Not surprisingly, most analysis of the Syrian conflict focuses on multilateral efforts to reach a peace deal. But it is equally important to track the progress of on-the-ground governance efforts. Out of the limelight of high-level international diplomacy, European donors are striving to build local governance capacity in Syria, with the aim of supporting a sustainable political settlement. However, the future of these European “localist” initiatives is now uncertain. The recent bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s tightening grip on power, and Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces have complicated an already challenging peace process and security environment. Further, the initiatives remain only modestly funded, have relatively limited reach, and are seemingly disconnected from macro-level political negotiations. Yet if the conflict evolves largely on the regime’s terms, the localist strategy will become even more crucial.

Richard Youngs
Youngs is an expert on the foreign policy of the European Union, in particular on questions of democracy support.
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Ahead of the EU-Syria conference set for April 24–25, 2018, the strategy could be usefully developed in several directions. In particular, European donors could broaden its scope to focus on fully inclusive political processes and potential devolution models. Regardless of which direction peace talks take, long-term stability will be elusive unless robust efforts are made to improve the democratic quality of local governance structures.

A Sampling of European Assistance

Before conditions took a dramatic turn for the worse, several European donors had begun to support initiatives aimed at improving governance capacities in opposition-held areas. Since 2011, Syria has received over 9.5 billion euros in aid from the European Union and member states. While most of this is humanitarian aid, other funding has also been significant. The European Commission has mobilized over 2.7 billion euros in non-humanitarian aid, including 723 million euros from the European Neighborhood Instrument, 236 million euros from the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace, and 26 million euros from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.  

The largest source of funding is the EU’s regional trust fund for the Syrian crisis, known as the Madad Fund. While its primary aim is emergency humanitarian relief, it has also aimed to “help the moderate opposition and civil society entities re-establish an administration and public services . . . based on the principles of inclusivity, good governance, and community consultation.” When it was first introduced, the fund included support for local capacity building in opposition-held areas. As of February 2017, Madad stood at around 1.4 billion euros, with pledged contributions from twenty-two member states and Turkey.

Support for local governance, institutional capacity building in opposition-held areas, civil society, elections, security sector reform, and other issues related to political reform is ostensibly integral to the comprehensive approach to conflict outlined in multiple EU documents (for example, the EU Global Strategy and 2013 communication on conflict policy). The 2017 EU Strategy for Syria includes all these issues among its priorities for overall European aid.

EU governance-related projects in Syria focused on a range of issues while on-the-ground conditions allowed it. For example, the European Commission funded the BBC to spread moderate narratives across Syria via radio; the British Council and UN-Habitat to strengthen inclusive city-level governance; Search for Common Ground to promote women’s rights within a prospective new constitution; and various other organizations to boost civil society’s role in postconflict planning and tribal leaders’ roles in local decisionmaking.

In addition to these EU-funded initiatives, the European Endowment for Democracy has supported thirteen projects based in Syria and three based in Lebanon. They mainly focus on improving civic participation in local governance.

At the bilateral level, the UK, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have also initiated a variety of local-level projects. From 2013 to 2016, the UK-funded Tamkeen program helped community notables in several Syrian cities establish temporary committees to provide local services, such as healthcare, education, and electricity. In early 2017, a follow-on program, Tatweer, was launched to increase the active participation of civil society organizations in local council decisionmaking. The project shifted the focus from supporting informal parallel structures to helping the now formally established regional and provisional councils. The European Commission and Canada provided additional funds to these initiatives.

Through its Conflict, Security and Stabilization Fund, the UK has also supported a range of other local governance structures in opposition-held and contested parts of Syria. One notable project focused on improving governance through education. The UK and Italy have also jointly funded a program to provide agricultural services to moderate opposition-held, rural communities. More recently, in late 2017, the UK launched a peace-building initiative that aimed to support community efforts to improve local governance standards. 

Germany has supported many education, skills, and employment projects. One initiative focused on “tackling the root causes of displacement and reintegrating refugees.” The country’s aid priorities have also included rebuilding the capacities of liberated areas through support to new councils and civil society; according to a German aid officer, Germany has funded “citizen journalists” in rebel-held areas. 

Sweden has provided funding to Syrian media organizations, including the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression that monitors violations against Syrian journalists; to the Youth and Democracy project that supports young people as agents of change; and to the Whole of Syria Livelihood Consortium that provides job opportunities and aids new business development.

The Netherlands’s Addressing Root Causes Fund has supported a program that seeks to build sustainable local governing structures and empower civil society initiatives in Eastern Ghouta and Western Aleppo. Another Dutch project has aimed to increase women’s participation in the peace process and local-level decisionmaking. Finland has supported the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, which documents human rights violations and helps human rights defenders.

Challenges to the Localist Approach

The future of these efforts to build democratic governance in Syria’s opposition-held areas is now in doubt. Diplomats insist that European funding originally helped interim local bodies in some opposition-held areas to gain legitimacy and robustness. Yet it has not been enough to ensure high-quality governance standards or hold radical groups at bay. And the deteriorating security situation, along with opposition retreats are now making it harder to maintain the localist approach. Funds for governance initiatives are dwindling.

Many people have been critical of opposition groups, perceiving them to be ineffectual at local governance—a failing that has made it easier for radical groups to gain a foothold in and support from some communities. Opposition figures, in turn, have been critical of donors, insisting that more aid is needed to support local governance in rebel-held areas. Further, Syrian civil society organizations have complained that they are increasingly being pushed toward humanitarian work and away from political agendas.

Moreover, as the conflict’s dynamics have shifted, the EU and member states have unsurprisingly struggled to maintain and advance their aid initiatives. Local councils and civil society organizations were grappling with a dearth of funds even before the Assad-Russian military onslaught began in late 2015. Now donors are finding it increasingly difficult to keep local organizations afloat as rebels are pushed into smaller areas.

In the summer of 2017, radical group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), successor to the Nusra Front, captured control of Idlib Province, forcing Western donors to reduce their presence there and causing funds originally targeted for civil society organizations to shift to counterterrorism work. Syrian opposition figures have since criticized the EU and member states for pulling back their support of civil society, arguing that because of HTS’s presence in Idlib, strong NGOs are needed more than ever as a bulwark against extremist groups. Yet many European diplomats now conclude that little can be done on the ground until a formal cessation of hostilities is announced. The UK has had to scale back its Tatweer initiative and recently suspended payments to the Access to Justice and Community Security scheme after allegations that funds were being channeled to jihadi groups via the implementing contractor and a civilian police force.

Many governance projects are facing difficulties as funding is diverted to more basic humanitarian support. A confluence of factors is constricting the space for governance work: ongoing Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian interventions; resurging radicalism in some areas; and Turkish efforts to both curtail Western NGO operations and derail Kurdish forces. Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria is severely inhibiting local governance efforts in key Kurdish areas. Indeed, after taking control of Afrin, Turkey increasingly risks coming into direct confrontation with Western cooperation initiatives involving Kurdish groups—a source of recent tension between French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Regional geopolitical rivalries appear to be crowding out any benign focus on internal governance questions within Syria.

While Russian-backed peace talks have putatively attempted to carve out deescalation zones that would allow aid projects to operate, the direction of negotiations on the broader peace framework complicates the European localist strategy. Different sets of peace talks continue but have made only modest progress. UN-led talks appear stalled, while the Syrian opposition is reluctant to join Russian-sponsored talks. The question most often asked is whether a peace deal should acquiesce to Assad staying in power—something that for now seems unavoidable. In this context, doubts have intensified over the compatibility between local governance efforts and the wider political vision for a resolution to the conflict.

Many diplomats and analysts agree that some kind of decentralization will be central to a peace deal, and the EU supported Syria’s Law 107, introduced in 2011 as a framework for devolution. Yet, little on-the-ground assistance has focused on planning for a really meaningful process of decentralization. European support has concentrated on improving Syria organizations’ participation in peace talks far more than on preserving and strengthening local organizational capacity, which could be a better counterbalance to the regime.

Opposition groups fear that, given all the political and security challenges, the EU may be tempted to offer the regime reconstruction aid even without a peace deal. While the EU has said it will not do this, opposition figures sense that aid relabeled as “early recovery” funding may begin to find its way to the regime. Should this occur, funding in support of governance within opposition areas would likely decline further. The localist strategy would become even more circumscribed: today it is already less about expanding democratic governance beyond opposition territory and more about preserving a minimal degree of autonomy from Assad’s reassertion of control.

Building on European Governance Initiatives

Understandably, there are doubts about the effectiveness or feasibility of continuing efforts to strengthen local governance capacities. However, there are good reasons why European donors should persevere with the localist approach. An increasing number of experts in conflict resolution argue that the local approach to peace building is vital because high-level peace deals between elites tend not to guarantee deep-rooted stability. Establishing genuinely inclusive processes within local communities is just as important as reaching a national-level, power-sharing agreement. This is a direct lesson from Iraq, where the political settlement was so fragile that once the U.S. military contingent was not there to police it, community-level tensions returned.

In Syria, especially, strengthening local governance capacity should be a priority because ethnic-denominational power sharing is unlikely to guarantee stability. Ethnic and religious communities have long been integrated across Syria, in ways that would make segmentation difficult—at least in the absence of other political reforms. A highly localized and functional approach is likely to be more effective than an identity-based approach.

Because there is, for now, little sign that EU states are likely to engage directly against the regime’s increasingly brutal military offensives—and because U.S. President Donald Trump has cast uncertainty over the United States’ future presence in Syria—it is even more important to maximize the value of the EU’s localist strategy. The question is whether this strategy can survive and whether it can be suitably broadened. Can the EU do more useful work at the local level if a peace deal remains elusive? And what should its localist approach look like after such a deal were current talks to succeed? In answering these questions, the EU could be guided by four pertinent considerations.

First, Raqqa’s recapture from the self-proclaimed Islamic State offers a new opportunity—indeed, this is what makes the localist approach so relevant right now. The focus in Raqqa should be on establishing governance standards, not rewarding Kurdish forces per se. European governments fear that Kurdish attempts to exert control over governance structures in areas captured from the Islamic State will provoke conflict with local Arabs. These concerns are now reflected in the internal politics of the Raqqa Civilian Council.

Some European donors are considering launching governance initiatives across the wider region of Rojava. They believe that political processes there need to become fully inclusive rather than simply turned over to Kurdish organizations—and growing European concerns over this have become a point of difference with the United States. The EU will need to move quickly to head off newly exclusionary governance patterns in this region. The nature of the complex and shifting link between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Democratic Union Party in northern Syria—as well as Turkey’s increasingly aggressive stance—will affect EU support for Kurdish autonomy.

Second, in addition to expanding local-level initiatives and increasing resources, EU governments should focus on ensuring the democratic quality of local governance structures. Not doing so can put stabilization efforts at risk. When donors support grassroots civic groups that represent one political, ethnic, or religious position in a conflict, it tends to be detrimental to the development of democratically inclusive notions of citizenship. In fact, many criticize Western powers for showing favoritism toward particular local actors rather than trying to create fully inclusive political processes. This can have unintended side effects. A common lesson from other conflicts—including in Colombia, Libya, Nepal, and Ukraine—is that the build-up of decentralized power can often intensify nepotistic competition for resources. In Syria, some aid for opposition areas may even have been used to fuel networks of criminal and illicit activity.

The EU needs to work to correct these imbalances. While boosting particular actors, there needs to be a genuine effort to empower local-level pluralism. It is necessary to create the fundamental basis for “active inclusion” around cross-cutting, issue-based, open politics. A more significant democracy component to local capacity-building initiatives is overdue in Syria.

Third, the EU should consider developing a long-term program to support decentralization—well beyond its erstwhile contributions to Syria’s Law 107, which has in practice not delivered the promised dispersal of power. Peace negotiations are now increasingly focused on a devolution model based on the zonal distribution of power. Western actors certainly favor the creation of semi-autonomous statelets if there is no prospect of Assad leaving office. But critics are puzzled that the EU has declined to push strongly for decentralization during the peace talks and has failed to present any comprehensive plan for the process.

Donors will need to pump meaningful amounts of money into, and put diplomatic leverage behind, decentralization plans if and when the Syrian opposition is willing to accept a plan that keeps Assad in power. The EU’s on-the-ground strategy will need to be closely linked to a clear and specific decentralization model. The localist approach could be more valuable and sustainable if tied to wider devolution.

As indicated, a key question is how far autonomy should be taken in Kurdish areas. Rojava was declared an autonomous Kurdish area in 2013 and has a particularly dense network of citizens’ assemblies and participation-based cooperatives—based on an ideology of so-called democratic confederalism. The EU will need to expand its local governance initiatives to contribute to broader decentralization but must avoid generating uncoordinated projects of autonomy that risk cutting across macro-level stabilization efforts. Such a balance could involve exploring ideas for Kurdish autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas of Rojava but not in others.

Fourth, in the wake of any peace deal, the localist approach could become relevant within regime-held territories. Focusing on local governance might, at the margins, be a way to reopen channels to, and constructively work with, the regime in at least very tightly delineated spheres. If the regime remains in place, more subtle ways will be needed to push it toward more balanced forms of governance.

If political change is blocked at the national level, modest governance reforms at the local level might be the next best, feasible goal for European donors. Member states are currently divided in their assessment of the goal’s feasibility and whether it is even desirable. The UK’s Department for International Development is beginning to look at how local community funding can help bridge regime- and opposition-held areas around relatively apolitical issues. Other member states prefer to keep clear of such efforts for now, although some are warming up to the idea. This trend should continue, as more initiatives of this kind are needed. Following a peace deal, European donors must invest in human and civic capital and stabilization support rather than just physical reconstruction.

Conclusion

Conflict experts have criticized donors for many years for neglecting local-level support and simply foisting Western-style, liberal templates on conflict states. In Syria, the EU appears to have learned this lesson and cannot be accused of ignoring the local level. Indeed, it has sought to make a virtue out of necessity, focusing on local-level support as politics at the national level remain so unpropitious.

While the EU is right to engage in local governance capacity building in the absence of an overarching deal, its localist approach cannot, of course, ignore the need for fundamental change at the macro level. Both national and local political reforms are essential; neither can act as a substitute for the other.

The real, more subtle challenge for European donors is how to better link the localist approach to the overarching political crisis and diplomatic mediation—and, ultimately, to the broader vision of a postconflict political structure. The EU will need to expand its efforts to maximize the potential of its localist approach. It must use its local-level programs not simply to support the liberal-moderate opposition but more broadly to generate an inclusive notion of democratic citizenship across all areas of Syria.

The author wishes to thank Frances Brown, Joseph Bahout, Julien Barnes-Dacey, and EU officials for their comments and input.