After the anti-regime uprising began in Syria almost two years ago, the role of community leaders inside the country is still largely unappreciated. Currently, the opposition’s political leaders include mostly either Syrians living abroad or people who claim to represent their communities. Efforts to form truly representative opposition bodies have so far focused on whether all religious, political and social groups are represented. But a more prudent approach would be to reach out to local leaders to help maintain law and order after the regime falls. Local figures that have influence over communities—whether tribal, ethnic, religious, or business—are already playing an increasingly important role in organizing and mobilizing their communities for a post-uprising Syria. This is already the case in the province of Deir Ezzor, a predominately tribal area in the eastern part of the country.

In Deir Ezzor the rebels took over the Hamdan air base in mid-November—this was the last bastion of the Assad regime in the district of Abu Kamal. Rebels from the region then joined forces to attack the regime’s troops in Al Mayadeen. The vast majority of the province is now under the rebel control. Since then, the rebels have worked closely with local leaders to run the areas. Earlier this month, Doha-based Syrians from Deir Ezzor convened a meeting to discuss linking relief efforts in the province—provided by expatriates living in the Gulf, Jordan, and Turkey—through figures who truly represent their social groups. The aim was to avoid disagreements often resulting from favouritism, lack of representation, and tribal rivalries.  

The province was divided into four points of aid distribution: two in the city of Deir Ezzor and its countryside, one in Al Mayadeen, and one in Abu Kamal. Until recently, these areas were not coordinating with one another. When the battles against the regime intensified over the summer, the rebels on the ground began to coordinate, and there was a feeling that political representation should follow suit. In Doha, a structure of representation was set up but members agreed to delay the election of any leader to avoid local sensitivities ensuing from tribal and territorial rivalries. Each representative was advised to communicate with their smaller social groups to ensure they are properly represented. An independent committee was set up to monitor the delivery and distribution of resources. Priority has been given to the families of victims of the conflict.  

The Ugaidat is the largest tribal confederation in Al Jazira region (which makes about 40 per cent of the country and includes the provinces of Deir Ezzor, Hasaka, and Raqqa), with at least 1.5 million members, and links mainly to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Many members of this region have returned to the Gulf and become naturalized citizens  in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait and some even hold privileged positions in these countries. As the bloody crackdown in Syria continues, tribal kinships have grown closer. The main source of support to the rebels in Deir Ezzor comes from Gulf nationals who have links to Syrian tribes. “We do not take any step until we make sure all areas are properly represented,” says Hussain Abdullatif, a senior member of the now-overhauled Deir Ezzor Council in Doha. “If a person represents a certain area, he has to be really representative of his community. We want to avoid the previous experience when one person hijacked the council and put himself forward as a representative of the whole province. That created a lot of friction.” 

With the cooperation and mediation of local leaders, the governance of rebel-held areas has been impressive. No clashes have occurred between the various fighting factions. Fighters are working closely in a friendly environment, have formed their own charity groups, and banned their members from carrying arms in public to avoid provocation. A select number of fighters carry out patrols to ensure security, often in cars donated by the public. The rebels have maintained and used fire and ambulance vehicles left behind by the regime. According to Hussain Abdullatif, the price of food and fuel have dropped since the rebels began managing the areas—mostly thanks to donations from support networks outside the country (Syrians from the province who live in the Gulf and elsewhere and send monetary donations) and the prohibition of monopolies.

This harmony would not be possible without the efforts of local leaders, who have played a constructive role in maintaining order since the beginning of the uprising. When the anti-regime protests began in March 2012, friction erupted among the tribes over how to react. Some tribal leaders sided with the regime and armed their tribesmen but clashes were later avoided by the mediation of other tribal leaders. Today, there are still notables who support the regime, but they continue to live peacefully largely due to the role of tribal leaders who oppose any civil strife and communal tensions. Local leaders are more committed to stability in their areas. "The tribes are handling the situation on the ground now [in the absence of government institutions] in terms of solving problems and maintaining social harmony," Hussain Abdullatif stressed. "It is true that the Free Syrian Army and activists are leading the battles against the regime, but they generally follow the rules of their tribes.” 

In general, Syria has strong local communities. Counter-intuitively, though, the majority of Syrian society is tribal. Tribes are more densely based in Al Jazira, the countryside around cities like Deraa, Homs, and Aleppo, and (to a lesser degree) near Hama, Damascus, and the Druze stronghold of Suwaida. In other areas, religious and ethnic minorities live in communities in Suwaida, Hasaka, Aleppo, Latakia, and Tartus. Even in the extremely explosive area around Homs, Hama and Tartus, where Sunni villages adjoin Alawi villages, local leaders played a constructive role in containing violence in the beginning of the uprising before the extreme violence of the regime and its militias. While religious and ethnic communities organize differently from tribal communities, their members still pledge loyalty to local leaders. These leaders have leverage over their communities in the same way tribal leaders have influence over their tribes. The Assad regime has historically exploited these dynamics to establish control over these communities. 

Community leaders have so far maintained a low profile in terms of opposition to the regime, fearing an indiscriminate retribution against their communities. In Deir Ezzor, some tribal leaders still refuse to announce their opposition to the regime in public. They argue that their announcement would have little use and the regime still supplies the area with electricity and fuel. But once the regime falls, these community leaders will certainly be actively involved in politics—a scenario for which they are already organizing. In the meeting in Doha, there was a consensus that the current political opposition has neglected the province in terms of media attention and relief work. A team was selected to reach out to the newly-formed opposition Syrian National Coalition for resources and to other local councils in other countries. 

True representation is essential for the opposition’s credibility and legitimacy and consequently for stability in a post-uprising Syria. Several leaders with strong link to the people inside the country have joined the National Coalition, such as the coalition’s leader Moaz Khatib, slightly reversing the previous monopoly over the Syrian National Council by groups with little representation within Syrian society. More needs to be done. The Syrian opposition, civil society actors, and the international community should reach out to these local leaders, not necessarily for political representation but for ensuring stability after the regime’s fall.  

Hassan Hassan is a columnist for UAE-based The National. He is from a tribal area in eastern Syria and has written extensively on the subject of tribes.