A Field Mission to Syria as Part of a Major Research on Armed Non-State Actors

Our Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Dr Annyssa Bellal travelled this summer to North-East Syria with colleagues from Geneva Call – Ezequiel Heffes and Pascal Bongard – as part of the research project From Words to Deeds she leads that examines the practice and interpretation of armed non-State actors (ANSA) on core IHL norms.

Collecting First-Hand Information and Documents

This trip to the areas administered by the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES) aimed at collecting first-hand information about how the AANES – which controls a large territory and population – and its armed branches, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) perceive and implement their obligations under international law.

The research team spent ten days in North-East Syria, notably in Quamisli, Hasakeh and Raqqa – the former ‘capital’ of the Islamic State group (ISIS).

This field research – which forms part of a larger series that involve trips to different conflict zones – allowed the research team to conduct interviews with the SDF and the authorities of the AANES and to collect policy documents on humanitarian and human rights norms, such as military instructions, internal regulations and laws, public statements and commitments.

‘We could have frank and open discussions with the SDF and other relevant authorities about the difficulties they encounter in implementing their obligations under international law and how they perceive these obligations.

A house in ruin, Raqqa

We notably met with SDF General Command, commanders of the People’s Defense Unit (YPG) and Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ), the Deir Al-Zor Military Council, as well as the Internal Security Forces General Command. We also spoke with members of the AANES in charge of health, gender, justice, child protection, education and cultural and humanitarian affairs’ explains Dr Bellal.

‘It was not an easy trip for security reasons notably, but worth it given the wealth of important information, we could collect for our research. It was also the occasion to meet fellow scholars working at the University of Rojava and to give a lecture there on ‘armed movements’ position on humanitarian norms’ she adds.

Preliminary Findings

The research team is currently analyzing and working on all the documents collected and interviews conducted during the trip. The key findings will be published later this year in a form of a case study, following the two that were published in early 2021 on the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA).

‘While we are currently analyzing the information collected during this trip, the mission was really successful in demonstrating that ANSAs, such as the SDF, have clear positions on key issues of international law. For this particular coalition of armed groups, no major disagreement with the norms seems to exist and the challenges lie more in the capacity or willingness to implement them’ explains Dr Bellal.

From the Challenges of Trying Former IS Fighters to Accessing COVID-19 Vaccines

The mission highlighted the paradoxical position of the SDF and the AANES that administer a large population as an ANSA.

‘The detention of thousands of former ISIS fighters and their families represents a formidable challenge for this actor: while the SDF/AANES are under the obligation to treat these fighters in accordance with international law, they lack the capacity to do so’ explains Dr Bellal.

‘Other challenges relate to the fact that they cannot have a direct access to vaccines in the context of the COVID pandemic or that the diplomas obtained by children in school are not recognized as valid under domestic law – highlighting the difficulty of ensuring respect of the right to health or right to education of the persons living under the control of an ANSA’ she adds.


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