- Even before the US began to mobilize international, regional and local partners to counter ISIS in Syria in the latter part of 2014, some local communities had shown their effectiveness in resisting takeover by the group. Early that year, local rebel groups had achieved notable success in pushing ISIS out of much of western Syria – including Idlib governorate, Aleppo city, and northern and western rural areas of Aleppo governorate – after local resentment towards ISIS’s actions – such as kidnappings, torture and the targeting of activists and opposition leaders – had built up over the preceding months.
- This paper examines events in Atarib city in the period before, during and after its local community and armed groups came together in early 2014 to resist an attempt by ISIS to seize full control of the city. As elsewhere, ISIS had previously intensified efforts to impose its authority over the city through coercion and intimidation. The strength of relations between civilians, the city’s authorities and local rebel groups meant that they were able to work together successfully to defend the city.
- Drawing notably on first-hand interviews with a set of local actors in Atarib, including activists, civilians, police and former ISIS members, a case study is presented of the substantive role that Syrian local communities can play in resisting extremist groups, and what motivates them to undertake such resistance.
- Also examined are the successes and failures of the local reconciliation and reintegration process after ISIS was repelled in Atarib. While recognition of the need to reintegrate former ISIS supporters meant that the majority were able to remain within the local community, the process lacked enforcement measures to ensure that former members did not later rejoin ISIS elsewhere, or switch allegiance to the ideologically similar al-Nusra as that group moved in to take control of former ISIS strategic positions and weaponry.
- Following the defeat of ISIS in Atarib, al-Nusra began to rebuild its strength in the city, and in turn moved to take full control in early 2015. While this time Atarib’s local armed groups were reluctant to enter into conflict with a potential strategic ally against the Assad regime, al-Nusra’s attempt to take the city was met with strong resistance by the local community. While this did not prevent al-Nusra seizing control of a key military base outside the city, an all-out military confrontation was averted, and the group was held at bay.
- A sole focus on defeating ISIS in Syria militarily will likely further enable al-Nusra, which has been able to exploit the power vacuum where its rival has collapsed. If the progress made by the international military coalition in the fight against ISIS in Syria is to endure, it will be critical to engage local communities, and to forge a clear, comprehensive and participatory strategy that takes account of specific community dynamics, sets the protection of civilians as a priority, and addresses the deep-rooted political, economic, social and cultural issues that have seen extremist groups rise and flourish. Strong local communities that are empowered to create their own alternatives and solutions will have the incentive to fight for them.