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The SDF’s Attempts at Local Governance in Deir Ezzor Have Failed

  • Kalam Admin

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

Its administrative structures have marginalized local clans and failed to break away from dependence on Kurdish militias.

The Deir Ezzor Civilian Council, an administrative experiment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the areas it controls in the governorate, is headed for failure.

Formed one year ago, the council was meant to formalize a de facto governance model that the Kurdish-led SDF used following its capture of most of the areas of the eastern Euphrates in Deir Ezzor from ISIS. But instead this has marginalized the clans that form the majority of the local communities, and the council’s reliance on Kurdish military groups has made it incapable of taking an independent line.

The inaugural meeting on 24 September 2017 was attended by civil and clan leaders and representatives of the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council (the SDF’s political wing). The council as formed consists of a joint head, two deputies (one of whom is a woman) and 12 technical committees to cover various spheres of government, with Arabs making up council members in keeping with the demographics of the areas of eastern Euphrates in Deir Ezzor.

Among the council’s initial goals was electing new leadership and expanding the scope of representation within the council to include all areas controlled by the SDF, including clan components.

But at a second meeting this month, after the SDF took control of most of the regions east of the Euphrates, there were no significant changes.

The council has retained the same leadership, with changes limited to some bureaus and committees. The council did not take under consideration the participation of clan components in these regions, in particular the Aqidat and Baqara tribes – major Arab clans in Syria with a significant presence in the areas east of the Euphrates.

This provoked an outcry among local and clan constituents, and grassroots petition was circulated rejecting the results of the council’s meeting and demanding that the parties responsible rescind all of the decisions. A delegation of local and clan leaders also visited the coordinator of coalition forces in the Ayn Issa area of Raqqa more than once to ask the coalition to pressure the Syrian Democratic Council to restructure the Deir Ezzor council. However, the demands of the local communities fell on deaf ears.

This marginalization has prompted the clans to form their own local and civilian committees, unconnected to the Deir Ezzor Civilian Council and the Syrian Democratic Council, as has occurred in the regions of the Shaitat clan and in the city of Shuhayl, as well as other towns and villages.

In addition to its neglect of clans and local social structures, the council’s complete dependence on Kurdish military groups have made it unable to present itself as a credibly independent body. Without any funding to reactivate basic services in its areas of influence, it is regarded as of little worth by many in the local populace.

The failure of the Syrian Democratic Committee and the SDF to reach a resolution with the clans regarding the Deir Ezzor Civilian Council, and its lack of funds, are in contrast with the rise of the local independent committees.

These committees give priority to civil initiatives, and their most important projects include the rehabilitation of schools, the overhaul of irrigation projects and the operation of drinking water plants, among others. The credibility of the committees is based on the fact that their most important sources of funding are contributions from people from the governorate now living abroad.

Although some committees seek to reach out to international organizations for funding, their work is supervised by people of the region who work voluntarily. In contrast to the council, the clan affiliation of those working in the committees facilitates communication between the committees and the local communities because they understand the nature of these communities and the best methods for working with them.

This local approach would appear a better model of governance for the area going forward.It highlights that the legitimacy of local governance bodies is best established through their close connection with local communities and not through being projects set up by external actors.