Community policing for lasting trust: Lessons from northeast Syria
Building trust, particularly in regions healing from conflict, is a gradual process requiring careful nurturing and constant safeguarding against its erosion. Since the rise and fall of ISIS in northeastern Syria, re-establishing the Self Administration of Northeast Syria (SANES) as the region’s de facto government and rebuilding trust in its safety & security providers has proven challenging.
In support of developing trust between citizens and authorities, the Al Rashad program advanced a foundational framework for a functional and responsive societal structure. Al Rashad, meaning “the right path” in Arabic, was designed to rebuild community trust in safety & security forces through community policing principles and participatory approaches, centered on the concerns and needs of communities and delivery of a greater safety and security as a service to its constituents.
Implemented by Creative Associates International from 2018 to 2023, with funding and support from the State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs (NEA) and the German Federal Foreign Office (FFO), the program not only helped ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS but also equipped communities with the tools to advocate for security solutions and to resist other malign actors encroaching on the vacuum left by ISIS.
Building trust through dialogue
The Internal Security Forces (ISF), responsible for security and policing in the SANES, initially served a far more militarized role in communities during the fight against ISIS. Civilians felt fear and mistrust of the ISF, preventing them from providing meaningful security services.
One Syrian civilian expressed deep misgivings about security personnel in in her community: “I cannot build any relationship with them [Internal Security Forces], because I have a fear of any person wearing military clothes, no matter what party he belongs to.”
The Al Rashad program helped to build a trusting relationship between civilians and police by dismantling perceptions of malign intentions and fear.
A comprehensive stabilization approach addresses the supply of and demand for community security, including training the ISF. Expert-led trainings integrating both theoretical and hands-on elements focused on community policing principles to strengthen relationships with locals, and to talk about their role in delivering a public sense of safety, as well as its security focus.
The goal was to shift the ISF’s focus from military services to community security concerns following five dimensions of good community policing:
- Solutions-based collaboration
- Credibility and legitimacy
- Civilian oversight and accountability
- Strength of linkages with supporting services
- Institutional capacity and competence
A true community policing approach emphasizes building ties by police and working closely with community members to address security issues collaboratively to build mutual trust. Solely training the ISF was not enough to build this trust between the police and the community. To bridge this gap, Al Rashad implemented community dialogue sessions in three governorates across northeast Syria, including the city of Raqqa — a city liberated from ISIS in 2017 — to increase civilian awareness of the community policing approach and the role of different stakeholders in maintaining security.
The sessions began by creating safe spaces for civilians to discuss their security priorities, facilitated with the support and buy-in from local civil society organizations. The second phase responded to issues raised in dialogues by implementing small projects led by community members and local CSOs to address those concerns.
Initially, participants were unfamiliar with the community policing approach and resistant to raise their concerns out of fear of reprisals and violence, an expected roadblock given historic mistrust of police forces in Syria as enforcers of authoritarian control over the past 40 years. However, as the sessions progressed, participants grew increasingly comfortable sharing their security concerns.
Allowing the community to provide their input was equally beneficial for the ISF, who learned the role of the community in the process of collaborative decision making and maintaining security in their neighborhoods. They were also able to receive and utilize direct feedback from the community on the services they provide.
Tracking progress for lasting results
To assess the extent of implementation and adoption of community policing practices, Creative developed the Community Policing Assessment Tool (CPAT). Using surveys and focus group discussions, the CPAT helped track the qualitative aspects of community policing efforts, enabling Al Rashad to improve the effectiveness of policing entities and increase community security.
Ultimately, the goal of the tool is to provide key stakeholders with information to best address existing gaps and make recommendations for improving collaboration between citizens and security providers to solve community security concerns.
The CPAT proved to be an effective and proactive tool for monitoring the success of the Al Rashad project and the ability of the security providers to adopt community policing practices. It continues to serve as a framework that other projects can use and adapt based on their specific political and security environments, engaging multiple actors across supply and demand for security services, and information gaps between actors.
Building trust in any community is a significant undertaking, particularly between actors on different sides of conflict. Al Rashad accomplished remarkable milestones, including initiating 366 community security dialogue sessions that led to 137 public safety projects driven by community demands. It also executed 73 outreach and awareness campaigns. In all, 37,705 individuals, 10% of them women, took part in trainings related to community policing principles and practices.
“The members of the Internal Security Forces are members of the community and return to the neighborhood at the end of the workday,” said one participant of the dialogues. “This will help effective partnerships between them and their neighbors.”