Syria's eastern factions unite in the Liberation and Construction Movement: A conversation with the leadership – Middle East Institute

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MiddleEastJournalCoverSpring2022

Lars Hauch
Following a series of reshuffles within the Syrian National Army (SNA), a Turkey-supported alliance of armed opposition groups in northern Syria, four armed groups with roots in Syria’s eastern provinces, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Jaish al-Sharqiya, the 20th Division, and Suqur al-Sham’s eastern affiliate, announced the formation of the Liberation and Construction Movement (LCM) on Feb. 15, 2022. On April 25, 2022, the author held a four-hour conversation with the LCM’s leadership to discuss its genesis and ambitions, the issue of human rights violations, and the alleged incorporation of former ISIS members. In addition to providing the LCM’s perspectives on the Syrian conflict and its own role as a military, political, and societal actor, this conversation serves as a useful starting point for reflecting on the politics of humanitarian aid and predominant Western approaches to dealing with conflict parties such as the LCM.
1. Introduction: Intra-SNA dynamics, quarrels with the West, and implications for the humanitarian situation in northern Syria
2. Conversation with the LCM’s leadership
2.1 About the genesis and identity of the LCM
2.2 Political and military ambitions
2.3 The situation in the Peace Spring area
2.4 Sanctions and human rights violations
3. Reflections: A chance for humanitarian relief and pragmatic conflict management

The second half of 2020 saw a series of reshuffles within the Syrian National Army (SNA), a Turkey-supported alliance of armed opposition groups in northern Syria.1 In July 2021, the powerful Levant Front and the Sultan Murad Division announced the formation of the so-called Azm Operations Room. The groups publicly stated that the goal of Azm was to improve intra-SNA coordination as well as to crack down on drug traffickers and other criminals in northern Aleppo. Nevertheless, the history of coalition-building in the armed opposition in general, and in the SNA in particular, suggests that internal rivalry and self-preservation were major drivers behind the formation of Azm. These dynamics are multifaceted, but one concern frequently raised by opposition voices pertains to the Levant Front’s hegemonic project.” Based in the rapidly growing city of Azaz, this moderate Islamist group with Muslim Brotherhood inclinations has become a powerful military and economic actor in northern Aleppo.
In light of the Levant Front’s steady rise, armed groups consider functional relations with it necessary, yet are loath to fall under its sway. This dynamic explains why a large number of factions initially joined Azm in a show of goodwill toward the Levant Front only to subsequently establish sub-coalitions to hold its power in check. By late January 2022, Azm had developed into a new reference point for coordination within the SNA as an organized coalition led by the Levant Front, alongside the second coalition headed by the Sultan Murad Division, known as the Thaeroon Front for Liberation.”
At that point, a number of factions had yet to find a place in the new landscape. Among them were four armed groups with roots in Syria’s eastern provinces that were driven out by ISIS in mid-2014 after several months of heavy fighting. Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Jaish al-Sharqiya, the 20th Division, and Suqur al-Sham’s eastern affiliate announced the formation of the Liberation and Construction Movement (LCM) on Feb. 15, 2022 in Suluk, Raqqa.2 Similar to other coalitions, the LCM emphasizes that it operates within the SNA umbrella and under the general command of the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defense. This commitment can be interpreted as an expression of loyalty toward the opposition’s formal structures and to Turkey, which pays the SNA’s salaries and has coordinated all major SNA offensives. But the LCM joined neither the Azm Operations Room dominated by the Levant Front nor the coalition headed by the Sultan Murad Division. Instead, it chose to become a third coalition in its own right.
Combined, the LCM claims to command 7,000 fighters spread across northern Aleppo and Afrin and in a corridor between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad along the Syrian-Turkish border seized from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the so-called Peace Spring offensive of October 2019. The LCM’s general leader is Hussein al-Hammadi, head of Jaish al-Sharqiya and a former commander within Ahrar al-Sham. His deputy is Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s leader, Ahmad al-Hayis, commonly known as Abu Hatem. The group’s political bureau is led by Abdulaziz al-Sawadi, commonly known as Abu Barzan, head of the 20th Division and a former deputy commander of the Usud al-Sharqiya group that received support from the U.S. covert assistance program run out of Jordan. The leader of Suqur al-Sham, Raed Arab, has the position of military commander. A notable member of the LCM’s political bureau is Ahmed Tomeh, a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s (SOC) political committee and the formal head of the opposition negotiating team in Astana. The LCM maintains a particularly strong presence in the Peace Spring area, where it controls the vital Tufaha crossing that connects it with SDF-held parts of Raqqa Province.
Although parts of the LCM have received direct Western support in the past, such interactions have been kept to an absolute minimum given the group’s participation in Operation Peace Spring, a military incursion considered by the U.S. and EU to be illegitimate at best and a breach of international law at worst.3 Furthermore, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Ahrar al-Sharqiya and its leader Abu Hatem in July 2020, citing human rights violations and the “incorporation of former ISIS fighters” into its ranks.4 The political rifts have caused a significant reduction in humanitarian aid and stabilization assistance to areas under the control of Turkey and SNA groups. Meanwhile, Ankara has tightened restrictions for humanitarian (I)NGOs to the extent that independent operations have become nearly impossible.5
On April 25, 2022, this author held a four-hour digital conversation with the leadership of the LCM to discuss the group’s genesis and ambitions, the issue of human rights violations, and the alleged incorporation of former ISIS members. Besides Ahmad al-Hayis and Abdulaziz al-Sawadi, the conversation included Saad al-Sharae, a member of the LCM’s political bureau.
In addition to providing the LCM’s perspectives on the Syrian conflict and its own role as a military, political, and societal actor, the conversation serves as a useful starting point for reflecting on the politics of humanitarian aid and predominant Western approaches to dealing with conflict parties such as the LCM. Such reflections will be outlined at the end of this publication.
 
 

The conversation has been translated from Arabic to English and edited slightly for clarity.
 

What is your take on the genesis of the Azm Operations Room, and why did the eastern factions decide to establish the LCM instead of joining the coalitions led by the Levant Front or the Sultan Murad Division?
Saad al-Sharae: Some factions in the LCM joined the Azm Operations Room initially. However, they soon realized that the eventual outcome of the formation of Azm would be to reduce the professional hierarchy of the SNA and to erode the corps’ hierarchy. The groups that constitute the LCM do not support this because we wanted to move away from factionalism toward something institutional. As a result of the creation of Azm, there was the creation of the Thaeroon coalition, which led to further polarization within the SNA. Therefore, it made sense for the eastern groups to respond to that situation by creating the LCM in order to create a balance within the SNA and to steer the SNA back to the established corps system.
The creation of the LCM came after several weeks of meetings between the different leaderships. The LCM is a unique experiment. There have been many operation rooms in the past, but there has not been a full merger of several factions. In terms of the gradual approach toward a full merger, we are at 40-50% already.
 
Various SNA factions have announced mergers in the past. What does this mean practically for the LCM?
Abu Barzan: First let me provide a bit of background on how we see the concept of unification. At the moment, there are roughly 1 million people from eastern Syria either in northern Syria or Turkey. These people have strong bonds of blood and tribal connection that keep them together. The eastern region of Syria is split into territories under control of the YPG [People’s Protection Units] and Iranian-led militias. Our goal in the LCM is to unite the eastern armed groups as well as the society of eastern people that has been displaced. We therefore understand this not only as a military merger, but also as a social merger. So the merger of the military factions is only one step toward a wider project, which has a political, administrative, and civilian nature.
The LCM is not just about representing Arabs from the eastern provinces. We have taken steps to reach out to different groups with the aim of enabling participation or letting them become part of the LCM. The eastern provinces include people who are not Arabs or Muslims. Among others, there are Christians, Kurds, and Chechens. The LCM has been engaging with these groups in Ras al-Ayn and Afrin. For example, Abu Hatem recently hosted a celebration of Nowruz with fellow Kurds. Myself and Saad recently held meetings with Christian leaders in Ras al-Ayn. We also have meetings with the SOC’s Abdulahad Astepho, who is of Assyrian origin, and with other actors with the goal of achieving dialogue. One practical example for these efforts is a workshop that the LCM will hold soon to reach out to ethnic and religious minorities.
 
You mentioned Nowruz celebrations that were hosted by the LCM this year. What role does Islam and Arab identity play in the identity of the LCM?
Abu Hatem: Yes, the Arab identity is prevalent on account of the armed groups themselves being Arab, therefore it is natural that the identity of the Syrian revolution is an Arab one. However, we have pluralism in terms of the constitution. The LCM includes Arabs not only from the eastern regions but also from other provinces such as Homs and Damascus.
 
There is talk about tensions caused by Turkey favoring Syrian Turkmen over Arabs. What is your take on this, and if such tensions exist, what would need to be done to reduce them?
Abu Barzan: We have to diagnose this situation very carefully because we don’t want to create a narrative similar to the one the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] helped to create, suggesting that there is an Arab-Kurdish struggle. We don’t want to see this repeated in northern Syria, where there is now talk about an Arab-Turkmen conflict. I wholeheartedly reject this idea. Turkmens are part of the Syrian people. The relationship of certain Turkmen individuals with Turkey might be very good because of linguistic and cultural factors, but overall and with regards to the SNA, there is no preference for Turkmens over Arab.
 

Naturally, military factions have always played a political role throughout the last decade. Could the LCM eventually develop into a political party in the future?
Abu Barzan: We can see that the popular base is putting pressure on armed groups to be more in tune with the needs of civilians. Of course, the LCM is part of the SNA but the battles will not continue forever. We carried weapons not as a goal but as a means to an end and we are ready to carry the pen and enter parliament. So, yes, generally speaking we are ready to move to a more overtly political stage.
Abu Hatem: At the same time, the LCM is a military actor, which means that a fully-fledged transition to a political party is unlikely. However, there is a possibility that the LCM will work with other political actors to form a common political platform.
 
Where do you see major gaps in the thinking about how a peace process should be designed?
Abu Barzan: The beauty of Syria is in its diversity. We want a democratic Syria. This is not just a political slogan, I genuinely mean that. To achieve this, one aspect is important to consider: 65% of Syrian society is tribal. Yes, there are urban centers such as Damascus, Homs, or Aleppo. But everywhere else, society is organized along the lines of clans and tribes. Syria doesn’t have political parties in the true sense; it doesn’t have labor unions or any other kind of social organization structures. We only have the clans and tribes as a way of mass mobilization. If we are able to provide the necessary support for these institutions, I think a lot can be achieved in terms of democratic change of Syria.
 
What can such support look like in practice?
Abu Barzan: You need to engage the tribal society more proactively. We are not talking exclusively about Arabs here. The Druze are organized in clans and tribes as well, same for Kurds and, for example, Chechens in Ras al-Ayn.
Many of the Gulf countries would not have become states if the clans and tribes of these areas did not unite behind a political project. In Iraq, the parliamentary system was established by the support of the tribal leaders in 1920. History has some precedents for this kind of approach.
 
There was a recruitment drive recently by the LCM in northern Aleppo. How is this campaign going, and why is Turkey giving a green light for the increase in LCM numbers?
Saad al-Sharae: With regards to increasing the number of certain groups within the SNA, this is a decision taken in consultation between the leadership of the SNA and the Turkish military. We are proud of our alliance with Turkey because the Turkish army stood side by side with Syrians, and Turkish soldiers were killed side by side with our fighters. If Turkey gives the green light to expand, that is due to Turkey’s appreciation for the strong nature of groups from Syria’s east because of the military experience they have gained in the last years in their fight against the regime and ISIS as well as the Iranian militias.
 
The SOC will get a number of new members soon. Can you tell whether the LCM will get additional seats?
Saad al-Sharae: The political wing of the LCM just concluded a visit to the SOC in Istanbul, where meetings were held with the SOC leadership. There will be a meeting of the LCM leadership soon where the options for representation in the SOC will be discussed. If the leadership council agrees that this will be a positive step, the LCM aims to get an additional seat in addition to the existing representation that we have, which is Abdelbaset Abdullatif, who was previously secretary-general of the SOC.
 
Do you have ambitions to return to the east in order to be part of a new and more representative governance and security architecture?
Abu Hatem: ISIS has kicked us out of our land. Of course we dream about going back day and night — this is our goal and our ambition. But the question is how. This will be decided by events and how they will unfold. We see that there are racist policies adopted by the SDF. We see how they are stealing natural resources and implementing discrimination against Arabs, in addition to the bad security situation. ISIS is very active in Deir ez-Zor, as is the distribution of drugs and drug abuse in the eastern region. We are not against Kurds in general, but against the PKK as a terrorist organization. In my own family they have married into Kurdish families since the 1960s.
 
Do you think it will be possible to negotiate that return peacefully with the SDF or do you consider military confrontation the only option?
Abu Barzan: We need to differentiate between Kurds as civilians and the PKK and its affiliates as an organization. Kurds are an ancient people; they are Syrian and we recognize them as such. We have been living together with Kurds for decades. The LCM has sought very hard to include the Kurds and to make them feel welcome and not enemies of the LCM. But just as Sunni Arabs have been blighted by ISIS, the Kurds have been blighted by the PKK. If there is a political solution to administer eastern Syria that the Kurds can be part of, we would obviously welcome that. But let us get rid of terrorists, whether it is ISIS or PKK.
The problem I see in terms of the foreseeable future is that Kurds as a society are unable to get rid of the control of the PKK, even though they suffer from it. For instance, the PKK sends IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and car bombs to the Peace Spring area, and I don’t think the average Kurd would approve of such actions. Having said this, if there were international will to resolve the question of eastern Syria according to the Syrians who live there, we would be open to dialogue. But we don’t accept the idea of sitting around the negotiation table with a Kurd who comes from the [PKK headquarters in the] Qandil Mountains. That is to be rejected, just as any negotiation over the future of our country with foreigners.
 
So in a scenario where non-Syrian PKK/PYD members would leave the country, negotiations would become more realistic?
Abu Hatem: Yes, we support this very strongly.
 

How do you see the future of the Peace Spring area? For example, there is talk about Turkish plans to resettle Syrian refugees there. Could this area see an influx of people soon?
Abu Barzan: A lot of injustices have befallen the Peace Spring area because of the EU and U.S., as they have been blocking any humanitarian and stabilization assistance to this area for the last three years, including SRTF [Syrian Recovery Trust Fund] projects. In all the regional and international formats we are involved in, including the Astana platform, we have called for the lifting of this embargo. 
The Peace Spring area relies on agriculture; most people make their living from rearing livestock or growing crops. We haven’t had heavy rainfall since 2018, which has led to poor harvests. This, in turn, means that there is insufficient animal feed, causing a reduction in livestock. Under these circumstances, a large project to resettle Syrians seems unlikely.
But if there were concerted efforts to resettle and rehouse Syrians, we would be the first to support them and we are ready to take action. Our leadership has decided to support local councils in any way that we can. At the same time, we don’t interfere in the affairs of the local councils or civilians. Abu Hatem is personally responsible for the implementation of this decision.
 
Did Western powers spell out conditions that you have to meet in order for them to lift the embargo?
Abu Barzan: The only answer I got from Mr. Pedersen, the U.N. envoy, directly is that the issue would be discussed with the U.S. and EU.
After the last Astana round, I met with Salem al-Muslet, the SOC’s president, and he told me that an amount of money was assigned to be spent in the Peace Spring area, but that it was vetoed by the U.S. I heard rumors in the last weeks that this position has changed, but I haven’t seen anything concrete so far.
Because of this embargo, the LCM has taken things into its own hands. It has established a clinic in Nusf Tal that serves 37 villages, especially to treat Leishmania, an infectious disease. We also implemented a number of further projects, such as setting up a bakery and constructing homes for IDPs in the areas of Adwaniya and Hurubi. The LCM is perhaps the only armed group that is doing such projects out of its own pocket.
 
Some Western governments and donors argue that a reason for their reluctance is that local councils are not legitimate. You said that you don’t interfere in the business of the local councils. Does that mean you don’t see any role for the LCM to improve the legitimacy of local governance?
Abu Barzan: What crime have the local civilians committed that they should pay the price for Western estimation of local governance and whether it is legitimate? Why should they go hungry and not receive services like in other places because of the political estimation of local governance? You can see in other areas that the U.N. can implement projects without empowering local governance structures deemed illegitimate. This is an issue of justice.
Abu Hatem: In addition, I want to stress that it may be true that the international community views the local governance structures in the Peace Spring area as insufficiently legitimate, but the people on the ground believe they are. Who decides what is right and wrong in that case?
 
What are the most urgent demands with regards to aid and stabilization support?
Abu Barzan: Most crucial are medicine, food aid for people and livestock, and education. Thousands of children are not getting the education they deserve. Many school buildings were being used as headquarters by the PKK and got blown up hours before the PKK withdrew. The infrastructure has been badly eroded. The LCM has tried to convert homes into schools but this is inadequate.
 
What are your estimates of how many people live in the Peace Spring area, and do you observe population movements?
Abu Barzan: Around 300,000 people, but this number is increasing because there is a movement of people fleeing from regime areas, often through SDF territory and from there to the Peace Spring area. Some of them settle, others use it as a transit point to try to get to Turkey. The issue of migration is becoming more and more relevant. If the EU and the West were serious about solving the migration issue, they would turn their attention to this area. It is becoming a transit route.
 

To what extent does the LCM feel the effects of the U.S. sanctions, and what do you think about the issue in general?
Abu Hatem: Obviously these sanctions were imposed way before the LCM was founded. However, we see this as an act of injustice and it has been detrimental to us and hurt us in several ways. Not just financially, but also with regards to the willingness of external parties to engage with us in recent years. We are pursuing legal channels to overturn the sanctions. There is a law firm in the U.S. that is following up on the matter and we are refuting the allegations through legal means. I cannot disclose more than this because we have an agreement with the law firm to maintain discretion given that there is an ongoing legal process.
Abu Barzan: What we count upon is to seek a de facto lifting of the sanctions. And this can only happen through a reform process of the SNA and the avoidance of past mistakes that happened especially in areas that had been newly conquered.
 
Have you considered measures to counter accusations of ongoing and structural human rights violations, such as granting independent observers access to localities?
Abu Hatem: First of all, a lot of these reports about violations were driven by vindictive reporting by people who are aligned with the PKK and PYD. However, we welcome any international body that wants to visit us and monitor our actions. We also have an office which monitors the behavior of the LCM personnel and has the authority to impose punishments on those who commit transgressions. In addition to that, we work with Geneva Call in order to spread the culture of human rights. Again, if any international body wants to enter Syria to monitor our actions, we welcome that.
Abu Barzan: Yes, anyone who wants to monitor us, specifically when it comes to human rights, is welcome. And I want to stress the following point: The LCM in the Peace Spring area does not run any prisons. We instructed our fighters that they can only detain suspects for a maximum of six hours, after which he must be handed over to the military police, where he will then be subjected to a legal process.
A lot of propaganda has been spread about people from the eastern regions, specifically people from Deir ez-Zor, in order to delegitimize the eastern factions. Everyone is accused of belonging to ISIS, even though the reality is that people from Deir ez-Zor sacrificed 4,500 fighters to fight ISIS when it attempted to seize the region. In the following years, groups like Usud al-Sharqiya, in which I was involved, or Ahrar al-Sharqiya have fought ISIS on many fronts, including in al-Bab, in the Syrian desert, and in al-Tanf together with the Americans. We have a long history of fighting ISIS, but those who seek to delegitimize us in order to prevent our return to Deir ez-Zor systematically spread reports claiming we are extremists or ISIS sympathizers.
 
How many of your fighters have participated in international humanitarian law (IHL) trainings with Geneva Call?
Abu Barzan: In a first phase, trainings have been conducted with a number of smaller groups that have joined the LCM. Most of the fighters were ordinary civilians before the war began or before they joined the armed groups. They have never received formal training on the rules of war and IHL in particular. So obviously some mistakes have been made by them, which is something that we now are trying to rectify through our engagement with Geneva Call. Our aim is for all fighters to receive the necessary training.
 
Another issue that often comes up with regards to violations is the displacement that happened, for example, in the context of Operation Peace Spring. How many people do you estimate have been displaced, and have you considered projects to return property and facilitate returns?
Abu Hatem: It is true that there was some displacement in Ras al-Ayn, where some people were forced to leave, and others fled to be on the safe side. But overall, there wasn’t large-scale displacement. Ahrar al-Sharqiya has worked with the Red Cross to repatriate people from al-Hol Camp and this is documented.
Abu Barzan: Part of the story is also that displacement from Ras al-Ayn happened before Operation Peace Spring took place. I am talking about the time when there were battles in Ras al-Ayn between the PKK and other groups that forced most of the population to flee to Turkey, where it lives until this day. Apart from Ras al-Ayn, there is an 80-km corridor between the city and Tal Abyad that hasn’t seen displacement at all. This is also the case in Tal Abyad, which hasn’t seen large-scale displacement and is governed to this day by its people.
 
What can you say about reports that claim eastern factions have incorporated former ISIS members into their ranks?
Saad al-Sharae: We totally and completely reject this. These are baseless allegations thrown at us. Such reports have no basis in credibility. All the factions that formed the LCM were the first to fight ISIS, even before the international coalition was formed to fight terrorism. And to confirm our denial of these false claims, let me say that all elements of the LCM, without exception, have official records certified by the National Army. These records include fingerprints, personal photos, and complete profiles.
 
 

While eastern factions received direct Western support in the past, such as through the U.S.-led Military Operations Center (MOC), and participated in military offensives initially endorsed by the EU6 and U.S., such as Operation Euphrates Shield, they gained a particularly negative reputation in the context of Operation Peace Spring. Both the U.S. and EU classified the operation as illegitimate, cited human rights violations, and took punitive measures, such as imposing sanctions7 against Turkish government officials, limiting arms sales, withholding stabilization assistance, and significantly scaling down aid.
Today, humanitarian relief in the Peace Spring area is primarily funded and implemented by Turkey and (I)NGOs that accept the strictures imposed by the Turkish authorities. Western donors voice concerns that a visible profile in the area would legitimize what they consider an illegal occupation. Nevertheless, they continue operations in Turkish-controlled areas, although they limit them to basics such as providing cleaning, sanitation, and health care inside IDP camps.
Such an approach is symbolic rather than result-driven, and there should be an honest discussion whether sending a strong signal to the Turkish government justifies the very real humanitarian consequences and wasted opportunities for pragmatic conflict management.
The following three aspects can help to elucidate this argument.
First, Western governments’ position that the presence of the Turkish army and allied Syrian armed opposition groups in the Peace Spring area constitutes an illegal occupation should not necessarily preclude political and humanitarian engagement. Bluntly speaking, if these same standards were applied to other regions of Syria, international aid efforts would soon grind to a halt. For example, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) facilitates aid and stabilization assistance in areas of northwest Syria under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), even arranging meetings in Turkey between officials of HTS’s governance arm and INGOs.8 Similarly, U.N. and Western donors operate in areas administered by the Assad government. The bottom line is that the policy of reluctance regarding areas under Turkish/SNA control reflects political rationales that merit further scrutiny.
Second, the issue of legitimate local governance and security in the Peace Spring area is a complex one. Over the last decade, the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn was controlled by the Assad government, armed opposition groups, ISIS, and the YPG, none of which installed local governance bodies meeting Western criteria of legitimacy. This means that there is no legitimate status quo ante to be restored. Instead, representative governance bodies need to be developed based on what the circumstances in a conflict environment allow. This will not be ideal by nature, which is why the focus should be on gradually improving the situation for Syrians inside the area and on making space in negotiations to address the rights of the displaced.9
Third, there is an argument to be made that pragmatic engagement with local stakeholders is necessary given the diplomatic stalemate on the international stage and military stalemate on the national level. Obviously, this concerns not only SNA factions that control the Peace Spring area but also local councils in adjacent SDF-held areas, which Western governments, considering them illegitimate, have previously denied humanitarian and stabilization assistance.10
With regards to the Assad government, Western powers and the U.N. have for years tried to build confidence through reciprocal and gradual concessions, including increased aid and stabilization assistance. This strategy has failed to win over Damascus, as the concessions that the West appears willing to offer do not change its fundamental political stance, which the Assad government views as a direct threat to its survival.
In contrast, certain armed non-state actors have declared their willingness to engage with the West. If Western governments, in cooperation with human-rights watchdogs and other INGOs, were to take up the LCM leadership on their offer to allow regular human rights monitoring, this could be an opportunity to increase transparency and accountability as well as exert constructive influence on local dynamics. The prospect of increased humanitarian assistance in the Peace Spring area could incentivize the LCM to cooperate, and the resulting relationship could be built upon to pursue further initiatives, potentially easing tensions with the northeast.
It goes without saying that such initiatives would face many obstacles, such as Turkey’s likely objection to independent monitors on the ground. The Turkish government might, however, yield on that demand since it has an overriding interest in greater stability throughout the Peace Spring area, especially against the background of growing internal pressure11 to send back Syrian refugees.
The U.S. Treasury’s latest sanctions waiver12 for investments in non-regime-held areas of northern Syria, including the Peace Spring area, together with the Turkish government’s announcement13 that it would proceed with large-scale housing projects to resettle Syrian refugees and rumors about a green light from Washington for the allocation of stabilization assistance, indicate that previous red lines are already being reconsidered and new developments are in the making.
While external stakeholders regularly define the broader parameters of the conflict, local Syrian stakeholders are the ones that shape the daily lives of millions of civilians. Engaging local stakeholders seriously, pragmatically, and with respect for local agendas will neither undo injustices nor end the Syrian conflict, but it could alleviate the suffering of civilians in dire straits. Furthermore, such engagement could open up societal dialogue and establish working relationships with stakeholders, such as armed opposition groups, whose cooperation will be crucial to implementing any agreement that international actors and Syrian negotiators might one day hash out to bring about a lasting peace agreement.
 
Lars Hauch is a researcher at Conflict Mediation Solutions, a London-based consultancy specialized in Track II work. Prior, he worked as an independent researcher and consultant with various humanitarian organizations, security companies, as well as political consultancies. His analysis of non-state armed groups, the humanitarian response, and political dynamics in Syria and the wider region has appeared in numerous publications. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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