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Described by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NSC) as ‘an alternative to the absent civilian government in areas under regime control or recently freed since the councils are run by the people living in the area’, Syria’s local councils represent several realities depending on the groups involved in the area they manage.
In areas no longer controlled by the Syrian regime, three types of authorities have emerged since the beginning of the civil war in 2011: the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Kurdish-dominated areas, revolutionary councils (RCs), and local administrative councils (LACs). Local councils are described by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a research institute based in Istanbul, Turkey as ‘one of the main products of the Syrian revolution since it expresses the change in the relationship with the capital on the one hand and a tool for managing the transitional phase on the other’. At the same time, RCs are dedicated to increasing the coordination and unity between 72 rebel factions in Syria.
In July 2016, the research institute published the results of a survey of 105 local councils in Damascus, rural Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa, Quneitra, Homs, Hama, and Latakia provinces, with a focus on the nature of the role that local councils play in areas under the control of nationalistic opposition forces specifically, on the assumption that local councils are a key source of stability during the current crisis and will continue to be in a future transitional phase. The survey found, among others, that:
Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, authors of the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, were interviewed by the international solidarity association Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières (ESSF). In the interview, al-Shami said, “Now basic administrative units are functioning there, so they [LACs] are responsible for the provision of all social services, and they’re responsible for water supplies, electricity supplies.” She added: “They often work with external donors to distribute humanitarian aid or aid which they’ve collected from the local community. They’re providing support to the makeshift hospitals, makeshift education facilities. In some areas, they’ve also been responsible for growing and distributing food, specifically in communities that have been under siege, such as Darayya. And in Darayya they’ve set up a fantastic local library, and they also have legal services. They also sometimes operate security services or community police forces. It depends on their size and capacity.”
Yet surviving in this situation is not easy, and access to financial resources can be a real issue. In an article published by the independent digital media platform Syria Deeply in July 2015, Mustafa, a local council member in Idlib, said, “We don’t have enough money to pay our members and employees, which will eventually lead them to quit and look for another source of income. Our funders are partly responsible for this situation, too. They only cover the cost of the projects themselves without taking into consideration the daily expenses and operating costs that we need in order to finish the projects.” Local councils do not collect taxes, so they depend entirely on their sponsors, often international aid organizations but also wealthy local families.
In Idlib, which has been under the control of the Jaish al-Fatah Islamist rebel coalition since 2015, all the institutions related to the regime have been dismantled or destroyed. In their place, municipal councils manage the localities and in Idlib itself, Jaish al-Fatah has established a civilian service administration under a council of armed factions as an alternative to local councils.
Sam Heller, a non-resident fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, wrote in an article on the topic that ‘these bodies with links to armed groups have aimed at either rationalizing Idlib’s governance and services sector or magnifying their respective factional backers’ influence on the ground, [but] none have been perfectly successful, in part because of the impossibility of restoring normal civic life under periodic, indiscriminate aerial bombing, and these bodies’ own limited resources and capacity’.
Referring to the 144 local councils in Idlib province, Heller explained, ‘Much of local councils’ importance hinges on their relationships with munazzamat (organizations), a catch-all term that includes everything from development contractors to international NGOs. Although some donors that still recognize the Syrian state in Damascus prefer to work with local NGOs and relief associations instead of local councils that operate in defiance of Assad regime authority, most relief organizations and charities have designated the councils their go-to civilian partner at the local level.’
A different situation is seen in East Ghouta, an area controlled by Jaish al-Islam, where local councils have also been established, as well as provincial councils, a general commission, and a general authority of judges. Dealing with armed factions is not always easy for civilians trying to organize and help their society. “Jaish al-Islam has arrested many civilian leaders on many occasions and has also threatened to kill or arrest them just to be the only leader in East Ghouta,” Youssef Sadaki, a research assistant at the Orient Research Centre in Dubai, told Fanack. “They worked hard to weaken any civilian institution and are always trying to have related people in these institutions.” There, too, people do not pay taxes but contribute to basic services such as bread making by paying a small fee.
A study by Swiss Peace, a practice-oriented peace research institute, on the experience of LACs from four cities, Daret Ezzeh, Maaret Numan, Zamalka, Kafr Takharim, and Nawa, showed that despite global appreciation from citizens benefiting from LACs services, several criticisms were made. ‘Respondents were quite critical of the LACs, for instance in terms of institutional capacity, nepotism, and the lack of or inconsistent and unreliable funding. Moreover, citizens in most case study areas did not feel that they are adequately consulted, and women and other groups are, for the most part, not included in the LACs. Respondents also complained about the unfair distribution of services and relief, and they feel that aid and services are more shaped by donor priorities than actual needs and realities on the ground,’ the study found.
However, a citizen from Deir al-Asafir, a neighbourhood of Eastern Ghouta, who asked to be called Bassam Ezzedeen, was quite positive about local councils, which he described as “the building blocks of community building”. He added: “They are the executing and active bodies in society. As a citizen living in Ghouta, I see that the civil administration is the best to take over. The building of the local councils has a great acknowledgment in my life and influences the lives of everyone today.” He believes that this organization could help to build a better Syria in the future. “Political decisions must serve the people, so they must be expressed and must be issued from them or their representatives. Local councils are the best model of popular representation in villages, small towns, neighbourhoods, and suburbs for the concerns, problems, and desires of the common man. The local council is the closest to the concerns of the people and most directly related to them, so the relationship between the council and the public must be sound and non-corrupt.”
More than an experiment, these local councils and their different models of governance could be pivotal in the post-war reconstruction process. Additionally, Russia’s increasing recognition of the value of local councils could help promote a dialogue between all the parties involved in the conflict.