Understanding the different survival strategies that communities use will be important to any future reconciliation process.
Regime-led offensives on rebel-controlled areas are not the only armed clashes feared by civilians living in northwestern Syria. There has also been a significant increase in infighting among insurgent groups operating there in the past year.
In response to such confrontations, local communities have developed different tactics to protect themselves, which vary from full submission to fighting back. Choosing a specific approach is usually based on the strategic importance of the respective areas and the ability of its inhabitants to act collectively as a unified community.
The first large-scale rebel infighting took place after ISIS was created in April 2013, as the group was systematically attacking other rebels to seize the areas under their control. Fear of ISIS, which depended on a big network of secret informants, played a significant role in creating mistrust between people. Submission, as a result, was the main tactic used by many communities to protect themselves from ISIS atrocities.
However that changed in January 2014 when some communities in rural Aleppo rejected ISIS’s dominance and decided to fight back. The ability local residents in those areas to act collectively allowed them to defeat ISIS, which in turn encouraged others to rebel against the group.
Such self-preservation tactics continued to be relevant to the inhabitants of rebel-held areas due frequent attacks carried out by the Nusra Front (now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, HTS) against other anti-Assad fractions such as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Hazm Movement, Jish al-Mujahidin, Ahrar al-Sham and others.
At this point, civilians in different areas published public statements attempting to side-line themselves from the armed clashes. Some communities did that in order to avoid killing other Muslims and getting distracted from fighting Assad, while others did it to protect themselves and prevent intercommunity clashes between supporters of different groups. Such statements were usually supported by local rebel factions who did not have a direct stake in the infighting.
For example, during HTS attacks against Ahrar al-Sham last July, the town of Maart Hermeh published a statement to distance itself from the fighting. The statement clearly warned off any armed faction from entering or crossing the town for the purpose of fighting other factions. The town also went on to warn that violators of such conditions would face direct confrontations with locals. Finally, the statement justified such measures as necessary means to ensure the safety or civilians living in the town and prevent any societal divisions among its citizens.
While such approaches have helped some towns to protect themselves, they have also allowed HTS to manipulate local communities to focus on their short-term survival and ignore the group’s attempts to dominate the region. Usually, as soon as HTS starts its offensives, the group immediately begins brokering local deals with different towns to neutralize them and prevent rivals from allying with them.
For example, during HTS attacks against Ahrar al-Sham last July, the group was able to neutralize many of Ahrar’s strongholds, such as Binish and Taftanaz. Likewise, HTS was able to use these local deals to block Ahrar’s reinforcements by not allowing them to enter these areas.
But such approaches have not always been successful in protecting the communities using them. One of the reasons for such failures was the inability of civilians to convince local rebel groups operating inside their towns to stay neutral. As a result, the targeted faction was able to use such incidents to enter the respective towns under the pretext of self-protection.
The inability of locals to act collectively and demonstrate a unified position against the infighting and the groups involved in it has been another flaw in such tactics. Rebel groups, despite their military capacity, have always been cautious not to enter a direct confrontation with local communities, as there is no way to win such battles. But insurgents fear doing so when locals are able to demonstrate that the whole community, or at least a big percentage of it, will firmly resist any attempt to seize it.
These strategies are not available to everyone. The strategic importance of some towns and villages (such as transportation or commercial hubs) has played a significant role in preventing such areas to from side-lining themselves. Areas of such importance are rarely allowed to stay independent. Thus, they usually move from the authority of one group to another.
Understanding the various self-preservation mechanisms used by different communities in Syria does not only help to identify the tactics and circumstances that bind people and allow them to act collectively as unified social units. Such information is also important to create community-based approaches to resist radical groups, such as HTS, and to lead any future reconciliation process among community members and across communities.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.