By Kelly Cole

Northern Syrian cities liberated from ISIS face lingering threat: IEDs

While the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officially declared victory in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS/ISIL since 2014, on October 20th, 2017, the city remains littered with unexploded ordnance and booby traps left by ISIS fighters.

Across much of the the city of Raqqa, ISIS has left behind improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the streets, in residences, churches … anywhere where they could cause lingering violence.

Upon hearing of the liberation of their towns and cities, internally displaced civilians attempt to return to their homes. Instead of finding safety, they encounter the real remnants of war. According to Doctors without Borders, 33 patients were treated for blast injuries in Raqqa during the first week of 2018.

My recent trip to Syria validated need for coordination, communication

Between February 17-21, 2018, I returned to Northeastern Syria to validate my understanding of the situation in Rojava, to improve existing relationships and build new ones with leaders of local councils and international NGOs alike. My mission is now to communicate what I heard and witnessed in Syria to the international community with the ultimate goal of engaging more action to improve humanitarian assistance and allocate greater resources to the reconstruction effort.

As a 29-year retired civil affairs lieutenant colonel of the US Army, I have made it my mission as a private citizen to enhance global stability through projects and operations in the world’s most austere environments. TigerSwan has afforded me the opportunity to work on the front-lines of the humanitarian efforts in Raqqa, Syria, and the Middle East broadly. In providing security escort services, logistical support, and enhanced situational awareness for the companies or NGOs tasked with providing humanitarian assistance relief, demining the city of Raqqa, and ultimately the reconstruction of Northeastern Syria, we have unique insights into the various humanitarian projects being conducted in Rojava.

What follows is an analysis of the problems I observed throughout my recent trip to Syria in February.

Humanitarian missions and reconstruction efforts require common operating picture

The need for humanitarian assistance in Syria is urgent. However, the disparate conditions of civic governance across liberated or contested regions in Syria make any effort extremely complicated.

Particularly in Rojava, the nominally autonomous regions of Jazira and Euphrates maintain reconstruction and humanitarian efforts from outside NGOs and coalition governments whose effectiveness must be enhanced to ensure that civilians are returning home to a safe environment that can provide for basic living needs.

On February 18th, I met with the Raqqa Civil Council and Raqqa Civil Construction Committee (RCCC) in Ain Issa, Syria. Mrs. Jala Hamzani, Deputy President of the RCCC, is a woman dedicated to the reconstruction of her community and country, but recognizes the logistical challenges ahead. She indicated that while the establishment of a new, forward-thinking city council is a promising sign for the future of Raqqa, the list of urgent needs continues to grow. Hamzani requested more heavy equipment, jack hammers, and air compressors to remove rubble, additional cranes and bucket trucks for reconstruction efforts, and essential services such as electricity and even a community bakery.

My time with Mrs. Jala Hamzani was brief but informative. One very encouraging development described to me by Hamzani was the creation of women’s affairs initiatives. Women from around the community are being invited to participate in micro-economic training forums whose goals are to encourage entrepreneurship and leadership by women to help stimulate local economies. Support is needed in creating additional opportunities for other socio-cultural subgroups.

No central management body for civil safety and engineering projects

One of the issues raised by Jala Hamzani was there is no central coordination center for humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in liberated regions of Syria. Coalition partners, including the US government, allocate the funds that drive the reconstruction and stability projects in Syria. However, the current security posture of the US Department of State (DOS) is such that American nationals are not permitted to work in Syria on contracts overseen by the DOS.This limitation affects the management and speed of execution of US funded projects. NGOs that carry out the DOS missions are required to hire local nationals or other ex-patriots to perform assessments and ensure work is completed. The interested groups are all working toward the same goal of reestablishing a functioning society in Syria, but progress is slow due in part to a failure of communication management from top to bottom.

The disjointed nature of city and regional governing councils in Northeastern Syria has not allowed there to be an effective means for addressing local redevelopment efforts. This lack of communication to a higher management body has made the tracking of project progress — in demining, rebuilding critical electrical and plumbing infrastructure, and providing other basic social needs — nearly impossible.

TigerSwan's Kelly Cole speaks with local Syrian leadersTigerSwan's Kelly Cole meets with local Syrian leaders

On February 20th, I met with an Area Director for NGO Affairs in Qamishli. The director highlighted the great need for pump and sanitation stations in the area, but the “non-permissive” environment designated by the DOS has limited the NGO’s in the area to release funding to support larger efforts. She stated that there are trained and qualified individuals ready to work and contribute to the reconstruction of their community, but that there is no money to employ the required staff. Without a clear hierarchy for raising resource allocation concerns, the Director has trouble requesting additional assistance and communicating updates to the broader region.

A central location where all humanitarian and reconstruction projects run by all NGOs and coalition partners must be established to accumulate project progress from across Northern Syria, coordinate communications to refugee camps, and enhance the effectiveness of resource allocation.

Failure of communication will result in growing disenfranchisement

A concrete example of how detrimental the failure of communication is to the reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts taking place in Syria is the civilians who become victims of left-behind ISIS IEDs.

While the conflict in Syria has raged on year after year, internally displaced people across Syria have lived in refugee camps. In Northeastern Syria, civilians in the camps know that ISIS is gone and that their homes have been liberated. They rejoice and are eager to leave the camp. Instead, they are told that they must remain in the camps a little while longer. Why can’t they return home?

TigerSwan's Kelly Cole surveys the war-torn scene in Syria

Civilians who return to their ISIS-liberated villages too soon become victims of the IEDs and remnants of war left behind by ISIS and coalition forces. In fact, these civilians actually inhibit the progress of demining and reconstruction by increasing demand for resources that are not yet available — potable water, electricity, access to medical facilities, and other basic societal needs.

The arrival of internally displaced people cause priorities to shift prematurely and slow the progress of reconstruction. My conversations with leaders from NGOs and civic governorates made it perfectly clear that all mines must be removed before any other critical infrastructure can be put in place.

While communicating patience to civilians who have waited years in refugee camps is a near impossible task, allowing masses of people to return home before certain development priorities have been accomplished will only worsen the humanitarian situation in places like Raqqa.

An enhanced coordination process would actually hasten the timeline for reconstituting internally displaced persons in Syria.

Conclusion

Although this return trip to Syria was only for three days, our team was able to conduct six significant meetings with local leaders and NGOs in the region. Our conversations always centered on the need for increased access to clean water, greater coordination and communication in the reconstruction process, and a reduction in the coalition’s security posture in order to increase the financial support and capabilities of charitable organizations operating in the region. In the weeks since my trip, I have maintained close contact with TigerSwan’s Country Manager Saad Al-joubri and have continued discussion with local leaders of both the government and NGO’s in Erbil, Iraq and Amman, Jordan. Outreach with military US leaders in Tampa Bay, Florida and Fort Bragg, North Carolina has also continued.

That Syrian civilians remain the victims of this horrific conflict goes without saying. Assisting the Syrian people and returning them to a peaceful, prosperous society will take time. Enhancing the coordination between humanitarian and reconstruction projects will hopefully hasten the process.

TigerSwan's Kelly Cole visits with local Syrian leaders