Governance and Territorial Fragmentation in Syria: Assessing the Humanitarian and Political Challenges


Abdurrahman Mustafa

Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)

Rahaf Aldoughli

Lecturer in Middle East and North African Studies

Lancaster University

Qutaiba Idlbi

Representative to the United States

National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces

Dima Moussa

Syrian American Lawyer; Member of the Syrian National Coalition


Radwan Ziadeh

Senior Fellow

Arab Center Washington DC

About the Webinar:

On August 2, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar titled Governance and Territorial Fragmentation in Syria: Assessing the Humanitarian and Political Challenges.” The webinar featured Abdurrahman Mustafa, Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government, who discussed his government’s achievements and challenges. Other panelists included Rahaf Aldoughli, Lecturer in Middle East and North African Studies, Lancaster University; Qutaiba Idlbi, Representative to the United States for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and Syria Fellow at the International Center for Transitional Justice; and Dima Moussa, Syrian American Lawyer and Member of the Syrian National Coalition. ACW Senior Fellow Radwan Ziadeh moderated the event.

Abdurrahman Mustafa said that during the past 11 years of conflict, the Syrian regime has violated Syrians’ rights, broken international laws and treaties, and caused the destruction of the country and the displacement of its people. Mustafa presented his interim government’s achievements since its creation in the northern part of Syria. In the healthcare field, the government has been able to mitigate difficult conditions for millions of Syrians, and has been able to successfully meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has also fared well on the educational front, providing instruction and facilities for students of all levels, and both building and maintaining scientific laboratories. It has also been able to provide basic services, bringing electricity from Turkey, digging wells, assisting farmers, building storage facilities, and securing food supplies. In addition, the government has helped spur industry by building special industrial zones and setting up chambers of commerce and industry. Good governance has also been a priority for Mustafa’s government, and effective methods were therefore put in place to regulate tax collection, local government, and diverse administrative bodies. In addition, the government worked to address the security situation in areas under its control, and has fought against both Assad regime forces and those of the so-called Islamic State. Mustafa thanked Turkey for its assistance to Syrians in the north and condemned Russia and Iran’s support for the Assad regime. Finally, Mustafa thanked the international community for the aid and support it has provided to the Syrian people. But he also urged international actors to do more, and especially to help implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which charted a path toward a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Answering questions from moderator Radwan Ziadeh and from the audience, Mustafa said that a trip he recently made to Washington was successful in clarifying that the United States has not changed its position on the Assad regime or on its support for a political transition according to Resolution 2254. He said that his government is coordinating with Washington in fighting terrorist groups in northern Syria, which he identified as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Kurdistan Workers Party. He welcomed exemptions the US has made regarding Caesar Act sanctions, saying that they have helped Syrians in areas of the country that have been liberated from the Assad regime’s control. He added that his visit to the US was an official one, and that, “The Syrian opposition has good relations with the United States and we have been allies since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.” Mustafa asserted that his government is trying to build what he called a “model area” that can then be emulated in parts of Syria that are still currently under regime control. He touted what he referred to as widespread freedom of the press and of opinion under his government’s control, and also asserted that the interim government adheres to international norms and laws and maintains good relations with many international organizations. In response to a question from the audience, Mustafa said that his government does not believe that there is a military solution to the crisis in Syria. He said that a political solution according to the principles contained in Resolution 2254 is the only possible way to end the conflict, and he accused the Syrian regime of scuttling multiple rounds of negotiations on this matter.

Dima Moussa presented an opposition perspective on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, saying that the crisis is an obvious byproduct of the political, economic, and social conditions in the country. As she sees it, the country is fragmented, but is also suffering a stalemate in discussions about what would constitute a just resolution to the crisis. Moussa said that division and fragmentation will continue to become increasingly entrenched as long as a political solution through the implementation of Resolution 2254 remains unachieved. She derided the Assad regime as frankly uninterested in finding a solution, saying that it has stymied a series of meetings in Geneva, Astana, and elsewhere, employing different pretexts each time in order to avoid discussions. As a participant in negotiations to find a solution, Moussa asserted that it was the Assad regime that aborted negotiations over a constitution for the country. She added that the role of the international community itself exhibits significant conflict. While international actors have helped on the humanitarian front, they have not been firm enough in forcing the Assad regime to abide by agreements or to negotiate in good faith. Moussa said that divisions and differences between the United States and Russia, especially since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have negatively impacted prospects for fruitful negotiations. Both the United States and Russia, she stated, are concerned with securing their own interests and do not care about what actually happens to the Syrian people.

Moussa brought up UN Security Council discussions that occurred in July regarding the matter of keeping a humanitarian corridor open at the Turkish-Syrian border, saying that differences between US and Russian positions effectively doomed the possibility of finding a good resolution to the issue. In fact, she argued, Syria appears to have become an additional overseas battleground for the ongoing conflict between Russia and the US. The lack of agreement on humanitarian access, Moussa added, has impacted international cooperation to secure humanitarian assistance, which, as a result, has now become a highly politized issue. Because of this, she said, Syrians must not wait around for outside actors to address their needs, and must instead look for opportunities to actively make a difference in their situation. Moussa stressed that, “With this deadlock before us, as opposition we are required to think outside the box as we can’t just sit around and wait for international players to figure out their disagreements.” She ended her presentation by saying that Syrians working in opposition areas should show unity, bridge their differences, and, in the absence of a comprehensive solution to the conflict, work toward bettering the lives of the people through partial and local solutions.

Qutaiba Idlbi addressed the issue of governance in Syria and its importance in the face of stalled negotiations. He stated that the current competition between the Syrian Interim Government and the Assad regime is one of “providing a sense of future for the Syrian people,” which is to say the provision of government services, development, job opportunities, and the like. It is through these means, as well as through the forced repatriation of Syrian refugees on the part of the Assad regime, that competing parties are aiming to bring a larger portion of the Syrian population into their sphere of influence. The greater the share of the population that each faction controls, Idlbi explained, the greater their leverage at the negotiating table and in requesting political and economic support from international actors.

Idlbi also addressed the problems he has observed in the United States’ approach to Syria. He specifically questioned Washington’s treatment of Syria as a “regional problem” requiring a “regional solution.” In practice, this has meant withdrawing humanitarian and governance support for opposition groups in northern Syria, thereby leaving matters of stability to Russia and Iran, which gradually pushes into their control regions that are not governed by the Assad regime. Not only does this undercut both the United States and the Syrian opposition’s leverage for bringing the regime and its supporters to the negotiating table, but it also incentivizes regional actors who support the Syrian Interim Government to waver, as they often take their lead from the US, which appears in this case to be withdrawing its support. Another consequence of the current US approach, Idlbi argued, is that northern Syria has become a “punching bag” in the disagreement between the US and Turkey. Collaboration between the two powers in their policy toward Syria, Idlbi notes, could seriously strengthen the Interim Government’s leverage at the negotiating table. But instead, a lack of unity between Turkey and the US has impeded work on creating a model for future governance and on integrating northern Syria under a single governing framework. Idlbi ended by urging the United States and Turkey to resolve their differences, if only for “the children of this divorce between the United States and Turkey…the Syrian people today.”

Rahaf Aldoughli focused her comments on potential strategies to break the deadlock caused by the country’s current political and physical divisions, and offered some suggestions for paths toward reconciliation and rebuilding. Aldoughli emphasized that Syrians from across political and religious spectrums are essentially being used by regional and global actors—including the United States—as tools to achieve their own goals in the region. She argued that these goals are almost entirely security-driven, part of a “zero-sum conflict” that merely fuels the increasing spread of violence. What is needed instead, Aldoughli stated, is a “strategic landscape” to help “map out a reconciliation and resolution process.” This must include both top-down and bottom-up approaches that address not just the military aspects of the conflict, but ideological factors as well. In terms of top-down approaches, Aldoughli said that the Syrian opposition must rethink and revise its asks of the international community. Rather than “managing the conflict or maintaining the status quo” through essentially reactive strategies, active solutions need to be developed and presented to international actors that have the power to enforce them.

As for bottom-up, grassroots tactics, Aldoughli emphasized the need to provide Syrian communities access to all of the country’s four distinct areas of control, rather than maintaining the physical separation that may make reconciliation more difficult should the country be successfully brought back under a single government. Equally important, however, is the ideological level, especially given the effect on the Syrian people of having spent five decades under the Baath regime. As Aldoughli said, “We often talk about how to end the Syrian conflict in a military sense but we don’t talk much about how to deal with the different Syrian communities that are in regime-controlled areas.” Aldoughli proposed an attempt to find common ground among diverse Syrian populations through narrative and rhetoric. One such point of common ground is the fact that nearly all Syrians emphatically reject “foreign meddling” in the conflict, which includes both regional actors such as Turkey and Iran and more global ones such as Russia and the United States. The effort to unite Syrians both in Syria and in the diaspora will certainly face challenges. One of the greatest obstacles to reconciliation and reconstruction, Aldoughli said, is the strong sense of political apathy among young Syrians, who appear to be uninvested in both the opposition and the regime. But paradoxically, the youth’s disinterest may end up aiding the process, since a new generation that holds no preexisting political allegiances may be able to break through older divisions—ideological and otherwise—that continue to hinder the process of building a path out of the conflict and toward a future for Syria. Overall, Aldoughli stated, “The process of reconciliation and conflict reduction should begin with Syrians looking inward and assessing their country’s own civil conditions, rather than assuming that external agencies or strongmen can step in and secure us from the destructive legacies of the war.”


Tuesday August 2, 2022