Community dialogue sessions spur formation of Detainee Affairs Offices in Syria’s liberated areas

By Dennis Bailey

When the Syrian regime detained someone, their families were not told why the arrests occurred, where the person is detained or how to get information. Even today in liberated areas, most Syrians remain afraid to ask authorities about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

“People were reluctant to speak up,” said a representative of a community-based organization in Raqqa, Syria. “There was an ingrained fear from living under the previous regime that anyone who criticizes the government will be detained, or that neighbors will see them as collaborating with the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

The Syrian opposition-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES) is trying to change that in Raqqa and elsewhere. Local Syrian actors established the autonomous region in 2017 to govern areas recently liberated from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The AANES quickly established a new Internal Security Force (ISF) to provide basic public safety and security in these newly liberated areas, establishing community dialogue forums to promote their new community policing approach.

These community dialogue forums aim to help the ISF better understand the day-to-day security needs and concerns of communities in which they now operate. Working through local community based organizations and the U.S. State Department-supported Al Rashad project, local families overcame their initial reluctance to meet with security actors and brought their concerns to these dialogue sessions.

Held in September 2021 and facilitated by 10 local organizations, 51 community dialogue sessions provided residents with the opportunity to openly discuss their security concerns directly with the ISF. These included commonplace issues, the role of the security force, its performance and shortcomings, drugs, delinquency, and traffic, but also tougher questions about detainees.

The International Security Force’s leadership listened. On Sept. 30, the ISF announced the establishment of five Detainees’ Affairs Offices in Raqqa, Hasakah, Qamishli, Kobani and Manbij. These offices now allow the families and the legal representatives of the detainees to get answers about arrests, which establishes transparency and accountability that provide a measure of relief for worried family members.

“Our community has been suffering from absence of family’s members and relatives, the absence which may be due to the arrest by the ISF, or due to a security incident such as kidnapping or criminal act,” said the Head of Raqqa Internal Committee, the civilian governance body that oversees the Internal Security Force, who asked not to be name for security reasons. “The establishment of this office is crucial to provide clarity for the families in case their people are detained, and in case they were absent, the ISF takes its mandated actions in the search and follow up.”

Since 2018, Al Rashad has worked to bolster security in Northeast Syria by addressing urgent security concerns and by building the capacity of police to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS. Al Rashad uses a community policing approach, a novel concept in a country where, for the past 40 years, the police have been seen as the backbone of the state intelligence and a key tool of regime oppression.

The need to transform the Internal Security Forces into civilian policing organizations by adopting the community policing principles was recognized and eagerly grasped by ISF’s leadership. They partnered with Al Rashad to design and deliver security services that respond more directly to the population’s needs, even establishing civilian oversight over the security sector. Simultaneously, Al Rashad improves the police’s professionalism by training them on the community policing approach and on other technical policing topics.

As a result, Al Rashad and its local security partners have rehabilitated 31 miles of streetlighting, installed 122 traffic lights and held more than 50 community dialogue sessions on security needs between local leaders and the police. Al Rashad has also trained more than 8,000 police officers in Northeast Syria on community policing topics, including human rights and respect for minorities. In addition, as a direct response to community dialogue sessions in Tabqa, the Democratic Council for the Administration of Autonomous Tabqa passed new legislation in March to end the practice of child labor and mandate punishment for parents and employers who violate this legislation.

The dialogue sessions, which involve up to 20 participants and last four hours, have received positive feedback from Al Rashad’s partners and the field team. But the need to continue such dialogues and initiatives is still present. Discussions around the establishment of another Office of Detainees Affair office in Deir Ezzor and Tabqa are ongoing.

“The establishment of the office is a progressive step and shows the importance of the role of the civil society in facilitating dialogs with the local authorities,” said another community-based organization member. “This step encourages us as civil society and our community to speak up and continue advocacy efforts.”

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