How civil society can act as community interlocutors in Deir ez-Zor

  • Reem Salahi

    The Senior Adviser to Syria, MENA program, International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP)

    كبيرة مستشاري برنامج سوريا / الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا في اللجنة الدولية لشؤون المفقودين

Civil society in Deir ez-Zor remains constrained by local power and community dynamics and needs further support and empowerment from the international community to reach its full potential.

After ISIS was defeated in Deir ez-Zor and the Kurdish-led Self Administration (SA) took control over large parts of its northern and eastern countryside, civil society and community-based organizations have increasingly taken on the role of interlocutors between the new administration and the local community, as well as within the community itself. While civil society has played a larger and arguably more central role in enhancing vertical relationships, it has also provided critical support to key actors and stakeholders in mediating horizontal conflicts. Yet civil society remains constrained by local power and community dynamics and needs further support and empowerment from the international community.

Vertical relationships

Deir ez-Zor was one of the last regions to come under the rule of the SA following the defeat of ISIS in March 2018. For many in Deir ez-Zor – an entirely Arab province – the Kurdish-led SA was a new and foreign body. Unlike most other regions in northeast Syria, Deir ez-Zor has no Kurdish population and lacks any connection to the governing authorities of the SA and their affiliated military forces, which has posed a major challenge to the acceptance of the SA. In addition, due to the continued presence of ISIS cells in parts Deir ez-Zor, the SA continues to view the province through a security lens, resulting in the general neglect of the area by not only the SA but also – at least until more recently – the international community.

While initial donor support to Deir ez-Zor has focused on stabilization activities, rehabilitation, and basic services, following requests by local civil society actors, they are now receiving increasing support to help them act as interlocutors between the local population and the SA. These efforts have included dialogue sessions with local actors to discuss issues such as security, governance, services, the economy and producing actionable recommendations for the SA.

In one such effort, community-based organizations came together and met with local actors in five different villages and towns in Deir ez-Zor to mitigate tensions between local communities and the governing authorities. Based on the outcomes of a series of dialogue sessions, the community-based organizations provided recommendations to SA civilian and military officials on three general topic areas: security challenges in Deir ez-Zor, local governing bodies, and more representative and participatory governance. Recommendations included the issuing of a general amnesty for all political detainees held by the SA, empowering local governing bodies to make meaningful – not token – decisions, and improving access to services in line with other SA-controlled regions. In addition, civil society organizations asked that the SA continue to engage them more regularly and meaningfully.

Another such effort was in collaboration with civil society organizations in Raqqa and Tabqa and focused on issues impacting security and their root causes. Recommendations were developed through a consultative dialogue process between seven community-based organizations and local communities focusing on five main areas: the negative impact of drugs on local communities, the role of community-based organizations in strengthening security and stability, the need to integrate internally displaced people (IDPs) and the forcibly displaced with host communities, the importance of empowering women and youth to stabilize the region, and the impact of child labour on security. The recommendations were subsequently presented to the SA’s provincial authorities and security sector officials.

While these efforts remain nascent, they highlight an important role that civil society can and should play in elevating the voices and concerns of local communities to the governing authorities – a role that is at the heart of civil society engagement and action.

Horizontal relationships

Beyond mediating vertical relationships, community-based organizations in Deir ez-Zor have also started supporting horizontal conflict resolution. As a tribal society, Deir ez-Zor relies heavily on tribal leaders and notables in its social affairs, including any conflict resolution. As it has grown, civil society has increasingly sought to enter this space and improve traditional systems by providing both training and capacity-building to community and tribal leaders.

Recently, community-based organizations helped in the formation of five mediation committees composed of tribal leaders and community notables. While the organizations do not engage in direct mediation, they have played a supportive role in forming, training and advising the committees. To date, these mediation committees have succeeded in resolving a number of local conflicts.

For example, in the village of Jadeed Bakara in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, the committee resolved a conflict between the owners of a bakery and local families who complained about the unequal distribution of bread. The mediation committee engaged both sides and determined that there was insufficient flour to meet the needs of residents. Following a series of meetings, a request was successfully made to the SA to increase the amount of flour by 800 kilos, thereby resolving the bread crisis in the area. In another conflict, the mediation committee intervened between two tribes following a revenge killing. According to the traditions in Deir ez-Zor, the punishment for such crimes is for both the killer and their family (up to fourth-degree relatives) to leave the area. Yet such collective punishment is inhumane, especially during such difficult times. Following multiple mediation sessions, the family of the deceased agreed to have only the killer leave the area while allowing his family to stay.

Such efforts are particularly important given the lack of a sufficient judicial framework and laws in large parts of Syria, and help ensure that individuals don’t take the law into their own hands.

Limitations and recommendations

While the international community has made significant progress in empowering civil society to play a role in conflict resolution, the reality is that such actors are still very much limited by both the power and community dynamics at play in Deir ez-Zor. When it comes to vertical relationships, civil society is generally restricted to understanding community grievances and elevating them to the authorities without being able to proactively make the necessary changes. In terms of horizontal relationships, civil society cannot compete with the existing actors that traditionally carry out conflict resolution. Yet as civil society grows and becomes better trained, it can play a much-needed complementary role.

As the international community seeks to better support civil society in Deir ez-Zor, they should seek to ensure that local authorities don’t view civil society as competition but as something that adds value and can help the SA gain both legitimacy and popularity in areas outside of their traditional strongholds. In addition, civil society actors are necessary partners in the rebuilding of the social fabric following years of conflict and mass displacements, but the SA must give them sufficient space to operate independently and not seek to co-opt or tokenize them.

In addition, international donors and implementers working in Deir ez-Zor should engage with civil society and relevant local actors as partners in determining the needs of the area and not rely on pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all initiatives or approaches. Those based within the communities are far more aware of the challenges and opportunities for civil society activity. Similarly, donors and implementers should not limit their engagement to organizations but recognize that civil society includes non-traditional actors like tribal leaders and notables who may have a large impact on society. These individuals, as seen by the mediation committees, continue to carry great importance in areas like Deir ez-Zor and should be further empowered.