Personal links, such as those deriving from kinship, tribal affiliation and solidarity between friends and neighbours, play a key role in how communities reach out to armed groups. Whether armed groups and civilians are from the same locality is of particular – often paramount – importance in relation to their interaction, building on existing social capital and encouraging the development of networks for civilians and armed groups to trust each other and work together.
This is especially the case in urban centres. The Barzeh district of Damascus, with a population of 50,000, has been under a regime blockade since spring 2013. The FSA unit controlling the area is made up of fighters from the neighbourhood and it has positive relations with local civilians that are more significant than blood ties; the FSA has been responsive to civilian influence and interests. Pressure from members of the Barzeh population who had been displaced to the rest of Damascus and wanted to return home was a key reason why FSA fighters struck a ceasefire deal with the Syrian army in January 2014. The influx of returnees made the ceasefire irreversible – any military action would cause large number of casualties and a new displacement crisis for Barzeh locals.
Solidarity from shared experiences during initial phases of the uprising further strengthens links based on locality. In Aleppo, civil activists explain that their good relations with armed groups developed from solidarity prior to the armed rebellion, when the regime had systematically repressed human rights activists.
Tribes, and large family networks in rural areas including rural Aleppo and Idlib, assert a hierarchical structure, which emphasise the importance of, and respect for, notables and social leaders. They also promote solidarity and cohesion as essential for their survival. Tribal connections extend to cities. In Homs, one interviewee explained that in areas under FSA control civilians have tried to influence the extent of fighting in their locality, and in some cases have prevented family members from fighting in their areas.
For LACs, tribal and familial relations have been relevant where such relationships are highly valued and respected, such as rural and tribal communities. Membership of local leaders in the LAC plays an important role in affecting and, if needed, pressuring local armed groups. In rural Daraa, for example, the tribal affiliations of members of LACs and Shura (consultative) councils are used to influence local armed groups. This role is not limited to LACs, but to any civil body that includes community leaders, such as the Council of Wise Men in rural Idlib.
The negative side of such organic solidarity is that local communities pay a high price for supporting their local armed group. After two years of an intensive army siege of Homs, the city centre was completely destroyed and more than 2,200 citizens lost their lives. When defeated FSA fighters and Islamic brigades agreed to leave the Bab ‘Amr district of Homs in June 2014, most civilians fled the city in fear of army reprisals.
Personal and competitive agendas can also emerge in conflict contexts, which can undermine social and cultural structures that support community cohesion. In Barzeh, an interviewee explained how illiterate fighters find in war an opportunity to gain influence and respect, as well as earn a living. The possession of arms provides them with power that might not be accessible to them otherwise. This weakens the influence of personal relationships and kinships. In Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, armed factions from outside the region accused the local council of supporting the regime, causing it to lose legitimacy, and afterwards took the opportunity to replace it with a submissive Sharia (Islamic laws) committee in November 2013.
The strategic conflict priorities of armed groups can also reduce the influence of personal relations. Where militants possess the upper hand militarily, personal links are superseded in favour of military necessity. In the long term, this damages the social bonds that previously allowed civilians to resist or support opposition groups. Several interviewees explained how during truce periods, civilian neighbourhood committees consisting of respected neighbourhood individuals have been able to influence militia decisions through traditional leadership or ad hoc elected authority. However, during periods of intense fighting war, armed group actions are determined by conflict priorities.