Local Governance in Northeast Syria

20 October, 2019

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Excutive Summary

The ‘Spring of Peace’ military operation has seen the Turkish-backed National Army advance rapidly into northeast Syria, prompting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to enter into a military agreement with the Government of Syria. As a result, Government of Syria forces have returned to areas heretofore controlled by the SDF, and the Self Administration and the Government of Syria are currently involved in high-level negotiations mediated by Russia over the administrative future of northeast Syria.

Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing Turkish military operations in northeast Syria or the negotiations between the Syrian Government and the Self Administration, local governance in northeast Syria is poised to change dramatically. Exactly how and where these changes will manifest remains unclear. In this context, it is useful to examine past instances in which local governance has been transformed. Dramatic changes in governance have been a feature of the Syria conflict since at least 2017; the most notable such transitions have come in Turkish-controlled northern Aleppo and the reconciled areas now held by the Government in southern and central Syria. These experiences should be seen as models of transformation that can inform an understanding of the future of governance and administration in northeast Syria.

Given these experiences, three models are worth considering in the current context. The first is a ‘Turkish Model’ informed by the experiences of Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas in northern Aleppo; this model will likely be applied in some capacity in any areas that remain under the control of the Turkish-backed National Army. The second is the ‘Government Reconciliation Model’, informed by the experiences of reconciled areas, such as Eastern Ghouta, Northern Rural Homs, and southern Syria. The third is a ‘Hybrid Model’, informed by a consideration of the potential contours of an agreement to incorporate the Self Administration into the Government of Syria. Both the second and third models are likely scenarios in areas under the control of the Self Administration, and they will be subject to negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Self Administration.

The future of local governance is critically important for humanitarian and developmental programming. Ultimately, it is certain that the ongoing military operations and political negotiations in northeast Syria will alter the humanitarian and developmental response—perhaps drastically. However, a change in local governance does not necessarily mean the end of programming; nonetheless, new registrations will likely be required, and local partners, interlocutors, and procedures may fundamentally change. Preparing for potential scenarios of governmental and administrative transformation is thus critical to the future of programming in northeast Syria. Indeed, the Syria response must plan for and adapt to these new administrative realities as quickly as possible in order to avoid major shortfalls and service gaps in ongoing programming.

Turkish Model

The Turkish model is informed by the experiences of the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations in northern Aleppo. Indeed, Spring of Peace should be viewed as a continuation of these earlier, and still ongoing, projects. In Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, and now Spring of Peace, the Turkish Government directly supported the National Army to capture large swaths of territory. In the case of Euphrates Shield, this territory was captured from ISIS, and in the case of Olive Branch, territory was taken from the Self Administration in Afrin. Under the auspices of these operations, all existing governance bodies were dissolved and replaced by new bodies that were essentially selected by Turkey. Most importantly, the new local governance structures were also linked to Turkish provincial governments, state services were provided directly by Turkey, and humanitarian and development activities came under the purview of Turkish state approval and authorization processes. The experience of Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch projects has been compared to the creation of Turkish proto-states inside Syrian borders. The following is thus a likely set of developments for any areas within northeast Syria that come under the control of the Turkish-backed National Army; this is especially pertinent for areas such as Ras Al Ain and Tell Abiad.

A woman receives an aid parcel from the Turkish Red Crescent in Tel Abiad. Image courtesy of AA.

Turkey will likely fully dissolve all existing governance bodies. Upon gaining control of communities in northern Aleppo, Turkey dismantled all existing governance bodies. In some cases, this was highly disruptive. In Afrin for example, the Self Administration had been generally effective at service provision, and was relatively popular. However, this policy of dismantling existing local governance was not limited to Self Administration or ISIS governance bodies. As part of Operation Euphrates Shield, even those administrative structures that were nominally linked to the armed opposition, such as local councils in Azaz, were dismantled and reconstituted under Turkish authority. In northeastern Syria, this will likely mean that all Self Administration civil councils and neighborhood-level governance bodies will be disbanded in areas newly controlled by Turkey.

Turkey will create a new set of local councils; the composition of these councils will be essentially dictated by Turkish authorities. Following Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, the areas that came under Turkish control were compelled to hold local council elections. Local councils are nominally elected by their constituent communities; however, these elections were closely supervised by Turkey, and in practice, Turkey essentially dictated the composition of these councils. It is likely that similar elections will take place in areas captured during Spring of Peace. Ultimately, these local governance bodies are accountable only to Turkish authorities, and Turkey wields sufficient influence among local stakeholders to ensure that its actions in this respect go largely unchallenged. In northeast Syria, Turkey will likely fill local councils with proxy members whom Turkish authorities consider to be local interlocutors; this will likely entail the selection of Turkmen and members of Arab tribes supported and courted by Turkey in Tell Abiad, Ras Al Ain, and Ein Issa. For example, Turkey has prioritized building relationships with tribal groups from this region, to include the Jiss Tribe1 in Tell Abiad and Ras Al Ain, the Al-Bu Jaber in Tell Abiad, the Adawan Tribe in Ras Al Ain, and the Bani Sa’eed Tribe in Menbij; thus, tribal leaders from these tribes are likely to become integral to new local governance bodies.

New local councils will be directly linked to Turkish Provincial Government authorities; in the case of northeast Syria, councils will likely be linked to Urfa province. Although local councils in northern Aleppo are politically linked and theoretically subordinate to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), this is more of a theoretical relationship than a practical reality. Based on the previous experiences of northern Aleppo, local council bodies will be subject to the overarching authority of Turkish provincial governments, will receive executive orders directly from Turkey, and will be supervised by Turkish governance bodies. For example, in northern Aleppo, municipal governance bodies were linked to a Turkish Provincial Government authority, based in either Gaziantep or Kilis. Accordingly, the Turkish government also appointed a Turkish alderman-like figure attached to Kilis or Gaziantep to municipal councils to monitor and inform on council activities. In northeast Syria, it is likely that local governance bodies will be linked to a Turkish Provincial Government authority in Urfa province.

An element of demographic change in general and in governance bodies in particular, will occur. Demographic change has been a fundamental element of previous Turkish military operations and the implementation of Turkish governance structures, although it has taken different shapes in Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield areas. In Euphrates Shield, this has primarily been the result of IDP inflows, as the area has hosted IDPs from all over Syria at various stages of the conflict. This includes civilians fleeing ISIS control in eastern Syria, as well as SDF military operations there. More recently, evacuees from opposition-controlled enclaves in southern and central Syria have collected in the area, as have IDPs from elsewhere in northwest Syria.

In contrast to the demographic impact of Euphrates Shield, in 2018, operation Olive Branch resulted in the large-scale displacement of much of the local Kurdish population.2  IDPs, the large majority of whom were Arab, were then resettled in previously Kurdish residential areas of Afrin. The Turkish-affiliated local councils and armed groups did not implement or institutionalize direct anti-Kurdish regulations, but Kurds remaining in Afrin have suffered intermittent harassment, confiscation of properties, and other similar challenges by local armed groups. The sweeping labeling of Kurds as agents of YPG and PKK has also served as a deterrent for the potential return of those who have been displaced from the area.

Communities in northeast Syria that fall under a Turkish governance model are likely to witness both phenomena: the resettlement of numerous refugees from throughout Syria and the displacement of the Kurdish population.  These measures have already been stated as Turkish policy. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the implementation of the Safe Zone agreement entails the resettlement of a total of three million refugees along the Syria-Turkey border. The resettlement of these refugees will naturally alter the present demographic character of the areas. Combined with the potential settlement of refugees in the areas, Kurdish residents will likely be compelled to evacuate from the area, either as de-jure policy, or de-facto reality.

State services will be plugged into Turkey, and Turkey will dominate local development activity. As previously witnessed in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas, Turkey will seek to provide basic services such as healthcare, electricity, water, and education. In northern Aleppo, all major cities have been integrated into the Turkish electrical grid; as such, communities in these areas are no longer reliant on the Syrian state electrical grid.3 Similarly, Turkey has connected water networks with Turkish water infrastructure, opened several branches of the Turkish National Post Office, and supported the establishment of Turkish telecoms infrastructure.  Moreover, Turkey placed education services under the supervision of the Syrian Interim Government Education Directorate,4 with close supervision from the Turkish Education Ministry.5

In northern Aleppo, Turkish nationals are now required on project staff lists, and layers of bureaucratic obstacles were implemented by numerous Turkish agencies, which meant that local aid actors were required to give detailed accounts of funding and beneficiaries that they seldom were able to provide. As a result, hundreds of organizations ceased operations or relocated elsewhere in between late 2017 and early 2018, leaving responsibility for the coordination and delivery of the aid response firmly in the hands of the Turkish authorities.6

Impact

  • The Government of Turkey will seek to consolidate aid work under its own relief and development framework, and aid activities will be closely controlled and monitored by the Government of Turkey. Registrations and permissions will be issued in Urfa, as opposed to locally. 
  • Organizations working in Turkish-controlled regions must be registered in Turkey, and will be obligated to partner with Turkish organizations, and work within sectors and projects determined and approved by the Turkish authorities. As such, organizations will likely be compelled to register with the Turkish provincial government, again likely in Urfa province.
  • Organizations that are not registered in Turkey, or that are unable to work with Turkish authorities, must consider mechanisms to hand over their programs to agencies based in Turkey or, if permission is secured, partner with Turkish organizations. 
  • Turkish organizations such as AFAD, the Turkish Red Crescent, and Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) will likely become the main coordinators of aid activities in regions following the Turkish governance model.

Government Reconciliation Model

The Government Reconciliation Model is informed by the experiences of other reconciled areas, especially Eastern Ghouta and Northern Rural Homs. The Government of Syria’s military control over reconciled areas was associated with the complete dismantling of local governance bodies and the subsequent introduction of new pro-Government local actors, under the rubric of a reconciliation agreement. The reintegration of reconciled communities with the Government of Syria has had a massive impact on humanitarian actors and general civic space in these communities. Ultimately, this model of reimposing the state is likely the model that will be sought by the Government of Syria in any negotiations with the Self Administration. Conversely, this model will likely be unacceptable to the Self Administration, especially in predominantly Kurdish communities and regions. Thus, the Government reconciliation model should be viewed as a worst case scenario, in terms of impact, and is most likely to take place in predominantly Arab areas such as Ar-Raqqa (which the Self Administration is potentially more inclined to negotiate over), and in important cities (where the Government of Syria is likely to emphasize its control and sovereignty under any negotiated settlement).

Syrian Government forces enter Ain Arab (Kobane). Image Courtesy of Kurdistan 24.

The Government of Syria will dismantle all governance structures, and may conduct evacuations.  In reconciled areas such as Eastern Ghouta and Northern Rural Homs, the Government of Syria completely dismantled all existing local governance structures. In these areas, the Government of Syria then deferred to a diverse class of pre-selected trusted local intermediaries to act as decentralized local governance actors. Members of opposition governance bodies were in most cases evacuated, and in general were considered to be ‘irreconcilable’. In the case of communities in northeast Syria, an evacuation component will likely occur on a far smaller scale than in previous reconciliation agreements; however, individuals who have been engaged in or affiliated with any local administrative body (such as the commune), or who are deemed untrustworthy, may be forcibly evacuated to opposition-controlled northwest Syria, or potentially northern Iraq.

The Government of Syria will reestablish municipalities and appoint Executive Committees to administer reconciled communities until formal local elections are held. In the immediate period after reconciliation, the Government of Syria reestablishes municipal governments. As in any large reconciled area such as Eastern Ghouta or northern Homs, these provisional municipalities will be staffed by a series of Executive Committees, which will act as the de-facto local municipal government until formal elections have taken place. As such, the Executive Committee will be the primary form of local governance power until local council elections are conducted. Executive Committees formed immediately following reconciliation agreements are generally staffed by Government of Syria officials and trusted technocrats, and they implement local projects in coordination with security services and higher levels of the government bureaucracy.  As in other reconciled areas, it is likely that several members of the executive committee will run for office and will be elected to local councils after elections are held.

Based on the outcome of local elections, the Government of Syria will form a municipal government for each community. Municipal government bodies are comprised of two components: The Executive Committee and the Local Council.  As noted, Executive Committees are essentially state employees and technocrats, which are theoretically subordinate to the elected local council.  Local councils are led by elected officials; generally, they are comprised of a combination of government-affiliated businessmen, individuals with linkages to local security forces, Baath Party members, local notables, and technocrats linked to government ministries. The Government of Syria is likely to allow for a limited holdover of local elites trusted by the government. In other ‘reconciled’ areas, trusted intermediaries were inserted into local government structures or assigned informal governance duties, and prominent families were often given some representation in local government. In the case of northeast Syria, Arab tribal leadership figures will likely take a dominant role in reconciliation agreements.  The elected municipal governments are linked to and report to the Governorate council, which is chaired by the presidentially-appointed governor. Governors are the highest representatives of the central state authority, which per Law 107 grants them with the capacity to oversee the work of local councils and all agencies in the Governorate.7 In the case of northeast Syria, the current governor of Al-Hasakah, Jayez Hamoud Al-Mousa, is likely to remain in power.

‘Reconciliation Committees’ will function as proxies for the Government of Syria’s National Security Bureau.  In ‘reconciled’ areas, individual reconciliations are frequently negotiated exclusively through local reconciliation committees and offices. Reconciliation offices are established and function as offices where individuals can ‘reconcile’ and clear their individual statuses with Government of Syria security branches. Moreover, as a part of any ‘reconciliation’ agreement, the compulsory conscription for men of national military service age will begin within six months of any agreement.  As witnessed in other ‘reconciled’ areas, those seeking to return to communities will be obliged to secure approval from the Government of Syria’s National Security Bureau. In other ‘reconciled’ areas, those who obtained this approval and were permitted to return shared the common characteristic that they were considered likely to willingly or passively comply with Government of Syria policies.

Impact

  • The Government of Syria will attempt to control humanitarian and development programming. Reintegrated local administrations will wield increased autonomy over the management of any projects and will ultimately be positioned as important interlocutors for humanitarian and development actors. Consequently, government registration and engagement will become critical. 
  • Service Provision will be controlled by the Government of Syria through state provided services, SARC, government-registered NGOs, and UN agencies. Aid actors in northeast Syria must thus consider mechanisms to transfer programs to INGOs or NGOs registered with the Government of Syria.
  • Aid actors operating in a ‘reconciled’ northeast Syria will likely need to secure extensive permissions to undertake aid work, which has been deeply challenging in other ‘reconciled’ areas. Additionally, in ‘reconciled’ areas, alternative service providers, such as local council relief subcommittees and unregistered NGOs and CBOs were forced to drastically curtail their work or cease operations entirely. Existing partners in northeast will thus likely cease to exist, and new partnerships will need to be approved. 
  • In reconciled areas, humanitarian relief projects are largely dictated by the municipal government of a community or the governor’s council.  Individual project approvals will thus become extremely challenging to negotiate. In practice thus far, approved projects are often based on what the Government of Syria considers politically acceptable, not what is most needed in a particular community.

Hybrid Model

The Hybrid Model is a potential new model for local governance in northeast Syria, which blends a reconciliation-based model with some priorities of the Kurdish ethnic bloc in northeast Syria, namely legal rights, political representation, and the potential absorption of some organs of the Self Administration by the Syrian state. As a highly theoretical model, this cannot be solely informed by past examples from the Syria conflict, and it will be determined by the outcome of negotiations between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria. The most important factors shaping these negotiations are the pressure applied by Russia on the Government of Syria, and the potential for guarantees made to the SDF. Practically speaking, a hybrid model may be the most likely course for integrating the Self Administration with the Government of Syria, due to the fact that Russia and, to a lesser degree, the Syrian Government itself both appear inclined to grant some concessions to the Self Administration. Additionally, many Self Administration governance institutions already coordinate openly with Government of Syria institutions, albeit out of necessity. There are numerous potential avenues for the Self Administration’s incorporation (or absorption) into the state structure of the Government of Syria, yet a hybrid model will be most likely in Kurdish-majority areas, namely Al-Hasakeh Governorate.

Russian, Syrian, and Menbij Military Council flags flying over a building in Menbij. Image Courtesy of Al-Monitor.

The Government of Syria will appoint a new governor in Al-Hasakeh. As in all other governorates, the governor is presidentially-appointed. In order to facilitate the incorporation of the Self Administration into the Government of Syria, it will be crucial that the Government of Syria appoint a new governor of Al-Hasakah Governorate. Thus, as a concession to the Self Administration and the Kurdish community of northeastern Syria, it is highly likely that the new governor under this model will be Kurdish, and it is further possible that the figure will be selected from a major Kurdish political party, to include the Kurdish National Council (KNC), or the PYD.8 As in other areas, the governor will preside over subordinate administrative bodies, facilitate (or obstruct) access for international actors, and mediate between central authorities and local communities.

Local municipal structures in northeast Syria will be dissolved. The Government of Syria will dismantle all of the Self Administration’s local administrative and governance structures, and reintegrate the area into the Government of Syria service network and administrative hierarchies. These new municipal governments, like all municipal governments, will be subordinated to their respective governorate councils and governors. In many ways, this model is therefore similar to the Government Reconciliation Model, in that local municipal structures will be reintegrated into Government of Syria state apparatus. However, the defining difference between these two models will be the appointment of a new Kurdish governor. This is due to the fact that the governor is responsible for appointing Executive Committees. Thus, there is some chance that, in this model, the composition of Executive Committees may resemble the existing Self Administration local governance bodies.

Local councils will be created through local elections. Similar to the nation-wide local elections held in September 2018, the Government of Syria will hold future local elections. However, as part of an agreement with the Self Administration, the Government of Syria is highly likely to grant citizenship to Kurdish Syrians, as citizenship is likely to be a key demand of the Self Administration. Thus, Kurds will be eligible to run for local elections and, as a result, will exercise some local administrative control, at least in predominantly Kurdish areas. That being said, local elections are likely to be as constrained as they have been in other parts of Syria, in that candidates will be essentially pre-selected by the Government of Syria.

Self Administration ministries will merge with their respective Government of Syria ministries. To a certain degree, a blended governance or administrative model already exists throughout northeastern Syria. Government of Syria ministries already coordinate with their Self Administration counterparts when a project is implemented on the city level; this is especially true for electricity and basic services. Moreover, some Self Administration institutions are already essentially merged; the Self Administration’s Ministry of Economy directly cooperates with the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Oil to manage the oilfields, and every SDF-held oilfield has Government Oil Ministry staff members working with Self Administration officials.9 In other cases, the Self Administration and Government of Syria maintain parallel institutions, which may merge, or Government of Syria institutions may assume control over the physical or human infrastructure maintained by the Self Administration. For example, the Government of Syria civil registry, land and property registry, and other legal offices maintain offices in Quamishli. The Self Administration has parallel bodies, and most civilians conduct administrative procedures at both offices. Furthermore, in Quamishli city, civilians simultaneously abide by two parallel judicial systems, the Government of Syria’s Justice Palace and its Self Administration counterpart, the People’s Court. Thus, in some cases, the direct merger of some institutions is a realistic possibility. However, it is likely that the upper-level structures of the Self Administration, as well as the most local structures (such as neighbourhood-level communes), in northeast Syria will be dismantled.

Impact

  • The future of humanitarian and development programming in northeast Syria will still depend on local organisations’ ability to negotiate registrations with the Government of Syria Ministry of Social Affairs. Under a hybrid model however, it is likely that many local NGOs linked to the Self Administration could have their registrations transferred over. 
  • For large INGOs that are not registered with the Government of Syria, it will be highly difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a physical presence in northeastern Syria. However, there may be space for the continuation of local partnerships, especially if existing partners have their registrations transferred over to the Government of Syria. Thus, while INGOs without Government of Syria registration may be forced to leave, remote local partnership may still be feasible.
  • The ability of individual programs to continue will largely depend on the degree to which they are dependent upon engagement with the Self Administration itself, or whether their continuity depends upon local governance bodies or interlocutors. The Self Administration in its current form is unlikely to continue to exist; however, local governance bodies may find space for a transition in some capacity.

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.