Over three years after the start of Syria’s civil war, and one thing has certainly been achieved: President Bashar Assad has lost control of a large portion of the country to the armed opposition. Yes, finally, there have become Assad-free zones within the Syrian borders. But while Assad’s tyranny will not be missed in these parts, other things clearly will be.
In areas captured by the opposition, no sooner had Assad’s defeated forces pulled out than all government institutions followed suit. So the locals’ joy of victory was soon negated by the emerging lack of governance.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians found themselves deprived of the basic services that the government once provided. Law enforcement, schools, public hospitals, courts, municipalities, and many other institutions went out of service.
In response, small local administrative structures, known as “local councils,” are now forming in the “liberated” villages and towns, trying to fill an administrative vacuum.
In Idlib’s southern countryside, a small village of roughly 8,000 residents provides an example of successful local governance. Al-Ghadfa, 47 kilometers south of the city of Idlib, was captured by a number of armed opposition factions late in 2012. Since then, its local council has been struggling to meet the basic needs of the population and prevent the village from falling into complete chaos.
Formed of 14 locally-elected members, Al-Ghadfa’s council was set up more than a year ago in an attempt to replace the village’s municipality and other local institutions which fell apart following the departure of Assad’s forces, Bassam Rahmoun, a member of the council, tells the Syrian Observer.
According to Mr. Rahmoun, the council works to secure the basic municipal services for the local community. The council also supervises such other areas as security, protection of public and private properties, education, healthcare, water, electricity, telecommunications, fuel, aid delivery, media services, civil protection, reconstruction, and building administrative and professional capacities.
“We are trying as much as we can to make the people’s life easier here,” says Mr. Rahmoun. “One thing we make sure happens without delay is the delivery to the village’s needy of whatever humanitarian aid we receive.”
Many of these tasks, he says, are performed in coordination with the armed groups and military councils controlling the area, and through specialized offices within the local council.
But what seems to be a successful example autonomy in Al-Ghadfa is not functioning without its difficulties.
Obviously, the lack of real tax income poses a major challenge when it comes to funding the council’s activities. Almost all opposition-held areas in Syria are now relying on aid provided by individuals and organizations, and sometimes also foreign governments.
Mr. Rahmoun complains, however, about the inadequacy of such aid. “We receive slim funding from a number of aid organizations and the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition,” he says. “The bulk of our funding comes from sons of Al-Ghadfa who live and work abroad.”
Like the rest of the areas seized by the opposition, Al-Ghadfa has been under continual shelling by Assad’s forces since its liberation in 2012. The ensuing destruction of the village’s infrastructure has only increased the burden on the shoulders of its local council.
“A recent bombing by the regime’s forces destroyed our main water tank and power station: we had to pull an external electricity cable from an area very far away and had to spend so much time and energy to fix the water problems,” says Mr. Rahmoun. “That was very costly too.”
A small village with no work but farming to offer, Al-Ghadfa had already lost many of its young people either to Syrian metropolises or other countries. The civil war, needless to say, has further deprived the village of its human capacities.
“We suffer a profound lack of experienced staff to run the different activities of the council,” Mr. Rahmoun complains. “Most of the people in charge of the council’s various offices are doing this job for the first time.”
Moreover, the lack of organizational structures, clear mechanisms of coordination, statistics, information, and civil record data will undoubtedly exacerbate the major problems that Al-Ghadfa’s local council already has to deal with.
Around 1,300 kilometers to the north, in Istanbul, Turkey, are the offices of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, an umbrella group for the Syrian opposition formed in 2012.
The Coalition has recently been recognized by more than a 100 countries as the sole, legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Much of this legitimacy has apparently come from the Coalition’s claims to be closely involved in supporting the local councils inside Syria.
However, as far as Al-Ghadfa’s local council is concerned, such involvement appears to be too slight to be worth mentioning.
Adnan Rahmoun, who represents local councils at the Coalition, admits the general weakness of the Coalition’s support to the local councils on the ground.
However he could only offer a brief explanation of why this is: “There are many opportunists who don’t want things to be organized, as organization doesn’t serve their interests.”
Setting up their own systems of local administration, Syrians in some opposition-held areas have proved to enjoy this great sense of responsibility. They seem to realize the magnitude of the challenges they are facing, and the need to take action at all levels.
Despite the gravity of the situation and the scarcity of resources in many towns and villages such as Al-Ghadfa, Syrians are determined to continue on with their lives: they feel indebted to the hundreds of thousands of lives which have been sacrificed so that the remaining Syrians can live the dream of a free Syria.
“Our council has been fairly effective and transparent in performing its duties and addressing several issues to do with civil life, ” says Mr. Bassam Rahmoun with some pride.
“We, in the council, are also trying to promote the values of democracy, coexistence and citizenship.”
He adds that his, like all other local councils, are merely temporary structures meant to pave the way towards electing a local administration system under a new government and constitution of a post-Assad Syria.