areas report many of the same inadequacies and excesses in JN governance that plague the opposition, which faces many of the same funding challenges.[61] JN once relied on oil fields in Deir az-Zour and 50% of the Islamic State in Iraq’s (the predecessor organization to IS) revenue. Now JN is dependent on external funding from private individuals in Kuwait and Qatar to supplement its meager tax collections and customs duties in Northern Syria.[62] Comprehensive service provision aside, JN can sometimes deliver when it counts and reaps the benefits. In December 2012, JN assumed control of flour production and distribution in opposition-controlled Aleppo, and halved the prices of bread in some areas formerly controlled by FSA factions.[63] JN subsequently enjoyed a boost in popularity compared to more established factions in the area.

After finding a foothold in the local community, JN either sponsors existing Sharia courts or founds its own, which form the backbone of its governing strategy.[64] JN has founded and run courts in Aleppo, Deir az-Zour, Deraa, Damascus, and especially Idlib. JN tailors its courts to fit the local context of each village or neighbourhood.[65] Most often, in places where JN is starting to establish itself, it will join existing governance structures and share power with local groups,[66] though there are cases of JN setting up parallel and competitive governing institutions more favourable to its interests[67] JN’s integration with other rebel factions also manifests in its larger judiciary bodies, called Dar al Qada’a. Well-respected JN religious scholars dominate these courts, but opposition participation lends the courts increased legitimacy.[68] JN has also leveraged Idarat al-Manateq al-Muharara (Liberated District Administrations) to extend its influence independent of other armed groups in areas such as Ariha and Jisr al-Shughour.[69]

JN’s legitimacy is based on its reputation for “honesty and a lack of corruption.”[70] Unlike many opposition groups, JN’s governing institutions can affect real change. Its Sharia courts, for example, have an “executive security force to enforce its rulings,”[71] while other courts in opposition areas have a reputation for being ineffective.[72] In addition to better courts, there is reason to believe that service delivery is more robust in JN-controlled areas, compared to opposition alternatives.

JN’s pragmatism in enforcing Sharia, relative to IS, has bought it time and earned it a cooperative relationship with the opposition. But full implementation of Sharia and the notorious hudud (strict punishments such as cutting a hand off for stealing or crucifixion for blasphemy) will likely be met with popular resistance. Whenever JN’s jihadist ambitions for Syria and the wider Middle East emerge, JN’s opposition partners become uncomfortable.[73] The moderate and Islamist oppositions have accepted JN as a partner in the war against the Assad government, but will resist any attempt on JN’s part to establish an Islamic emirate. Part and parcel to their wider Syrian strategy, JN assured members of the moderate opposition that it would only establish an emirate “after a lengthy process of consultation.”[74]

Despite the ideological gap between JN and its more moderate opposition partners, JN knows that the opposition is and will continue to be dependent on them for military support. JN’s greatest source of strength is its military capabilities, and as a result during the cessation of hostilities JN was at its weakest. When people in Maraat al-Nu’man took to the streets against the regime and in support of local FSA brigade, Division 13, JN felt threatened enough that they responded with force. After JN fired into peaceful demonstrations and attacked Division 13, people took to the streets again – this time against JN. There were more than 100 days of consecutive demonstrations against JN in Maraat al-Nu’man, demostrating that there is still hope for popular support of a moderate Syrian opposition.

Kurdish-Controlled Areas

The Syrian uprising has enabled the unprecedented rise of the PYD (the Kurdish Democratic Union Party). Under Hafez Assad, a multitude of political parties defined Kurdish politics, but starting in the 1990s, the traditional political parties lost touch with the people they represented.[75] The relatively new PYD (founded in September 2003) was one of few actors able to mobilize people when the opportunity arose.

Despite the ideological gap between JN and its more moderate opposition partners, JN knows that the opposition is and will continue to be dependent on them for military support

In July 2012 the Syrian government withdrew the majority of its armed and civilian forces from Kurdish areas. With little bloodshed, the PYD and its armed wing the YPG (People’s Protection Units) took control of government facilities[76] and began providing government services.[77] The relative peacefully regime change raised questions of potential collaboration between the PYD and the Syrian government, and these claims have been substantiated by continued economic and security cooperation.[78] Youth groups led the Kurdish protests in 2011, as they had in the 2004 Qamishli uprising. They were quickly coopted and lost their independent voice in Kurdish politics.[79] Factionalism and indecisiveness among its rivals allowed the PYD to consolidate its political authority and expand into governance. The PYD and its armed wing, the YPG (People’s Protection Units), assumed control of local councils, other administrative offices,[80] Kurdish schools[81] and security checkpoints.[82] The PYD is known to assault,[83] kidnap[84] and forcibly remove its political rivals (both Kurdish and Arab) from power.

Traditional Kurdish parties have struggled to find their voice in the PYD-dominated political scene, even after joining forces in October 2011 and uniting as the Kurdish National Council (KNC). Tensions between the PYD and KNC were at an all time high in July 2012 when Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani intervened and enabled the creation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC).[85] The committee was designed to jointly administer Kurdish towns, but it became another forum for the PYD to exert its influence.[86] The KSC became responsible for negotiating with the opposition on behalf of the Kurds, but this likewise became a way for the PYD to check the potential power of the KNC.[87]

On 21 January, 2014 the PYD announced the creation of three autonomous regions in northern Syria.[88] The three cantons – Afrin, Kobani, and Jazeera – are decentralized. Each canton contains its own Legislative Council; Executive Council comprised of a president, two deputies, and 22 ministers; and a Judicial Council with a seven-member Supreme Constitutional Court and an election commission.[89] Kobani and Jazeera are contiguous. Afrin and Kobani are separated by Islamic State-controlled territory known as the ‘Manbij pocket,’ which is now under attack by the YPG and its Arab allies. The PYD aims to connect all its territory along the Turkish border; something that the Turkish government has opposed in the past.

The PYD’s effectiveness in governance is a result of the relatively stable security environment its security forces have managed to maintain, due in part to a de facto truce with the Syrian government. The YPG does not attack the few Syrian government forces and administrative centres that remain in Kurdish-controlled areas. The Syrian air force does not attack PYD areas. With US and Russian support, the YPG has focused its military activities mainly against the Islamic State, though it has also fought at times with Syrian opposition forces.

The Kurdish-controlled areas have been able to maintain “some semblance of normal daily life.”[90]

Despite being surrounded by hostile Turkey to the north, a temperamental Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the east, and the Islamic State at its south, the PYD has continued to ensure access to basic necessities. Children attend school, businesses run as normal and bread is baked and distributed,[91] all without the fear of constant aerial bombardment that defines life in opposition areas. The PYD governs more effectively than its opposition counterparts, due in part to its ability to extract resources. The PYD taxes smugglers operating on the Turkish border[92], has imposed duties on goods coming from the rest of Syria[93] and likely taxes local businesses.[94] The YPG also oversees security for the Syrian Government’s oil fields in Rumaylan, earning high rents.[95]

The PYD’s effectiveness in governance would be impossible without its security apparatus. Borders are secured by the YPG and its Arab allies within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The PYD’s separate internal security force, Asayîş, have been able to maintain law and order within Kurdish controlled areas. The Asayîş are a volunteer force that reports a majority of its cases to neighbourhood assemblies to mediate on the community level.[96] Extreme cases are referred to a Kurdish court system, but very often these extreme cases are politically motivated. Loyalty to the PYD appears to be the biggest determining factor in judicial appointments, given that some appointed judges have only completed elementary education.[97]

The PYD is making a concerted effort to represent itself as the legitimate governing authority in northern Syria, despite obvious challenges. Despite what the PYD claims to be committed to democratic pluralism, its methods of maintaining power vis-a-vis other political actors in northern Syria are increasingly authoritarian. The KNC and other political activists accuse the PYD of threatening, kidnapping and attacking political opponents. The PYD benefits from the YPG’s ability to protect civilians. Generally hostile Kurdish political parties rally behind the YPG in times of trouble, especially when confronting the Islamic State of Jahbat al-Nusra.[98]

As SDF forces have expanded westward, Kurds have taken control of non-Kurdish majority areas. The PYD now oversees governance for a large number of Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and others. The PYD has gone to great lengths to include other ethnic and religious groups in their new governments. Arabs and Syriac Christians have political parties and have stood in recent elections.[99] Certain government positions are reserved for Arabs and other minorities. At the same time, many Arabs have reservations about trusting Kurdish authorities. There have been many instances of YPG forces using alleged collusion with the Islamic State as a front to take control of valuable assets or remove inhabitants from strategic areas.[100] In addition, most of the Arab opposition strongly opposes any type of division in Syria, and is distrustful of Kurdish intentions.


War is politics by other means. The fragmentation war has caused during the past five years will condition Syrian politics for a long time to come. Kurdish aspirations for self-governance, the relative stability and continuity of institutions in government-controlled areas, the Islamization IS and JN have introduced into justice and policing in areas they control, the decentralized governance opposition-controlled areas have enjoyed will all be factors in whatever Syria emerges from its multi-sided and ferocious war.

It is impossible to predict the outcome. None of the multiple governing structures have won overwhelming allegiance even from the population where they are operating. It is possible that one of the more autocratic elements – the regime or the Islamic State – will in the end triumph and try to re-impose a highly centralized and oppressive state. But it seems more likely that when peace comes governance will still be fragmented and Syrians unwilling to knuckle under. Whenever the Cessation of Hostilities has calmed the situation in opposition-controlled areas, demonstrations often break out against the regime or Jabhat al-Nusra. Dissent in regime-controlled areas is often livelier than it was before 2011, when the autocracy was still widely enforced and accepted.

Reweaving Syria’s governance fragments into a single state will be an enormous challenge for whoever ends up in charge in Damascus. While the PYD that rules the Kurdish cantons nominally accepts Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, it will not want to surrender its autonomy or its arms. Even if the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are defeated militarily, other opposition Islamists will not want to give up Sharia courts and Islamic police. The more secular Syrian opposition is committed to a non-sectarian, pluralist, democratic state, one based on equal rights and religious freedom.

These different perspectives will be jockeying for power in what will necessarily be a chaotic post-war situation. Even in the best of all possible worlds, the post-war government will need to accommodate refugees and displaced people who want to go back to their homes, restore a semblance of law and order, try to prevent revenge killing, settle urgent property disputes and begin to revive the economy. The indigenous governing structures and political relations created out of necessity during war will be vital as peace returns.

There will be no international deus ex machina. The hundreds of thousands of peacekeeping troops required for a country the size of Syria are simply not available. Nor would most Syrians welcome them. The hundreds of billions of dollars needed for stabilization and reconstruction are unlikely to descend from the heavens. Lowered oil prices mean that the regime’s Iranian and Russian allies will be unable to carry the burden if the government were to win the war. If there is a negotiated outcome, the international financial institutions, the European Union and the US may be expected to carry the burden, but their generosity will be highly constrained by their own domestic political constraints, which are unfavourable to foreign aid.

Syrians someday may get their wish: to govern themselves, but under truly catastrophic circumstances and without much international help. Their wartime governance structures and political struggles will be at least part of the basis on which they will have to proceed.


[1] Jabhat al-Nusra has announced a split from al Qaeda, but it is not yet clear what that really means.

[2] Action Group for Syria Final communiqué 30.06.2012. Accessed July 29, 2016.

[3] Lund, Aron. “The Political Geography of Syria’s War: An Interview With Fabrice Balanche.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. January 30, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2016.


[5] Khaddour, Kheder. 2015. The Assad Regime’s Hold on the Syrian State. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[6] Martinez, Jose Ciro, and Brent Eng. “Assad’s Bread Problem.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. February 3, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2016.

[7] Khaddour, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The Sustainability of Syria’s War.” The Soufan Group. 23 September, 2015. Accessed 8 July, 2016. .

[10] Khalaf, Rana. Governance Without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building During Conflict. Syria Studies, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 3, p. 37-72, June 2015. ISSN 2056-3175. Available at: Date accessed: 8 July 2016.

[11] Fakih, Lama and Ole Solvang. He Didn’t Have to Die” Indiscriminate Attacks by Opposition Groups in Syria. Human Rights Watch. March 2015. Date accessed: July 27, 2016.

[12] Lund, Aron. Who Are the Pro-Assad Militias?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2 March, 2015. Accessed 6 July, 2016.

[13] Khaddour, 2015.

[14] Lund, 2015

[15] Lund, 2015.

[16] Lund, 2015.

[17] Lund, Aron. “A Fistful of Dollars: The Dwindling Value of Syrian State Salaries – The Century Foundation.” The Century Foundation. May 13, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

[18] Lund, 2016

[19] Lund, 2016

[20] Khalaf, 2016.

[21] Mahmoud, Rustom. The Power and Political Future of the Syrian Opposition’s Field Commanders. Arab Reform Initiative, 2016.

[22] Aljundi, Ghias. Local Governance Inside Syria: Challenges, Opportunities, and Recommendations. Washington, DC. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2014.

[23] “Local Councils in Syria A Sovereignty Crisis in Liberated Areas.” Menapolis. September 2013.

[24] Khalaf, 2016.


[26] Khalaf, 2015.

[27] Khalaf, Rana. Governance Without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building During Conflict. Syria Studies, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 3, p. 37-72, June 2015. ISSN 2056-3175. Available at: Date accessed: 8 July 2016.

[28] Menapolis, 2013.

[29] Khaddour, 2015.

[30] Khalaf 2015.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Al-Hazzaa, Hazzaa Adnan. “Syria: Sharia Courts Impose Justice in Rebel-Held Idlib.” 26 March, 2014. Accessed July 08, 2016.

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid.

[35] Josh Earnest, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/4/2016, presentation, White House Press Secretary, Washington, DC, 4 February, 2016. 

[36] Aymenn al-Tamimi. “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4, 2015, accessed 1 June, 2016.

[37] Christoph Reuter. “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, 18 April, 2015.

[38] Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds, “ISIS Governance in Syria”, The Institute for the Study of War Middle East Security Report 22, 2014: 15, accessed 1 June, 2016.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid, 14.

[41] al-Tamimi.

[42] See: Rana Khalaf “Beyond Arms and Beards,” in Caliphate and Islamic Global Politics, Timothy Poirson and Robert L. Oprisko, (eds.), E-International Relations, published: 7 January, 2015, accessed 31 May, 2016.; Quinn Mecham. “Experts Weigh in (part 5): Is ISIS Good at Governance?” Experts Weigh in, Brookings, 2016, ; Mara Revkin “ISIS’ Social Contract, Foreign Affairs, 10 January, 2016, accessed 1 June, 2016

[43] Caris and Reynolds, 22.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Khalaf, Rana.

[46] Ibid.


[48] Ibid.

[49] Mara Revkin, “The legal foundations of the Islamic State” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper 23, (2016): 25.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Khalaf.

[53]Amnesty International. Syria: Rule of Fear: ISIS Abuses in Detention in Northern Syria, published 19 December, 2013, accesses 13 June, 2016.

[54] Caris and Reynolds, 18.

[55] Mara Revkin.

[56] Kanan Makiya’s book.

[57] Charles LISTER, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World

Analysis Paper, No. 24, 2016, p 34-35.

[58] Jennifer Cafarella, “Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria” Middle East Security Report 25, 2014: 15, accessed 7 May, 2016, 

[59] Ibid.

[60] Yasir Abbas “How al-Qaeda is Winning in Syria” War on the Rocks,last modified 10 May, 2016,

[61] Borzou Daragahi, “Syria’s Al-Qaeda Branch Now Wants To Rule Like ISIS” Buzzfeed, last modified 24 March, 2016, accessed 27 July 2016

[62] Lister, 2016

[63] Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad, London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2015

[64] Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman. “Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength” U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and Al Qaeda 3 (2016): 19.

[65] Cafarella, “Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria,” 37.

[66] Abbas.

[67] See the founding of the Aleppo Sharia Commission that competed with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council of Aleppo in “Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.”

[68] Cafarella et al, “Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength,” 19.

[69] Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, 30.

[70] Lister, The Syrian Jihad ,102.

[71] Abbas.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, 244.

[74] Ibid.

[75]Allsopp, Harriet. “The Kurdish Autonomy Bid in Syria: Challenges and Reactions,” in The Kurdish Spring: Geopolitical Changes and the Kurds, edited by Mohammed MA Ahmed and Michael M. Gunter, p. 226, 2013.

[76] “Amudah: State Workers Vacate Several Offices,” KurdWatch, 27 July, 2012.

[77] “Afrin: PYD controls water and electricity supply,”KurdWatch, 28 July, 2012.

[78] Kurdish YPG fighters oversee security of the regime’s oil pipelines in al-Hasakah as described in “What Does the Syrian-Kurdish Opposition Want?” KurdWatch, 9 July 2013.

[79] “What Does the Syrian-Kurdish Opposition Want?”, p.5.

[80] Allsopp, p. 236.

[81] Ibid.

[82] “Al-Qamishli: PYD controls cross-border smuggling” KurdWatch, 3 July, 2012.

[83] Allsopp, 236.

[84] “What Does the Syrian-Kurdish Opposition Want?”

[85] Ibid, 19.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Ibrahim Hemeidi, “Syria’s Kurds Formally Join Opposition Coalition,” Al-Monitor, 28 August, 2013.

[88] Robert S. Ford and Ali El Yassir, The Kurdish PYD & the Challenge of Rebuilding a Syrian State, The Middle East Institute, 25 August, 2015,

[89] Ford and Yassir.

[90] Allsopp, 239-240.

[91] Ibid.

[92] “Al-Qamishli: PYD controls cross-border smuggling,” KurdWatch, 3 July, 2012

[93] “Al-Qamishli: PYD imposes duties on Syrian goods,” KurdWatch, 7 December, 2014

[94] “Tall Tamr: PYD kidnaps leading members of the Yekîtî,” KurdWatch, 13 April, 2014

[95] “What Does the Syrian-Kurdish Opposition Want?”, 13.

[96] Cemgil, Can, and Clemens Hoffmann. “The ‘Rojava Revolution’ in Syrian Kurdistan: A Model of Development for the Middle East?” IDS Bulletin 47, no. 3, p.65, 2016.

[97] “What Does the Syrian-Kurdish Opposition Want?”, 13.

[98] “Raʾs al-ʿAyn: Fighting again between FSA an YPG” KurdWatch, 26 January, 2013.

[99] Ford and Yassir.

[100] See many examples in: “Ethnic cleansing in Tall Abyad? Characteristics of YPG and PYD rule in the areas captured from the IS” KurdWatch 11, (2016).