Three objectives must be achieved for the success of the Syrian revolution: central control and coordination of the rebel forces, the development of the institutions of civil government in the rebel-held territories, and the defeat of Assad. There is little foreign governments can do to assist the Syrian National Coalition, the internationally recognized representative of the Syrian revolution, in achieving the first objective, and there is a deep-seated reluctance in countries sympathetic to the revolution to go beyond the supply of weapons in the effort to unseat Assad. But there is a good deal that can be done to help develop and sustain the institutions of administration and governance.
Joseph Hamoud, the founder of the advocacy organisation Syrian Opposition in Denmark, spent several weeks with the rebels in May on a fact-finding mission. The forms of governance emerging in the rebel-held areas particularly intrigued Hamoud. They go by the name of Local Councils, and it is these municipal and regional governments that are responsible for local civil institutions, not the revolutionary Syrian National Coalition.
Hamoud interviewed Monzer al Sallal, an official with the Local Council of Manbij, a town in the Aleppo Governorate about 40 kilometers from the border with Turkey. Hamoud learned that the Local Council of Manbij has successfully set up medical, legal, financial and political offices along with a small police force in the region—the basic structures of a viable civil society. Mr. al Sallal explained that the Local Councils began as “coordination committees” set up to hand out leaflets and organize demonstrations against the Assad government. As the revolution progressed and civil society deteriorated, the committee took on responsibility for local institutions, fixing the damaged power grid and dealing with sewage and garbage disposal problems.
From there, the committee took on a more permanent presence when it restructured as a Local Council, taking on all the responsibilities of municipal government. One of the peculiarities of the Manbij Local Council is that it has maintained links with the Assad regime, enabling it to negotiate the safe passage of goods through Manbij to regime territory and through regime territory to Manbij.
To fund its operations, the Manbij Local Council levies a tax on bread—the only tax it imposes and its sole source of finance—but this does not go far. As Mr. al Sallal explained, the Council desperately needs help. The cost of baking supplies is tied to the ever-increasing price of diesel, meaning the margin by which the Local Council can tax the bread is decreasing and their funds are dwindling. Therefore, first and foremost, the Council needs financial aid. For its operations to be effective, they need the resources to pay workers and buy materials.
Medical equipment and medicine are particularly in short supply, and medical emergencies frequent. Every so often the regime bombs critical infrastructure like hospitals and water supplies. The sheer number of people maimed and wounded in these attacks is far beyond the capacity of the local medical facilities to deal with, and many die as a result. Respirators, for example, are urgently needed to keep people breathing long enough to give physicians a chance to save their lives. Medical resources are high on the Local Council’s list of needs.
Mr. al Sallal told Hamoud that the Manbij Local Council receives some aid from the Syrian National Coalition, but the SNC is notoriously bad at handling the donations and aid it receives. A substantial portion of the funds is soaked up in bureaucratic expenditures, while supplies of food and medicine often end up in the wrong hands to be sold in local markets instead of reaching the people who most need help. The immediate solution to this problem is for foreign donors to send aid directly to the Local Councils, by-passing the SNC.
What else can foreign governments do to help? Denmark is starting a Civil Society Training Centre in Turkey, designed to act as a hub for NGOs to come together to assist Syrians in developing the sorts of social, economic and political institutions that will form the backbone of a new Syria.
Civil society actors from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, occupations and community services, including educationalists, lawyers and judges, public officials, environmentalists, and medical administrators will receive training and resources at the Centre and return to Syria to implement what they have learned. As the project progresses, the Danes plan to relocate the programme to Syria, offering its training and resources within the communities it is trying to help. This programme should be the model for aid, and its efforts should be directed around the Local Councils, training people and providing the resources that fit into the infrastructure the Local Councils have already built.
Political considerations make conventional military intervention impossible at present, especially within the constraints of the UN and NATO. Instead, it has fallen to the countries of the world to act independently of these organizations. But this does not mean they must act unilaterally. The countries of the world should come together and coordinate their efforts, directing resources into the hands of designated Local Councils. The development of civil institutions in the towns and regions will go far to establish order in the rebel-held territories and, if or when the Assad regime is deposed, will be a vital building block in the making of a new Syria.