• Analysis
  • December 9, 2015
  • 15 minutes
  • 0

In Syria’s self-proclaimed ‘free areas’, local councils are building democracy

The US has given $100m to support councils in areas out of Assad or ISIS control

syria chaos

Thousands of feet below the bombers in the Syrian sky, a race is already on to assert and build irreconcilable versions of the country’s future.

In self-proclaimed ‘free areas of Syria’, held neither by ISIS nor the Assad regime and left in chaos by the disintegration of the state, local councils have formed to provide essential services like water, electricity, healthcare and schooling.

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They constitute government emerging out of a political vacuum and they are in intense competition with Assad and ISIS to construct a functioning state. As each faction tries to create the Syria it wants, the local councils are the people building the version that is neither an authoritarian regime nor a fundamentalist Islamic State. They have even already, albeit only in some places and with many imperfections, institutionalised democracy.

Anyone who will give you a safe shelter, you will go there

The services they attempt to provide in the midst of war are not only vital in and of themselves, but their very existence is a challenge to the authority of ISIS and Assad. That is because, after four years of war, the Syrians’ need simply to go somewhere – anywhere – stable and livable is ever more urgent. As one council member told Apolitical, ‘Anyone who will give you a safe shelter, you will go there.’

To meet this need, Syrians have stark options. The first is to leave their country and attempt the deadly crossings to Europe. But within the country even ISIS, despite its atrocities, is offering an alternative of sorts. In Raqqa, for example, they have a Consumer Protection Office. They run relief kitchens, fix potholes and repair electricity supplies. They are said to have built an ice-cream factory, to create jobs.

So to many, the councils, targeted both by ISIS and Assad’s government, offer the best option, however fragile. As well as keeping people alive, they also keep them where they are. They see themselves as laying the foundations for a prosperous, democratic future and while the odds are against them, they can also draw strength from ISIS’s enmity. One of the councillors was proud to say, ‘We are second on ISIS’s hate list behind the US coalition.’

Life on the ground

Although there are around 200 local councils in free areas and they are highly diverse, many of the most pressing concerns are the same: water, healthcare, schools.

Their ability to address these concerns is made possible by members like Ossama (who wanted his surname omitted to protect his family). He told Apolitical: ‘Most of our schools are damaged, partially or totally, due to the continuous bombing in the last year. Most of the schools have lost their windows, and there are no doors. In every school and in every house now, there are no windows.’

A bombed school in Deraa. On the board are grammar exercises that begin: he is a talented musician; she is a talented musician

A bombed school in Deraa. On the board are grammar exercises: he is a talented musician; she is a talented musician

Ossama is one of 40 council members for Deraa, in the south of the country, an area estimated to contain between 800,000 and a million people. A civil engineer, he carries out structural surveys as a first step to one day carrying out repairs. ‘I have visited many schools in the last month. On cold days, the students don’t come to the school. The communities, you know, they are trying, to put up tarpaulin sheets or something to keep out the cold. I don’t know in January how it will run, because there is no diesel for heat. But the people are trying to get their children to the schools, because they are the only hope in the coming days.’

After years of war, all the infrastructure – power plants, water treatment centres – is  degrading. Deraa has lost three quarters of its water supply because there is no electricity to run the wells. Those that do run are powered by diesel, which has to be smuggled in at a high cost. The dearth of water means not enough can be spared to irrigate fields, and so less food – wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, olives, grapes – can be grown.

Ossama himself describes running out of basic foodstuffs: ‘When the revolution started I had some savings. They ran out two years ago. Last year it was very difficult. Some days I didn’t have money to buy milk for my baby. We managed, I don’t know how. I was giving my child rice-water.’

The difficult birth of democracy

Because these local administrations like that in Deraa emerged ad hoc when public services broke down after the revolution, there is a need for them to establish their legitimacy.

Mazen Gharibah, from the Local Administration Councils Unit, LACU – spun out of the Syrian opposition government to become an NGO that now works on their behalf from headquarters in Turkey – told Apolitical, ‘We define legitimacy based on three criteria: service delivery, accountability and transparency. So we have a political empowerment programme. What we’re basically trying to achieve is – local councils are not just responsible for services, they’re also the milestones that any new government in Syria will be built upon. So we’re working with them on the fundamentals of local government, anti-corruption conflict resolution, political negotiations.’

The gold standard for establishing legitimacy, of course, is through elections, and this year all councils at the provincial level have been elected. That does not mean, however, that a rigorous democratic system is in place, especially because before the revolution Syria had not had elections for decades. Smaller places choose representatives ‘by consensus’ to form a general assembly. These assemblies then elect the provincial councils from among their number.

Ossama, for example, is a representative from a rural area called Lajat, in the north of Deraa province.

A school in Deraa, surveyed by Ossama

A school in Deraa, surveyed by Ossama

Many of these ground-level groups, now emerging as the provincial councils, were formed by activists, who assumed that the situation would be temporary and the revolution soon won. Mazen Gharibah, who was one of those, said, ‘Back then we didn’t expect that it would take that long. I remember that I told my friends; one semester and then we’ll celebrate the new Syria. But that was four years ago.’

Gharibah, who is 30, was imprisoned by the regime and then fled the country. Not expecting to be away for long, he ended up in the Czech Republic, studying for a doctorate. When he heard that LACU was short of staff, he and several others decided to come back and work from Gazientep, putting his studies on hold.

For someone forced out of the country, he says, there are two possibilities: try to start a new life somewhere else, or come back and try to rebuild. His doctorate was in software engineering, specialising in cryptography and internet security. He said of his position at LACU: ‘It’s really not my field, this work. But someone has to do it.’

The problem with rebuilding

There is also an urgent and unresolved need for external legitimacy and funding, because the repairs recommended by Ossama’s surveys require money. Although some councils, such as in Deraa and Idlib, try to collect taxes, with many destitute and no enforcement these do not go far. So the potential of help from abroad is presently far greater.

A month ago, the USA announced a contribution of $100million to support ‘local and provincial councils, civil society activists, emergency first responders and others to meet the needs of the Syrian people’. The trouble is getting it to them. Deraa Provisional Council is affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government, which is not internationally recognised, has not been able to register as an NGO and so has no legal status. That means it is not able to open a bank account in a way that would meet accountability requirements.

The fear for the US State Department – and the reason is doesn’t send bags of cash – is that the money will end up in the hands of the very people it opposes. The outrage if an ISIS commander were to be photographed counting greenbacks out of a State Department envelope is deemed too great a risk.

Instead, aid tends to be delivered in the form of training and objects, such as computers and printers. Not everything needs to be brought in from outside, nor, on the scale of infrastructure projects, could it be. One former State Department official who still works in the field explained to Apolitical, ‘Plant machinery is pretty tough to move into the country at this point. But if it were a part or a generator, then sure. A lot of times, you’re talking about things that are damaged; it’s not like they never existed.

‘So maybe you’re talking about a part or a replacement component and then stuff like concrete and wood, and those things can be procured internally. A lot of it was laying concrete or replacing a pump. That’s not trivial, but it’s not a factory. You’re talking about something that fits in a truck.’

But even simple parts are hard to come by and Ossama has little hope that many of his structural surveys will actually result in repairs.

The shape of things to come

Whether these local councils will ever be the foundations on which, as Gharibah hopes, a democratic Syria is built, remains to be seen.

The UN estimates that three million people have fled the country. Gharibah is in exile in Gazientep. Ossama, his wife, his two boys under the age of four and their extended family all live in one room.

He told Apolitical: ‘Many people [worldwide] now are looking to Syria, and mostly they see ISIS. But there are bigger issues than ISIS. The killing is continuous, the misery in which we live is continuous, and it was from this situation that ISIS was created. They are making a remedy for the result, but no one is making a remedy for the actual reason. You know, Syria was a stable country, a fine country. There was a dictatorship, many abuses, but there was not this killing. And winter is coming; it will be hard for our people.’

But hope, the will to organise, to rebuild, and not to yield to despair, lives on. He said, ‘We are hoping to make a government system. Maybe there will not be the success that we hope, but we are trying to make the first steps. It is better than living with no rules at all, no authority at all. Now, if there is an issue, some problem, there is a place the people can go, sit together, discuss together and find a solution.’

(Picture credit:Flickr/Juan Llanos)


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