Intermediaries of Return
07 October 2019

Intermediaries of Return

07 October 2019

Table of Contents

Intermediaries of Return​

07 October, 2019


Table Of Contents

Executive Summary

In several important respects, the conflict in Syria has been largely frozen throughout 2019. Indeed, no major changes in zones of control have taken place, and areas that lie outside the Government of Syria’s direct military control are essentially under the purview of international actors. At first glance, returns in Syria appear similarly frozen. Currently, 5,564,322 Syrians remain registered as refugees with UNHCR, and according to UN and local NGO partners, 6,017,736 Syrians are internally displaced. However, these figures can be misleading, as returns are taking place, albeit primarily among IDPs, and with limited visibility on the part of the wider development and humanitarian community. Indeed, according to UN and local NGO partners, 172,237 displaced Syrians returned to their communities of origin between January and July 2019, while 1,250,956 returns took place in 2018. Naturally, given the enormity of the Syrian displacement crisis, returns are a concern of the foremost humanitarian, economic, and political importance. Returns have been the subject of a growing discourse that has predominantly focused on the conditions surrounding return — specifically, whether a given return movement is voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable. While such conditions are indeed highly consequential, the precise mechanisms of return are arguably of greater importance in understanding the trajectory of future returns movements, yet these mechanisms have rarely been scrutinized.

To that end, one critical and widely overlooked mechanism that is crucial to IDP returns in Syria is the role played by local intermediaries. Fundamentally, Syria remains a security state in which military and security agencies exercise significant control over bureaucratic procedures, administrative policies, and personal mobility. As a result, security forces frequently serve as a major obstacle to return, and in many communities returns movements must be negotiated. Often, these negotiations are the de facto remit of local intermediaries — including local notables, religious figures, tribal leaders, businessmen, armed group commanders, and state employees — who serve as critical conduits between individual communities and the Syrian state itself. However, the involvement of an intermediary does not in itself guarantee that return will be possible, nor does it ensure that return movements will be safe, voluntarily, dignified, or sustainable. It is nonetheless increasingly apparent that the involvement of a local intermediary to negotiate return between a community and central authorities is an important, and perhaps a necessary condition for return movements of any significant size inside Syria.

This paper is the product of extensive research, numerous key informant interviews with local stakeholders, and analysis of publicly available data and data compiled by UN and local NGO partners. It should be noted that although intermediaries are also understood to play an important role in return movements of refugees, especially from neighboring countries, mechanisms of refugee return are beyond the scope of this study, which is entirely focused on the role played by intermediaries in IDP returns.

The Politics of Intermediaries

In some ways, the ongoing conflict has dramatically altered the way in which the Government of Syria interacts with local communities. After eight years of war, what was once a seemingly omnipresent and highly centralized top-down structure has become much more decentralized and localized. Individual communities have now formed new relationships to the Government of Syria, often based on the degree to which these communities opposed or supported the Government throughout the conflict. However, although decentralization is ongoing and community relationships to the central state continue to transform, one factor remains consistent from the pre-war period: the reliance of the central state on local intermediaries as a means of accessing, interacting with, and controlling Syrian communities.

What Is An Intermediary?

The concept of local intermediaries in Syria is explored in depth in the recently published ‘Building from the Wreckage: Intermediaries in Contemporary Syria’, edited by Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur.[footnote]Indeed, much of this understanding of intermediaries is derived from ‘Building from the Wreckage: Intermediaries in Contemporary Syria’. It is an excellent reference, and likely required reading for any professionals working on Syria; this is especially true for humanitarian or development actors, considering the role that local intermediaries play, and will continue to play, in dictating the politics of access in Syria.[/footnote]  As defined by Khaddour and Mazur, a local intermediary is “an actor that connects a local community to outside authorities.”  In this context, ‘community’ can refer to any number of entities: a small village, a city, a large family network, a tribe, or an entire region.[footnote]Essentially, a local community is a closely linked network of individuals. Khaddour and Mazur, citing Charles Tilly, utilize the concept of ‘trust networks’ when discussing Syrian communities; a trust network is: “A densely tied community from which entry and exit are difficult, and whose members utilize this network for their high-risk undertakings, such as significant business ventures and marriage decisions.”[/footnote]  In pre-war Syria, the ‘outside authority’ — in this case the Al-Assad regime — long relied on networks of local intermediaries to ‘access’ or negotiate with communities, exercise control indirectly, or distribute resources.  The politics of intermediaries has not fundamentally changed since the pre-war period; what has changed is the identity of the intermediaries and the outside authorities interacting with local communities, and often, the makeup and needs of communities themselves.

Who Are Intermediaries, And How Do They Function?

Given the centrality of intermediaries to state-community relations in Syria, it is important to identify how intermediaries are selected and how they relate to both communities and the state. The relationships between an intermediary and a community in question are highly diverse, contextually specific, and dependent upon a number of factors, while the profiles of individuals who act as intermediaries are equally varied. Indeed, intermediaries in Syria range from local notables, religious figures, and tribal leaders, to public personalities, traders, businessmen, armed group commanders, and state employees.

Broadly speaking however, there are two kinds of intermediary-community relationships.[footnote]In the interest of functionality, this breakdown of intermediary types no doubt erases some important distinctions. There are entire bodies of research on the topic of intermediaries, community state relations, and patronage networks. Again, the introduction of ‘Building from the Wreckage: Intermediaries in Contemporary Syria’, as well as the studies within the book, give an excellent overview of the diversity of intermediary relationships in Syria.[/footnote] In a patronage/contractual relationship; and an ‘organic’ relationship.  In a patronage/contractual relationship, the intermediary is not necessarily originally a member of the community; either the community or the outside authority selects and uses the intermediary as a proxy in negotiations.  In these cases, intermediaries derive authority from their ability to act as a negotiator, broker, or representative, often through their capacity to channel patronage. One example of this paradigm is Kinana Hweijah, a Syrian television presenter who took part in negotiating local reconciliation agreements in numerous communities in central Syria.  Another is Khalil Taher (also known as ‘Ghawwar’), a businessman in northern Hama who is the essential actor negotiating and dictating cross-line trade dynamics at commercial crossing points in northern Hama.

In ‘organic’ relationships, the intermediary comes from the community itself.  To some degree, these actors derive their authority from personal status or interests within the community, and/or a relationship with the state.  For example, in As-Sweida, Sheyoukh Al-Aqal (the Druze religious leadership) often function as intermediaries and negotiators with the Government of Syria, due to their social standing in the Druze community as well as their long-standing relationship with the upper echelons of the Government of Syria.[footnote]Other examples would include tribal leaders, local negotiation committees, or religious leadership figures.[/footnote]  Another example is a group of businessmen from Duma city, who recently relied on their relationships to a member of parliament to lobby for more flexible security and mobility restrictions in the city.[footnote]In late May 2019, a group of prominent businessmen from several of Duma’s large business families reportedly advocated to Mohamad Khayr Saryoul, a Syrian member of parliament. Reportedly, they did so on behalf of other Duma community leaders, and due to the fact that movement restrictions were impacting local business dynamics. Following intermediary outreach the Governor of Rural Damascus, Alaa Mounir Ibrahim, reportedly alleviated movement restrictions on civilians in Duma city, at least temporarily.[/footnote]

Why Do Intermediaries Matter?

As noted above, relationships among Syrian communities, the Government of Syria, and intermediaries have been in flux since the start of the conflict.  During this period, the Government of Syria has increasingly decentralized, thus heightening its reliance on local intermediaries as critical conduits to access and negotiate with communities.  Given this decentralization and the lack of formal state authority in many communities, intermediaries now play an important role in various sectors, including political and military negotiations, the proliferation of new service provision networks, war economy dynamics, the design and implementation of local security enforcement, and the allocation of state services.  Moreover, intermediaries increasingly act as interlocutors between communities and various ‘central authorities’; for example, the intervention of international actors, especially Russia, has created new and important authority structures which sometimes exist in parallel to the Government of Syria on the local level.

Most notably for the purposes of this paper, intermediaries have also come to play a significant role in negotiating the return of internally displaced individuals. The prospect of returns in Syria is a foremost concern of the international community; however, discussions of return often focus on the willingness of Syrian IDPs and refugees to return to their communities, or the prospect of safe, dignified, and sustainable returns.  Less understood are the impediments to return and the mechanisms used to overcome them. Indeed, in many localities in Syria, a combination of Government security priorities, administrative approval procedures, and security screening processes have made it essentially impossible for many displaced individuals, and even entire communities, to return.[footnote]In general, returning to Government of Syria-controlled communities entails a series of security screening measures, whereby various security bodies (under the aegis of the National Security Office), check an returnees’ personal history; their or their families’ involvement in armed conflict; previous work with an unregistered NGO; their fulfillment of military service requirements; and numerous other factors. These security procedures show no cohesive rhyme or reason; while trends can be established in some areas, such as Eastern Ghouta, in other areas, individuals appear to be approved or rejected almost at random. As such, for many residents of formerly opposition-controlled areas, return to their areas of origin is often due to their inability to secure the requisite approvals, in addition to the widespread fears of detention or conscription.[/footnote]  For these reasons, local intermediaries are increasingly essential actors in the returns process.  As returns in Syria begin to take shape, the way in which intermediaries intercede between returning individuals and the Government of Syria will become increasingly important; holistically, the role of intermediaries, and the means by which returns are facilitated, should be viewed as critically as the conditions to which displaced individuals return.

Case Studies

Intermediary relationships between the Government of Syria and local communities illustrate the degree to which returns in Syria must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, given the diversity of mechanisms, actors, and motivations involved.  The following case studies illustrate some of these distinct dynamics. In the case of Maliha, individual intermediaries advocated for IDP returns where the Government of Syria was either unwilling to permit returns, or oblivious to the fact that returns were, in effect, prohibited.  By contrast, in Deir-ez-Zor city, the Government of Syria actively used intermediaries to initiate and regulate the flow of returnees. Finally, in Dar’a city, intermediaries gained legitimacy by making guarantees regarding services and conditions in the community, but have since lost influence as they have proven incapable of fulfilling these guarantees.  It should be noted that while communities located in areas under the control of the Government of Syria struggle to restore normalcy, the roles played by intermediaries (and indeed the identify of the intermediaries themselves) are subject to change, although it is all but certain that current intermediaries will remain in competition as they seek to carve out spheres of influence in post-conflict Syria.

Maliha: A Community-Selected Local Intermediary

Maliha town in April 2014.  Image courtesy of Voice of America.

Conflict And Displacement

Maliha subdistrict is located immediately east of Damascus city and southwest of Eastern Ghouta; it encompasses several villages (the most important of which are Hosh Elsultan and Zabadin) that had a combined population of 55,545 according to the most recent pre-conflict census, in 2004.[footnote]Other communities include Maliha, Shabaa, Ahdaf, Deir Elasafir, Hteitet Elturkman, Hatita, and Al-Jarash.[/footnote]  Throughout the Syria conflict, Maliha has been been strategically valuable for two reasons: first, due to its proximity to Damascus city and the Damascus International Airport, and second, due to the fact it was seen as a key linkage between the armed opposition in Eastern Ghouta and in southern Damascus.  The armed opposition seized full control of Maliha in mid-2012, when much of Eastern Ghouta fell from Government of Syria to armed opposition control.  However, in August 2014, Government of Syria forces recaptured the majority of communities in Maliha subdistrict from opposition groups (namely Faylaq Ar-Rahman) with the support of Iranian-affiliated militias, primarily Hezbollah.[footnote]The Government of Syria’s military campaign involved a three-axis attacks from Jaramana, Shebaa, and the residential areas within Maliha, with aerial support. Upon the completion of the military campaign, Iranian-affiliated militias retained a considerable presence in the area.[/footnote]

Depopulation And Securitization

Due to these clashes and changing armed actor control, by September 2013 Maliha subdistrict was almost entirely depopulated.  Indeed, between 2011 and 2013, a large percentage of the population of Maliha subdistrict  displaced to Government-held areas in Damascus city and its vicinity.[footnote]Namely: Jaramana, Dweila’, Kashkoul, and Dahadeel.[/footnote]  In turn, the Government of Syria military offensive to recapture Maliha in 2014 forced the civilians who had remained in the area to displace deeper into the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta enclave.  Once the Government of Syria retook control of the area, Air Force Intelligence and Political Security branches enacted strict security procedures, and returns to the area were not permitted.

High-Level Local Intermediary Appeal

The reversal of the blanket security policies preventing return to Maliha was likely triggered by the mediation of a single influential actor with close linkages to the upper echelons of the Government of Syria.  Several factors made this mediation possible. Crucially, the intermediary[footnote]The identity of this individual has been kept anonymous for security reasons.[/footnote] is a Maliha resident[footnote]This contrasts with the outside mediation of television presenter Kinana Hweijah during reconciliation negotiations in various communities in central Syria[/footnote]; as such, the actor had both a personal stake in facilitating returns, as well as a direct mandate from the community itself to facilitate returns. Moreover, due to professional connections, this intermediary was afforded an opportunity to raise the issue of returns to Maliha with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad directly.

The Maliha intermediary is a senior-level journalist at a privately-owned newspaper closely aligned with the Government of Syria; in May 2018, this actor was among a small group of journalists invited for an audience with President Al-Assad at the Presidential Palace.[footnote]Frequently, audiences with President Al-Assad and other high-ranking Syrian Government officials are seen as opportunities for Syrians to raise specific concerns or plead for assistance on issues ranging from employment and pensions to security procedures.[/footnote]  During the meeting, the Maliha intermediary requested that President Al-Assad grant approval for civilians displaced from Maliha to return.  President Al-Assad assented to the request, and issued a directive ordering the Governor of Rural Damascus, Alaa Mounir Ibrahim, to act accordingly.  Shortly thereafter, the blanket security restrictions that had prevented returns to Maliha subdistrict were lifted, and IDPs began to return. As of June 2019, approximately 7,100 individuals had returned to the communities that make up Maliha subdistrict, and these returnees now constitute the entirety of the local population.

Figure 1.1 Maliha Subdistrict Population Dynamics

Deir-ez-Zor City: Government-Appointed Intermediaries Regulate Returns

Remains of the Deir-ez-Zor suspension bridge, destroyed in 2013.  Image Courtesy of DeirezZor 24.

Conflict, Siege, And Displacement

Between late-2011 and mid-2013, large parts of Deir-ez-Zor city fell under the control of various armed opposition groups (the largest of which was Jabhat Al-Nusra); only four neighborhoods in western Deir-ez-Zor city remained under Government of Syria control.  In July 2014, ISIS ousted armed opposition factions from Deir-ez-Zor and seized control of the entire city, with the exception of the western Deir-ez-Zor neighborhoods in which the Government of Syria retained control. Consequently, these neighborhoods were effectively besieged by ISIS.

Throughout the conflict, Deir-ez-Zor city has seen three significant waves of displacement, primarily to Damascus or Aleppo cities.[footnote]However, many individuals who feared the Government of Syria also fled to Iraq, Turkey, or Arab Gulf countries, and a smaller, though still noteworthy number of IDPs displaced to Al-Hasakeh governorate[/footnote]  The first wave of displacement occurred between 2011 and 2013, during which time Deir-ez-Zor residents fled as the armed opposition progressively established control over the city. The second significant displacement wave occurred between 2013 and 2014, as individuals fled from an increasingly dominant ISIS.  The third and final wave of displacement from Deir-ez-Zor city occurred after the Government of Syria launched its eastern Syria campaign in mid-2017; under the auspices of this campaign, Government forces advanced against ISIS from eastern rural Homs Governorate, and by November 2017, the Government of Syria broke the siege of western Deir-ez-Zor and took control of the city in its entirety.  In the course of the offensive, however, nearly all ISIS-held areas of the city were heavily damaged, prompting further mass displacement. In November 2017, only 82,496 individuals remained in Deir-ez-Zor city, almost exclusively in Government-held western Deir-ez-Zor; this should be compared to Deir-ez-Zor’s 2004 population of 211,857.

Government Intermediaries As ‘Gatekeepers’ Of Return

Almost immediately upon capturing Deir-ez-Zor, the Government of Syria took steps to facilitate IDP returns to the city, primarily through administrative initiatives and ministerial decrees.[footnote]For example, several ministerial decrees were issued in 2018, which forced public employees registered in Deir-ez-Zor to return to the city and resume their jobs; there are now believed to be a total of 20,000 public servants in Deir-ez-Zor. For more information, please see a recent EUI publication by Ziad Awwad, titled: Rebuilding Syria Regime Networks in Deir-ez-Zor city: Who are the local actors? linked here.[/footnote]  As a result, returns began to occur shortly following the offensive, and by May 2018, 20,770 individuals had returned to Deir-ez-Zor city.  However, in June 2018, the Government of Syria changed tack and formally established a reconciliation committee office in the security square in Deir-ez-Zor city, as well as several sub-offices in communities on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Reportedly, there are nine such centers,[footnote]See media reports on this process here and here.[/footnote]  which now constitute the primary mechanism for facilitating return to the city.

All of the individuals serving on the Deir-ez-Zor reconciliation committees are appointed by the Government of Syria Ministry of Reconciliation, and these figures are deliberately selected to represent various key constituencies of the Deir-ez-Zor community.  These intermediaries include local Baath party leaders, military commanders, local notables, and tribal leaders, many of whom have a prior relationship to the Government of Syria. Specifically, the mediators of return in Deir-ez-Zor city include high-ranking members of local Baath Party, prominent figures in the E’keidat and Sheikh Bouleil tribes, and other locals notables. According to local sources, members of the reconciliation committees prioritize the reconciliation of prominent figures from Deir-ez-Zor, in an apparent effort to empower these figures as mediators of return and facilitators of reconciliation in their own right.

Figure 2.1 Deir-ez-Zor Population Dynamics

Under the aegis of the returns process implemented by these intermediaries, between June 2018 and June 2019 at least 22,411 individuals returned to Deir-ez-Zor, including to areas formerly held by ISIS. As such, returns facilitated by intermediaries now constitute a majority of the total returns that have taken place in Deir-ez-Zor since the Government offensive, and this process is likely to remain the primary mechanism for return movements to Deir-ez-Zor for the foreseeable future. In this context, it is crucial to note that the Deir-ez-Zor reconciliation committees are ‘effective’ intermediaries of return despite the fact that individual committee members are viewed with a high degree of skepticism by the local community. This skepticism is primarily due to the fact that many of these actors have changed their political affiliation throughout the conflict, leading to a widespread impression they are opportunistic and self-serving. Furthermore, according to local sources, these intermediaries frequently make guarantees of personal security or offer financial incentives in an effort to induce return; however, in some cases, returnees have reportedly been detained, irrespective of these guarantees. Despite community misgivings over these actors, they remain effective as intermediaries of return primarily due to the de facto authority conferred by their relationship with the Government of Syria, specifically the state security forces who hold ‘veto’ authority over reconciliation procedures.  As such, it is important that intermediaries of return be seen not only in terms of their local legitimacy and community acceptance (or lack thereof), but as actors serving a fundamental mechanistic role at the behest of the Syrian state.

Dar’a Al-Balad: Changing Power Dynamics Impede ‘Organic’ Intermediaries

Dar’a City in July 2018.  Image courtesy of Sana.

Dar’a City Reconciliation And Displacement

In March 2011, demonstrations broke out in Dar’a city, marking the beginning of the Syrian uprising.  Between late 2011 and early 2012, various armed opposition groups established control over the majority of southern Syria, including the southern half of Dar’a city (known as Dar’a Al-Balad), while the Government of Syria retained control over the northern part of the city (i.e. Dar’a Al-Mahatta).  Dar’a remained divided until Government of Syria forces retook control of the city in its entirety in July 2018, as part of the broader military offensive in southern Syria, which began in June 2018. As Government of Syria forces advanced into Dar’a Governorate, armed opposition groups and local notables in Dar’a city reached a reconciliation agreement with the Government of Syria through negotiations that were led by Russian representatives in Dar’a city and western Dar’a Governorate.[footnote]Russian representatives assigned Ahmad Oudeh as the head of the Russian established 5th Corps. Ahmad Oudeh was a former armed opposition commander in Shabab Al-Sunna, which was based in Busra Al-Sham in eastern Dar’a. Oudeh played a significant role in reconciliation negotiations throughout all of Dar’a, and he remains a prominent figure in Dar’a governorate’s military landscape.[/footnote]

The intensity of the Government offensive led to mass displacement throughout Dar’a Governorate.  Tracking this displacement was extremely difficult, and credible sources cited displacement figures as high as 600,000.  Such remarkably high displacement numbers, however, were misleading, in that displacement in Dar’a Governorate was highly ‘elastic’, as individuals had often displaced multiple times previously, and frequently relocated only short distances.  Moreover, shortly after the offensive and subsequent reconciliation, many IDPs quickly returned to the locations where they had been immediately prior to the offensive. In the case of Dar’a city, the population in April 2018 was approximately 95,243, compared to a 2004 population of 97,969; however, of the April 2018 population, nearly half—44,968—were IDPs, primarily from elsewhere in Dar’a Governorate.

Figure 3.1 Dar’a City Population (April 2018)

Dar’a Negotiations Committee: Russia’s Intermediaries

Following the reconciliation of Dar’a city in July 2018, several local notables and opposition commanders who had taken part in the reconciliation negotiations formed what is now known as the Dar’a Negotiations Committee. Members of the committee assembled spontaneously on the basis of their local prominence and social capital, and over time the committee expanded to include representatives of all major families in the governorate. At first, members of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee were primarily drawn from Tafas and Dar’a Al-Balad, given the centrality of both cities to the power base of the opposition in western rural Dar’a. Initially, the population of Dar’a was skeptical that the committee would succeed in de-escalating tensions in southern Syria; however, as one local source stated, “people are not necessarily content with the committee, but they had no other choice.”

In time, however, the local influence of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee grew, due in large part to the outsize role played by Russian representatives in security and administrative affairs in southern Syria in the wake of reconciliation.  Specifically, Russian mediators assumed roles as key actors in post-reconciliation Dar’a, as Russian Military Police were deployed to Dar’a city and western rural Dar’a, and numerous armed opposition leaders and combatants were incorporated into military units with a close relationship with Russia.  In turn, members of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee leveraged their open channel with Russian representatives to establish their legitimacy and status vis-à-vis the local population. Local sources report that through engagement with Russian representatives, the Dar’a Negotiations Committee effectively deterred the Government of Syria from undertaking raids and detentions in Dar’a, and facilitated the release of detainees,[footnote]The committee negotiated detainees primarily during the six-month period immediately following the reconciliation.[/footnote] delayed conscription, and rehabilitated key services.[footnote]Local sources reported that the Dar’a Negotiations Committee facilitated rehabilitation of schools in Dar’a city. For example, the Abaseen School was rehabilitated in October 2018, and the negotiation committee has pushed for the rehabilitation of another school in Dar’a Al-Balad.[/footnote]

Dar’a Negotiations Committee: Building Legitimacy As Intermediaries Of Return

Naturally, this influence also translated to impact regarding returns to Dar’a. Primarily due to the Dar’a Negotiations Committee’s effectiveness in securing guarantees through Russian representatives, Dar’a city (especially Dar’a Al-Balad) witnessed returns on a large scale following reconciliation.  Between July and December 2018, approximately 40,518 individuals returned to Dar’a city; of these, 29,612 individuals returned to the formerly opposition-held areas of Dar’a Al-Balad. In this context, it is important to note that Dar’a city witnessed two distinct population movements in the aftermath of the Government of Syria offensive. The first such wave of returnees primarily consisted of individuals who were displaced to nearby sparsely populated rural areas, including many who were displaced by the offensive itself. The second and more substantial wave of returns consisted primarily of returnees from other populated urban areas, including Damascus; it was this second wave of displacement in which the mediation of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee proved instrumental, specifically through guarantees regarding security, services, and detention.

Figure 3.1 Dar’a City Population (April 2018)

Diminished Russian Role, Diminished Intermediaries

It is crucial to note that the effectiveness of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee has been impacted by the rapid deterioration of the political and security environment of southern Syria since early 2019, especially in Dar’a city.  Indeed, the persistent shortfalls of service provision and increasing conscription pressures have ignited deep-seated discontent among the local population, which has manifested itself in public expressions of anti-Government sentiment, including graffiti, vandalism, and frequent protests. This growing anti-Government movement has become progressively more violent, coinciding with open clashes between Russian-linked groups and other pro-Government forces. Additionally, throughout this period, Government of Syria military divisions (primarily the 4th Division and Air Force Intelligence) and other Iran-linked groups have increased their footprint in much of Dar’a Governorate.  As a result of these conditions, throughout 2019, assassinations targeting various Government of Syria combatants and commanders, as well as reconciled opposition militants, have become a common occurrence.

In this context, the effectiveness of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee has diminished, primarily due to the fact that the committee’s primary interlocutors (namely Russian representatives) have lost their near-monopoly on authority in much of Dar’a Governorate. Indeed, the changing balance of power in Dar’a has magnified the impact of a conscious decision by Dar’a Negotiations Committee members to limit their engagement with Government of Syria military and security commanders, reportedly out of fear that open engagement with the Government would jeopardize their tenuous legitimacy with the population of Dar’a, which continued to harbor staunchly anti-Government sentiment. Consequently, the ability of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee to serve as an effective mediator of return has decreased markedly.  As a result, throughout 2019 only 7,045 individuals returned to Dar’a city. Certainly, this is not exclusively due to the shrinking influence of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee; returns are also impacted by the deteriorating security environment and the poor economic situation in Dar’a Governorate. However, it is important to note that the Dar’a Negotiations Committee also mediated these sectors; thus, the relative decline in Russian influence has limited the capacity of the Dar’a Negotiations Committees to intercede holistically, further impacting returns in Dar’a. As of yet, no alternate mechanism to mediate returns is apparent.

Figure 3.3 Dar’a City Population Dynamics


Local intermediaries in Syria function both as interlocutors between Syrian communities and governing authorities, and as important local actors in their own right.  Mediation of returns movements in Syria is therefore an increasingly critical function expected of prominent local actors, especially given that many Syrian communities have been severely depopulated throughout the conflict.  This paper addresses only three case studies of intermediary involvement in returns; however, anecdotally, nearly every return movement of any significant size in Syria has had some degree of local intermediary involvement. However, these case studies do illustrate several key points about the importance of intermediaries in the returns process, and the mechanisms by which these intermediaries facilitate return.  Equally importantly, they demonstrate the diversity of relationships among communities, intermediaries, and governing authorities. On the basis of this research, five key points stand out as crucial to note when considering the important role played by intermediaries in the returns process in Syria:

1: Intermediaries play a critical, and often necessary, role in IDP returns in Syria; however, the involvement of an intermediary does not guarantee that return will be possible. It is increasingly clear that in Government-held areas, large-scale return movements are effectively impossible without the facilitation of an intermediary.  Nonetheless, even in cases in which intermediaries are present to facilitate return, in many Syrian communities and for many individuals, return remains effectively impossible.  Among widely recognized impediments to return are Government of Syria security policies and planned or in-progress reconstruction or redevelopment projects; however, to a surprising degree, in many cases return is an ad-hoc process, and it is now apparent that barriers to return are not always the result of top-down security or economic policy dictated by the Government of Syria.

2: Facilitation by an intermediary does not necessarily guarantee that a return movement will be safe, dignified, voluntary, and sustainable. The role of intermediaries is shaped by the personal interests of the intermediaries themselves, and by the interests of the Syrian state and individuals Government actors; there is no guarantee that these interests align with the interests of returnees.  In Deir-ez-Zor, Government of Syria security forces worked through intermediaries to facilitate large-scale return, irrespective of degraded humanitarian, economic, and security conditions in the city. Likewise, the guarantees made by the Dar’a Negotiations Committee are contingent upon the presence of Russian mediators; as relative Russian influence in Dar’a wanes, so too does the ability of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee to shape the trajectory of local conditions.  As such, it becomes clear that guarantees made by intermediaries during returns negotiations are subject to important limitations.

3: The fact that intermediaries have brought changes to Government of Syria security policies regarding return highlights that in many communities, these security measures may be more arbitrary than previously assumed.  The Government of Syria’s long-standing denial of permission to return to Maliha has been widely perceived as the result of an overarching strategy to secure the vicinity of Damascus, including the airport and nearby military bases. However, the lifting of the ban on return to Maliha casts doubt on the degree to which the Government systematically and structurally addresses the issue of return.  In fact, these case studies suggest that return dynamics are highly nuanced, locally specific, and determined at least in part by the interplay between international actors and their local clients, as well as the degree of effective command and control over security actors and administrative entities nominally affiliated with the Government.

4: The relationship between communities, intermediaries, and governing authorities is a continuously evolving, iterative process.  The intermediaries involved in return negotiations will likely become or remain key stakeholders in their communities in the post-conflict phase.  In general, local intermediaries are actors who have used their standing in the community to mediate return, or they are actors seeking to leverage their role as intermediaries as a means of securing their social, political, or economic ascendance in post-conflict Syria.  The prominence of these actors in the long term hinges upon the value of their networks and relationships to central authorities. In Deir-ez-Zor, the leverage of local notables stems both from their historical linkages to the Government of Syria and from their strong tribal affiliations; these actors will most likely retain their influence in the city in the future.  By contrast, the long-term standing of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee is comparatively tenuous. In other contexts, intermediaries are likely to parley their influence to establish themselves as key actors in future administrative, governmental, and economic initiatives in their respective communities.

 5: Refugee return is a highly complex process involving multiple international, regional, and local actors, both inside Syria and in host countries.  Intermediaries also play a role in the return of refugees to Syria, but the localized dynamics involved in these relationships are poorly understood, and further study is needed.  Large-scale refugee returns to Syria remain largely frozen.  However, in host countries, the Syrian refugee file is being increasingly politicized, and Syrian refugee communities are facing increasing pressure to return.  When seeking to understand return dynamics, humanitarian and developmental actors have focused primarily on conventional rubrics, including push and pull factors, and increasingly, impediments to return, namely administrative and security procedures. However, little attention has been paid to the specific involvement of intermediaries, which are likely all but essential in the large-scale return of refugees.  Further study into the role played by these actors is needed.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country. This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. For more information see the European Union Delegation to Syria webpage.

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