Damascus’ “Democratic” Experiments: Local Councils under Government Control

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On August 23, 2011, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad passed Decree 107 in an attempt to ameliorate the growing nationwide protests against his government. Decree 107 called for the establishment of “local administrative bodies [to] manage issues at the provincial and municipal levels” in an attempt to “promote decentralisation” and “improve society at the local level.”1.2012 Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, Syrian Law Journal The decree has since formed the basis from which opposition local councils draw their legality and origins and by which reconciled towns maintain a small form of independence.2.https://isqatannizam.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/local-governance-dynamics-in-opposition-controlled-areas-in-syria/3.“Reconciliations: The Case of al-Sanamayn in North Deraa” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi While opposition local councils have been covered in great detail by many researchers – including by this author here – less focus has been directed towards the reported 56% of local councils under government control.4.https://twitter.com/AymanDas1/status/973123411328323584

According to Middle East analyst and Fellow at the Middle East Forum Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, there is no perfect parallel of the opposition local council in government territory.5.Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, Interviewed by author, 4 March 2018, email interview. Instead, the baladiya, or municipal office, “provides services like sanitation, maintenance of infrastructure like roads, [and] public beautification” while “at the larger level this is called the city council.”6.Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, Interviewed by author, 4 March 2018, email interview. Both of these bodies fall under the purview of the government’s Local Administration Ministry.7.Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, Interviewed by author, 4 March 2018, email interview. In legalising these new local councils, Damascus effectively handed limited political authority to a mix of elected and appointed local officials in large parts of Syria. But as Syria analyst Samer Araabi states in his article “Syria’s Decentralisation Roadmap,” while baladiya and city councils are able “to finance and implement local development and community support projects,” Damascus and “the centrally appointed governor maintain primary responsibility for ensuring that local efforts fall in line with national strategies.”8.“Syria’s Decentralisation Roadmap” : Carnegie Endowment

Further muddying the role and powers of local councils is the rise of militias across government-held Syria.9.“All the President’s Militias: Assad’s Militiafication of Syria” : Middle East Institute10.“Myths, Militias, and the future of Syria” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi This is particularly prevalent in the governorates of Suwayda11.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/896166426095927296 and Hama12.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/940209628020867074 and in the city of Aleppo. The complex relationship between militias, local councils, reconciled cities, and central authorities is not unlike the experiences of opposition local councils. However, this tangled tapestry is far too complex to cover in its entirety in one article. Therefore, this piece will focus on the relationships between local councils, the central government, and non-governmental organisations (NGO) in the ‘heart’ of loyalist Syria: the governorates of Hama, Latakia, and Tartous.

Crumbling infrastructure

Though opposition local councils experience little to no oversight from the Syrian Opposition Council, baladiya and city councils ultimately answer to the regional and central governments.13.Khalaf, Rana. “Governance without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building during Conflict” This federal oversight often runs one way; while Prime Minister Khamis and regional governors are quick to remove a council under the dubious charge of “corruption,” financial and logistical support for local infrastructure is regularly ignored by central authorities. There are near daily complaints on community Facebook pages of decrepit infrastructure and non-existent social services across government-held Syria, with blame directed at both local leaders and governors. While local councils are responsible for providing social services, these actions require federal funds.

Proper waste pickup and disposal appears to have disappeared from much of Syria, leaving many towns with trash-filled alleys and impromptu dumps. The Hama community of Talaat Rehktin posted in late November 2017 about one such issue due to the “helpless municipality community” – likely referring to the lack of support from the regional and central government. One Hama native currently living in Latakia commented on the post, asking why these pictures were shared when “this affects all villages in the al-Ghab Plains.”

A November 2017 post depicting trash-filled streets in Talaat Rekhtin.
A November 2017 post depicting a trash-filled field in Talaat Rekhtin.

In January 2018 the Jableh community of Ayn Shiqaq complained of more than a month of trash buildup, stating that the “municipality is only interested in the main street while farms and secondary streets lack cleanliness.” Whether the municipality is ignoring its rural areas due to corruption or simply lack of capability in not clear. Yet even in a major coastal city like Latakia, waste services appear to have ceased long ago. Another January 2018 post laments the piles of trash in the city’s Naqa’a neighbourhood, again asking the municipality to address the health hazard.

A January 2018 post from Ayn Shiqaq depicting over a month's worth of trash buildup.
A January 2018 post from Ayn Shiqaq depicting over a month’s worth of trash buildup.
A January 2018 post from the city of Latakia showing piles of trash in the Naqa'a neighbourhood.
A January 2018 post from the city of Latakia showing piles of trash in the Naqa’a neighbourhood.

Perhaps more serious is the crumbling sewage and road systems in the heart of loyalist Syria. From rural Homs to the Alawite strongholds along the coast, raw sewage threatens civilians with disease and contaminates water supplies. An October 2017 post from al-Ragama, Homs warns of the spread of diseases after its sewage system began leaking into the town’s wells and the regional government did not pump in any clean water. Residents commenting on the post further claim that the region had been enduring a Hepatitis A outbreak for more than five months, while another town northwest of al-Ragama had no new water projects and no working phone network.

An October 2017 post on a pro-government Homs page about water contamination in Ragama. Two users comment on further issues in the region.
An October 2017 post on a pro-government Homs page about water contamination in Ragama. Two users comment on further issues in the region.

A November 2017 post by residents of Jaramana, in the outskirts of Damascus, calls for the formation of a new local council after claiming the current council could not meet the town’s needs, showing pictures of raw sewage in streets. Residents claim that sewage pipes had routinely fallen into disrepair since 2012 and largely been ignored by the “Civil Service Centre.” Meanwhile, the post accuses the Jaramana Municipality of spending funds on unnecessary work repaving a road “that is not in need of such an operation.”

A November 2017 post by the Jaramana News Network depicting ongoing sewage issue in the town.
A November 2017 post by the Jaramana News Network depicting ongoing sewage issue in the town.

In the coastal town of Bustan Basha, raw sewage separates residents from their homes and the local charity association building. A July 2017 community post warns residents of the health risks in walking to the charity and requests that the municipality resolve the issue.

A July 2017 post on a pro-government FB page depicting overflowing sewage in Bustan Basha.
A July 2017 post on a pro-government FB page depicting overflowing sewage in Bustan Basha.

Raw sewage and crumbling infrastructure may seem a mundane issue in a country ravaged by seven years of war, but these issues can prove deadly. On February 4, 2018, a local fighter from Suwayda died of his injuries after falling into a septic tank. A common complaint among Syrians is the risk that open sewage and damaged roads pose to their children as they walk to and from school.

A February 2018 post on a pro-government FB page about a soldier who died falling into an open septic tank in Suwayda.
A February 2018 post on a pro-government FB page about a soldier who died falling into an open septic tank in Suwayda.

As the case of al-Ragama shows, poorly maintained sewage lines will eventually contaminate drinking water. Interestingly, nearly all of the community posts complaining of trash and sewage issues address the municipality while also blaming regional governors or central government figures. Yet as with opposition local councils, these municipalities are not capable of fixing every problem on their own. Government-controlled local councils require material and human support and funding from the federal government, yet it appears that they rarely receive it.

A façade of power

Despite the obvious lack of support for local councils from regional governments and Damascus, Assad’s hand-picked ministers and governors still hold ultimate power over local officials.14.“Syria’s Decentralisation Roadmap” : Carnegie Endowment From March to July 2017, at least nine local councils in Hama, Latakia, and Tartous were disbanded or saw their heads fired under the pretence of corruption. The main culprits, according to local news, were Assad and Prime Minister Khamis.

In early 2016, the president of the Hama city council was dismissed after being accused of accepting bribes for building permits. In March 2017 the governor of Hama, Mohammad al-Hazouri, warned the same city council to cease its “corrupt practices.” On April 24, the council was finally dissolved by presidential decree.15.“الأسد يحل مجلس مدينة حماة” : Enab Baladi One week prior, Primer Minister Khamis removed the head of Safita’s local council under charges of corruption. One month before that, the Safita city council was disbanded by presidential decree. According to analyst Vincent Beshara, six city councils were dissolved between March and April 2017.16.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/842113388163563521

Then, on July 17, four more councils were dissolved. The city council of Masyaf, Hama was dissolved by a presidential decree “based on the provisions of the Local Administration Law, Decree 107.”17.Syrian Office of the Prime Minister In the governorate of Tartous, the Hamin city council and the municipal councils of Ayn Zarqa and Maten Sahel were dissolved due to “failure to implement work plans.”18.

Further complicating matters is the process that follows the removal of a council. In the case of Masyaf, an interim council and president was appointed by the Minister of Local Administration “until elections could be held.”19.“مكتب تنفيذي مؤقت لمجلس مدينة مصياف” : al-Watan Online20.“مجلـس مدينــة مصيــاف المؤقــت بعــــد شــهرين” : Thawra SY Yet after two months, residents reported that no progress had been made on development projects and multiple violations had been committed by the interim council. The report, published by Thawra Online, accuses the Hama governorate authorities of pushing the Ministry of Local Administration to appoint an unqualified and corrupt interim council.21.“مجلـس مدينــة مصيــاف المؤقــت بعــــد شــهرين” : Thawra SY

While councils can easily be removed by central authorities, they also rely heavily on those same authorities to improve the lives of their residents. For example, when the village of Birin, Hama complained to the “Hama News Network” about poor roads and neglected infrastructure, their local council responded that they would go to the governor for redress. Councils also rely on the central government to provide sufficient funds for work projects. In November 2017, the new Tartous City Council announced that it was seeking funds for multiple improvements, including the construction of new fish and commercial markets, a new school, and multiple industrial plants. All told, the projects would cost an estimated 2.6 billion Syrian Pounds, or 5 million USD.22.“طرطوس «تفكر» بإقامة مشروعات.. ولكن!” : al-Watan Online

Local councils do not always receive the assistance they need, however. As the security situation in Jableh, Latakia continued to deteriorate this winter, the city council turned to the Minister of the Interior to help restore order. Yet despite the residents’ horrific stories of unsolved crimes such as a dismembered body, a young man killed in front of his house, and a baby found dead in an alley, the Minister reportedly refused to help.

A January 2018 FB post describing horrific murders in Jableh, Latakia, and the Ministry of Interior's refusal to help.
A January 2018 FB post describing brutal murders in Jableh, Latakia, and the Ministry of Interior’s refusal to help.

A May 2017 article by Tishreen reported on the Latakia Governorate Council’s meeting on medical supply shortages and funding gaps. The Director of Health, Dr. Amar Ghannam, stated that public hospitals in the region are short on medicine while private hospitals are not. Dr. Ghannam claimed that “state institutions” are unable to secure medicine for the public hospitals. The report also quotes the Director of Technical Services, Wael al-Jerdi, who blames the lack of government funds for the slow progress of service projects in the governorate.23.مجلس محافظة اللاذقية: نقص الأدوية وخلل في توزيع المواد الإغاثية” : Tishreen News

Outsiders step in

As Damascus’ ability to provide basic services for Syrians rapidly collapsed, local councils increasingly sought the help of outsiders. As with opposition-run local councils, baladiya and city councils have increasingly relied on the United Nations, NGOs, and foreign sponsors in order to provide basic needs to their citizens.

United Nations organisations both fund development projects and operate on the ground in Syria. In June 2017, UNICEF agreed to fund a 510 million SYP water improvement project in Masyaf that would build a 5,000 cubic meter water tank and three wells. While the Governorate Council of Hama negotiated the project, it ultimately falls under the guidance of Governor Hazouri.24.“محافظة حماة: اليونيسيف قدمت 500 مليون لمشروع مياه في مصياف” : Enab Baladi

According to the 2016 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Syria report, 90 of the organisation’s 199 aid projects were carried out in the government-controlled governorates of Homs, Hama, Latakia, and Tartous.25.UNDP Syria: Annual Report, 2016 Among the most important work the UNDP carries out is filling in the services gap left behind by a weakened Damascus. Chief among these is waste cleanup and sanitation. In 2016, the UNDP repaired 379km of water networks, 21km of sewage networks, and 52 wells while removing 211,565 tons of solid waste and cleaning 190 neighbourhoods.26.UNDP Syria: Annual Report, 2016

In one example, a ten month UNDP project provided 27 vehicles, 10 garbage containers, and tractors to the city of Masyaf for city repairs and trash cleanup. The “employment contract” ran from June 2016 to April 2017 and employed 150 locals. The project was coordinated between the UNDP director in Hama, the Board of Directors of Masyaf Charity Association, the City Council of Masyaf, and the Environment Office in Masyaf. Notably absent is any mention of the central government, indicating that local councils wield the authority to deal directly with charities and NGOs to provide basic services.

Post summarising the UNDP cleanup program in Masyaf, Hama, run in conjunction with the local council.
Post summarising the UNDP cleanup program in Masyaf, Hama, run in conjunction with the local council.

In July 2017, the UNDP launched a sanitation program in the coastal cities of Latakia, Jableh, and Kasseb. The program employs an estimated 450 locals and provides street cleaning, waste bins, and garbage trucks for the cities.

Local FB page announces the start of a UNDP sanitation program in Latakia, Jableh, and Kasseb.
Local FB page announces the start of a UNDP sanitation program in Latakia, Jableh, and Kasseb.

Both the UNDP and local councils also work closely with a variety of NGOs. The Aga Khan Foundation, an Ismailli Shia global NGO, reportedly held a “cooperation agreement” with the Masyaf local council until early 2017 to fund economic development projects in the area.27.http://www.akdn.org/about-us/his-highness-aga-khan28.“مجلس مدينة مصياف يطالب بإعادة تأهيل المخطط التنظيمي وإقامة مشاريع تنموية” : SANA In the Christian towns of Suqaylabiyah and Mahradah, the French far-right Christian NGO “SOS Chrétiens d’Orient” works with the local council and National Defence Forces (NDF) to provide food packages, educations, and medical care.29.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/94021324939142348830.SOS Chretiens d’Orient official site

Members of the French far-right Christian NGO SOS Chrétiens d'Orient pose with NDF fighters from Mahradah.
Members of the French far-right Christian NGO SOS Chrétiens d’Orient pose with NDF fighters from Mahradah.

The Christian enclaves north of Hama also present a unique example of government-controlled communities seeking additional support from a foreign country to fill budgetary and administrative gaps. As profiled by Stanimir Dobrev, Suqaylabiyah and Mahradah, the two largest Christian cities in Syria, have built deep ties with Russia since at least 2016.31.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/940209628020867074 The financial and political capital leveraged through this connection and the crucial role the towns play along a major front-line has propelled their militias from low-tier NDF battalions to powerful fighting units. Dobrev has tracked a steady rise in prestigious meetings with Russian officers and awards ceremonies for local commanders. Central to this relationship appears to be the shared religion, as evidenced by the prominent display of religious symbols during meetings and the numerous Russian Orthodox combat priests present in the towns.

NDF commander in Suqaylabiyah, Nabel Abdulah, meets with a Russian army captain holding a picture of Jesus Christ.
NDF commander in Suqaylabiyah, Nabel Abdulah, meets with a Russian army captain holding a picture of Jesus Christ.

Yet as with much of Syria, Russia’s involvement in these towns has not protected them from Damascus. During the summer of 2017, Governor Hazouri and Prime Minister Khamis removed the Mahradah local council under charges of “corruption.”

A permanent reality

United Nations aid organisations and similar NGOs have essentially prevented the total collapse of basic state functions in Syria. While Damascus continues to exert arbitrary control over local councils, its legitimacy as a governing body has been weakened by its inability to provide for Syrian loyalists. Pro-government Syrians may not openly direct anger towards the al-Assad family, but Facebook posts and comments reveal widespread disdain for regional and central authorities. The experience of Masyaf residents under the interim local council further casts doubts on Damascus’ ability to effectively utilise the local council model: centrally appointed local leadership appears to run afoul of Syrians’ desires for elected officials.

Even towns that hold prominent roles in the defence of the Assad government have neither escaped Damascus’ wrath nor benefited from their positions of prestige. Masyaf, the economic and social heart of the now-famous Air Intelligence-affiliated Tiger Forces, hosted both Governor Hazouri and Prime Minister Khamis as they discussed new development projects just two months before its local council was removed by presidential decree.32.“مجلس مدينة مصياف يطالب بإعادة تأهيل المخطط التنظيمي وإقامة مشاريع تنموية” : SANA As profiled here and above, the crucial coastal governorates of Latakia and Tartous suffer from crumbling infrastructure and low funding. Complaints about these issues, even if directed towards the appropriate ministries, have gone mostly unheeded.

As the Syrian government recaptures more towns and cities from opposition groups, it must reconcile with the fact that most Syrians have lived the past years under limited self-governance. Assad’s staunch ally, Russia, accepted this reality in January 2017 when it incorporated local administrations into its draft Syrian constitution. Now Assad must decide if he will allow local councils to flourish, or remain under the heel of Damascus.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only 13% of local councils exist under government control. This has been updated to 56% thanks to new information provided by Ayman Al-Das, a local councils research at Omran Center for Strategic Studies.

References   [ + ]

1.2012 Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, Syrian Law Journal
2.https://isqatannizam.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/local-governance-dynamics-in-opposition-controlled-areas-in-syria/
3.“Reconciliations: The Case of al-Sanamayn in North Deraa” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi
4.https://twitter.com/AymanDas1/status/973123411328323584
5, 6, 7.Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, Interviewed by author, 4 March 2018, email interview.
8, 14.“Syria’s Decentralisation Roadmap” : Carnegie Endowment
9.“All the President’s Militias: Assad’s Militiafication of Syria” : Middle East Institute
10.“Myths, Militias, and the future of Syria” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi
11.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/896166426095927296
12, 31.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/940209628020867074
13.Khalaf, Rana. “Governance without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building during Conflict”
15.“الأسد يحل مجلس مدينة حماة” : Enab Baladi
16.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/842113388163563521
17.Syrian Office of the Prime Minister
18.
19.“مكتب تنفيذي مؤقت لمجلس مدينة مصياف” : al-Watan Online
20, 21.“مجلـس مدينــة مصيــاف المؤقــت بعــــد شــهرين” : Thawra SY
22.“طرطوس «تفكر» بإقامة مشروعات.. ولكن!” : al-Watan Online
23.مجلس محافظة اللاذقية: نقص الأدوية وخلل في توزيع المواد الإغاثية” : Tishreen News
24.“محافظة حماة: اليونيسيف قدمت 500 مليون لمشروع مياه في مصياف” : Enab Baladi
25, 26.UNDP Syria: Annual Report, 2016
27.http://www.akdn.org/about-us/his-highness-aga-khan
28, 32.“مجلس مدينة مصياف يطالب بإعادة تأهيل المخطط التنظيمي وإقامة مشاريع تنموية” : SANA
29.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/940213249391423488
30.SOS Chretiens d’Orient official site

Gregory Waters

Gregory Waters is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on tracking loyalist-reported government losses in the Syrian Civil War. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

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