North Africa, West Asia

Social resistance to IS in Syria: the case of Daraa

Areas that maintained a strong sense of social cohesion despite the 'new war' situation, such as Daraa, are far more resistant to the infiltration of both JAN and ISIL.

Rim Turkmani
19 November 2015

Excerpted from ‘ISIL, JAN, and the war economy in Syria,’ by Rim Turkmani, (LSE, 2015), which is based on original empirical research drawing on interviews with a range of respondents who live both inside and outside ISIL held areas in Syria. It explores how the collapse of the state and the spread of the war economy enable ISIL’s expansion and JAN’s infiltration in Syria with particular focus on ISIL and presents options to counter this dynamic.

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Demotix/Emma Suleiman. All rights reserved.The conflict in Syria has left society deeply divided. The political fault-line is not the sole issue that has polarised society: the crisis has also awakened old dormant disputes, such as the Kurdish/Arabic sectarian tensions and other inter-tribal disputes. Many of these disputes are identity-related, which is a typical characteristic of such wars where identity becomes a means for social mobilisation.

These rifts have enabled ISIL to play people from certain communities or areas off against each other. In most of its wars, ISIL has used people from the area at the forefront of its attacks against their own area. In the battles for Kobani, for example, ISIL used Kurdish recruits. One of the interviewees from Hasaka reported to us that ISIL used members of the Sheitat tribe in attacking the Sheitat and they participated in committing the horrific massacres against the tribe. In Palmyra, people reported to us that the day after ISIL entered Palmyra, their men went around the houses asking people to show their IDs. When they spotted people whom they were after, they would assassinate them in the street. In these groups patrolling houses there were people from Palmyra itself who had joined ISIL upon its arrival in Raqqa and assisted the organisation in its subjugation of the city.

The “new war” situation has also weakened social cohesion. Areas that maintained a strong sense of social cohesion, such as in Daraa, are far more resistant to the infiltration of both JAN and ISIL.

The situation in Daraa is less chaotic than in the north where ISIL and JAN found more fertile ground for their expansion.

Daraa is an area where the community is socially cohesive and supported by a tribal and family structure. A network of expat businessmen from Daraa was also strongly involved in overall decision making in the opposition-controlled part of this province, together with local social and armed leaders. Daraa only saw an influx of Al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters in the second year of the conflict in Syria, but since mid-2013 the increased restrictions of movement across the Jordanian/Syrian borders strongly limited the inflow of both people and arms linked to JAN or ISIL. JAN forces arrived in Daraa after they were forced to withdraw from Deir al-Zour by ISIL. Overall the situation in Daraa is less chaotic than in the north where ISIL and JAN found more fertile ground for their expansion.

These factors, together with the fact that the people of the area are not known to be very strict religiously meant that the area was in a position to resist the expansion of extreme organisations like JAN and ISIL. JAN’s ability to stay in Daraa has been based on its ability to offer good salaries, exploiting the fact that unemployment is extremely high in an area with increased needs, and that other brigades were unable to match its salaries. We present here some examples of the social resistance to JAN in Daraa.

Refusing to facilitate ransoms

After the increased pressure on outside funders in financing ISIL and JAN, paying ransoms for the release of kidnapped people, especially foreigners became an indirect way of financing terrorism in Syria. In many cases, extremist armed groups would kidnap a westerner, or even ‘buy him’ from another armed actor, and ask for several millions of dollars in ransom. The governments of the countries these kidnapped people come from refused to pay ransom but usually Gulf interlocutors and donors (the cases we interviewed people pointed at interlocutors and donors from Qatar) would step in and offer to make the payment which they then pay to these groups without complaints from the international community.

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Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.In Daraa however this funding strategy for JAN has failed, mainly because of the strong opposition of the people of Daraa. In a recent case JAN offered to release kidnapped Swedes in return for 4 million USD. Sweden’s policy is not to pay ransoms. According to two people we interviewed on this case, interlocutors from Qatar offered to pay this ransom and they asked an influential social leader whom we interviewed to facilitate the exchange. He was alerted to the significance of such funding going to JAN, and he refused to facilitate the exchange or to let it take place. Given the nature of the area and the strong social ties it would have been difficult to see how this exchange could take place without the knowledge and consent of the people of the area. Eventually the exchange did not take place. Since then the “kidnapping and exchange market” has not seen many transactions and subsequently the level of kidnapping declined sharply.

Refusing to collaborate with JAN

On 12 April 2015 the leadership of the Southern Front in the FSA issued a statement refusing any collaboration with JAN or any other Takfiri-type organisation. Shortly after that they attacked some of the offices of JAN and arrested some of its members. Although some analysts claimed this move against JAN was ordered by western supporters and donors, three people we interviewed stressed that the pressure had come mainly from the community of Daraa expat businessmen, together with dignitaries from Daraa who were concerned about the destiny of the province should JAN expand its power there. Concerns about the continued violations by JAN in the south were also reported to be behind this move, including an incident that took place shortly before the release of the 12 April statement that shifted the public mood in Daraa against JAN.

JAN reached a conclusion that if the women of the village were like this then they had little chance of exerting control.

JAN members had stormed into the house of a fighter from one of the FSA brigades. They arrested him, claiming that he had sworn allegiance to ISIL. His mother was present and she appealed to JAN not to arrest him, stressing that he was innocent of the charge. JAN forces treated her violently and pushed her back and she fell on the ground. This behaviour in particular played a big role in shifting the local emotions against JAN. A friend of the arrested man, and a member of the same clan and brigade, confronted JAN about what they had done and they arrested him as well. The clan to which these two men belong and the brigade they fight for immediately responded with serious pressure on JAN, including armed attacks on its premises. Before long the two men were released and the one accused of dealing with ISIL was referred to the Justice House, which is the judicial entity that all brigades in the area, including JAN, have adopted as the legal authority. The house of Justice in its turn declared this man to be innocent and released him.

Women’s power

The village of Ghousem, 30 km to the east of Daraa is under opposition control. In March 2014, JAN decided to expand its influence to this village, claiming that the people of Ghousem were not religious enough. On the first day in the village, JAN forces occupied a large house originally owned by a government official. They raised their flag over the house and fortified it with arms. The people of the village, men and women, reached out to the JAN members and asked them to leave the village but they refused.

The next day, the women of the village took the matter into their own hands. They surrounded the house themselves. They sat on the ground and announced that they were not moving until JAN moved out of the village. Two days later, having not moved an inch, JAN reached a conclusion that if the women of the village were like this then they had little chance of exerting control and preaching their ideology. They took their arms and left the village. Participants reported other cases where women took the lead in deterring JAN in Daraa, including a protest they held in the Tareeq Al Saad area of Daraa city in 2013 against JAN, which led to JAN leaving the area.

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