Between November 27 and 29, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was formed after months of preparations, its backers having announced their intention that the RCC would be the unified body to lead the Syrian revolution. Although the RCC is chiefly a military unification initiative similar to the (now mostly defunct) Supreme Military Council (SMC), the body has also taken upon itself the ambitious task of administering territories in Syria no longer controlled by the regime.
The choice of Qays al-Sheikh to lead the RCC is indicative of these ambitions; before becoming the leader of the new Council, al-Sheikh was one of the primary figures within the High Institute for the Syrian Judiciary, an organization that trains lawyers and jurists working in Syria’s opposition courts with some Qatari support. In its charter, the RCC claims for itself the right to “establish judicial institutions” and “issue all measures and promulgate laws that will organize the administration of the liberated territories,” highlighting its governance mission.
What is the RCC’s plan for administering territories outside of regime control? Will the RCC seek to supplant the opposition National Coalition (NC) and Interim Government (IG)? More importantly, is the RCC’s vision a viable solution to the fragmented provision of governance in areas outside of regime, Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra control?
In this article, I hope to sketch out some preliminary answers to these questions. In short, although the RCC has a more viable and practical plan to govern opposition-held territories than the NC or the IG, it still faces large obstacles to improving the provision of justice and other services in Syria. This post is based on my interviews with RCC head Qays al-Sheikh (Dec. 3), members of armed groups, employees of opposition courts, and members of local councils, as well as on open sources.
What is the RCC’s plan?
According to Qays al-Sheikh, the core of the RCC’s governance program will be the creation of an independent judiciary. However, rather than creating new judicial bodies from scratch, al-Sheikh says that existing opposition courts—mostly self-described sharia courts and commissions with the backing of local armed groups—are expected to participate. The RCC intends to transform these institutions into independent entities through the creation of a higher body with the power to intervene in and reform judicial policies and procedures. “The heart of the judicial project will be the creation of a mechanism in which lawyers and judges participate,” says al-Sheikh, “and that will ensure courts are operating effectively and set new rules for how jurists and judges are appointed.”
The RCC is considering a number of ways to remove opposition courts from the orbit of the armed groups that have backed them. The first is the creation of the Central Force, an army of 7,000+ formed from contributions from RCC component factions. Al-Sheikh noted that the central force, which is to fall under the authority of the RCC Military Office, would be used in part to enforce judicial rulings and to police non-compliant armed groups. Part of the Central Force’s mission is therefore intended to shield opposition courts from the direct influence individual armed groups by giving the courts the ability to enforce rulings against previously unaccountable factions.
The second is the creation of a central funding mechanism intended to wean the courts from their armed backers. “What has delayed [judicial independence] is the issue of funding, because the courts receive all of their funding from armed groups,” says al-Sheikh. “We know that the faction that takes funding from a source is completely subservient to that force, and we intend to become the main source of funds.” The source of the funding, however, is to come in the form of contributions from RCC component factions themselves.
As for the law to be applied within RCC-affiliated courts, a consensus around the Unified Arab Code (UAC)—a set of legal codes that resembles a civil code, but is based on a relatively strict interpretation of Islamic law—has emerged. Although the use of the UAC is contentious among Islamists—part of a larger debate over the permissibility of codifying Islamic law—the codes appear to have garnered a critical mass of support among the armed groups and religious associations that have endorsed the RCC.
This development is somewhat surprising given the relatively hardline ideology that some RCC factions espouse. For example, in August 2014, the Islamic Sham Organization, an activist salafi charity and religious association that is reportedly close to the Islamic Front, issued a ruling that not only deemed the UAC acceptable, but also encouraged its use in Syria until the revolution achieves its primary goal of toppling the regime. Even more surprisingly, Ahrar al-Sham—a salafi Islamic Front faction with links to al-Qaeda and one of the most important backers of the RCC—is reportedly on board with the use of the UAC within the RCC’s new governance scheme, while Muhammad ‘Alloush, the head of the RCC’s Political Committee and a member of Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic Front’s most powerful Damascus-area affiliate, noted the successful use of the code in opposition courts around Damascus.
However, amendments to the UAC within the RCC’s governance scheme are likely. Hardline factions will likely insist on modifying parts of the codes that do not conform with their interpretation of Islamic law. It is worth mentioning here that to many of its proponents, the UAC is Islamic law, it just happens to be codified, and is therefore not considered a mix of the sharia with other systems, even if parts of the UAC are amended to suit other interpretations. Hardline salafi-jihadi factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State—both of which have established their own judicial networks—would of course disagree with this explanation; in their view, the act of codifying Islamic law is ipso facto the mixing of Islamic law with man-made positive law, which is forbidden. This may have been one of the reasons, among others, that Jabhat al-Nusra rejected signing onto the RCC despite, according to Muhammad ‘Alloush, having been invited to do so.
The RCC does not appear to have a clearly articulated plan to create administrative governance entities that provide non-judicial services to the population. It is not clear either how the RCC intends to interface with the array of local administrative councils in opposition-held Syria, many of which are responsible for keeping water and power available, running schools, distributing aid, and providing other services. Local councils, many of which operate in areas where RCC component factions are strong, could, in theory, be compelled to collaborate more closely with the RCC or volunteer to do so. “We hope to have a role in this regard,” said Khalid Hammadi, member of the Kafranbel local council. “[Fursan al-Haqq] is the most important faction in Kafranbel and is one of the strongest supporters of the local council, and it is among the supporters of the [RCC].”
However, many local councils are dependent on the NC and the IG for support through their links with provincial councils, and they may be reluctant to collaborate exclusively with a potential rival entity unless it can give them a reason to do so. At the same time, the RCC and its component factions are not likely to disrupt the rudimentary but sufficient work of the local councils unless they can provide the material support and assistance necessary to replace or exceed what the NC and the IG could offer, an unlikely scenario.
Will the RCC seek to replace the National Coalition and the Interim Government?
Although members of the RCC, including al-Sheikh, have claimed that the new organization does not seek to replace or marginalize the NC or the IG, the RCC appears to pose a direct challenge to them. “The National Coalition and the Interim Government have not led the revolution well and have lost the people’s confidence,” says al-Sheikh. “There are good and wise people among them, but their performance has not led to victories.” Indeed, the sweeping powers the RCC claims for itself in its charter appear to be the opening shots from an organization seeking to claim the mantle of the revolution.
However, details provided about the RCC’s plans indicate that in some important respects, the organization will not actually conflict with the NC and the IG. In particular, the NC and IG have been unsuccessful in forging strong links to security and judicial actors inside the country, precisely the areas that the RCC appears most poised to address. At the same time, the RCC is, thus far, mostly silent in the area of administrative governance, where the NC and the IG actually hold some sway. As such, the RCC will not likely face meaningful resistance from the NC and the IG in the areas it hopes to have the greatest impact, nor does it yet have the vision and resources to replace the external opposition in all aspects of rebel governance.
The IG and the NC also enjoy something that the RCC is unlikely to replicate: a working relationship with Western governments. Because of the participation of hardline Islamic Front factions in the RCC, it is unlikely that the United States and other western governments will have the appetite to seriously engage with it, if at all. This is especially true after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry drew equivalence between major RCC-supporter Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State, among other terrorist organizations. At the same time, the West is unlikely to seriously consider abandoning the NC and the IG, organizations in which they have invested a not insignificant amount of time and resources, in favor of a new organization.
Still the RCC may yet carve out a role for itself as an important interlocutor for armed groups in the international arena, a role could have an impact on the course of the conflict. Recently, for example, when U.N. Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura wished to discuss a plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo city with individual rebel groups, they refused and sent RCC Head Qays al-Sheikh to bargain for them instead. If al-Sheikh is consistently called upon to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of RCC component factions and if they accept the outcomes of negotiations—a big if—the RCC may become an essential player the international community’s efforts to deescalate the conflict in Syria.
Will the RCC’s governance vision succeed?
Although the RCC has a better chance at putting together a functioning rebel government in Syria than the NC or the IG—primarily because of its strong links to some of the largest armed groups in opposition-held Syria—it still faces a number of obstacles that will likely prevent it from significantly improving the rebel administration.
Most importantly, the RCC will probably not be able to solve the problem of rebel fragmentation. The organization itself is unlikely to develop a strong command structure capable of dictating to the armed groups that support it. Instead, the RCC’s component factions are likely to retain their autonomy, their sources of funding, and their chain of command. That the RCC’s component factions include such a diverse array of groups, some of which—such as the Islamic Front—have tried and mostly failed to integrate in the past, raises doubts about the extent to which any will be willing to subjugate their autonomy to the RCC.
In terms of governance, persistent fragmentation will mean that the creation of unified, independent, and mutually acceptable judicial bodies that operate according to the same legal standards, policies, and procedures will entail high, and possibly prohibitive, transaction costs. Because the RCC will have trouble dictating to its component factions, it will have to rely on mutual cooperation between armed groups to implement shared governance plans. In practice, this means that the most important decisions—from appointing of judges to setting rules for the Central Force to deciding the structure and function of judicial bodies—will have to be tediously negotiated among a divisive group of armed actors, a process that hinders even like-minded jihadis in their efforts to build institutions. Usama Shannaq, an employee of an Aleppo countryside-area opposition court supported by two RCC factions, summed up these difficulties in his reaction to efforts to coax his court, which is backed by two RCC factions, to join another court network backed by other RCC factions:
“This [proposal] is lacking and it is impossible to unify the judiciary in this way because it will cancel out some courts and establish alternative ones, and this can only happen after consultations. Whoever wants to sign onto this initiative doesn’t know what his role is and where he will work. What is the judge’s role to which the factions agree? Can the factions even agree on a judge? Why are the factions involved? What makes them qualified? It’s possible that they would agree to a person who is not even a judge, or that there is a judge to whom the factions will not agree. With every plan on the table, its organizers try to shop it around.”
Compounding this problem is the lack of funding that could lure RCC factions and their associated governance bodies to become better integrated. The collective RCC treasury envisioned by al-Sheikh does not seem capable of effectively pooling funds because the free rider problem will likely emerge immediately. Without strong material inducements, the RCC may simply end up like the ill-fated SMC in both its military and its governance dimensions: a potential source of funds and equipment when available, but not an organization that can truly provide incentives for cooperation and punish non-compliance. The RCC could address this problem through securing its own sources of funding, potentially from sources in the Gulf, but details on such a plan were not provided.
Finally, governance gaps in the areas where RCC factions are strong will remain, and the space within which the RCC can even work is shrinking. The participation of a number of Western-backed groups is still in question, Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadi allies have embarked on their own quest to control and govern territory in large parts of Idlib province, and Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, a group that controls a swath of territory and a small network of courts west of Aleppo city, says it is not part of the RCC. Even in areas where RCC factions are strong, the RCC would still have to contend with the presence of jihadis and non-compliant sub-factions of member brigades possibly seeking to undermine its efforts.
As such, governance in opposition-held Syria is like to remain local, relatively uncoordinated, and beset by existing disagreements among RCC factions. However, populations living where RCC factions are strong may see minor improvements, particularly if the organization is successful in rotating qualified jurists among existing opposition judicial bodies.