The emergence of civilian-led local administration councils across Syria is one bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture. Where regime forces have withdrawn, networks of citizens have organised to take over the role of local government, providing basic services, humanitarian relief, and justice courts. Crucially, they also coordinate with local military battalions and FSA representation on council committees is common. With over 50 councils thought to exist in Idlib governorate alone, they are now a major component of the conflict. Understanding their role with other military and non-military actors, and how they might be better supported, is crucial to any current intervention whether humanitarian, political or military.
The model of local administration councils emerged in late 2011 in Al-Zabadani, rural Damascus, where a protracted localised conflict necessitated coordination between civilians and armed groups. Characterised as civilian-led bodies with military representation, councils include activists, local leaders and citizens with aspirations to form a legitimate form of government through local elections. Throughout the country councils are at various states of development, depending on security, access routes to border areas and the length of time since ‘liberation’. Unsurprisingly, councils in Idlib in the north are more advanced and organised than those in and around Damascus where they face constant conflict and lack of a close and porous border.
The challenges facing councils are huge. In liberated areas the on-going security threat from the sky - scuds and jets - inhibits local elections and intra-council cooperation. Funding is limited or non-existent (although some foreign governments are beginning to engage) and well-resourced armed groups with charitable arms are often better placed to serve local needs. In many respects they mirror the origins of the uprising perfectly – locally led, unconnected networks and no central command structure. Their fragmentation makes them difficult to deal with and almost impossible to eliminate.
Supporting councils to become a viable form of local governance is crucial for multiple reasons. In the short-term, humanitarian support will be better coordinated by locals who can also assure security through connections with rebel groups. And building the capacity and resources of local councils will also provide a way to channel funding to kick-start local economies and support reconstruction.
Local administration councils also provide a necessary connection to the ground for the opposition in waiting, the National Coalition. Plagued as it is with internal disagreement – though little different could be said of the international community – the coalition needs support from the councils for it to become legitimate in the eyes of the people. The only way to earn this is through cash, resources and well-targeted political support. In short, they both need each other in equal measure.
Mediation is a role councils are increasingly playing between armed groups and civilians. When the Islamist military group Ahrar Al-Shams appropriated fuel oil from an abandoned NGO compound and then sold it at high prices on the local market, the residents of Saraqib went out in protest. The local administration council of Saraqib was able to mediate between the two groups, securing a lower price for fuel and resolving the dispute peacefully. As resources become increasingly scarce the mediation role of councils will become more critical.
The long-term future of Syria may also rest on the strength of local councils. The stark reality is that Syria has already fragmented into fiefdoms, each delineated and controlled by armed groups. Should Damascus and Assad fall, the victorious battalion that claims to liberate Syria will be celebrated, but the hundreds of other battalions around the country will not view them with any greater legitimacy to rule them, than they have to rule Damascus. The risk of further conflict post-Assad remains high; the formation of a national governance structure, wedded from councils around the country, could provide representatives to a national assembly soon after liberation. From this assembly a government could be elected; a better option than installing a transitional government from outside with no mandate to rule.
Foreign governments willing to support civilian councils face several problems. The councils depend upon military battalions for their security and ability to operate. While foreign governments are willing to fund councils they are not willing to fund the battalions. The councils have long realised they must coordinate with armed groups and so too must the foreign governments. Putting a stack of cash on the table and getting a civil-military council to agree on how to spend it is surely the best way of getting an area on its feet securely. Governments and aid agencies need to learn how to talk the little guys, and this includes the armed groups.
There is also the question of eliminating the threat from the air. Moaz Al-Khatib stated in his impassioned speech to the Arab League on March 26 that he had asked US Secretary of State John Kerry to extend a Patriot missile defence umbrella over northern Syria. With the threat of air attacks it is impossible for Syrians to begin rebuilding local communities. Agriculture, industry and basic services are all under constant threat. NATO and other foreign governments have averted eyes on this for too long.
Administration councils represent the strongest form of a citizen-led movement out of any of the Arab uprisings. Whereas the government and security institutions of Egypt and Tunisia have remained intact, necessity being the mother of invention, a new form of governance has emerged in Syria. This in itself is worth celebrating and supporting.
Khatib put it best in his recent speech: “Syrian society is a civilized one. But its sons suffer from something: they had never before sat with each another. They discovered themselves with the revolution. They established civil administrations, police forces, judiciary courts and underground hospitals and schools - amid the bombings.”
Civil administrations need more than pilot projects and promises. They need a concerted strategy to fulfil the underlying aspiration of the uprising - to redraw the social contract between citizens and the state from the ground up.