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Demystifying the Syrian Conflict: Rebel-held area Dynamics – Panel Summary


  • Basel al-Junaidy, Al Sharq Forum
  • Zaina Erhaim, Independent Analyst
  • Nawar Sh. Oliver, Omran for Strategic Studies

On 1 March, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘Demystifying the Syrian Conflict’. The aim of the conference was to shed light on four key themes that are sometimes oversimplified or little understood in public discourse.

The first theme is the dynamics in rebel-held areas, especially as they relate to the relationship between armed groups and local residents.

One rebel-held area of strategic importance—and one that is currently undergoing intense bombardment by the regime and Russia—is eastern Ghouta. As Nawar Oliver showed, this bombardment has pushed the two main rebel groups in the area, Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam, to cooperate with one another, after having fought each other over resources. Jaysh al-Islam and others are willing to evacuate civilians, but the regime is not allowing that, leaving the locals with no choice but to cooperate with fighters to defend themselves.

Similar circumstantial factors play out in Idlib, the largest governorate in Syria under rebel control. The main group that is operating in the area militarily is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

However, HTS has not managed to set deep roots in Idlib. As Basel al-Junaidy illustrated, most of those currently fighting with HTS in Idlib are internally displaced persons (IDPs), which form 55% of Idlib’s population. HTS targeted IDPs more than Idlib locals – for social and economic rather than ideological reasons. Many of these IDPs fled their areas after fighting Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the east but found themselves in Idlib destitute and resentful, and HTS has taken advantage of that.

Furthermore, most of those fighting with HTS were already fighters before joining it. In that sense, joining it appears to be more a pragmatic than ideological decision. Unlike other groups, HTS has the funding, strength and equipment.

Zaina Erhaim added that others joined HTS because they were unable to gain a livelihood elsewhere and needed an income to support a family. But local civil society is playing an important role in combatting extremism. Local resistance to HTS has pushed it out of other villages such as Saraqeb, Atarib and Maarrat al Numan.

HTS is also facing the challenge of internal defections, Junaidi added. Fighters who follow Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda have separated from the core supporters of HTS leader Abo Mohammad al-Jolani. Within those supporters, foreign jihadists — unable to return to their countries, work or speak the local language — have no prospects other than fighting, whether under the umbrella of HTS or others.

Junaidi also commented on the Turkish-led campaign against Kurdish groups in Afrin, saying that Turkey did not have a hard time in gaining local militias’ support to fight in Afrin because the latest regime attack near Saraqeb left Idlib’s population feeling threatened and more willing to accept Turkish protection from potential regime advances. However, in areas that have been captured by Turkey for a while, such as Jarablus, the local population has started to realize that the protection comes at a cost, with Turkey taking over the running of schools and local authorities.

The Turkish model of governance in Jarablus is one of many in areas outside regime control. Junaidi pointed out that a rising development in those areas is the rise of councils of notables, which contain the main social, religious and tribal figures from the village (such a council is more developed in Daraa than Idlib, because the former has a tribal nature that extends across villages and cities). This council makes key decisions and provides legitimacy to local councils and military factions.

In rebel-held areas where these councils are influential, there is therefore a resurrection of traditional authority. Erhaim argued that this dynamic counters efforts to bring new political voices or minorities onto the political scene. This return to traditional hierarchies of authority has meant that women are being pushed to the margins when it comes to politics.  However, a comparison of women’s participation in the labour market before and after the revolution found that their participation in Idlib has increased, despite the presence of HTS. This is mainly caused by presence of civil society there. The comparison found the opposite in Daraa, because while HTS is not there, Jordan has placed restrictions, particularly on civil society.

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