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Civil Society is the Last Line of Defence Against HTS in Northwest Syria

Following the onslaught of Hay’it Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) on Aleppo’s western suburbs in January 2019 and the advances of the Syrian regime in southern Idlib between April 2019 and January 2020, independent grassroots local councils have disappeared. All support to service provision, stabilization efforts and local governance was initially halted before being reduced to a bare minimum. Local actors, including local civil society, have been largely deprived of means to continue their community work and were left alone to face HTS dominance, emphasizing the need for continuing international support of local civil society.

Prior to these advances by HTS, local councils in areas outside the regime’s control in northwest Syria played an important role in local governance and managed to achieve a significant level of legitimacy. Several civil society organizations helped support the professionalization of local councils, such as LDSPS (Local Development and Small Projects Support), LACU (Local Administrative Council Unit) and LDO (Local Development Organization). Support ranged from project management to capacity building, and in some instances, direct funding. Unfortunately, such support is now harder as the area is under the control of designated terrorist entities, this is especially true in Greater Idlib.

Civil society actors, in cooperation with local councils, were also key in stabilization efforts in Greater Idlib, including developing livelihood projects, providing basic humanitarian infrastructure and supporting education. As HTS consolidated its authority over a large part of Greater Idlib, it imposed its control and influence over existing local councils. Those who refused were dissolved and replaced by appointed councils directly linked to the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG). Moreover, a lot of the roles and powers of local councils were transferred to the SSG’s technical directorates, especially service provision and relief coordination, making non-humanitarian work by civic actors almost impossible.

However, stabilization efforts remain an important element in areas outside the regime’s control, along with service provision and local conflict resolution. These are issues that civil society actors in HTS-controlled areas can help address while ensuring independence and neutrality. Indeed, as HTS control over local communities varies from one area to another – it is absolute in places such as Harem and Salqin, but less visible and entrenched in places like Jisr Al Shoughour and Maaret Misrin – there is space for civic actors to step in and fill the gap.

Currently, local civic actors in HTS areas are mainly involved with relief projects, such as food basket distribution, shelter and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). Several volunteering teams with different levels of organization have sprung up across the area. The most recognized and well-established of them is the Molham volunteering team, which largely relies on private donations from outside Syria. Most of the volunteering teams work in camp management, orphan sponsorship and help with medical expenses.

A very important sector currently managed by civic actors is the health sector. Seven large NGOs are responsible for the management of the health sector, including the management of hospitals, provision of medical services, and referral of cases to Turkey. They also play a key role in community awareness. This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they have been both the first responders and the main interlocutors with international organizations such as WHO.

Another role, albeit less visible, played by civic actors is in the field of education, mainly informal education. Most of the schools in HTS-controlled areas have either been shut down or come under indirect influence of the SSG, which has tried to influence the decisions of the interim government’s education directorate. Several local NGOs have therefore taken it upon themselves to develop alternative education and vocational training programmes. Such programmes offer basic education to school-aged children and the chance to take national examinations.

Local civil society organizations in HTS areas can benefit from the negative perceptions of HTS-linked governance actors and help fill the gap in important areas such as inclusion and diversity, local service provision – including livelihood opportunities – and local conflict resolution and peacebuilding. To address inclusion and diversity, they should focus on creating safe spaces for women to meet and discuss their issues and priorities. Women’s economic empowerment projects can be an excellent entry point for creating such spaces. Addressing women’s participation in public life and creating discussion fora that include other parts of the community is possible in areas where HTS’s grip on the local community is not absolute.

On the issue of service provision, local civil society can play an important coordinating role within the community in preparing beneficiary lists and coordinating distribution to ensure transparency and inclusion. They can also liaise with the donor community as they are perceived as independent, and can lead efforts on need assessments and community satisfaction surveys. Moreover, they are by definition job creators and can provide seed funding for micro livelihood projects. International support to these local actors needs to be small and incremental so as not to attract the attention of the local de facto authorities and to avoid any aid diversion or politicization.

The most important role local civil society can play in HTS-held areas is local conflict resolution and mediation. As local communities lose faith in the existing judicial system, they look for alternatives to protect their rights and ensure justice is served. Local civic actors can serve as excellent mediators and even arbitrators, especially if they are perceived by their local community as independent and authoritative. Local civic actors also play a key role in easing social tensions between internally displaced people and host communities by developing joint livelihood programs and cultural exchange spaces.

Local civil society actors are the last line of defence in HTS-held areas. They are the protectors of social cohesion and important contributors to local peace. Therefore, it is imperative to continue international support to these local structures while ensuring their independence, local relevance and protection. To do that international donors should rely on Syrian intermediaries with proven experience in these areas, that have an extensive due diligence process and can demonstrate and implement the required money laundering and anti-terrorism regulations. Donors also need to properly size their support so as not to attract the attention of de facto authorities: the motto should be ‘go small and go incremental’. Finally, Syrian intermediaries can also play an essential role in monitoring and evaluation to ensure aid reaches its intended beneficiaries. Therefore, continuous capacity building in monitoring and evaluation, risk management and due diligence is crucial.