While the mass bloodshed of Syria’s civil war so far has spared many Kurdish and Arab farming villages in Syria’s far northeast, the war has exacerbated communal tensions there. So recently, 14 religious, tribal and civic leaders from one locality traveled to neighboring Iraq for talks to ease those tensions and prevent an outbreak of violence.

Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters inspect maps and check locations as they coordinate an airstrike with the U.S. against an ISIS position, Hasaka, Syria, July 31, 2015. The Y.P.G. has been one of the few groups to constantly and effectively battle ISIS in Syria. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
Photo courtesy of The New York Times/Mauricio Lima

In an unprecedented three days of meetings, the leaders agreed to launch two projects to  improve people’s lives in their locale, al-Qahtaniyah: They would open a critical road closed by militia forces, and help displaced local families return home. The U.S. Institute of Peace arranged the talks in the city of Erbil, and with a local partner is offering technical help in their efforts to avert conflict.

Amid warfare that killed 140 people a day across Syria last month, a project to foster a local peace may seem quixotic. But it’s a critical experiment that can help build a model for future work to stabilize Syria and the region. Whatever the outcome of the war, conflicts among Syria’s tribal and communal groups will have to be managed. The work with al-Qahtaniya can help develop peaceful ways to accomplish that.

Syria’s civil war started in 2011 as a national uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but today it puts a perverse twist on the American cliché that all politics is local. The war is local. About 1,000 armed opposition groups embracing a range of ideologies and identities—including the Islamic State, or ISIS, extremists—control fragments of Syria, as do the forces of the Damascus government. It is a pattern of war that reflects local conditions far more than is commonly understood.

Al-Qahtaniya, a sub-district on the border with Turkey, is no exception. Syria’s last census, in 2004, counted 65,685 residents. They are primarily ethnic Kurds, along with Arab Sunni Muslims or minority Christians, Yazidis or others. In 2012, the Damascus regime reduced its control of the area to a symbolic presence. A Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (known by their Kurdish-language acronym, YPG) moved into the void. That destabilized the earlier ethnic and religious equilibrium and set off competition for power among local elites.

The 14 leaders who met in Erbil reflected the ethnic, sectarian and religious groups of al-Qahtaniya and the simmering tensions among them. The workshop aimed to develop the leaders’ skills in preventing and managing conflict, and through dialogue to come up with joint projects that might ease inter-communal strains. It also sought to build the role of faith leaders in promoting social cohesion, notably by building working relationships between religious clerics and tribal and civic leaders.

Tribes, which straddle borders and religious sects, are often the final authority in the lives of their members—all the more when formal state governance structures collapse. At the same time, the influence of faith leaders, whose religious interpretations can exacerbate or reduce the popular appeal of violent extremism, is growing as sectarian identity hardens. While the extremist army of ISIS has not reached in al-Qahtaniya, it has come as close as the provincial capital, al-Hasakah, about 60 miles southwest.

Many Kurds in al-Qahtaniya are fearful of Sunni Arabs, suspecting that some could have ties to extremist groups, Kurdish representatives said. Such fear has deepened decades-old suspicion between Kurdish and Arab communities. The YPG militia has emphasized Kurdish identity to build support for a Kurdish-controlled region, which in turn has stoked Arab fears of Kurdish nationalism. Left unaddressed, these strains could lead to violence.

Since Syria’s government withdrew its forces and officials from al-Qahtaniya, conflicts in the sub-district over land ownership have multiplied, tribal leaders said. For years, the Assad regime had seized land to punish enemies, reward friends, distribute to peasants or pursue development schemes. Those who lost their property are now demanding it back. Economic grievances and tensions due to the high cost of goods are rising, too, the tribal leaders said.

Following an exercise in which the leaders learned to diagram the forces and interactions contributing to community tensions, the group agreed to work on opening a main road that’s important to economic life in the area. The Kurdish militiamen of the YPG have kept the road closed since 2014 for what they say are security reasons.

Al-Qahtaniya’s leaders also agreed to help bring back local families who fled with the government’s withdrawal out of fear that the Kurds might seek revenge for perceived complicity with the regime. Members of other groups left, too, fearing attack over ethnicity, religion, political affiliations or even personal disputes.

In Erbil, the leaders said they would choose the precise methods for their peacebuilding efforts after returning home to see what worked. At least, they said, they would organize their communities to make a formal appeal to YPG officials to reopen the road to traffic. To reassure displaced people, the leaders said they would argue that it’s now safe to go home, and that al-Qahtaniya’s diverse groups are essential to the fabric of the community.

 Osama Gharizi is a USIP program officer for the Middle East and Africa. 

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