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.