The Promise of Local Councils: A Future for Syrians, by Syrians

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The Syrian government has not controlled large swathes of the country for nearly six years. In its absence, individuals have sought to provide basic needs and stability to their communities by creating ‘local councils’. Local councils mostly exist in rural towns, but have also formed around neighbourhoods, in cities, and at the governorate level. Estimates for the number of local councils in Syria vary from 416 in late 20151.With Authorities Gone, Local Councils Take Charge in Syria : VOA News to 427 in early 20162.The Political Role of Local Councils in Syria – Survey results : Omran Centre for Strategic Studies to 404 following3.Why Moscow now sees value in Syrian local councils : Al-Monitor the fall of Aleppo. According to a 2016 survey4.The Political Role of Local Councils in Syria – Survey results : Omran Centre for Strategic Studies by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies of 105 local councils in opposition held territory, 57% of local councils were formed through consensus and 38% were formed through elections, with the lack of security and legal expertise cited as the major reasons why more elections were not held. This claim is supported by other5.The Indicator of Needs for the Local Councils of Syria [PDF] : LACU report, Norwegian People’s Aid Organisation (NPA) surveys6.Syria’s local councils, not Assad, are the answer to Isis : Guardian as well. The majority of these councils were created in 2012 and 2013 and go through restructuring on average once a year.7.The Indicator of Needs for the Local Councils of Syria [PDF] : LACU report, Norwegian People’s Aid Organisation (NPA)

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These experiments in self-governance represent a crucial turning point in Syria. For the first time, Syrians are forming and testing local civic structures by using elections and consensus in order to govern themselves and distribute aid. Most8.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies local councils focus9.The Political Role of Local Councils in Syria – Survey results : Omran Centre for Strategic Studies on filling the administrative gap left in liberated areas, with less emphasis placed on playing a political role in their communities. Any future Syrian government must be built to incorporate these local councils, which have effectively decentralized the administrative structure of the state.

Rooted in Law

Bashar al Assad legalized local councils as part his reform package in the beginning of the revolution. Decree 107, promulgated on August 23, 2011,10.2012 Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic called for the establishment of “local administrative bodies [to] manage issues at the provincial and municipal levels” in an attempt to “promote decentralization” and “improve society at the local level.” The Syrian Interim Government (SIG) has adopted11.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier Decree 107 – removing all articles referring to Assad’s government – as a template for local councils in rebel-held territory moving forward. The legality of local councils under the Syrian government explains why 13% of councils12.The Indicator of Needs for the Local Councils of Syria [PDF] : LACU report, Norwegian People’s Aid Organisation (NPA) exist in either disputed or regime controlled territory.

Despite the legality and existence of local councils within government-held territory, the Syrian and Russian Air forces have relentlessly13.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies targeted14.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier successful opposition-run councils. Assad views successful councils as a threat15.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier to his legitimacy16.Syria’s local councils, not Assad, are the answer to Isis : Guardian and has destroyed17.Why Moscow now sees value in Syrian local councils : Al-Monitor crucial civilian infrastructure and means of production in these cities in order to delegitimize the council leaders.

The Funding Struggle

Funding and support of local councils has fluctuated since they first arose in 2012. Initially, western countries and wealthy Syrian expatriates helped fund their social programs. However, when the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) was formed in November 2012, monetary aid was redirected18.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies through its operating units in an attempt to legitimize the organization. By the end of 2013 it was clear that the SOC would not live up to international expectations, and foreign aid was once again directly funneled to local councils. But with the rise of ISIS in mid-2014, donor countries again shifted their focus and money away19.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies from local councils and towards20.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier anti-ISIS operations.

NGO’s soon began to fill the void left by donor countries, working closely with local councils to coordinate the distribution of aid and the funding of infrastructure projects. The local council in East Aleppo worked closely with the Syrian American Medical Society in order to obtain necessary medical supplies and expertise. Local governance expert Agnes Favier cites21.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier the “health and civil defense emergencies in April 2015” in Idlib city as a prime example of when NGOs, local and provisional councils, the Health Directorate, and Civil Defense Directorate were able to effectively work together to address the crisis caused by the regime’s concerted effort to destroy all public infrastructure in the city. UNHCR works alongside22.UNHCR Syria End of Year Report 2015 [PDF] : UNHCR local organizations and local NGOs in 12 governorates (excluding Deir ez Zor and Raqqa) providing funding for projects, coordinating on the distribution of basic necessities, and creating 30 community centers in 2015.

Contentious relationships

While NGOs and local councils have learned to cooperate, the relationship between local and provisional councils and the SOC is fraught with tension. The Qatari backed SOC representatives and the Muslim Brotherhood supported23.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier local councils, while Saudi Arabian backed24.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies groups were more reluctant. The various offices established by the SOC throughout 2012 and 2013 to assist local councils have done little but engage in petty politics25.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies against one another at the behest of these respective backers. Furthermore, all of the local council representatives in the SOC “lost their positions in their respective governorates following new elections after 2013” yet retain their seats to this day.26.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier Thus, local and provisional councils no longer have official representation at the international level and have effectively been excluded from the Riyadh Conference and Geneva II and III due to their absence from the SOC.

The relationship between local councils and armed groups, however, is as diverse as the opposition. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has largely left local councils to govern unimpeded and, particularly in Aleppo city and Saraqib, have protected27.Why Moscow now sees value in Syrian local councils : Al-Monitor local councils and their communities from “criminal elements, predatory bands and extremist groups.”28.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier In one example provided to this author during an interview, a member of the medical wing of the East Aleppo Local Council described how, while driving through the city, she would be stopped by men from radical Islamist groups demanding she cease driving or be arrested for violating their Sharia laws. Yet they never followed through on their threats due the presence of strong FSA units in the city who supported the local council and its members.

Elsewhere, more hardline organizations like the former Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham, and Nouri al Din al Zenki have established their own governing bodies and at times work within the confines of local councils, electing their own representatives to serve on them. The Shura Councils developed by Islamist organizations compete29.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies with local councils in providing bread, police, and court systems. Opposition governing bodies, such as Jabhat al Nusra’s ‘Public Services Administration’ and Ahrar al Sham’s ‘Civil Islamic Commission for the administration of the Liberated Areas,’ operate underneath the overall command of opposition groups and represent an alternative to local councils.30.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier However, these governing bodies do not exist in all of the territory controlled by these groups: in some areas, popular dissent has been strong enough to ensure the continued existence of local councils.

The regime has responded to the rise in self-governance with two31.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier tactics: undermining the legitimacy of local councils by continuing to pay the salaries of any public servant not serving on a local council, and bombing local councils and public facilities “in cities in which the local councils were considered the most successful.” Both ISIS and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have pursued a similar tactic, disbanding local councils in favor of new governing bodies staffed with their own supporters. Favier provides two such examples32.Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria : Agnes Favier: Manbij, where members of the local council either fled or were arrested by ISIS, and Tel Abyad, where the YPG “have prevented former local council members from returning home…and have established alternative governing structures.”

The Fight for Legitimacy

Due to their lack of consistent funding and the challenges posed by other factions in the war, local councils have struggled33.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies to provide for their communities. In the previously rebel held areas of East Aleppo, the local council provided free medical services to orphans. However, as money became increasingly scarce, this program had to be shut down. In fact, according to a survey34.The Indicator of Needs for the Local Councils of Syria [PDF] : LACU report, Norwegian People’s Aid Organisation (NPA) by the Local Administration Councils Union and the Norwegian People’s Aid Organization, more than half of donor supported projects have been terminated due to lack of funding.

Yet there are also stories of success, especially in the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo: local councils gathering and rationing bread,35.Fighting Shortages, Syrian Civilians Take Reins in Rebel Areas : NYT providing schooling for children and neutral judiciary bodies for communities,36.The self-government revolution that’s happening under the radar in Syria : Washington Post creating effective civil defense forces, and coordinating with local armed groups.37.Governance without Government in Syria — Civil Society and State Building during Conflict [PDF] : Syria Studies When local councils are not strong armed by other actors and have at least some form of income, they can effectively serve as administrative and legal bodies for communities otherwise lacking any form of governance. Furthermore, because local councils are staffed by locals who are largely chosen through consensus, they are inherently legitimate governing bodies. Even the Russian government has begun to recognize this fact, incorporating local councils into their January 2017 draft constitution.38.Why Moscow now sees value in Syrian local councils : Al-Monitor

Local Councils represent a hopeful future for Syrians, but they must receive increased and consistent support from the outside world. Governing legitimacy is built upon realities: whoever can provide food, security, and basic comforts will achieve at least the overt support of the people. All parties in this war have made concerted efforts to delegitimize local councils by removing their ability to provide these basic needs, whether through bombing campaigns, the seizure and redistribution of food, or forcefully removing council members from their towns. Only with increased monetary and technical support from the international community can local councils secure their legitimacy as administrative bodies, providing a local, Syrian alternative to Islamism and authoritarian rule.

Gregory Waters

Gregory Waters is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on mapping Syrian militia unit structures. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

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