Raqqa DeZ peace conference – role playing simulation

This simulation of a peace conference is the final class of my Lessons (Not) Learnt in Afghanistan course at the Paris School of International Affairs. I will be tweeting about the results in live, under the hashtag #RaqqaDeZRPG.

Paris School of International Affairs Role Playing Simulation

Lessons (Not) Learnt in Afghanistan class 2016

Friday 11 March from 10.15 to 12.15

The Raqqa peace conference, end 2016

See original image

The situation in Syria

Most of the Islamic State territory has been liberated by Rojava’s YPG, but they do not wish to establish their rule there, and have declared they will withdraw their forces. Fearful of a power vacuum, the UN has suggested a peace conference to set up a new governing entity in an area spanning most of Deir-ez Zor and Raqqa governorates – an area called ‘Raqqa DeZ’.

Assad, who has consolidated his rule over the South and the West of the country, including former IS positions in Hama, but who is still battling the rebels (SNC and Jabhat al Nusra) in Aleppo and Idlib, has not interfered with the Kurdish overrunning of the former IS territory. He may be getting worried about the consolidation of too much Kurdish power. Rumors are that Assad is realigning with Turkey and that he may soon turn on the Kurds, but no incidents prove this. For the time being Assad is still benefiting from his alliance with Russia. The Syrian regime has of course not been invited to the peace conference, but it is known that he still has some support among Raqqa Dez’s civil society, part of which would like a return of the State.

Turkey is increasingly worried about Rojava and has multiplied its military excursions across the border, but without changing the balance of power. Turkey has insisted to be part of the Raqqa peace conference, but the UN (reportedly ceding to PYD pressure) has not invited any regional powers. Turkey is alarmed about rumors that Russia is building an airbase in Rojava, but the PYD denies this, and there is no clear evidence. Relations between Turkey and Russia are so bad they have recalled their ambassadors from each other’s countries.

Russia and the USA have provided air cover, weaponry and logistical support to the advancing YPG, although Russian support has been much stronger than the American. Russia had expected, if not to join the conference, at least to be invited to participate in the collective security arrangement in Raqqa DeZ, and has now angrily withdrawn from the UN efforts. The US military, by contrast, have managed to be invited as observers to the peace conference. They have announced their plan to build a military basis in Deir ez Zor to continue fighting IS, who has retreated into Iraq; but it is clear the US needs local forces (Kurdish and Arab) to provide security and logistical support to the base, and boots on the ground for their war against IS.

Although it seems most IS fighters have retreated to Iraq, it is likely many of them are also ‘lying low’ and trying to negatively influence the peace conference through their local allies.

The Rojava Kurds hope that friendly local civil society groups in Raqqa DeZ will replicate the democratic confederalist model and have decided to attend the conference with a strong delegation to achieve this. They also fear a power vacuum that would facilitate the return of Islamic State or other anti-Kurdish forces. The ideal outcome for the Rojava delegation would be the merging of both territories (Rojava and Raqqa DeZ) in a democratic confederalist entity – which concretely means the Arab population must adopt their social contract (with eventual adaptations).

The Arab population of Raqqa DeZ has partially supported the YPG advance through their territories, and partially offered passive resistance. They did not rise against IS, as the foreign backers of the campaign had hoped. Arab civil society generally seems receptive to the Rojava revolution, but with a few adaptations: a more Islamic, less secular version of the social contract; improvement of women’s lives, but not a gender revolution; and especially, the guarantee that Kurds will not somehow be in charge. They have no sympathy for Ocalan.

Another part of the Arab population, the tribal leaders and non-IS aligned Islamists (whether aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood / Syrian National Council or the Salafists / Jabhat al Nusra) believe the Kurds are trying to destroy their society, religion and culture. The tribal leaders have been courted by the US who sees them as the most reliable ally to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, and they hope to cultivate the non-IS Salafists as moderate alternatives to the IS. In fact, if they have joined the UN peace talks at all, which they originally wanted to boycott because of the Kurdish presence, it is mostly because the US has incited them to.

Raqqa DeZ has been severely destroyed by the Russian and US aerial bombing. The industry and infrastructure is in ruins, and most of the experienced and capable population has fled, either to other areas in Syria or abroad. Many IDPs have gone to Rojava where they had a positive experience of democratic self-governance. The public service sector, notably health, education and the local administration, has survived the war but is in a very poor condition, with too few professionals and almost no facilities and supplies. It is still the same Syrian state of Assad, but is non-partisan. The Arab population generally expects this state structure to be revived and public service delivery to resume.

The UN has decided to take the lead and plans to build an autonomous state structure in Raqqa-DeZ that can deliver security to its population, and ensure stability within its borders through the Rule of Law – a minimal state. It is to become autonomous, much like Rojava, so that it can be integrated into a future federal State of Syria. Public service delivery is not part of the UN plan. It has flown in a group of state-building experts who must ensure that one of the outcomes of the peace will be a road map to the construction of this minimal state. UN OCHA has set up a ‘humanitarian intervention coalition’ to deliver aid to the most immediately needy and cover the absence of public services by short term Quick Impact Projects (QuIPs).


Players and their aims:

  1. A) UN state-builders. They have taken the initiative of these peace talks in close cooperation with the PYD and the early involvement, through the Rojava Kurds, of local civil society. Their main priority is to establish a friendly regime in Raqqa DeZ, as inclusive as possible to facilitate law and order. They hope the Raqqa DeZ will form the model for a future federal Syrian state that will be acceptable to the Syrian regime, the SNC opposition and the Kurds. They are very sensitive to Turkey’s demands to obstruct PKK influence but have relied heavily on the PYD and insist that the PYD is not the PKK and is not listed as a terrorist organization. They agree that the Syrian state structures can be preserved, but without Assad. They also agree with the US desire to build a military base on the Iraqi border to continue fighting the IS in Iraq. The state they have in mind is minimal, ensuring security and stability through the Rule of Law. Their aim for this conference is to establish a road map to this future state, hopefully but not necessarily democratic. They count on Western NGOs and aid delivery to ensure buy-in of the local population. The UN group can be divided into two groups
  2. The realists, aligned with the US military and most sympathetic to the Syrian regime and Turkey. Their natural local allies are the Sunni tribal leaders. Their main objective is security sector reform, setting up a police force to ensure internal peace, and an army to help them fight against Islamic State.
  3. The liberals, who have sympathy for the PYD’s social and gender revolution, but not for their stateless state as it cannot be counted on to promote liberal values in the region. Their natural local ally is local civil society. Their main objective is to set up a functioning representative state, preferably in a democratic way.
  4. One of the delegates (unidentified) represents the interests of Turkey

B) Humanitarian intervention coalition. This is a coalition of NGOs who have been mobilized by UN OCHA to deliver massive aid to the population and to set up quick impact reconstruction projects, to fill the gap left by the disappearance of state structures. The UN expects this coalition to buy assent of the local population to the outcome of the peace conference and make them averse to a return of IS. The NGO coalition is led by a few practitioners who want to avoid past mistakes of humanitarian intervention, and many of them do not fully agree with the UN’s state-building aims; in particular, they do not want to be associated with the US objective of building a military base. Many of these NGOs have good relations with the civil society group, and some of them also with the PYD. They have the following remit:

  1. provide immediate food and shelter assistance to the vulnerable, in particular war victims and IDPs
  2. establish a security regime to protect NGO workers, in particular the internationals
  3. develop a program of quick impact projects to start reconstruction, in the fields of agriculture, infrastructure (transport, communications, water, electricity), housing, education and health

They must ensure that their prospective local partners gain a strong position in the negotiations.

C) Rojava: the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds wants to extend the democratic confederalist model to the Raqqa-DeZ zone. That would help pacify the Arabs in Rojava and elsewhere in Syria, convince the world that their revolution is not ethnic, and create a friendly regime on the borders of Rojava, allowing it to escape the Turkish economic blockade. The Kurds realize that further military involvement of the YPG in Raqqa-DeZ is counterproductive and have announced a complete withdrawal of their forces; their plan is to fill the power vacuum with local councils with self-defense capabilities, similar to the set-up in Rojava. Their main allies are found in local civil society. The alignment of some of these groups with Damascus (especially the civil service) does not worry them, but they are wary of Assad having too much influence in Raqqa-DeZ. They are more concerned, however, with IS-aligned traditional leaders gaining power through the UN process. Their ultimate ambition is to create one big self-governed zone comprising Raqqa-DeZ, Al Hasakah and the parts of Aleppo province they control, but they realize that their social contract will have to be adapted to local culture and customs. They have excellent relations with the Russians, OK with the American but their enemy is Turkey. The Rojava delegation is composed of the following:

  1. PYD leadership to spread the revolution
  2. Self-defense experts from the YPG and YPJ
  3. Jineology (gender revolution) delegates
  4. Arabs of Rojava (traditional sheikh closely aligned with PYD top)
  5. Religious minorities: local Christians, Assyrians and Yezidis but also Alawites.
  6. Foreign affairs specialists (that have helped the UN prepare this peace conference)
  7. One of the delegation members (non-identified) represents Russian interests

D) Arab civil society in Raqqa DeZ. This disorganized group came to the fore thanks to the YPG liberation and efforts by the PYD to find local allies. It is composed of three strands:

  1. professionals and civil servants (mainly teachers and health care professionals) that used to work for the Syrian state but are non-partisan; their main priority is to reestablish the state structures that can provide public services to the population. They are generally sympathetic to the PYD’s plans but don’t understand much about democratic confederalism
  2. groups affiliated to the Syrian opposition that fought against Assad, and went into hiding or were displaced as IDPs during IS rule – some of them (Yezidis and Christians mainly) were IDPs in Rojava, where they learnt to self-organize. Others are more aligned with the SNC. The main priority of this group is to create a functioning political entity that can defeat Assad and help reconquer the rest of Syria
  3. exiles returning from Western countries with the hope to create a Western-aligned autonomous state in Raqqa-DeZ, that can eventually merge with other liberated areas in Syria. Their main priority is to reestablish the oil industry and state structures that can establish the Rule of Law. They are sympathetic to US plans to build a military base in DeZ.
  4. One of the delegation members (non-identified) represents the interests of the Assad regime.

All strands have some sympathy for the PYD, not in the least because they liberated the zone, but are anxious to assert their independence in order to gain legitimacy. They all share a secular and generally pro-Western outlook. They have strained relations with the traditional leaders and strongly oppose the presence of Islamists in the peace talks.

  1. E) Traditional leaders of Raqqa DeZ. This group offered passive resistance to the YPG conquest of Raqqa-DeZ (active opponents fled to the IS zone in Iraq, or are lying low). Although most had issues of some kind with the IS, they were generally content with its rule. There are two strands:
  2. Sunni tribal leaders. Although these had originally been sidelined by the Assad regime, in its late years and at the beginning of the revolution, they were empowered by Damascus. They facilitated the control by IS, as they fought against the secular opposition. However, they do not align closely with IS, who they see as dangerous radicals spoiling the name of Islam, and did not take up arms to defend the IS against the YPG. They have remained neutral. Their main aim is to establish a tribal conservative society which they rule, with good pragmatic relations with neighboring regions, especially Sunni tribes in Iraq, but also Jordan, the Gulf, and even Assad and the Kurds.
  3. A variety of Salafist and MB-leaning groups, affiliated to Jabhat al Nusra or other members of the Syrian National Council, have been invited with much insistence by the UN and US pressure to ensure the peace settlement is comprehensive and includes former enemies. Their aim is to establish a sharia state but they pragmatically accept the need for international support and non-conflictive relations with the West, so they officially deny any relation with the IS, AQ or other ‘terrorists’. Their main supporters are in the Gulf and Turkey. Their main opponents are the Kurds and in particular the YPG. They have only reluctantly accepted to participate in the peace talks, sending low-level delegates, because of the PYD US presence. They also despise the civil society types.
  4. One of the delegates (unidentified) represents the interests of the Islamic State

F) US military observer. The main interest of the US is to establish a military base near the border with Iraq; the secondary interest is to ensure a peaceful local set-up which is not inimical to the US, and can provide the security and help with logistical arrangements (supplies etc) for the base. The US has cooperated with the PYD but their relation has come under some stress because of Turkish pressure on the one hand, and Russia’s heavy involvement with the PYD on the other hand. Simultaneously, they have been establishing undercover relations with the tribal leaders and even some ‘moderate’ Salafist groups.

Delegation Function and/or Objective
UN SRSG Make conference a success for all parties
UN realist Devise road map to minimal state
UN realist Ensure good security arrangements are made
UN liberal Try to achieve democratic state structures
UN liberal Ensure buy-in of local population civil affairs officer
NGO Head Ensure good political set-up for NGO operations
NGO Security Achieve good security environment for NGOs
NGO Aid Return of IDPs from rest of Syria and abroad
NGO Aid Food and shelter provision to needy
NGO Reconst QuIPs in infrastructural works
NGO Reconst QuIPs in  health and education
Rojava PYD Spread democratic confederal model in Syria
Rojava YPG Help set up friendly self-defense forces
Rojava Jinê Promote gender revolution in Raqqa-DeZ
Rojava liaison Promote Rojava revolution among foreigners
Rojava Sheikh Reach out to traditionalists to ensure buy-in
Rojava minorit Ensure religious minority rights or secularism
Civil Society Defend position and rights of civil service workers
Civil Society Christian; rebuild health and education sectors
Civil Society Continue armed Syrian revolution against Assad
Civil Society Return experts and opposition to Raqqa DeZ
Civil Society Revive oil and gas production and markets
Civil Society Ensure pro-Western outcomes, assume leadership
Traditionalists Tribal sheikh courted by US against IS
Traditionalists Religious scholar for a modern conservative society
Traditionalists Ikhwan-leaning local opposition leader, pro SNC
Traditionalists Salafist sheikh wanting a sharia-based society
Pentagon Must ensure military base is part of the outcomes


Each delegate: you must look at your individual goals, or infer what they should be given your role, and stake out who exactly you think, among other peace conference delegates, can be your allies – you may even reach out to them (by e-mail or in a meeting) before the role playing starts. You should also consider who will be your enemies, and how they can be neutralized. Then share your strategy with the other members of your delegation before the conference starts tomorrow at 10:15 AM, so that your delegation works in close coordination. This will allow each delegation leader to present the starting position of your delegation. Be aware, though, that one of your delegation members may also be representing other interests.

If you feel you don’t know enough yet about the situation in Rojava, please see my long article online.

The structure of the conference:

The classroom will be rearranged for a conference setting

10:15 Delegation leaders each give a statement of max 500 words (3 min) to state how their delegation plans to realize its objectives in this conference. The statements are destined to ensure maximum buy-in of other delegations, and to lay a favorable basis for the ensuing negotiations. The order is: UN / Rojava / Arab civil society / Traditionalists / NGOs

10: 35 Negotiations first round: all delegates may move through the building but not leave the compound. Each delegation has a base which is outside of hearing range of each other delegation, but no one needs to stay there, although it is helpful if at least one of the delegation members stays there to allow other delegations to get in touch.

10:55 Delegations regroup at their base to discuss intermediary results and refocus the strategy. At this point they may also designate a different member as delegation head.

11:05 Negotiations second round; again each delegate may move freely to engage other delegates

11:20 Delegations regroup at their base to prepare their final statement

11:30 The delegations all return to the classroom for the final conference NO DELAYS ARE ALLOWED! The UN head of delegation (SRSG) opens the conference with a short statement, then invites other heads of delegation to present their results. The SRSG may choose the order in which the delegations speak, but the UN speaks last.

Each delegation must present the results of the negotiations that each delegation member has achieved, indicating alliances (with other delegations, or delegation members) to achieve these results. If during this speech another delegation or delegate feels misrepresented, the head (when a delegation has been mentioned) or the delegate (in case an individual has been mentioned) may call out ‘OBJECT’ – even objecting against his/her own head of delegation. No other interruption is allowed.

An objection reflects negatively on the speaker who has misrepresented the position of another, but can also reflect negatively on the objector, when it is felt he/she is being unduly uncooperative (because the point of the conference is to achieve an outcome). The SRSG must take into account the objections when presenting the final outcome of the conference.

Each head of delegation gets 5 minutes to present the results of the negotiation. The UNSRSG speaks last, indicating the outcome of the UN delegation and of the peace conference as a whole.

I will play the role of a journalist throughout the peace conference, twittering about the conference under the hashtag #RaqqaDeZRPG. I will go around collecting information from each delegation and twittering about it. My handle is rkluijver, I suggest you follow me if you have a twitter account, as you may learn some juicy information about what other delegations are doing. However I will not use my inside knowledge, as I know who the secret agents are. As a journalist, I will also give the final judgment about whether the conference was a success or not, and why.

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