“If the progress made by the international military coalition in the fight against ISIS in Syria is to endure, it will be critical to engage local communities.”

In a research paper for Chatham House, “Lessons from Atarib“, Haid Haid evaluates local community resistance to extremist groups in Syria.

Haid uses the case of Atarib in Aleppo Province to demonstrate how that resistance can succeed, provided there is support from outside:

If the progress made by the international military coalition in the fight against ISIS in Syria is to endure, it will be critical to engage local communities, and to forge a clear, comprehensive and participatory strategy that takes account of specific community dynamics, sets the protection of civilians as a priority, and addresses the deep-rooted political, economic, social and cultural issues that have seen extremist groups rise and flourish. Strong local communities that are empowered to create their own alternatives and solutions will have the incentive to fight for them.

The introduction of the paper:

In response to the rapid capture by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of large areas of territory in Syria and Iraq in the second half of 2014, the US administration of Barack Obama led efforts in mobilizing international, regional and local partners to cooperate in confronting the group. But while the US-led anti-ISIS campaign – the conduct of which has been broadly unchanged in the early months of the Trump presidency – has succeeding in degrading ISIS’s strength on several levels, gains have generally been more tactical than strategic. This limited progress can be attributed to an overwhelming focus on military goals and a failure to take full account of the conditions that allowed ISIS to flourish as Syria descended into civil war. Among the consequences of the strategy hitherto has been to drive some locals closer to ISIS, and to render others indifferent to resisting or fighting the group. The US-led campaign thus lacks popular partners from the local communities, and fails to set out post-ISIS mechanisms to rehabilitate and reintegrate the group’s former members. In the absence of such mechanisms, it appears that other radical groups, notably the ideologically similar Jabhat al-Nusra, have taken up former ISIS fighters and supporters – some of whom have switched allegiance either for their own protection or because al-Nusra is perceived as their only option.

If the progress made in the fight against ISIS in Syria is to endure, it will be critical to engage local communities. There is evidence that, even before the start of the US-led anti-ISIS campaign, some Syrian local communities were able to resist ISIS. In early 2014, notably, local Syrian rebel groups achieved significant success in pushing ISIS out of much of western Syria (including Idlib governorate, Aleppo city, and the northern and western countryside of Aleppo governorate) quickly and without much external support, after local resentment towards ISIS’s actions – including kidnappings, torture and the targeting of activists and opposition leaders – had built up over the preceding months.

This paper examines the local community resistance to ISIS in the city of Atarib, in Aleppo governorate, where a coordinated uprising of local armed groups and civilians was able to resist a takeover by ISIS at the beginning of 2014. The uprising followed a gradual build-up of tensions between ISIS, which had established itself in Atarib during 2013, and the local community, as ISIS intensified its efforts to impose its authority over the city and its residents. The group’s defeat in Atarib subsequently encouraged other armed groups to join the fight, and together they were able to push ISIS out of the surrounding region.

The involvement of local communities in the resistance to ISIS was crucial to its success, and helped to maintain good relations after the group was repelled. People in Atarib informed ISIS supporters that they would be safe if they chose not to fight for the group, and this encouraged many people to refrain from fighting. There was also a degree of local reconciliation, with the aim of reintegrating ISIS supporters in the community: ISIS members were allowed to continue to live peacefully in the city if they denounced the group and stopped fighting for it. Despite some identifiable failings in this local process – including as regards reintegration of former ISIS members, the fate of ISIS prisoners, and protection mechanisms for ISIS members who had chosen not to fight – it achieved considerable success in reintegrating the majority of ISIS supporters. As a case study, events in Atarib in the period examined in this paper offer valuable lessons in how to address the issue of reintegrating ISIS members into their local community that could usefully inform the broader strategy against the group.

The experience of the local community in resisting ISIS in Atarib was, moreover, significant when al-Nusra attempted to take control of the city in February 2015. During al-Nusra’s campaign to eliminate the US-backed opposition armed group Haraket Hazm, al-Nusra apparently threatened to besiege Atarib and demanded the surrender of locals who were members of Haraket Hazm. While the majority of armed groups were reluctant to openly resist al-Nusra, regarded as a potential strategic ally in the war against Assad, Atarib’s civilians and ‘notables’ came together to establish checkpoints and resist an attempt by al-Nusra to capture the city – an effort that succeeded in keeping the group’s fighters out of the city itself.

Such instances of local resistance to jihadist groups tend to be overlooked in policy debates about countering ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria. There are, however, important lessons to be drawn from the successes and failures of resistance by local communities that may be applied to the US-led coalition’s ongoing intervention against ISIS and ideologically similar groups. As such, this paper analyses the dynamics that drove local residents and armed factions in Atarib to confront ISIS in early 2014, as well as the local community response in the face of al-Nusra’s apparent attempt to exert control over the city a little over a year later. It aims to contribute to fostering a better understanding of the significant role that local communities can play in resisting extremist groups in Syria, and what motivates them to undertake such resistance. The paper also examines the extent to which these communities were able to deal with ISIS’s local members, and scrutinizes the local reconciliation process whereby many of the latter were able to reintegrate with their community.

The research focuses on the city of Atarib, where the fight against ISIS began, in 2013–15, drawing notably on commentary from members of the local community who were involved, in various capacities, in the events of this period. The city’s narrative highlights the importance of taking characteristics of local communities in particular areas into consideration in studying the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, particularly as regards non-state armed groups. There are clear lessons to be applied to the wider conflict from the study of Atarib’s resistance to ISIS – notably, for example, the city has civil and armed group characteristics in common with other areas of Syria such as Ma’arrat al-Nu’man and Kafr Nabel in rural Idlib. Nonetheless, it is critical that there should be a nuanced approach to fighting extremism that takes account of local community identities and interests. Strong local communities that are empowered to create their own alternatives and solutions will have the incentive to fight for them.

Read full paper….

A demonstration in Atarib against both the Assad regime and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham bloc, February 2017