This article named "Local Councils: An Opportunity Not to Be Lost" was written by Marwan Maalouf in the report Local Governance Inside Syria - Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations published by IWPR. This report was written by Ghias Aljundi with contributions from Wael Sawah, Marwan Maalouf and Radwan Ziadeh and edited by Peter Eichstaedt.
Governing bodies known as local councils have emerged throughout Syria due to the chaos of the past three years of war. These councils fill a critical need for social and governmental organisation in areas where the President Bashar al-Assad's administration has lost control.
This report analyses and evaluates several of these councils and other similar structures. It examines their founding, effectiveness, needs and potential. The findings and conclusions of the publication are based on interviews with members of six councils, three of which are examined in detail.
Syria’s peaceful and secular uprising in early 2011 was seen as an extension of the Arab Spring. As the protests spread across the country, an influx of arms and the brutal responses of the al-Assad regime catalyzed the uprising into an armed struggle. The opposition was able to oust the al-Assad regime in many regions with armed support from Islamists rebels.
However, the Syrian situation deteriorated since, resulting in a shocking death toll and massive displacement of Syrians who now live in dire conditions in and outside the country. Although free of the al-Assad regime, the liberated areas suffer from a lack of administrative authority, worsening their already difficult situation. Governing structures were formed by the rebels to meet the needs of citizens. These structures have become known as local councils and are the only viable governing bodies in most of Syria’s liberated areas.
The quality and quantity of councils varies from region to region, as do their activities and composition. Some local councils have democratically elected members, while others are formed by mutual consent of residents. Their differing compositions reflect the roles they have assumed: in areas they provided water and electricity; or have stabilized the prices and managed the distribution of humanitarian relief; or had military operations and provided security; or documented human rights violations.
Since most councils were created to provide services, they are positioned to play a critical role as local representatives of the SNC of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The councils are an opportunity for the Syrian opposition to build on the uprising’s grassroots and organic initiatives and to provide local administrative and security needs. Unfortunately, this reality of the local councils has yet to be realized.
If the local councils are to succeed, they need a centralized political force that functions as an executive branch. The SNC has failed to assume this role, however. Though united against the al-Assad regime, the coalition has fractured due to differing political agendas. The lack of uniform distribution of funding and arms to the Syrian opposition has further polarized the coalition. As a result, the coalition lacks a uniform structure, a clear political vision, and concrete authority. The coalition has also been hampered by international financing that attempts to control military factions, causing additional chaos.
The fracturing of the coalition has hampered the technical and financial support for the local councils. The coalition has been unable to clarify the role of the local councils or control them, leaving the local councils unable to properly provide security and judicial functions. This has led to improvised efforts, at times quite politicized, to secure the liberated regions. The irregular and unsupervised circulation of arms threatens the stability of the local councils, causing some to easily spin out of control.
Problems with the local judiciaries are also common. Liberated areas have not had uniform judicial power that is independent or effective. Some such bodies have challenged the authority of the coalition. For example, Sharia courts in some areas are headed by religious figures and routinely contradict the secularity of the local councils as they spread religious extremism funded by neighboring states. Weak and easily manipulated security forces and their judicial bodies have rendered some local councils ineffective.
The evolution of the local councils has relied on financing. Many were self-financed and generated revenue from taxes on local services. But this proved to be insufficient in communities that suffered extensive war damage. Many councils are now linked with the coalition in order to access finances. The coalition has responded by helping the councils develop by-laws, enhance their administrative capacities, and build the capacity of the police and the civil defense forces. The coalition has also provided funding for humanitarian relief.
To further help the local councils after the interim Syrian government was formed in 2013, a minister was assigned to help govern local councils and manage humanitarian aid. While this ministry was promising, that support has failed to materialize.
Because local councils provide critical services in hundreds of communities throughout Syria, the coalition and the international community must recognize them as a positive and important effort to fill the civic and political void left by the al-Assad regime.
However, the polarization of the international intervention in Syria, coupled with the lack of sovereignty of the Syrian opposition and poor coordination of funding and technical support, has damaged the coalition’s role as a central organizing force. Efforts to reinforce the local councils will be irrelevant unless they are coupled with efforts to strengthen the coalition. Critical to that success, however, the military and financial support flowing into Syria from external groups and countries must be neutralized.