This paper examines the post-reconciliation status of the humanitarian and development response in Dar’a governorate following the Government of Syria military takeover; it aims to widen discussions on novel ways in which international actors can engage with local communities in Dar’a in the wake of the 2018 reconciliation agreement and the subsequent end of the cross-border response. Information for this research was compiled between December 2019 and February 2020 and relies on primary data collected from key informants situated in Dar’a governorate: individuals who worked on the southern Syria response in both Dar’a and Jordan at local organizations, INGOs, and donor organizations. More broadly, this research aims to encourage similar research endeavours in other reconciled areas, and in Syria as a whole, in an attempt to question the underlying assumptions of what is seen as an ever-shrinking ‘humanitarian space’.
Prevailing narratives surrounding reconciliation in Syria have often centered on the general patterns, terms, and impacts of reconciliation agreements rather than the contextual realities that have affected reconciliation trajectories differently across the country. In this sense, these narratives have often emphasized a reconciled area’s return to the pre-2011 status quo; the complete evacuation of large parts of its local population; and the effective cessation of all humanitarian and development programing in the respective locality.More specifically, for cross-border humanitarian and development actors, the implementation of reconciliation agreements essentially ended the cross-border response, marked these areas as inaccessible, and voided possibilities for local partnerships. Indeed, at face value, reconciliation has followed similar patterns in different geographic areas, in that it involves the dissolution of the economic, civil,
political, and humanitarian space that had existed under the armed opposition, and compels the dissolution of nearly all local response actors and their programs.
This was certainly the case in Dar’a governorate. The southern Syria response involved myriad actors and covered various sectors, including in local governance, development programming, basic humanitarian aid, education assistance, and health programming. The response included UN cross-border trucking of humanitarian aid, support to local opposition governance bodies, INGO programing via direct implementation or in partnership with local NGOs, and local CBOs working in education, health, livelihood, and cash. Following reconciliation, these aforementioned projects were halted; local NGOs were forced to dissolve or transfer their projects to others areas, INGOs put an end to all partnerships and evacuated their staff, and UN cross-border trucking from Jordan ceased as the Government gained control of key borders crossings between Syria and Jordan.
Naturally, the abrupt end to the southern Syria response has only strengthened the overarching narrative of a ‘shrinking’ humanitarian space with constrained ‘access’ and the dissolution of civil society actors. However, while each reconciled area shares common patterns, reconciliation agreements also played out uniquely in separate geographical locations. In the case of southern Syria, unlike in many other reconciled areas, evacuations were minimal; a large majority of the staff of implementing partners remain in the area, either inactive or working with government institutions or private sector entities. Indeed, the ‘human capital’ of the donor-funded response in Dar’a governorate remains largely in place; now, the challenge facing response actors is how to incorporate this existing human capital into future programming opportunities.
Almost all local organizations were forced to cease project implementation after the July 2018 reconciliation; this is primarily due to the fact that most — if not all — local organizations previously working in opposition-held areas were considered unregistered/illegal entities by the Government of Syria.
The cessation of cross-border programming had a severe impact on local humanitarian and development conditions; however, this is due in large part to the fact that pre-reconciliation conditions and the functionality of the response in southern Syria were notably better than in many other opposition areas. As a result, the post-reconciliation gap in programming is more noticable.
Unlike in many reconciled areas, evacuations in southern Syria were minimal; a large majority of the former staff of implementing partners remain in the area. Most of these individuals face protection concerns, though some (to include teachers and doctors) have been permitted to work in government institutions. Thus, much of the ‘human capital’ of the donor-funded response remains largely in place, albeit in many cases inactive.
Individuals who have formerly participated in education and health programing were partially reintegrated into these sectors through re-employment in formal Government of Syria institutions. Those who were unable to return to public sector jobs, usually due to Government of Syria security checks, have generally sought opportunities in the private sector. Generally speaking, teachers and medical staff who formerly worked in opposition-held areas face persistent risks of detentions and military conscription, although this is true for much of the civilian population due to the dire security situation in Dar’a governorate.
Women participated widely in education and health programing as part of the southern Syria response, as teachers, nurses, and administrators; many have considerable technical capacities. In the education and health sectors in the post-reconciliation period, women have had a noticeably higher level of reintegration into Government of Syria institutions primarily because they do not face the threat of military conscription. In the case of Dar’a, women’s current participation in these sectors is also attributed to the fact that they are not perceived as having participated in military activities; they are therefore not subject to the same scrutiny as their male counterparts.
In Dar’a, unlike in many other reconciled areas, former opposition local governance officials, staff, and elected members have largely remained in place. However, these individuals are sidelined from participating in the re-established Government of Syria municipalities. Many of these individuals have accumulated experience in public work, are familiar with local stakeholders and dynamics, and have considerable local buy-in. As such, these individuals could add value to any implementing agency or ongoing program in southern Syria. That said, engaging former local council staff will certainly entail significant risks.
Further research is needed in order to explore the ways in which humanitarian and development actors can engage with local actors and support local communities in other reconciled areas. More importantly, this means facilitating discussions concerning the diversification of partners, but also rethinking what partnership means.
Taking into account the fractured nature of the humanitarian response across all of Syria, the pre-reconciliation southern Syria response could be considered one of the most robust and functional of the humanitarian responses in Syria. At the level of services, the southern Syria response included various modalities of humanitarian aid initiatives implemented by a myriad of actors prior to the reconciliation agreement. These actors included, but were not restricted to: UN relief aid via convoys, INGOs direct implementation, and INGO partnership with local CBOs and NGOs. Besides the UN trucking systems from Jordan through the Tal Shihab border crossing, relief aid was distributed by local NGOs, mostly supported through partnership with INGOs, and included the distribution of food baskets, NFIs, and technical and winterization aid. Other traditional aid initiatives — primarily funded by the Syrian diaspora, individual donors, Gulf funders, and other Islamic networks — were also common in southern Syria. Rabitat Ahl Houran[footnote]Rabitat Ahl Houran is a local initiative in Dar’a governorate that was first established in order to resolve local tribal and familial disputes. Later, as it secured funding from prominent Dar’awi traders mostly based in Qatar and Kuwait, Rabitat Ahl Houran provided financial and in-kind support for locals, civil councils, and Islamic armed groups, as a result of which it enjoyed considerable leverage and influence in the governorate.[/footnote] was among the most notable local CBO networks that provided relief aid and supported local councils by securing funding from traders originally from Dar’a, but based in Kuwait and Qatar. However, the size and reach of such initiatives remains extremely hard to quantify and assess.
Additionally, the southern Syria response included a range of development and stabilization programs. Development and stabilization programing included support to local governance institutions, local agriculture, and the education and health sectors. Health and education programming generally included support to individual schools and clinics, alongside direct support to the Syrian Interim Governorate Health and Education Directorates, as well as support channelled through NGOs. Governance programing generally directly targeted local councils — the primary local governance bodies that were created as the opposition gained control in 2011; however, governance building programs also focused on community monitoring mechanisms and local dialogue and activism initiatives. Support ranged from capacity building, training on governance and transparency, financial support for payment of salaries, and programmatic support for adjacent relief offices.[footnote]Separately, the stabilization funding also included the Free Police initiative, which aimed to build new, separate security structures as part of security sector reform.[/footnote]
The basket of programs that were being implemented in southern Syria generally resembled programs in other opposition-held areas; however, what made southern Syria unique was the fact that the response itself was much more robust; both local governance bodies and local NGO/CBOs had a much more positive and cohesive relationship both with each other, and with local armed opposition groups. In other parts of the country, such as Eastern Ghouta or northwestern Syria, local governance bodies and NGO/CBOs were (and are) often under considerable pressure from the armed opposition, which frequently sought to co-opt or profit from local service delivery; in southern Syria, this dynamic was reversed, as response actors, local governance bodies, and NGO/CBOs regularly applied pressure and forced policy changes to the armed opposition itself. In many ways, the ‘response’ was one of the more powerful social and political forces in Dar’a.
It is challenging to identify all of components that helped to solidify the southern Syria response, which consequently made possible the (largely) uninterrupted implementation of projects and distribution of aid prior to reconciliation. But it is important to examine several factors that helped shape the response. The first factor is the general tribal and familial cohesion of Dar’a society; the close cooperation between armed groups, local governance bodies, and civil society actors was in some ways a function of the fact that tribal and familial ties ensured that there were multiple social mechanisms to mediate disputes.[footnote]In this sense, the demands of civil society actors are known to have been taken into consideration at the level of both local governance platforms and local notable councils.[/footnote] The second is the fact that armed actors were often much more tightly controlled than in other parts of the country. This could at least partially be attributed to the MOC’s direct support of the armed opposition and oversight of these groups. The third is the degree of financial and logistical support that the southern Syria response received — ultimately, the southern Syria response was well funded at least partially due to the fact that it was logistically easier to implement programs in this area thanks to the presence of the Tal Shihab border crossing. Cross-border access to Jordan allowed the entry of humanitarian aid (trucking) and enhanced cooperation between local capacities and external expertise based in Jordan, which increased the efficacy of direct implementation by INGOs as well as partnership-based programing.
Across Syria, reconciliation has been a euphemism for local capitulation of the armed and political opposition, and the reintegration of the area into the Government of Syria’s service and governance network. This objective has generally been achieved through the execution of four steps. First, forcing the local population to apply pressure to local armed opposition groups to submit to a truce, through the intensification of siege and conflict conditions. Second, the opening of reconciliation negotiations with the Government of Syria through a local reconciliation committee. Third, the application of intermittent access restrictions and the threat of renewed hostilities, to force the implementation of a local reconciliation — a process variously involving the forced evacuation of irreconcilable armed opposition fighters and their families, as well as prominent opposition civil society figures. And fourth, the imposition of the Government of Syria municipality structure and the reintegration of these communities into the Government of Syria state apparatus
The July 2018 reconciliation agreement in Dar’a — following a large scale military offensive — was in fact an assemblage of small-scale reconciliation agreements that were brokered in separate geographical enclaves. These agreements were negotiated by either Russian representatives or the Government of Syria, with considerable influence from Iran, with each camp applying a multi-tiered geographically based negotiation strategy. As a result, negotiations happened differently in separate areas; this process ultimately divided areas into different zones of influence: of the Government of Syria or Russia.[footnote]For more information, please see the recent COAR paper Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar’a Governorate.[/footnote]
The difference between both reconciliation tracks naturally had a major impact in shaping different security considerations across Dar’a. The primary distinguishing element between the Government of Syria– and Russia-negotiated reconciliation agreement is the reliance on different local intermediaries and armed actors to broker and later implement agreements[footnote]The Government of Syria has been heavily reliant on local state employees that have maintained close ties with the state apparatus and the Al-Assad regime. On the contrary, the Russian-negotiated agreements relied heavily on armed opposition groups rather than local intermediaries.[/footnote]. This in turn led to the proliferation of various armed actors with different lines of command and control, with little coordination between them.[footnote]Whereas various Government of Syria security and military divisions sought to recruit former opposition combatants within their pre-existing structures, Russian brokers integrated former opposition combatants in newly created armed groups under the Russian aegis. The most prominent among these groups is the Fifth Corps, led by Ahamd Oudeh, former commander of the Shabab As-Sunna group, along with other figures like the deputy head of the Opposition High Negotiation Committee, Kahlid Mahamid. A representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Colonel Alexander Zorin, led the negotiations for what was coined the ‘Oudeh Agreement’.[/footnote] As a result, these groups competed for local control, recruits, and economic gains, and their competition was further exacerbated by increasingly dire economic hardship.[footnote]See Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar’a Governorate[/footnote] Though enclaves ruled by the Russian reconciliation model have proved to be relatively more stable than areas reconciled under the Government of Syria model, the Russian guarantees and role in upholding islands of tranquility in their zones of influence has recently been increasingly contested by the locals in these localities.[footnote]Indeed, local sources in Dar’a Al-Balad have highlighted their concerns that the security environment of Russian-dominated areas like Tafas, Dar’a Al-Balad, and Busra Al-Sham — which is currently relatively stable — is poised to grow much worse in the foreseeable future.[/footnote]
While there were different reconciliation ‘tracks’ in southern Syria, the reconciliation agreement brought the southern Syria response to a screeching halt, largely due to the complete dissolution of nearly all implementing partners. Indeed, while the security and political landscape remains fractured, all areas of Dar’a governorate went through a similar process, in that all local organizations and governance bodies were dissolved, and Government of Syria administrative and service-providing institutions were re-established. Essentially, Russian willingness to extend guarantees or facilitate service delivery did not necessarily extend to local NGO/CBOs, let alone governance bodies.[footnote]That said, local sources noted that there are indications that Russia may be willing to implicitly acquiesce to the resumption of some programs thought to have a potentially stabilizing role in the area. This tendency is understood to be mostly driven by an increasing Russian awareness of the fragility of the southern Syria reconciliation agreement and the limited capacity that the Government of Syria’s fractured military presence in the area has demonstrated in restoring pre-conflict normalcy and quelling persistent forms of political and military dissent.[/footnote] Duties for service provision subsequently fell within the purview of the Government of Syria in the form of registered NGOs, UN convoys, and other state services. As a result, nearly all alternative service providers, including governance institutions such as local councils, as well as relief subcommittees and unregistered NGOs and CBOs were forced to drastically curtail their work, if not totally cease operations.
With the dissolution of local organizations and the end of cross-border programs, hundreds of Dar’a residents employed by NGOs involved in the cross-border response lost their jobs. However, the southern Syria reconciliation was unique in that there were notably fewer evacuations than in many other parts of Syria. In general the majority of local NGO staff — the ‘human capital’ of the response — remains in place, although in most cases these individuals are now inactive. Here it is worth noting that, compared with other former opposition-held areas, opposition-held southern Syria was more integrated with government-held surroundings than were other rebel-held enclaves, albeit to different degrees among various sectors. Local leaders regularly negotiated cross-line truces and resource sharing agreements, individuals were often able to cross into government-held areas to collect salaries, and cross-line trade was largely unimpeded except during active conflict. Certainly, this (comparatively) less hostile relationship was an important factor that contributed to a low number of evacuations.
However, the key role of the Russians in negotiating reconciliation agreements also influenced the limited number of evacuations; reportedly, several of the reconciliation committees in Dar’a informally negotiated terms with Russian representatives to allow individuals to return to their places of employment (although many of these places of employment no longer exist locally), or to reconcile their legal status with the Government. This dynamic was also at least in part rooted in the south’s large tribal networks (which complicated evacuation negotiations), its historic status as a pillar of the Ba’athist system, as well as its reputation for producing prominent government officials, Ba’ath Party leaders, and public sector workers.[footnote]Many former municipal officials and mukhtars with links to the state and the Ba’ath Party remained in Dar’a governorate throughout opposition control. With the protection of tribal ties, these figures served as proxies for coordination between state- and opposition-held areas. Indeed, it is likely that these informal channels were crucial for the continuation of cross-line commercial trade and transit, the supply of power and water from government networks, and the retention of public sector workers across much of southern Syria. During the opposition’s control over Dar’a governorate, the integration of state and opposition formal governance systems was reportedly so formalized as to enable public sector workers to commute cross-line and receive regular salary payments.[/footnote] Contrary to common depictions of the south as a rebel stronghold — the cradle of the revolution — this legacy persisted throughout the opposition control period and had a defining impact on the manner in which the southern opposition was managed and reconciled by the Syrian government and its political and military allies.[footnote]State penetration into formal and informal governance systems in areas under opposition control later played an important role in southern Syria’s reconciliation. Relations between state and opposition actors were such that pre-emptive cross-line negotiations were both swift and broadly successful, and went a long way to forestalling the worst effects of the government-led military offensive in June/July 2018. In fact, state-linked individuals were influential at a time when opposition control was regarded as strong, and, notably, when foreign donors were content to invest in civil institutions under cover of the 2017 de-escalation agreement.[/footnote]
The effectiveness of the reconciliation and service reintegration process in the south varied by community and sector, for reasons related to the security situation, armed actor presence, and the degree to which community leaders had maintained relationships with the Government of Syria. However, one common factor is increasingly clear: the Government of Syria retains limited capacity to fully resume service provision in post-reconciled areas, certainly not to the degree possible during the cross-border response. In many areas, the Government of Syria’s municipal structure (the baladiya) remains marginal, lacks capacity, or has little legitimacy among community members. With the return of government institutions to southern Syria, practically all cross-border aid operations from Jordan were discontinued, as the Government of Syria rejected these as an infringement of its sovereignty. As such, the medical and educational services that had been supported by international organisations operating out of Amman stopped. Humanitarian aid has been restricted to either UN convoys from Damascus (which are sent under the conditionality, oversight, and approval of the Government of Syria) or are limited to a small set of Damascus-registered organizations, many of which do not have a deep relationship with the local population. Here, it is worth examining four of the important components of the southern Syria response: community based organizations (CBOs); health programming; education programming; and local governance support. Naturally, there was considerable overlap between these categories; for example, CBOs conducted education and health programming, and worked closely with local governance bodies, while there was also considerable overlap between education/health programming and local governance support.
What should also be kept in mind is that the cessation, suspension, and dissolution of local organizations and their programs after the reconciliation agreement was largely due to the fact that these organizations were considered to be illegitimate, illegal, and unregistered entities by the Government of Syria. Local organizations resorted to various mitigation measures to resume their work: Some of the local organizations in southern Syria were able to relocate to other parts of Syria, generally to northern or northwestern Syria, and resume programming. Others redirected to work in neighboring countries, such as Jordan or Lebanon. Many were forced to dissolve entirely. The fact that these organizations received funding from any specific foreign actor does not appear to be a primary factor in the cessation of programming.
In the context of the area’s fragmented formal and informal governance systems, the immediate disruption to public service provision caused a sharp rise in humanitarian needs across multiple sectors. Data collected by UN and implementing partners indicate that larger percentages of the Dar’a population report water, food, livelihood, education, health, and security as priority needs, when compared to the situation pre-reconciliation. There are few discernible patterns regarding the ‘needs’ of different communities in Dar’a; in general, IDPs are in greater need than residents and, in general, more densely populated communities have greater needs. In effect, local conditions in Dar’a resemble other reconciled areas, in that, to some degree, ‘everything’ is needed. Though aid provided by Damascus-based humanitarian groups has closed the gap somewhat, the Government of Syria’s restrictions on international aid access to the south have limited the type and quality of assistance to the area’s poorest and most vulnerable. Post-conflict recovery of critical infrastructure is halting, uneven, and clearly insufficient.
In light of the Government of Syria military takeover, CBOs and NGOs reliant on foreign funding essentially ceased their operations in the area. Local organizations pursued different means of ensuring the continuity of their operations in the area following the reconciliation, but most of these attempts did not succeed. However, while the large majority (if not almost the entirety) of local NGO/CBOs were dissolved, most of their staff, and even many of their leadership figures, have remained in southern Syria.
For example, one local organization attempted to register with the Government of Syria in order to continue its programing in the area. Representatives from the organization, along with others from different unregistered organizations, held a Skype meeting with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC); SARC representatives emphasized that SARC would take a leading role in all of this local organization’s programs once it had received registration approval from the Government of Syria. Ultimately, however, the Government of Syria National Security Branch did not grant this organization registration. According to one former employee, the Government of Syria’s relayed conditions for registration were: the board of directors of the organization must come to Damascus in order to finalize all needed procedural steps; all offices located outside Syria must close; the organization must fully coordinate with SARC. Most of the former members of the organization have remained in Dar’a and tried to reconcile their status with the Government of Syria. Some staff members had their reconciliation efforts rejected by the Government of Syria, but have remained in the governorate nonetheless — risking military conscription or detention. Some other staff were able to resume their pre-war jobs in their communities.
Many CBOs and CBO staff have pursued different mechanisms to continue working in southern Syria without registration. These generally include: working with a low profile and at a small scale, with locally sourced funds and local notables’ buy-in; working for other organizations that are registered and accredited by the Government of Syria; relocating to other areas; or registering as private entities or non-NGO entities to mitigate scrutiny by the Government.[footnote]For more information on civil society organizations: https://www.impact-csrd.org/reports/Changing_Contexts_Mapping_SyrianCSOs_2019_EN.pdf[/footnote] The effectiveness of these mitigation measures is certainly limited, as most organizations have effectively dissolved and few registered organizations work in southern Syria. However, local sources indicate that individuals previously active in the southern Syria response have maintained contact with each other, and sometimes with the administrators of the projects they took part in. Naturally, any attempts by these networks to engage in program-like activities, even the basic distribution of relief aid baskets, comes at a very high risk. For example, one local source relayed the story of a group of individuals who managed to secure funding to purchase basic food and NFIs for distribution in a certain locality. Shortly after the distribution, these individuals were called for investigation by a Government of Syria security branch. In order to avoid imprisonment, these individuals did not disclose the sources of funding, and instead reached out to a relatively affluent and influential local businessman, who said that he had funded and organized the distribution.
Former staff members of organizations in the south face similar security risks and threats to those faced by individuals in other post-reconciliation localities, namely: arbitrary detentions, forced conscription, kidnap, and robbery. However, in many cases, the former NGO/CBO staff members in the south face far more accentuated risks by virtue of their former affiliation and participation in now outlawed organizations; this is especially true for upper management as opposed to lower level employees. For example, one finance manager for a local NGO was arrested shortly after reconciliation and remains in prison; the former leadership figure of another organization was also arrested after reconciliation and reportedly forced to pay a significant sum to be released.
Following reconciliation, all hospitals in the south were retaken by the Government of Syria; many were looted and a considerable amount of medicine was reportedly destroyed, as it ‘failed to meet Ministry of Health criteria’. Local sources indicate that following the reconciliation agreement, almost all doctors and nurses who remained in the area attempted to return to their former jobs or sought new contracts with the Government of Syria Health Directorate.[footnote]The Health Directorate is linked to the Government of Syria Ministry of Education and is distinguished from the Free Health Directorate, which operated under opposition control and was linked to the Syrian Interim Government in Turkey.[/footnote] As such, more doctors and nurses remained in Dar’a than left. However, given their prior affiliation with externally funded NGOs or the Free Health Directorate, the health practitioners’ reintegration into the Government of Syria health sector was challenging and, in many cases, impossible. Doctors and nurses who previously worked for externally funded health programs or institutions were subject to long and arduous security investigations and screenings.
In light of the aforementioned risks and challenges, individuals who were denied work with the Government of Syria sought alternative job opportunities in private clinics and hospitals, and, in some cases, started their own clinics. Notably, local sources report that some health practitioners have continued to work in hospitals despite not being employed by the Government. In Tafas, several nurses reportedly continue to work, in the hope that they might be employed by the Government in the foreseeable future, in the event of a shortage of adequate expertise. The Central Committee in Tafas reportedly coordinates the distribution of meager financial return to those nurses.
Generally, health practitioners in Dar’a governorate face similar threats to those suffered by the general population of Dar’a governorate. These risks are not necessarily related to or executed by the Government of Syria, but rather result from the chaotic security situation and dire economic conditions of the area. A particular risk is kidnapping, mostly targeting doctors, who are allegedly widely perceived to have a better socioeconomic status. Local sources reported several cases of such kidnappings for ransom. However, there are nuances to the security and economic conditions of health practitioners, particularly in the case of women nurses and doctors. For instance, the turnout of female nurses has naturally been higher than that of male nurses. A significant number of male nurses, especially those eligible for military service, were not only unable to retain jobs with the Government Health Directorate, but were also incapable of securing jobs in the private sector, for fear that the visibility and exposure such jobs entail could put them at risk of detention and conscription.
Once the Government had re-established control over Dar’a, all schools in Dar’a governorate were effectively linked to the Government of Syria Educational Directorate. According to local sources, only a small percentage of staff, including administrators and managers, in externally-funded education programs were evacuated from Dar’a to northwest Syria. While those evacuated were subsequently employed by the Educational Directorate of the Interim Governorate, based in Idleb, most teachers in Dar’a governorate reconciled with the Government of Syria and have remained in southern Syria. Of those who reconciled, local sources estimate that around 60 percent have returned to teaching in Government of Syria schools. The remaining 40 percent were denied return to the Government of Syria Education Directorate, either due to their failure to pass security vettings or their lack of accredited and renewed certificates.
Of those who returned to teaching in Government of Syria schools, female teachers in particular have had better prospects of reintegrating with the Government of Syria education system, primarily due to their limited, or less prominent, participation in combat or governance structures during opposition control, and thus their limited perceived security risk. Moreover, women generally played a more significant role in educational support projects in the southern Syria Response, which has helped build their experience and capacity in this particular field.
Governance: From Local Councils to Municipalities[footnote]To avoid confusion, ‘local council’ is used to refer to governance bodies active during the era of opposition control, while ‘municipality’ is used to refer to local governance bodies within the Government of Syria’s administrative structure.[/footnote]
Following reconciliation, the Government of Syria reinstalled the former members of pre-conflict municipalities, or appointed new members as replacements.[footnote]In many communities, members of the Government of Syria municipalities displaced to Government of Syria controlled communities and returned to their communities upon the implementation of the reconciliation agreement.[/footnote] In the September 2018 local elections, Government of Syria and Ba’ath Party affiliates were elected to municipalities, thereby fully reimposing the pre-conflict governance system. However, the elections were generally ill-received by reconciled communities, to include Dar’a, where popular local leaders were unable to run for office the local populations were often excluded from the electoral process.[footnote]For more information on the 2018 local elections please see here.[/footnoe] In short order the newly elected municipality members in Dar’a were often widely unpopular and, in many cases, have been directly targeted by violence. Indeed, local sources indicate that several municipality members reportedly submitted their resignation in the early stages of reconciliation, given the hostility they faced in their locality; however, these resignations were not accepted by the Government of Syria, for fear that they would encourage other members to resign. Notably, starting 2018 and continuing throughout 2019, members of municipalities have been systematically targeted — albeit to a lesser extent over the past several months.
As for the former membership and staff of the opposition local councils and governance bodies: All of the formerly elected members of opposition local councils have been effectively blocked from working in the new governance structures in Dar’a governorate. However, again they are still present in southern Syria; while a small number of former local council members were forcibly evacuated to northwest Syria, most reconciled with the Government of Syria and stayed in Dar’a governorate. However, the large majority of those who reconciled have refrained from taking part in any civic activity for fear of different security branches. There are some isolated cases of paid staff members of local councils transitioning to work at the Government of Syria’s municipality; however, this is only true for low level paid employees, such as cleaners. Thus far, the Government of Syria remains apparently unwilling to alter the constituency and modus operandi of municipalities in Dar’a, and many remain largely inefficient or even nonfunctional.
Implementing agencies are often fixated on concepts such as ‘humanitarian/development space’ and ‘access’. However, these concepts are usually only defined and understood through the lenses of these actors — focusing on their ability to implement programs in post-reconciliation localities via the same means and modalities used under opposition control. It is true that cross-border humanitarian programing under the previous paradigm is likely no longer possible — certainly not at scale. However, that does not mean that there is no ‘humanitarian/development space’ in southern Syria. Certainly, the organizations and entities that were working in southern Syria during the peak of the 2015-2018 response no longer exist, and are thus unable to implement programs. However, their former staff remain in place: some have transitioned to work with the Government of Syria, others have continued to work at a very small scale, and the majority are entirely inactive. In many responses, having a large pool of well-trained, high-capacity individuals would be considered an important resource; naturally, the situation is more complex in Syria. Humanitarian and development implementers must now consider mechanisms to engage these former response staff as important stakeholders; this is especially true given that many of them have extremely high capacity, considerable technical and contextual experience, local buy-in, and a history of civic engagement.
Envisioning novel methods for future humanitarian and development support in Syria must include engagement with the core of these former civil society actors — the ‘human capital’ of the response. Naturally, considerable study and thought will be required to devise the means to engage with these individuals now living under Government of Syria control, and this process will be fraught with both security and political risks. That said, mechanisms to incorporate these individuals into existing program streams, existing registered NGOs, and formal governance structures must be considered, especially as a means to safeguard the real achievements of the pre-reconciliation southern Syria response. These discussions should certainly involve numerous stakeholders, will be contingent on partner diversification, and should foster the development of new engagement strategies, but they must also rethink what partnership and engagement actually means, and how much of ‘engagement’ is based on engagement with an ‘organizational structure’ versus engagement with key individuals or groups of individuals.
Lastly, while this paper has focused on Dar’a governorate, it is important to reiterate that the ‘space’ for, and potential means of, humanitarian and development support in other reconciled areas is naturally bound to the context of these respective localities. Reconciliation agreements share similarities, but each area is fundamentally unique. In southern Syria, significant human capital from the response remains in the area — this is not true in the case of areas that went through harsher or more evacuation-focused reconciliation agreements, such as Eastern Ghouta. Precisely because reconciliation agreements have played out differently in separate areas, unique engagement strategies must be developed based on which structures and individuals are actually ‘in play’ in any given area.
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.