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Syria - Organising for the future: grassroots governance and national peace

Doreen Khoury describes how analyses of the conflict in Syria routinely ignore the achievements of grassroots opposition and the resilience of the Syrian people. Syrian society is the ultimate target of deadly sectarian violence between shabbiha (regime enforcers) and jihadist groups. But behind this devastation lie concrete popular efforts at inclusive local organisation and self-rule, and countless local peacebuilding initiatives aimed at bridging political, ideological and sectarian divides. This capacity needs to be better recognised and supported, and local civilian leadership should be included in peace talks and transition processes to provide local legitimacy and connection to communities inside Syria.

Grassroots governance in Syria

Since March 2011 the Syrian conflict has evolved from a genuine popular uprising against an oppressive regime to a violent war between the regime and numerous armed opposition groups. A struggle against 40 years of oppression and human rights abuses has become a murky and highly complex geopolitical battleground, engaging multiple actors with diverse interests. 

Through it all the Syrian people have suffered from regime violence, torture, prolonged artillery shelling and aerial bombardment, and, more recently, chemical weapons attacks. In northern Syria and other regions where the regime has been forced out, communities now have to contend with the equally oppressive Islamist jihadi groups. Many towns and villages are enduring harsh sieges, acute humanitarian crises and massive population displacement. UN figures for late 2013 estimated 2.2 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and 6.5 million internally displaced.

Most analyses of the conflict ignore the real achievements of the grassroots opposition – the primary engine of the revolution – and the resilience of the Syrian people as a whole. Behind the current dismal portrayal of the conflict lie concrete popular efforts at inclusive grassroots organisation and self-rule, and countless peacebuilding activities and ventures aimed at bridging political, ideological and sectarian differences between Syrian people. The focus on the brutal shabbiha (regime thugs) and the jihadist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda who jointly wage a sectarian war of elimination against society ignores local activists’ resistance to their tactics and designs.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, recognised by the United States and the European Union as the official and “legitimate” representative of the Syrian people, is becoming increasingly irrelevant – beset by infighting, foreign interference and unpopularity within Syria. Recognising and engaging the legitimacy of the many grassroots networks, civil society and local organisations should be a key policy objective for the proposed transition period and the Geneva II peace negotiations scheduled for 22 January 2014, as announced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the end of November 2013. 

Uprising in Syria

Shortly before the uprising and in the midst of the Arab Spring, President Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal in January 2011 that he was closely linked to his people through anti-Western and anti-Israel beliefs, as ideology bound Syrian citizens to the regime. Soon after, however, residents of the south-west city of Deraa reacted with outrage at the security forces’ brutal treatment of young boys who had sprayed anti-regime graffiti around the city. 

By dismissing the wave of popular Arab uprisings, Assad showed his inability to recognise changes in Syrian society in the decade since he had taken over from his father, Hafez. The top-down ordering of society created by Assad senior after the 1970 coup that brought him to power was designed to maintain the Assad family’s grip on power, dividing society along sectarian, ethnic, regional and social lines – as described by Hassan Abbas, a respected Syrian analyst, in 2011.

The post-2000 “liberalisation” process initiated by the young president amounted to trusting the state’s welfare responsibilities (health, education, housing, employment) to tightly controlled confessional charity associations, and keeping a close eye over the activities and foreign links of newly authorised non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

By 2011, grievances – especially those of young people – had accumulated against the regime. The rigid statist system allowed little space for free initiative. The regime’s radical foreign policy isolated Syrians and made it difficult for them to travel or connect outside national borders. The flagrant corruption of the regime and the infamous extra-judicial practices of the state security apparatus also angered many Syrians. Prospects for poor internal migrants in the crowded belts around major Syrian cities were especially bleak. Deraa, for example, was by then already under severe social pressure because of the arrival of Syrians from the drought-ridden north-east. 

In urban centres informal networks of young people began to emerge, comprising both urban educated youth and poor young rural migrants. These strove to claim a small part of public space not dominated by Baath ideology and regime cronies. Inspired by mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt, they played a crucial role in maintaining the revolutionary momentum by organising and documenting protests and acts of civil disobedience and motivating people to mobilise.

The initial stages of the revolution were spontaneous popular revolts organised mostly by youth grassroots but soon joined by rural tribes, women’s rights groups, human rights activists, veteran opposition politicians and swathes of the disenfranchised rural working class. Each neighbourhood organised separately according to its relationship with the regime’s ideology, ruling group and armed forces.

Inter-group planning meetings became impossible due to tightening police repression. But communication through online social networks and forums, relayed and amplified by activists in Lebanon and European countries such as Sweden, provided the Syrian uprising a popular and efficient dynamic despite the regime’s aggressive censorship.

Local coordination committees

Tansiqiyyat, or local coordination committees (LCCs), began as spontaneous meetings of young activists in neighbourhoods and towns across the country and were the main vehicle for mobilisation in Syria. LCCs coordinated with each other, rapidly creating a networked structure. One year after the beginning of the uprising, observers counted several hundred LCCs, many of them assisted by self-designated local councils.

Solidarity between activists and communities was forged as grassroots networks connected people in villages and towns, especially in peripheral and neglected areas, which became important centres of defiance against the regime. LCCs provided support for victims and families of prisoners, organised alternative hospitals, took charge of water distribution and bakeries, collected garbage and informed the population through a wealth of local magazines and alternative radio stations.

LCCs also became the interface between society and military actors (militias and government forces), in some cases even mediating local humanitarian access. More often than not they were left by hostile or powerless state officials to manage the settling of hundreds of thousands of war displaced among already devastated suburban communities.

By mid-2012, particularly in northern Syria, regime forces had withdrawn or been forced out of many areas by rebel armed groups. LCCs and newly formed local civil society organisations (CSOs) filled the void left by defunct regime structures, transforming their resistance function into local government responsibilities by establishing ad hoc administrative structures whenever they could – resuming some state services, but also providing leadership in communities threatened by disintegration.

This rapid self-organisation and self-rule proved that, contrary to Assad’s assertions, the regime itself had caused the chaos, not the people. Local councils, often aided by CSOs such as the Union of Free Students (established in September 2011) and the Kurdish Youth Movement (established in 2005), were able to deliver essential services in the most difficult conditions.

In the province of Aleppo they have reopened schools, run health-care services, offered legal services, and treated victims of rape and traumatised children in both government and non-government controlled areas. In the city of Raqqa many activists and youth-led CSOs have been striving to maintain normal life despite the heavy presence of Islamist jihadi groups and a scarcity of resources, for example by opening youth recreation centres and organising cultural events, such as art and traditional craft exhibitions and plays mocking the Assad regime.

CSOs and activists are also working on numerous peacebuilding initiatives among communities and sects. These call on people not to deviate from the original goals of the revolution and condemn the actions of warlords in multi-sectarian regions such as the province of Homs. They try to protect minorities such as Christians in the Euphrates valley or Alawites in Aleppo. For example, the Nabd (Pulse) Coalition for Syrian Civil Youth, a cross-sectarian movement with branches in several cities set up by young activists in mid-2011, addressed the increasing influence of jihadi fighters through activities promoting sectarian unity.

Women’s CSOs have also organised peacebuilding activities between opposition and regime supporters, bringing together female regime loyalists and opposition supporters in activities aimed at highlighting the commonalities between them. Still, such initiatives remain scattered and sporadic. They lack moral support from political leaders and material support from the international community, as international NGOs’ engagement in Syria is tightly restricted by the regime. Civil leaders pay a high price (imprisonment or even death) and many have to emigrate, leaving society adrift.

Militarisation of the uprising

The Assad regime’s violent reaction to peaceful protests itself produced a violent response. At first this was defensive, as defected soldiers and ordinary citizens took up arms to protect themselves from regime snipers; but then it turned offensive, as armed brigades formed under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and began to fight the regime.

Funding and supply of arms to rebels particularly by Arab Gulf countries played a big role in transforming the revolution into all-out war. But the regime bears primary responsibility for choosing to use force in response to the legitimate demands of citizens, and branding protesters terrorists and Israeli agents.

The proliferation of autonomous armed groups, the perennial lack of a unified command structure, and the rise of warlords claiming liberated land as their fiefdom has undermined civilian structures. FSA brigade offensives provoked violent air reprisals by regime forces, jeopardising communities. And the FSA has sometimes committed gross human rights violations on a par with the regime. Dialogue between the FSA command based in Turkey and the LCCs in Syria has never been systematically organised.

The sustainability and independence of local councils and CSOs in many towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria has been severely challenged by the arrival and eventual domination of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, notably Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL is a jihadistinsurgent group from several Muslim and European countries, originally based in Iraq. Jabhat al-Nusra emerged in 2012 as one of the principal armed rebel groups in Syria and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United Nations, the United Kingdom and the United States. Like ISIL, it uses harsh sectarian rhetoric against non-Muslims and non-Sunni Muslims, and its goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate. It has carried out several sectarian attacks and executions of Christians, Shia and Alawites (the sect of the Assad family).

Wherever ISIL or any other jihadi group “liberate” a village or a city suburb, they not only impose their military rule, as they are better equipped and organised than FSA forces, but they also attempt to take over civilian, economic, cultural and religious structures, legitimising their claim to leadership through their military power. In the areas where they dominate, they pose a serious threat to the independence of local councils and to the emerging Syrian civil society as a whole. This has led many activists to believe they are facing two enemies: the regime and the Islamists.

Civil resistance and local leadership

CSOs and local councils have sought to position themselves as legitimate future leaders in Syria by resisting jihadis’ efforts to impose religious rules and parallel governance structures such as shari’a courts.

Raqqa, a province and city deserted by regime forces and government administrations in March 2013, is a prime example of the detrimental effect of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters operating in “liberated” areas where they have no grassroots base. ISIL is also present in Raqqa and has targeted local activists, used kidnapping as a means for extortion, exploded suicide bombs in front of the local FSA brigade office, and shot at demonstrators.

In the northern town of Tal Abyad the main Islamist armed groups – Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Farouq Islamic Brigades – set up judicial and security institutions independent of the local council, including a shari’a court, and refused to include lay judges from law universities. They also prevented the local council from forming an independent defence force. 

There have been numerous examples of civil resistance of al-Qaeda affiliates and their autocratic Islamist practices. On 17 June 2013 in Raqqa women led a demonstration outside ISIL’s headquarters against arbitrary detentions of their male relatives. A CSO also ran a counter campaign against Islamists trying to impose their black flag on the city. Many demonstrations have targeted ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra’s manipulation of religion for their own purposes. The Raqqa protest introduced the now prominent Syrian slogan, “There is nothing holier than freedom, and no worse sin than stealing it”. 

Organising for the future: grassroots governance and national peace

Many activists and civil society leaders have become disillusioned with the current situation in Syria. Syrians are appalled by the violent excesses of both regime and opposition fighters. More and more of them have rejected both sides, and only obey local rulers out of fear for their families.

Local civilian activists are deprived of basic resources to provide for their communities and many are entirely cut off from external support. They especially resent the lack of solidarity with their efforts from the international community and most of the Syrian diaspora opposition. The September 2013 US-Russian agreement reduced the Syrian conflict to a chemical weapons issue, rather than focusing on the real challenge of stopping the killing of civilians. This has greatly dented the morale of many inside Syria.

Organising for a future democratic and inclusive Syria should not wait until the fighting stops. The international community, particularly international NGOs and UN bodies, should step up support for authentic, home-grown CSOs and local governance structures, and in particular help them secure a place in peace negotiations.

The Syrian diaspora, especially the National Coalition, is also a source of local frustration, not only because of its incompetence but also because it neglects domestic local capacity: when 14 representatives from inside Syria were chosen as members of the coalition parliament in November 2012, clients and friends were nominated rather than local activists unknown to the coalition leadership in Turkey.

Grassroots structures – CSOs, LCC activists or local council members – are much more aware of domestic realities than the diaspora opposition. This type of local leadership is crucial, as the diaspora opposition, fragmented and reliant on Arab Gulf funding, time and again has failed to propose an inclusive and cohesive vision for Syria. It has ignored significant parts of Syrian society, especially regime supporters and those unsure whether to support the revolution or not.

Including civilian-led grassroots structures in future peace negotiations and the proposed transition process is a strategic necessity – not only to give negotiations credibility and legitimacy inside Syria, but also to convey an accurate representation of the Syrian “street”, as many Syrians are today distanced from both regime and the opposition. Their empowerment and involvement in peace negotiations envisaged at the time of writing to take place in Geneva on 22 January 2014 is a basic condition of a successful transition.