All (Syrian) Politics Is Local

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.


Democracy Lab

What Africa Did Right in 2012

Africans are getting better at finding their own solutions to African problems.

At first glance it hardly seems that 2012 was a good year for Africa. As usual, the news headlines were not calculated to prompt optimism. Renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali's descent into chaos appeared to confirm the familiar narratives of tragedy -- not to mention the continent's other continuing crises.

And yet a closer look reveals an encouraging trend: Africa is starting to confront and advance solutions to some of its most intractable problems in a way that it rarely has in the past. The African Union and sub-regional organizations are increasingly taking the lead in responding to crises, while the international community is giving them more and more of the space to do so. A few examples bear this out.

Africa's greatest success in 2012 was in Somalia, where, after years of stagnation, the African Union peacekeeping mission (consisting of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Kenya) turned a corner. They expelled Al-Shabab extremists from the key cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo and forced them north toward Puntland and into the bush. Though still violent, Mogadishu (shown in the photo above) is flourishing, with new businesses opening, expatriates returning and the international community increasingly engaged and investing in Somalia's future. Arguably even more importantly, Somalia made real political progress by finally ending its transitional government and installing a new government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whose roots are in Somali civil society and is widely well-regarded. His appointment and his initial decisions, including the selection of a streamlined cabinet, is a cause for cautious optimism, a sentiment rarely felt in Somalia in the last 20 years.

2012 was, admittedly, a disappointing year for Sudan and newly independent South Sudan, which just can't seem to get beyond the dynamic of continual confrontation along their shared border. Yet here, too, there were surprising grounds for optimism. The highlight was a series of agreements that both countries signed in September. The agreements are designed to solve unresolved issues resulting from South Sudan's secession, most notably the sharing of oil revenues and the management of border areas. Those agreements were brokered by a team of three former African presidents from South Africa, Burundi, and Nigeria who make up the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP). The negotiations leading to the agreements were painstaking, stretching over more than two years, and at times seemingly going in endless circles. The AUHIP was criticized at various turns, but their persistence paid off, as they eventually prodded the parties to make critical compromises. Nonetheless, the agreements remain unimplemented and the bickering between Juba and Khartoum continues, with the AUHIP working to compel implementation.

Africa has also responded to the continent's latest country in crisis, Mali, though the jury is out on whether that response will produce results. 2012 has been an unmitigated disaster for Mali, which was battered by the dual shock of multiple coups in the capital and insurgent groups seizing control of vast swaths of the desert north. Slowly, the West African regional organization ECOWAS has sought to mobilize a military intervention comprised of troops from the region designed to expel extremists from northern Mali, while Burkina Faso takes the lead in trying to organize negotiations between the weak Malian government and two of the seemingly more moderate rebel groups.

The intervention plans have been widely criticized for their lack of detail and focus on military rather than political processes, and tensions are emerging between ECOWAS and the African Union. Any intervention remains at a minimum months away, and Burkina Faso's negotiators have not made any breakthroughs. But even though Africa's response to the Malian crisis has been unconvincing, the fact that Africa is in the lead on both military planning and political negotiations represents a welcome departure from the past.

These examples paint a mixed picture of the efficacy of African efforts to solve regional problems. But what's noteworthy is that such efforts are happening at all. It was not long ago that outsiders reflexively took the lead in responding to African crises -- indeed, it was only in 2011 that France intervened, under a UN mandate, in the civil war in Cote D'Ivoire -- leaving little space for African-led processes. Such external interventions could still happen again if the stakes are high enough (for example, if extremist groups establish a beachhead in Africa that presents a legitimate threat to Europe or the US). External interventions may produce quicker results than African-led efforts, but they deprive Africa of opportunities to develop its capacity to respond, and in a resource-constrained world such an approach is increasingly untenable.

To be sure, none of these African-led interventions is solely African, and all benefit from some form of outside (primarily western) support. The African Union mission in Somalia is bankrolled by the West. The United States and others have been strong supporters of the AUHIP, prodding the negotiating parties when additional political weight and influence is required and providing technical expertise to the mediators. If an intervention in Mali materializes, the west will surely be asked to foot a large portion of the bill (the European Union has already approved a military training mission to Mali). This type of inside-outside partnership and capacity-building should be encouraged, and the international community should increasingly allow African institutions, such as the African Union, the space to lead.

Skeptics will note that there are other parts of the continent in crisis to which the African response has been tepid, if not absent entirely. Africa has never taken much leadership in responding to the DRC's endless wars, in part because so many African states are directly involved in them (most recently, neighboring Rwanda and Uganda have been implicated in violence in eastern DRC). The African Union remains silent concerning its member states that continue to be led by autocratic, kleptocratic regimes (though to its credit, the African Union has recently suspended several member states whose governments where changed through coups). African voices are rarely heard on the alarming deterioration of security in Nigeria or even the slow decline of the country with the continent's strongest economy, South Africa.

But Africa, and the African Union in particular, are in the midst of an evolution, and it will take some time. Events in 2012 are a clear indication that Africa is increasingly in the lead and finding its voice when responding to its many crises. This evolution should be encouraged, and the international community should be patient and supportive (which is not the same as disengaged or disinterested) while providing the necessary financial, technical, and political support. This formula doesn't always produce rapid results. The African Union mission in Somalia was bogged down for years before its recent success, after all, and some efforts, such as the hunt for Joseph Kony, have yet to yield any results at all. In 2013, African crisis response efforts will be severely tested in DRC and Mali, as well as in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. But if the past year is any indication, Africa will continue to progress toward making "African solutions to African problems" not just a catchy slogan, but a reality as well.