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Self-government takes shape in the land of the Free Syrian Army

posted Oct 13, 2012, 5:10 PM by Syrian Transition
12 Oct 2012 (Daily Star) Since July, the rebel battalions of the Free Syrian Army have increased their attacks on Damascus and Aleppo, while regime forces have reinforced garrisons in the cities with forces drawn from other areas. This has weakened government authority in the province of Aleppo, as well as in large swathes of Idlib, Deraa, Homs, Deir Ezzor and in the predominantly Kurdish regions.

In the vacuum created by the regime’s absence, new self-governing structures are filling in. In August, I crossed into Syria twice and entered rebel-held Aleppo province and the towns of Binnish and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib, where rebels have also claimed large tracts of territory. I wanted to see how the daily life of locals continued in the aftermath of the fighting and the regime forces’ withdrawal.

The district of Al-Bab in the broader province of Aleppo boasts a population of 200,000. Peaceful protests began there in April 2011 – only three weeks after demonstrations broke out nationwide. A year later, according to local accounts, the newly founded (first) FSA battalion in Al-Bab started its armed uprising in April 2012, when the regime began its unprecedented use of force. FSA battalions eventually consolidated control of the area, chasing out 400 regime troops. The present 15 FSA battalions in and around the city recently united to form the Umawiyeen Brigade under Zaher Sharaqad, the former commander of the Abu Baqr Battalion – Al-Bab’s largest unit.

Now under FSA control but lacking access to public services, residents have been making do. To re-establish Al-Bab’s city council, inhabitants have been conducting forms of consensus-building with new stakeholders: revolutionary youth, elders (who kept open channels with regime authorities until their departure), and “educators” (some of the earliest backers of protests). I participated in three of their meetings. On the last day of my stay, Aug. 11, mediations with the groups (conducted mainly by the youth team) seemed to bear fruit: The council’s 21 members agreed on a new structure of 36 – 12 from each party – and concurred on issues to be tackled.

According to Barry Albab, a local Aleppo activist, this compromise marked the town’s “first political victory.” Hozaife Taleb, another member of the new city council who represented “the youth,” argued that the city’s most important task would be recreating the police force and ensure public safety, while also removing the FSA from the city center. Al-Bab is currently readying for the election of its first “chief manager” after the withdrawal of regime authorities from the city. But with no reliable financial support (the battalions themselves are paid in part through donations), the area faces major problems in providing basic public services to its population.

Out of necessity, the city council has had to replace traditional state institutions. For example, in lieu of state courts, the city council put in place “Shariah courts” to provide a structure for justice and the rule of law. So far, the courts have not heard cases, nor made rulings – or administered sentences. However, fatwas have been issued to aid in the city’s administration. Half a dozen qadis have stepped in, though court logistics are still being determined. Prior to the establishment of the Shariah courts, the Umawiyeen Brigade set up a 15-member “religious council,” with each battalion submitting a civilian representative from its town to provide oversight for the founding of the Shariah courts and establish a roadmap for their functioning. Its mission completed, the 15-member body has been disbanded.

During a visit to the courts, I met one of these qadis, Osama Zeayter, who noted that one theft and one murder case were pending before the courts. According to Zeayter, members of the now-disbanded religious council were popular among the people and have been pro-revolution from the beginning. He did not, however, explain how its members were selected by the FSA battalion. Zeayter himself does not have any formal law training, nor was he a member of the religious council; but he insists that he has plenty of experience – enough to conduct judicial business according to his personal study of Islamic law. He was also more than ready to share his vision for the post-Assad period; Zeayter thinks that Syria should stick with democracy, though it should reject secularism and allow Shariah to make up the essence of the new country. “Alawites and minorities can run their own courts,’’ he said – conceding that, if it had to, Syria could “live with” secularism (something that many citizens identify with Assad).

Born out of necessity, Shariah courts are becoming a fixture of local governance. Furthermore, there is the expectation and hope that Shariah courts become institutional, as they stand in stark contrast to the secular Assad regime. The desire to create a markedly Islamist form of governance is undeniable; a number of Syrian activists and locals I spoke to regard Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be a near perfect model. It remains to be seen if this reflects the broader opinion of Syrians.

Later in August, I made my second crossing to Binnish – a town 10 kilometers northeast of Idlib. Unlike Al-Bab, the town had little to show in terms of self-rule. Assad’s forces left in November 2011, when a few hundred troops with half a dozen tanks came into town – arresting some activists, only to leave a short while later. Before the uprising Binnish had 40,000 inhabitants. That number has been more than halved due to regime attacks and arrests, though the town has also experienced an influx of about 900 families – mostly from Damascus and Hama – fleeing violence elsewhere.

Throughout most of 2012, an FSA commander governed Binnish and used his unit as a security force to preserve public safety. Several locals stated that they would have preferred any governing body to Bashar Assad’s forces, and that things are better under FSA rule. Though lacking an overall structure for governance as in Al-Bab, a number of people in the surrounding villages carry out smaller scale forms of civic arbitration. Unable to select a civil council and to fill in the gap left by the regime, locals – typically pro-revolution – have since quibbled over the lack of leadership, and tensions between and among the local Islamist and moderates have been on the rise.

In one particular incident during my visit to a local organization of about 300 youths (referred to as the “Binnish Youth Organization”) Abu Anas – a member of the group and a leading activist – explained how there is increasing tension between moderates and the town’s Islamists. The youth group has proudly emphasized unity among different sects and ethnicities in Syria – including Alawites – through a biweekly publication and with public demonstrations, but the fact is there is pressure from conservative members of the community.

Salafists have started visiting the organization’s media center, asking members to join their ranks, and condemning its “embrace” of Alawites – and for not being “good Muslims.” According to Abu Anas, Salafists comprise only a small percentage of militants in Binnish, but they are organized and disciplined – and have better arms.

Thirty kilometers from Binnish and 10 kilometers from the center of Idlib, the mountainous area of Jabal al-Zayiwa is also under FSA control. One battalion (called Mujahidin fi Sabilullah, or “Fighters in God’s Path”) defends the town of Nahle and is under the command of Ismail al-Safi, who oversees about 200 men and whose unit is part of one of the FSA’s largest brigades – the ”Damascus Eagles.” There are five brigades – 20 battalions – around Idlib.

Besides defending Nahle, like other many other battalions, the Mujahidin fi Sabilullah sends reinforcements to other battalions when there are clashes with the regime army. FSA militants in this area go to nearby villages where bakeries still operate and distribute bread. Even with this sort of outward display, it remains almost impossible to objectively assess the level of local support for the FSA. What is telling, however, is that of the dozen battalions I encountered, fighters where locals and appeared to get on well with noncombatants.

Contrary to the situation north of Aleppo – where the FSA has firm control over its territories – northern Idlib is in constant flux; main roads between the towns are unsecured and thus carry bigger risks to move on. Daily artillery bombardments continue (as do airstrikes) and, as a consequence, survival has taken precedence over organizing for self-rule. Absence of leadership gives way to pronounced divisions among various factions, and civilians face enormous challenges in creating a governing body that will effectively enforce a local peace.

The sustainability of these newly found freedoms is questionable. A litany of issues plague the FSA and even the most developed of local self-ruled towns: rising sectarian tension, infighting, lack of leadership and a dearth of resources. The militias in these areas are inadequately armed – especially against the regime’s air attacks. Of more than half a dozen members of the youth organization I talked to, the main complaint was the lack of logistical help from the outside.

My observations in two weeks in Syria reinforced my opinion that the quest for self-rule is well-rooted and real. But while the international community wants to see a better Syria in a post-Assad period, the form of Syria’s conflict poisons the possibility of a quick transition to self-ruling structures. The small steps that have been taken thus far fall short of ensuring long-term success, and whether these ad hoc political and judicial structures will be able to evolve into a new national government is not yet clear.

Ilhan Tanir is Washington correspondent for the Turkish daily Vatan. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.