The takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—and the declaration of a new caliphate within this territory—has captured the attention of every media outlet, pundit, and politician with even a passing interest in Middle East affairs.
The reason for the emergence of ISIS remains hotly contested. Certainly, the Syrian regime’s willingness to employ the worst forms of brutality has created an environment in which ISIS has thrived. Also important has been the Sunni extremism born in the ashes of Iraq. “Moderate opposition forces,” for their part, have also failed to stem the tide of radical extremism.
One factor that’s gone underreported, however, is the political vacuum within those Syrian areas (primarily in the north) that has allowed ISIS to take over so easily.
Though ISIS has existed in its current form for slightly over a year, many of the areas now under its control have been liberated from the Syrian regime for well over two.
In the intervening year, local rebel councils formed as proto-governmental bodies and were increasingly tied to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S.-financed “stabilization assistance” kept them afloat. Given the time and resources at their disposal, why were these bodies incapable of building local institutions that could withstand or repel ISIS control?
The ISIS takeover has exposed not only the military weakness of ISIS’ rival rebel groups. It has revealed the failure of the Gulf- and Western-backed Syrian opposition and its allies to institute credible systems of governance and local rule.
The failure to build such systems derives from a mutually reinforcing dependency between two poles of influence. One of these poles is Washington, DC, where policymakers with competing objectives and little local knowledge are often inadvertently undermining the very actors they hope to empower. The other pole is Gaziantep, a Turkish industrial city near the Syrian border from which most opposition activities are coordinated.
These two centers of Syrian opposition are locked in an interdependent cycle of disinformation, misplaced priorities, and even mutual recrimination. They rely on each other for legitimacy and purpose instead of reaching out to the struggling actors on the ground who are being squeezed from all directions.
Dealing with the Opposition
U.S. government employees tasked with formulating a coherent strategy on Syria have been stymied by seemingly endless complications and contradictions in their attempts to support elements of the Syrian opposition that align with U.S. interests and objectives. They have largely relied on the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition for Revolution and Opposition Forces (often shortened to Syrian Opposition Coalition, or SOC), to determine which areas require assistance and which local bodies deserve legitimacy.
The SOC has in turn focused for the most part on a singular form of U.S. assistance: military intervention. All other types of support—including humanitarian assistance, development aid, and support for local governance activities—have been devolved to the SOC’s satellite bodies in Gaziantep, such as the Local Administrative Council Support Unit, the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), and as of late, the Syrian Interim Government.
These bodies were created with the stated goal of delivering assistance and services to struggling proto-governmental actors in Syria. But staffed with inexperienced individuals with distinct political agendas, these groups have focused instead on maximizing donor contributions into their own coffers and building their own importance and legitimacy within the SOC hierarchy.
They have each risen and fallen in a rapid succession of scandals involving mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism. The ACU, which has received over $50 million in assistance from the United States, the EU, and other Western and Gulf donors, is currently welcoming its sixth chief executive in less than two years. It has been plagued by media leaks, high-profile defections, and a strike involving over half of its Gaziantep-based staff. The Local Administrative Council Support Unit has fared little better, and though the Syrian Interim Government is still too new for scandals of this magnitude, it already shows many of the same telltale signs of corruption and mismanagement.
In their drive for funding and recognition, these organizations often focus their efforts on high-profile and novel interventions that put a premium on fashionable terminology such as “local governance support” and “peace-building.” These programs aim to promote “stabilization” with little previous knowledge of local context, capacities, or needs. Isolated in either Washington or Gaziantep, program organizers have little connection to developments on the ground and rely on second-hand information from handpicked “local partners” with an equally high stake in securing project financing.
For example, one program from the Assistance Coordination Unit aimed to provide iPads pre-loaded with educational material to children inside Syria—to compensate for the near-total collapse of educational infrastructure in the north. Another plan with tacit U.S. approval aimed to organize a cross-sectarian “mass wedding” ceremony somewhere near Damascus. Many other programs, less lavish but equally high-minded, are taking place in areas where access to basic human necessitates are scarce or non-existent. High-priced iPads and multicultural weddings are guaranteed failures when people on the ground are more concerned with access to food, clean drinking water, and safety from regime bombings.
In locations that are sufficiently supplied and secure that these types of programs can conceivably succeed, further problems arise due to insufficient knowledge of both local needs and community dynamics.
Take, for example, an attempt early last year to support a local council in a small city on the northern edge of the governorate of Raqqa. A U.S. and French campaign, under SOC guidance, to provide salaries and support to the “secular, moderate” local council produced such widespread enmity from surrounding villages that the program was soon suspended. Local populations found it unacceptable that one self-appointed city council was receiving American salaries for being “secular” while neighboring communities starved. The area became one of the first where armed extremists displaced the opposition-allied local government.
This misreading of local sensibilities is a regular occurrence in U.S. funding initiatives. A recent U.S.-run stabilization campaign aimed to create “islands of stability” in northern Syria by providing a massive influx of both humanitarian supplies and “governance assistance” to areas that successfully resisted ISIS influence. The SOC picked four cities as pilot locations to create the largest possible media response, without any consideration of where they’d find the greatest need or most capable local partners. One SOC official praised the program because “we sent so many food baskets that even rich people got them.”
As a result, in one city, the sheer quantity of imported U.S. goods raised suspicions about the local council’s right to distribute them. Enterprising locals fought for seats on the council to influence distributions in their favor and held a spontaneous election months ahead of the official election date. The old council refused to step down, and it remains unclear who the “local government” of the city is anymore.
In another city, extremists dismayed by the “American campaign against Islam” kidnapped the head of the local council and forced him out of the city, then out of the country entirely.
Yet based on the metrics used in Washington and Gaziantep, this program was considered an unqualified success. It transmitted millions of dollars worth of assistance to the Syrian opposition and received significant media attention in the process. Few people within the Washington-Gaziantep echo chamber had the information to point out the problems that came with it. Worse, the United States is currently in the process of expanding the program significantly, thus compounding the errors.
Finding the Right Partners
Assistance programs are often geared at building the legitimacy of SOC-affiliated and Gaziantep-based Syrian opposition bodies by demonstrating to local communities that these bodies are capable of delivering effective services. However, the effective delivery of even the most basic services is predicated on the existence of a capable and legitimate body who can implement them appropriately.
But the bodies selected by the United States are too busy courting U.S. favor to have the necessary local credibility and know-how. So Western policy gets caught in an endless loop of its own creation.
Most Syrians—and practically all Americans—are unaware of even the existence of the Syrian Interim Government, the current beneficiary of much Western largesse and the purported representative of the interests of the Syrian people. Within the corridors of their Gaziantep-based ministries, the departments and factions of the Interim Government compete for funding and influence, and jockey for position and control.
They fight over management of U.S. funds or oversight of British programs. They produce glossy reports on the expected future outputs of large-scale, multimillion- dollar programs to revitalize wheat farming or to revamp Syria’s educational curriculum. The Ministries of Finance and Relief are currently engaged in a heated tug-of-war over the “islands of stability” campaign mentioned above. Each hopes to gain total control over program funding with no representation whatsoever from the other.
None of the ministries has yet to produce tangible impact on the ground. The Syrian population likely has little faith that the Interim Government has the ability to mitigate the horrors that they have endured over the past three years.
Washington and Gaziantep, too focused on the needs and expectations of each other, have lost sight of the populations they both ostensibly aim to support. This tunnel vision has resulted in a significant deterioration, rather than promotion, of the legitimacy of the opposition bodies that Washington had initially hoped to mold into leaders and allies.
But all is not yet lost.
Dozens of local groups—and even some national ones—currently have the credibility to lead and the capacity to perform. This credibility was hard-won through community-based initiatives that took place far from the gaze or support of U.S. donors or their Gaziantep counterparts. Many have been driven out by extremists, but those that remain should be identified, supported, and most importantly, listened to.
These community-based and community-driven initiatives form the backbone of any credible local governance, and a credible Syrian interlocutor should be able to harness these potentialities to create real positive change. It is here—and not in the funding or training of militias with little local knowledge and unknown motivations—that the bulwark against radical extremism will be strongest.
In Raqqa, the heart of the new Islamic State, a community group called Haqquna (“Our Right”) mobilized community members to embrace ideals of pluralism, representative democracy, and secularism.
These ideas were not borne from meetings with U.S. donors or even attendance at U.S.-funded trainings or seminars; Haqquna never received a penny from the United States or other Western governments. The group regularly and publicly protested the presence of Jabhat Al-Nusra (once the most extreme Islamists in Syria before the arrival of ISIS). And when the U.S.-backed local council was seen to be kowtowing to foreign interests over those of their own constituents, Haqquna protested the council as well.
Haqquna enjoyed widespread popular support but was attacked by hardline Islamists, the Assad regime, and occasionally by the local councils as well. Several months ago, the organization collapsed under the violence and pressure, and its members went into exile.
Things might have turned out differently if a national Syrian body, one that properly represented the interests of the populace, was willing to identify, support, and devolve authority to local groups such as these. These local civil society groups are already operating on the front lines of Syria’s most troubled locations, organizing assistance deliveries and negotiating temporary ceasefires between opposing sides. Their efforts are not only effective, but are also widely considered to be locally sourced and legitimate, and as a consequence, sustainable.
Organizations like Haqquna cannot survive alone. Too often they’re crowded out by bodies with deeper pockets but shallower politics, acting on behalf of “international interests” instead of those of the Syrian people. With this model replicated across all of what was once “liberated” Syria, it’s no wonder that the mantle of governance fell to groups offering a different vision.
To reverse the tide and regain the spirit of those who first took to the streets in 2011, it’s time to leave behind the bubbles of Washington and Gaziantep and take a fresh look at what is happening on the ground in Syria.