How jihadists are winning hearts and minds in Syria.
The noose is tightening around Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and he’s beginning to realize it. After a week that saw the opposition’s National Coalition win widespread international recognition and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sign orders to dispatch Patriot missiles to the Turkey-Syria border, the regime in Damascus gave the first sign that it was looking for a way out.
On Dec. 17, the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar published an interview with Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, where he said that neither the regime nor the rebels could win militarily and called for a "historic settlement" between the warring parties. Iran, Assad’s staunchest ally, also released a six-point plan that it said would promote national reconciliation.
There is reason to believe that the United States would look sympathetically on a negotiated transition. Washington faces a problem: It is looking to prevent extremists from filling the power vacuum in Syria — it designated the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization last week — and a political settlement could be a step in that direction. But a deal cut in Damascus is no cure-all for Syria’s ills: Even if an agreement is reached, most rebels groups are not about to let the Syrian army roll back into their towns.
The sprawling eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a larger rural region bordering Iraq, provides a case study in how armed groups — even extremist ones — work to establish a foothold in an area. In the case of jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra, it also provides some hints for how they could be forced out. Jabhat al-Nusra’s cadres currently coexist with local tribal leaders, who have taken up responsibility for maintaining law and order in the absence of the state. In the long run, however, there is no guarantee that these groups share the same ideology or long-term interests.
Even as fighting rages elsewhere in Syria, the war against Assad has already been won in much of Deir Ezzor, where I grew up. On Nov. 17, the regime’s forces were squeezed out of the district of Abu Kamal, near the Iraqi border, after the rebels successfully attacked Hamdan Air Base, the last bastion of the regime there. Rebels from various villages and towns then joined forces and overran an army base in the city of al-Mayadeen, seizing stockpiles of artillery. People are now going about the hard work of laying the groundwork for future governance.
Jabhat al-Nusra currently controls most of the vital sectors in Deir Ezzor, including oil, gas, sugar, and flour. Its source of funding is unclear, although I was told by residents that Gulf nationals with tribal links to the region support most of the fighting groups in the province. According to residents, the group’s local emirs are typically foreigners, while the majority of the rank-and-file are Syrians from the region. Many people are drawn to the group by virtue of its effectiveness in fighting the regime and delivering public services.
Deir Ezzor is mostly an agricultural area, with few urban centers, and the regime’s forces are mostly based inside the cities. Because of this, rebels in the province tend to fight the regime through hit-and-run operations rather than full-blown battles: Fighters from the villages join forces, attack the regime, and then retreat to their homes. Thus a small group of committed fighters can have an outsized influence, earning widespread prestige.
Jabhat al-Nusra is also cultivating links with local communities. It maintains a relief program that works to win hearts and minds among the population, in tandem with its military operations. Its fighters also have a reputation for professionalism: While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) tends to accept volunteers regardless of their personal merits, Jabhat al-Nusra’s cadres are perceived to be more disciplined and concerned with local communities’ needs.
One resident I spoke with compared the behavior of the two groups through two recent developments: In July, FSA fighters took over feedlots and organic fertilizers in the city of Abu Kamal. The fighters’ commander sold the livestock fodder and fertilizers for a low price and distributed the money among his group. In Nov. 22, when rebels in Deir Ezzor took over the army base in al-Mayadeen, Jabhat al-Nusra guarded stores in the vicinity to prevent looting and later distributed the spoils equally to the public.
Jabhat al-Nusra recently took charge of a gas pipeline near the village of Khosham whose output is enough to fill around 3,500 gas cylinders daily. Until recently, a resident in Deir Ezzor had to pay around 4,000 Syrian pounds (around $56) and wait up to a month to fill a gas cylinder. Under Jabhat al-Nusra’s watch, the price has been brought down to less than 400 Syrian pounds, and a gas cylinder can be filled within a few days. The efficient distribution of gas cylinders to residents has been a huge PR win for the group.
The key to containing Jabhat al-Nusra is to reverse this dynamic, and working with local leaders who have leverage over their communities is essential. Syria generally has strong local communities — based on tribal, religious, ethnic, or business ties — that can help the country survive times of crisis. In eastern Syria, which makes up over 40 percent of the country, the population is largely tribal, with a minority Kurdish population.
In Deir Ezzor, tribal leaders are traditionally the ones who punish those who break the peace. One influential tribal figure told me that, while Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have so far conducted themselves well, abuses and disorder will be met firmly by the tribes. Residents of Deir Ezzor remember well the behavior of jihadists in Iraq, and fear that radicals in their own country could move from fighting Assad to forcing their ideology on the region. If there are abuses, the tribal leader said, "We will chase them out even if we have to arm the women."
Residents of Deir Ezzor appear to be largely unaware of the grand aim of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and judge them based on their services and conduct. They generally take issue with how Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups run the fledgling sharia-based court system, where fighters with religious background often take over the role of judges.
Reintegrating military defectors into the army will also help reduce the power of extremists. Defectors are generally more moderate than civilians who joined the insurgency — and also have experience fighting alongside extremist militias, which has given them a familiarity with their tactics and goals. One military defector with whom I spoke said they coordinate with Jabhat al-Nusra "from afar" and appreciate its effectiveness, yet describe its rule as "brute justice."
Finally, it should be local governing councils that provide services to local residents — not Jabhat al-Nusra. These councils have been set up based on societal consensus, made possible by coordinating with local leaders. In Abu Kamal, for example, local councils provide medicine and school needs for students, even selling oil to pay salaries for teachers — as a result, many schools reopened in villages and towns this month. They also make sure scarce resources are used efficiently, bringing down the prices of foodstuff and fuel. Rebels working with the councils are getting better at responding to complaints and holding their members accountable for abuses: "We are not the state, we are just trying to help people in terms of organization and services," one FSA commander told me.
As the Assad regime crumbles, all Syrian politics is now local. If the world wants to ensure that the country is not a breeding ground for extremists or another dictatorship, it should reach out to local leaders determining events on the ground. Victory in Syria does not only mean winning the battle in Damascus, it means establishing good governance in hundreds of cities and towns, like those dotted across Deir Ezzor.