Raqqa and beyond: The fight against ISIS and its aftermath

Following the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria met on 24th October to hear about the effects of the military campaign, and what should follow on from it.

The speakers were Kinda Haddad of Airwars, Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine of People Demand Change, and Rana Khalaf, fellow with the Centre for Syria Studies, University of Saint Andrews, and the meeting was chaired by Alison McGovern, co-chair of the APPG and Member of Parliament for Wirral South.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

We have some excellent people here who are going to update us about the situation in Syria and for Syrians. We are at a crucial time with what’s happened in Raqqa, and in advance of the future rounds of negotiations led by Staffan de Mistura this is an important time for us all to be informed and involved in what is happening in Syria.

Let me introduce Kinda Haddad, the Chief Syria Researcher at Airwars.org, an independent journalist-led transparency project that monitors and assesses reports of civilian casualties, whether they be allegedly caused by the Coalition, Russians, or other international airstrikes.

Kinda Haddad:
I was a bit apprehensive preparing this talk, because in public forums about Syria we are used to hearing a lot of criticisms of Russia, the regime, Iran, and rightly so because they behave in abominable ways, but we kind of see ourselves as the good guys in all this. But monitoring the strikes and their aftermath in Syria, particularly in Raqqa over the past few months, has been very troubling and makes it very hard to see who the good guys really are.

As Alison said, at Airwars we monitor all allegations of civilian casualties caused by all the international actors across Syria and Iraq, and in Syria that mainly means Russia and the Coalition.

Now, Raqqa. Since the beginning of the Coalition action which started in September 2014, this year has been the worst we’ve seen in terms of allegations of civilian casualties caused by the Coalition. We used to see three, four, in a bad week ten allegations a week of incidents that caused civilian casualties, but from December 2016 it went up and up and up, and from March onwards we just saw every day from half a dozen to a dozen allegations of civilian casualties, and mass incidents with twenty people killed, thirty people killed, fifty. It was just incredible.

Although the campaign for Raqqa city started in June, on June 6th, the preparation for that started in March by trying to defeat ISIS in cities to the west of Raqqa: Tabaqa, Mansoura, and those places. From March to the end on the campaign in mid October we have credible reports of more than 2,000 civilians killed in air and artillery strikes.

I would like to briefly go through a sample of the incidents that we have been monitoring over the last few months, so you can just put a name and a face to one or two of these people that have lost their lives as a result of our policies. This is important because when we assess the outcome of this war, we need to know the cost of this war, and at the moment I don’t think the cost is fully clear.

And going through some of these incidents I would like to examine some of the claims made by the Coalition, of which of course we are a part. One of the claims is that, unlike others, we do not deliberately target civilians, and that in fact we go to extraordinary lengths to save civilians. Yet we saw quite a few incidents of families trying to leave the conflict zones being targeted.

For example on April 24th two cars carrying an entire family were trying to leave the city of Tabaqa which was being bombed, and up to 17 people were reportedly killed. Eleven of those were named, and they included four women, a man, and six kids. And we have photos of four of those kids.

These were all a family that was trying to escape from Tabaqa and their cars were targeted.

We don’t deliberately target civilians, yet we’ve seen incidents, so many I can’t go through all of them, of people being struck in their homes. Residential building after residential building with families, entire families just wiped out. For example, a mother Riham Mehela died in her house with her two kids Hamza and Mohamad.

And another one in the Deraya neighbourhood, again eleven killed including a family of five displaced from Deir Ezzor, Gaza and his wife Samya and their three boys, Ahmed Yusef and Hamad. I’m sorry, I’m showing you kids all the time, but maybe as I have kids I particularly find those disturbing. But this is just like the tip of the iceberg.

We don’t deliberately target civilians, but we have struck people queuing up for their daily bread at bakeries. We have struck internally displaced refugees sleeping at a disused school outside of Mansoura, west of Raqqa. Human Rights Watch investigated those last two incidents and found that a total of at least 84 civilians were killed in just those two incidents. And there’s an interesting quote from Ole Solvang at Human Rights Watch; he said that if Coalition forces did not know that there were civilians at these sites, they need to take a long hard look at the intelligence they’re using to verify their targets, because it clearly was not good enough.

The UN Human Rights Office also verified several other incidents, six in August, each with more than 20 people killed: 1st of August airstrikes hit residential areas in Albou Saraya neighbourhood killing at least 27 civilians including twelve kids and eight women; on the 17th of August airstrikes hit the residential area in the Madrassat Mu’awiya neighbourhood, killing at least 22 civilians, including six women, at least nine kids. And I won’t go through all of them, but on and on it goes.

Now you have to bear in mind that unlike some areas in Syria where it’s quite confusing and we don’t know who is carrying out the strikes—for example at the moment in Deir Ezzor, often we get allegations and they’re contested between Russia, the regime, and the Coalition—but Raqqa we know it’s the Coalition. Any deaths from artillery or airstrikes are by the Coalition because nobody else is operating in that area.

What  puzzles me is I just don’t know how it’s possible with case after case—and it really was daily for months, several cases a day—to have so little reporting, and so few reactions from everybody. Nothing, complete silence.

I’m sure you’ll remember the lead up to the fall of Aleppo, when Russia and the regime laid siege to the city, and they bombed it mercilessly killing hundreds of civilians. I remember it very well because I was monitoring it every day, and struggling to keep up with the barrage of allegations. Also because something happened that I wasn’t used to. I would monitor in the morning and hear about incidents, and then I would hear it reflected in the media, in condemnations from politicians. There was a kind of reaction to what was going on on the ground, whereas with Raqqa there was just nothing.

Now there is some interest in Raqqa, now that the city has fallen and people can go in and picture the images. But it needs to happen while it’s going on, because laying siege to a city full of civilians and just pulverising it, it’s just not something one should be quiet about.

Just because we’re not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening, and crucially doesn’t mean other people are not hearing about it. These allegations are spread all over social media, on accounts that have hundreds of thousands of followers each, so people are hearing about these.

The UN says that 80% of Raqqa is now uninhabitable, and now that the city has fallen, people can see images. These are residential neighbourhoods, and that’s what they look like now. I just want you to imagine what would happen to a family living in those buildings. A building like this, maybe they got intelligence that there’s an ISIS office let’s say, I’m sure it’s all based on some ISIS-related thing, but it’ll have one floor of ISIS and the rest will be families. To demolish an entire building—I don’t know, maybe it is worth it, but we need to look at it clearly and we need to discuss whether it’s worth it.

With around 20,000 munitions dropped on a densely-populated city over several months, we admit—we as in the Coalition—admit to having killed five civilians, and we killed them by mistake. [Note: Since this event, the number of civilians killed admitted to by the Coalition has risen.] These are mistakes that happened every day, several times a day, for several months.

Five people could be argued to be a price worth paying to defeat an organisation as evil as ISIS. Nobody wants ISIS to deal with. But I doubt any of you believe that only five people were killed in that level of bombardment. It’s an open secret, even without me presenting to you, that the cost of this war in human terms is much, much higher than that.

And like I said, everybody has been totally silent about this, which reminds me of a quote that often occurs to me while I’m doing my monitoring, which is that the world suffers not because of the violence of bad people but because of the silence of good people, and sadly there’s been a lot of that lately.

Thank you Kinda. Next we have Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine of People Demand Change. And People Demand Change monitor and evaluate funded aid and development projects in Syria.

Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine:
Thank you Kinda also, because she provided a good background that I can build on. We’ve seen the destruction in Raqqa, so now the question becomes, how can we have a stabilisation plan and a reconstruction plan that can move forward and revive the city? This is the question that policymakers and humanitarian aid organisations are concerned with. But we should I think stop a little here and ask ourselves another question, which is what have we learned from a seven year conflict in Syria, not only in Raqqa but in all of the areas?

I think it’s worthwhile to ask this, and it’s even worth answering this question, because we as People Demand Change, and activists on the ground, we learned a lot about the community, and we learned a lot also about the mistakes that the international community and the humanitarian aid organisations have made inside Syria.

The first thing we noticed is that we have a huge lack of coordination within the organisations, the NGOs, and the international community, and this is reflected on the ground. There is no sense of consistent aid and support on the ground, there is no coordination between any of the elements. The International Stabilisation Committee, chaired by Germany, have been talking about a comprehensive committee where all the supporting countries will try to coordinate aid for Syria, and for Raqqa specifically, but we don’t know yet what their plan is, how it’s going to work, so honestly there is no plan to coordinate, or to speak about any kind of coordination.

Another thing we learned from the ground is that ISIS, especially in the case of Raqqa, is not Raqqawis’ problem, it’s not a Syria problem. The reason why extremist groups were appealing in this community is not because of ideologies, it’s because at some point they didn’t have any alternative, especially in Raqqa, because they asked for help against the regime and they didn’t get it, they asked for help when ISIS came from Iraq and they didn’t get it. And it’s true that some people in Raqqa supported ISIS, but it was only strategic, and a matter of survival, not a matter of ideology.

We can conclude from this is that whatever we do in these places, we should make sure that locals are engaged in any solutions. The original reason why all this happened is because people were very dissatisfied with the political and economic systems. They felt that they didn’t have any control over their future. If you are not going to engage them right now, they will feel the same, so it’s not going to be any multi-decade peace and stabilisation in this area.

Building on these thoughts, I want to introduce five points that we should take into account in planning for stabilisation.

The first point is Raqqa’s inhabitants. The majority of Raqqa city’s original demographic is Arab Sunni with a minority of Kurds. But we have 250,000 people from the city in Turkey as refugees, and they don’t have any possibility right now to go back to Raqqa. Also, the demographic in Raqqa is very tribal, it is very specific and very unique to Raqqa. So in any solution that we’re going to provide, the demographics of Raqqa should be preserved, because otherwise anything we do will undermine multi-decade stabilisation in this area.

The second point is the framework of any stabilisation, which goes back again to coordination, so we need a comprehensive framework where all the framers of the stabilisation will be on the board, along with NGOs, humanitarian aid organisations, and Syrians, the locals, there too. And it needs to be very specific in a way that we should know each country would be responsible for each village, like village by village, so we need to have a clear plan.

The third point concerns the US. The Americans need to be clear when it comes to their commitment to protect the Jazira region. For now, because of the fight against ISIS, we have a deconfliction zone for Al Jazira, and the line is the Euphrates river, but after the fight, after ISIS is kicked out, what will happen? The Americans specifically need to answer this question because the regime and Iran and Russia are waiting for the opportunity to go back and try to control the Jazira region again.

The fourth point is very specific. The social dynamic of the region—other than the demographics there is a very specific social dynamic in Raqqa that needs to be taken into account. What I mean by this is we need to be very careful with the kind of governance that we implement there, and the social services provision mechanism. The civilians need to be willing to engage with any system we are going to put in there.

The fifth point is logistics. Right now access to Raqqa is related to one border crossing from the KRG. We are talking about a city of 300,000 people, so we need to answer again the question of how are we going to reconstruct the city you see right here with one border crossing to provide all the requirements to rebuild.

Thank you Ikbal, that’s really helpful. Moving on to the issue of post-ISIS governance, we have Rana Khalaf who is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of Saint Andrew’s. She’s been researching governance in non-government controlled parts of Syria. The question of what alternative governance could be there is absolutely crucial—Rana.

Rana Khalaf:
Thank you. So, I’ll actually start with the quote that was on one of the pictures that you presented, Kinda, and it translates to ‘we hope that those who denied us your life,’ for the kid who died, ‘is denied the light of his eyes.’

Just think about this grievance for the future, how it will be tackled, or how it will be used by different actors, be it international states or be it extremist groups. Usually the response is ‘may God save him,’ but now here we see a strong grievance, an underlying sense of revenge.

And this is what I will talk about. I will tackle local legitimacy and the requirements to prevent a return of extremism and conflict when I’m talking about governance and reconstruction, post ISIS. The key issues are local legitimacy, accountability, and long term security.

There’s this common assumption that we wait for a conflict to end in a certain area, and then we start our peace building and state building interventions. What is problematic here is that extremist actors, all actors actually, have not waited for the conflict to end, and one of the strongest actors here is ISIS.

ISIS built its own governance during the conflict. There seem to be three pillars that constantly reoccur in who governs and how well they govern, and it seems to apply to many actors who govern different areas, and that’s the provision of services, the provision of security, and legitimacy. So if we want to understand what happens post ISIS, let’s go back to how ISIS governed, and then to who governs after ISIS, and what will happen next.

If we look at Raqqa and how ISIS governed, ISIS at the beginning was able to secure Raqqa from the random barrel bombs of the regime, and I remember Skyping with activists on the ground in Deir Ezzor, and I was asking back when ISIS was about to attack if they were scared, and they were like, ‘no, at least we will be secure from the sky.’ And it was very interesting to me, how security parallels with the local, at a time when the human rights discourse did not make sense to the locals because nobody came to protect them. So let’s just think about what ISIS provided in terms of security, and what the international community could not provide.

Plus if you look at Dabiq, the ISIS magazine, Dabiq promised people economic security for the future, and there was a time when ISIS was expanding, and securing part of its discourse. I think one of the positives of the Coalition is that it stopped this dream that ISIS is expanding territorially.

That’s in terms of security. If we look in terms of services, ISIS did provide services to the locals. People who did not want to go to its court had to do that because there was stealing, looting on the ground and they wanted some protection. So they went. It was not only a strategic concern, it was day to day life. If you want to continue to live under new governance actors, how do you protect yourself?

And then we look at how the international community responded. I remember mapping the local council there. It represented the locals before ISIS took over the city, but ISIS let it work, as it needed somebody to provide those services. What the international community did, it went into this war on terror implementation where it said, ‘okay, we have terrorist groups here, we will not fund them.’ So they withdrew all funding from the local council. And it ended up giving legitimacy to ISIS as they then provided services there.

I know that’s a difficult question, because in other areas where civil society groups were funded, ISIS ended up looting their equipment, so it wasn’t an easy one to answer.

And local legitimacy, yes, it depended on a discourse, but ISIS built on the grievances people had with the regime, and it was able to recruit people into its groups, or to have some sort of a host community, until people realised this was not exactly accurate.

So anyways, ISIS is gone. Let me take you from Raqqa to Manbij and the PYD, a new governance actor, and again I looked at how the PYD is able to govern here, and I saw that both organisations—and I’m not comparing the two in any way—but institutionally they were strong, they existed years before the Syrian uprising, and the reason why they managed so well was that they had institutions in place, they had structures in place, whereas the growing civil society was still embryonic and it could not move as fast.

Now the PYD, they have multiple security establishments, the Asayjsh police, traffic security, social security, and anti terrorism security, so they are trying to provide security on the ground, and even in areas where the Arabs were strongly opposed to the PYD-led SDF, they were happy about the PYD defeating ISIS and getting it out of their areas. They told me ‘we truly rejoiced’ when ISIS was sent out of Manbij.

And then we look at service provision, and they are excellent in a way. Yes in many cases they are using what’s left from the regime organisations, they use what’s available. I sometimes describe the regime-PYD relationship as a precarious co-existence, they can cooperate or compete with the regime. It’s another dynamic to keep an eye on for the future.

We still see that the PYD say that ‘we govern from the grassroots,’ from cantons to communes and out to districts, but what we see is at the different nodes of this network we see their cadres are at the centre of the decision-making, so the representatives, even when we see Arab names or etcetera, the power still remains in the hands of the PYD, and this is problematic in many ways.

When I was looking at Manbij, I was asking the locals how they felt about this new governance actor, and the fear when I was speaking to them felt like a decade ago when you would interview people in Damascus. They do not want to talk about anything political.

One of their strong grievances is actually the Almashis who returned to Manbij after the PYD took over, who were perceived as shabiha [regime militias] and who returned to govern the local councils. Another issue was the education system where because of the deals between the PYD and the regime, I’m told that Bashar Assad’s photo is again on the curriculum of the school. So imagine how this translates in the minds of the people.

Another issue to keep an eye on are those opposition armed groups where the families are from Manbij, sitting in the Turkish-controlled part of the country, and the future frictions that may be triggered between the two. Let’s not forget these grievances, let alone the strong political interest of Turkey, of fighting the PYD.

Now in Manbij, historically there were no tensions between Arabs and Kurds. But moving to Raqqa, and especially to Deir Ezzor, when I was interviewing people, the locals, the one term that came was that this is an invasion. For them, this local actor was an invader.

In Raqqa it seems to be the way it’s governed with the local council, what I’m hearing is the Americans are more or less controlling the local council, and the power is not in the hands of the PYD, and we see more Arab tribes getting hold of this local council. So again here we see a slight difference in how things are handled in Al Raqqa.

And it’s too early to judge, but for the future, here are some key issues that I think we need to need to look at.

Security is not stabilisation. Security revolves around future economic security of the people, and their personal security from the governing actor in place. Yes, there are no major human rights violations in this area, at least in Raqqa, not like the way it happened in Tal Abyad. But let’s keep an eye on this.

On service provision, I think when international actors say we have no leverage, that’s the one bit of leverage with international humanitarian aid. Yes, many say we follow a do no harm approach, we are conflict sensitive, but in reality the very decision to support one area and not another is highly political. By going through any governance actor, be it the PYD, the regime, armed groups, Free Syrian Army, you are taking a highly political decision, so at least conditionalities could be imposed here. The way this humanitarian aid is working, it’s legitimising the governance actor in place. So let’s not forget that.

Locally, services relate to relationships of trust, the relationships themselves, but the way external actors look at it, it’s projects, deals, deadlines, let’s secure A, B, C. And that’s problematic, because this is not the way it works, so the ‘logical framework’ used in proposals and reports doesn’t necessarily serve that provision of services in the way it works locally. It’s not always about how much money is invested, it’s about how this money is invested, and in what channels.

On legitimacy, over and over again legitimacy seems to be related to service provision, but let’s look at legitimacy also in its maximal, not just its minimal forms. This is a contested concept, but it implies social and political trust, unforced public acceptance of the governing power relations and structures, as well as responsiveness to shared rights and obligations. Without those, the effectiveness and legitimacy of any governance can’t be sustainable.

We see the PYD in these areas gaining legitimacy because of service provision and security provision, but let’s look beyond that at how accepted it is by the locals. In Manbij, it was more figureheads rather than local people actually having power, but moving to Raqqa something new is happening with tribal leaders sharing power. But do we really want to go through a tribal structure for a sustainable peace? Think of gender issues and whether tribal figures benefit that; I’m not sure whether a lot would be promoted in that way.

There are other figures that could be represented in this local council. One of the big holders of accountability is civil society actors. A lot of people think of civil society as make up; you know, it’s a sexy word, let’s support civil society. But look beyond this, and let’s not look at the humanitarian civil society, let’s look at political actors in civil society. Why do we have to neutralise it? If any accountability is to take place we need those political civil society actors. When they’re providing services, they are in this fight for legitimacy, because people need some kind of peace dividend.

Just to recap, the key areas to look at for the future are the local tensions, between the Arabs and the Kurds, between the Kurds themselves, between the regime and the PYD; the radicalisation that might be triggered again due to exclusion, inequalities, and injustices; and the shrinking space for civil society. Shrinking space in the sense that Turkey is legally prohibiting civil society actors to work in the northern part of the country, and it even closed some of the offices of international actors. And international actors who work in regime areas are prohibited from working in the northern part. And the PYD itself says ‘we support civil society,’ but in reality it gets them stuck in a cycle of bureaucratic measures.

Thank you, a very helpful presentation. Now I would just like to ask if anyone has any questions?

Brian Slocock:
There will be huge pressures from various quarters for reconstruction aid, and basic humanitarian aid, to be channelled through regime institutions, and it’s very difficult to know how to respond to that. One can’t oppose humanitarian aid, but if that aid is going to be harnessed by the regime to reinstate its status domestically and internationally, then that is a severe downside. I’ve heard that an increasing volume of UN aid is already channelled through the regime. What is your feeling is on how to resolve that dilemma, and do you have any information on relations between UN institutions and the regime?

Marjorie Bahhaj:
I’m in contact with an activist with the Euphrates Post. He’s asked me to raise his concern for these refugees going from Deir Ezzor and working their way up northwards to the camps outside Raqqa. They are stuck in the desert, and the children are having awful problems with Leishmaniasis which is from sandfly infections. There are even patients that have things like hydrocephalus that need treatment.

They are traumatised. They are fleeing because you may have let them loose from ISIS, liberated them from that, but they fear the Assad army, they fear the Russian army, they fear the Iranians. They are desperate to find somewhere safe where they can look after their families and regain some peace in their lives.

Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine:
I will answer the question about the UN aid. As I spoke about the framework, it needs to come together to solve this issue of deploying the requirements for Raqqa. But the problem with the UN that I need to raise here is that people on the ground don’t trust the UN, because of what happened specifically in Eastern Ghouta and the UN refusing to drop aid to the besieged area. People are really disappointed and don’t really trust the UN. So this solution about deploying aid through the regime, it’s controversial right now, so how can you build trust?

Chris Doyle:
Chris Doyle, from the Council for Arab British Understanding. Thank you all very much for your presentations.

Kinda, Airwars came under some criticism from Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, and I wondered if you had any comment on that? There was an article in Foreign Policy in which he claimed that there has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict.

And very quickly also, all the effort is against ISIS, but it seems the American administration aren’t very interested in taking on Jabhat Al Nusra, HTS now. How dangerous a policy do you think that is?

Kinda Haddad:
Well, precise, yes. The UN says that 90% of the city is uninhabitable. You saw the pictures, the whole city looks like that. So I just don’t know how precise it can be.

And yes, you’re right, we got a lot of criticism. But interestingly the director of Airwars has a pretty close relationship with CENTCOM. We check information with them, because often we get allegations where it’s not very clear whether the Coalition was involved or not. We contact them, we email them, and we say we’ve got this allegation, and they communicate with us.

But the last few months, because the allegations have been so horrendous, they’ve turned on us and they have criticised us. But also with the Human Rights Watch report for example, where they investigated just two incidents with at least 84 civilians killed, they attacked them, they attacked Amnesty on other reports they’ve done. They’re attacking the messenger instead of investigating these allegations.

We do assess, we don’t just pick up allegations, we assess the strength of the allegations. If there’s only one source, and if the Coalition hasn’t been operating in that area, then we assess it as not credible or weak. The ones that we assess as credible are ones where we have got names of victims, where we have several sources telling us the same story, where we’ve got photographs of people. And very often when some of these pictures are posted you get family members commenting, saying ‘this is my uncle, this is my nephew. their house was there.’ It’s real people that are dying.

So yes, they attack us, but what can I do?

The British interestingly haven’t, I think because in Syria the majority of airstrikes are probably American. The British operated more in Iraq. I just don’t know, but the Coalition is more under the American umbrella, and the Americans feel more under attack when we say things.

But also, Kinda, if I may, there would be different rules of engagement for the different forces, I believe.

Kinda Haddad:
Would there? I don’t know, you tell me?

At the very least I think that’s a question we ought to ask. And whether our government has questioned the Americans on their rules of engagement.

Kinda Haddad:
I think being an integral part of the Coalition we should take responsibility, at least by questioning and speaking out.

Rana Khalaf:
On aid to be channelled through the regime, it already is. And actually, with Europe so anxious to get rid of the refugees, willing do anything just to get them to go back, and with this inward looking notion of security in Europe, I think the regime will capitalise on it. ‘You want to get rid of them? You will have to pay me.’

The UN has been already negotiating some quite shaky deals with the regime to get access to some of the other areas. And the problem is this money for aid and reconstruction is very high leverage, but is not used well at all. I think there is an opportunity here to use that better as a pressure tool.

In terms of the HTS, sadly I do view Nusra—or the HTS—as much more dangerous because it’s local. But the US, all it’s focused on is now ISIS, and I think Europe is too concerned with its own migration problems and it’s not looking longer term.

This will be the third fragile state in the region, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. We’re thinking just stabilise it and get the refugees back, but the grievances will not just disappear. I often don’t speak from a humanitarian perspective, as in because people are dying, help them out—but help them out for your own security. We will have bigger problems in the future if we maintain this very narrow inward-looking perspective.

Bilal Sukkar:
Bilal Sukkar from Rethink Rebuild. When you said that the way aid should be given, that there should be conditionality, that we have leverage, it seems to me that the regime is actually putting the conditions on the international donors. For example from what I know, a lot of NGOs opening in Syria, they open on condition that they have to partner for example with the Syria Trust that is owned by the wife of Bashar al-Assad, so I wonder, how can that relationship change? What else can the international community use to leverage the regime?

Another question, if you want to compare Raqqa to Tel Rifaat and Manbij, how was the SDF or the PYD able to give itself legitimacy to the people of the areas there? And what can we learn from these experiences?

Paul Musiol:
My name is Paul from PAX, the Dutch peace building organisation. You spoke about the importance of local legitimacy in the next phase of whatever comes in Raqqa. You also spoke a little bit about the history of the local councils there, how they stopped receiving support and so on. What remnants are there of local legitimacy for the international community to partner with and work with?

Rana Khalaf:
What can the international community use as leverage with the regime? Well, in other areas I heard that aid is reached through helicopters, to Ain Issa, PYD controlled areas, especially with the sieges on PYD controlled areas through Kurdistan, Iraq, Turkey. And so helicopters can be used. And different actors, for instance when they were forbidden registration in Turkey, they registered the same organisation in another name and worked from another area on the Kurdish controlled areas. It’s just that they would have two different registrations.

So there are ways, you know, when an international actor is interested in supporting one of the areas, they can. So, yes, through working through other channels basically. Go through the civil society, because you might actually be doing real harm through legitimising certain actors.

They are using the UN, and the UN through its architecture is meant to work with states, so it will stay there. So you can channel money in different ways.

Already projects like Tamkeen, that DFID supported, have created a healthy culture in terms of competition, creating more systems of accountability. I am not all pro, I have my criticisms, especially in good governance training, but I thought there was something very healthy there.

Comparing Tal Abyad to Manbij, thinking about the human rights violations and abuses, and the nature of the two areas, in Tal Abyad you already had micro-conflicts that rose to the surface, and in Manbij you didn’t have those kind of tensions. I think because of the reporting by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the PYD is an organisation that learns, and it realises it’s internationally monitored, and I think the violations were limited when it reached Manbij. So I think that’s part of it, but to say they have legitimacy, I don’t think they do. There’s high criticisms around them, it’s just difficult for people to talk at the moment.

And one problem here is, please don’t look at elections as a source of legitimacy. The regime has for decades used elections as legitimacy. When people are depending on this governance actor for security, for jobs, of course they will vote for them. So look at a system of accountability; only looking at elections is very problematic.

What are the remnants of local legitimacy? I think there are respected figures, teachers, certain activists, that people feel represent them. It’s not just tribal figures. And there is this misconception that if we talk to a tribal figure that we get the entire tribe. This is not exactly the way it works in Syria. No tribal figure has the power over an entire tribe. These are more networks of tribalism and one tribe can be divided with its alliances to different actors, and they definitely know how to manoeuvre this, so be a bit more critical when navigating this world of patronage and tribalism.

Brian Slocock:
Just a short comment that people might like to react to. I get a sense that there is a view that we are entering a period of uncertain but nonetheless relatively protracted stability in Syria, and frankly I don’t see it. First of all we have this highly unclear project by Turkey in Idlib, with their very ambiguous relationship with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and secondly I don’t see any way over even the short term that the regime and its allies are going to tolerate projects which undermine its control or its capacity to reimpose its control in parts of the country. So we may have a short breathing space but I don’t think it’s going to be anything more than that. These tensions are all going to erupt and we are going to be more or less looking at a fight all the way back to square one.

Marjorie Bahhaj:
I just want to know when are we going to get this regime in the International Criminal Court? There are major, major war crimes going on here.

Agreed. I would just say, on the comment that was made before if I may, I don’t think any of us think that stability is certain at all, and secondly, that was exactly the question on war crimes that I asked the minister earlier today in the Commons, so we will continue to put pressure on.

My thanks to the panel, to Kinda, to Rana, to Ikbal, and thank you to all for coming.