Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria

By Agnés Favier.1 Originally published in the e-book Inside Wars: Local Dynamics of Conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Introduction

After more than 40 years of centralized control in Syria, the nature and length of the conflict has led to a fragmentation of the territory and to a de-coincentration of civilian and military powers, mainly in opposition-controlled areas but also to some extent in those under the regime’s control.3 In fact, party due to the nature of the regime’s repression, the local dimension was central to the framework of the uprising in 2011 and then its militarization.3 Despite the escalation of the conflict into a total war, the local level has remained a laboratory par excellence where new actors have emerged and experimented with new forms of governance.

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Among the local actors who have attempted to provide support for the population and to govern and administer territories, the local administrative structures that have been established by the revolutionary forces since 2012, also known as local councils, were originally conceived and developed to act as the main alternative to the state institutions at the local level, but also eventually as the cornerstone for any state-building efforts in Syria’s post-war reconstruction period. Despite the continuous and enormous challenges facing these local councils on the ground, they remain active in providing daily public services. Alongside other locally well-anchored actors, they could constitute the steppingstone through the transition period.

This paper aims to study these local councils in their position within a network of dynamics and interactions, both vertically with respect to ‘external’ actors (such as foreign donors and Syrian political institutions in exile) and horizontally in relation to other competing or parallel local groups. Based on empirical observations and in-depth interviews with opposition members (local councils, civil activists, political figures and representatives of armed groups) conducted in Gaziantep between October 2013 and September 2015, it presents some general findings, structured in response to three main questions:

  1. How have local administrative structures been established and then consolidated or disappeared in relation to two main patterns: access to external resources and military developments?
  2. What is the relationship between opposition local and central authorities?
  3. How and to what extent do local councils gain legitimacy in specific local areas?

Local Councils4: Between Grassroots Initiatives and External Constraints

In 2012, several local councils emerged as spontaneous initiatives in connection with the grassroots revolt, in a similar fashion to the appearance of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) and in cooperation with them. Beyond the main task of organizing and documenting peaceful demonstrations, the LCCs also started to focus on the provision of emergency healthcare and to provide support to the families of prisoners. In this context, the local councils had the main aim of responding to the immediate needs of the population, but also aimed to widen and expand on the activities originally undertaken by the LCCs. The thinking behind the idea of local councils5 was that the revolutionary society should organize itself independently of the state. These self-managed local councils would serve as local alternatives to the state, with the primary objective of protecting the population rather than controlling the territory.

Even if the local councils were originally regarded and analysed as bottom-up institutions, created to fill the void left by disappeared or collapsed Syrian governmental institutions,6 they were not in fact operating in a vacuum and their development hinged upon two main dynamics: first, the policy of donors; and second, direct confrontation with the regime and later with IS and the Kurdish forces.

A Heavy Dependence on External Resources

The creation of local councils was affected from the very beginning by the intervention of external actors. In fact, donor policies over the last four years have been characterized by erratic and non-coordinated support. At the same time when the first local council was established in early 2012, wealthy Syrian opposition expatriates, in addition to European governments and foreign private companies, started to express their willingness to provide assistance to the local councils whenever they were in place. The year 2012 therefore witnessed the implementation of a policy of direct aid to the local councils by Western countries, mainly under the impetus of France, which organized an international meeting in Paris in October 2012 dedicated to supporting the local revolutionary councils. This involvement was, however, only for a very short period of time. In fact, with the creation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (or SOC, which replaced the Syrian National Council) in November 2012, many countries operating under the umbrella of the ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ group started to channel their funds through new units directly dependent on the newly-established SOC, with the aim of strengthening and legitimizing the new political body that has been recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

By the beginning of 2013, direct foreign aid to the local councils had significantly decreased, but the councils started to be the main beneficiaries of training and capacity-building programmes mostly provided by American organizations. Later, some Western donor countries also created ‘semi-independent’ units, such as the Free Syrian Police and the White Helmets to provide security and civil defence services, and they empowered these newly-established service provision units to work independently of both the local councils and the Syrian Interim Government of the SOC (established in November 2013).

Towards the end of 2013, when donor countries started to realise the shortcomings of the SOC and its units in delivering basic services through local councils inside Syria, they started once more to support the local councils directly in order to implement a huge number of projects such as food security, washing, electricity and waste management (mainly funded by US and UK agencies). However, the local councils have always lacked the financial and technical support needed for them to set up their own public policies in their respective territories and to develop autonomous and sustainable strategies based on internal resources. As the needs of the local communities increased, the ability of the local councils to impose themselves as the sole entities in charge of managing and administering their respective areas was also challenged by armed groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (see below). Finally, with the surge of IS since mid-2014, the local councils have suffered from the new emerging priorities adopted by their main donor countries, which shifted to focusing on fighting terrorism rather than maintaining strong support for the local opposition actors.

A Target for the Regime, the Islamic State, and Kurdish Forces

At another level, even though local councils were established to fill the void left by the State, the regime’s withdrawal was not complete. Since the first days of the uprising, keeping state institutions running seemed to be a key priority for the regime, which was keen on claiming and demonstrating that the Syrian state remained the irreplaceable provider of essential public services.7 Therefore, the central government has maintained its presence in opposition-controlled areas by paying salaries to teachers, public employees and civil servants, and by preserving its monopoly over the provision of official documents. More empirical data are required in order to map more accurately the geographical areas where the state is still present and in which sectors. Nevertheless, in general the regime’s policy has been characterized by a discriminatory approach whereby salaries are not paid to those alleged to be active members of the opposition, such as people who work for the local councils. Moreover, the regime has also played on the traditional rivalry between cities, securing services for some while suspending them from others.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime has deliberately attacked and targeted, both by bombing8 and/or besieging, cities in which the local councils were considered the most successful (Daraya, Douma, Maarat al Nouman and Aleppo city, to name a few). This intentional targeting of all kinds of public facility in the liberated areas, which has also been Russia’s systematic approach during the six last months, reveals the extent to which these local administrations [that] broke the state monopoly in providing public services have been perceived as a major threat to the regime’s legitimacy. Even though some local councils have survived these attacks and sieges, they have, however, been compelled to adopt a survival strategy in territories hollowed of their population (for instance, there is no more than 10% of the initial population in some besieged cities). More broadly, it should be noted that approximately 45%-50% percent of the Syrian population currently in Syria live in regime-controlled areas.9 Many civilians, among them supporters of the revolution, have fled from opposition-held areas to regime-controlled ones in search of safety and public services. The huge internal displacements caused by the conflict have put the regime under economic and social pressure, but conversely have also weakened the revolutionary and opposition forces (including local councils), which rely on popular support in their struggle against Assad.10

Finally, the increasing power of actors with projects competing against the mainstream opposition (Islamic State [IS] since the end of 2013 and then the Kurdish YPG – People’s Protection Units – since the battle of Kobane in late 2014 have both succeeded to some extent in territorializing their respective political projects) has been built and developed at the expense of the various opposition groups. The takeover of some areas by IS and the Kurdish forces has undermined the work of the local councils. In the governorates of Raqqa and Deir-az-Zor (which counted very few operational local councils), some parts of Hassakeh and East Aleppo, IS opposed local councils by arresting some of their members and even dissolved them at a later stage to establish its own governance structures instead.11 Consequently, most local council members have relocated internally (for example the local council of Minbij has established its headquarters in the city of Azaz) or in neighbouring countries (mainly in Turkey). For their part, the YPG authorities have established their own administrative structures (Kurdish self-administration) in the three main cantons of Afreen, Kobani and al-Jazeera.12 In some cities captured by the Kurdish forces, such as Tal Abyad, the YPG authorities have prevented former local council members from returning to their towns after their liberation from IS and have established alternative governing structures named ‘the council of notables and the municipality.’

As a result of military developments and Russia’s aerial military intervention mainly against territories controlled by opposition forces, the opposition-controlled areas shrank from approximately 40% of the Syrian territory at the end of 2012 to roughly between 13% and 15% in February 2016 (Jabhat al-Nusra-held areas included). Consequently, the number of local councils has also declined, and it was estimated in March 2016 that there were around 395 active councils, most of them located in the two largest liberated areas that have direct access to Turkey, the Aleppo and Idlib governorates.13

Centralized Attempts to Control a Fragmented Local Reality

While the local councils have been perceived as an existentialist threat to the regime, they have also been considered a crucial stake for the opposition national structures in exile. The relationship between the local and central representatives of the opposition has effectively been subject to a twofold logic: representing the local councils within the SOC, and rationalizing and developing a centralized framework serving as an umbrella for the local councils. The second issue emerged with the establishment of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) in Gaziantep. Among the several political groups or blocs within the SOC, some were more interested in the empowerment of the local councils, such as the Sabbagh political group (supported by Qatar)14 and the Muslim Brothers, whereas other groups such as the Jarba bloc and its allies (supported by Saudi Arabia) have instead been reluctant to move forward in supporting the local councils.

The Issue of Political Representation

The idea of integrating the local councils within the Syrian National Council was raised as soon as June 2012, but their representation only came with the establishment of the SOC. Several studies have highlighted the fact that the SOC’s interest in integrating local councils within its structures was an attempt to overcome the lack of legitimacy of the previous political body (the SNC). This argument was based on the fact that none of the SNC members were elected but rather co-opted, while the assumption was that local council members were elected. In fact, the majority of local councils (over 55%) did not emerge through elections but were established by ‘elite self-selection’ mechanisms (i.e. a group of leaders including rebel fighters, notables, tribes, families, and revolutionary activists agree to share the local council seats among themselves by consensus without elections).15

Moreover, the local council representatives within the SOC were selected based on a top-down mechanism. What was known as the ‘local council bloc,’ the second largest bloc in the SOC at the time of its creation, was made up of 14 provincial council representatives – 12 of them were previously nominated as heads of provincial councils and were close to M. Sabbagh. Most of these first provincial councils were not founded following a bottom-up approach (with the exception of the Aleppo Transitional Revolutionary Council), and in some cases they did not even have any presence in the field at the time. Nevertheless, the SOC chose to channel its funds to the local councils through these provincial councils, which has generated much tension between provincial and local councils in many areas.

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Despite the fact that all the provincial council representatives lost their positions in their respective governorates following new elections after 2013 (local and provincial councils should be renewed every six months, like the executive bodies of the SOC), they have remained ‘representatives of local councils’ within the SOC until today. Indeed, the SOC only once enlarged the number of its members in May 2013 (from 63 to 114) but it never renewed them. Consequently, the new local councils that have been elected or recreated by consensus after this time have not been involved in the political decision-making process of the opposition. In the last two years, some local council members have demanded the replacement of the so-called ‘representatives of local councils’ within the SOC but their voices have gone unheard. Notably, since 2014 representatives of the local councils have been excluded from most of the initiatives seeking to unify the opposition forces in attempts to relaunch peace talks (such as the Riyad conference in December 2015) and from all diplomatic consultations (Geneva 2 and Geneva 3). In a reaction to this marginalization, some local councils created the Supreme Council of Provincial Councils in December 2015 in order to voice their demands in political and diplomatic arenas.

The Question of Local Governance as Seen in the Light of the SOC

Soon after its establishment, the SOC created many structures in Turkey dedicated to assisting local councils: the Assistance Coordinating Unit (ACU), which aimed to deliver humanitarian aid inside Syria (December 2012); the Local Administration Council Unit (LACU), which was supposed to help standardise the local councils under a unified framework (March 2013); and with the formation of the Syrian Interim Government (November 2013) its ‘Ministry of Local Administration, Refugees and Humanitarian Relief ’ created the General Directorate for Local Councils (March 2014). All these units were politicized and polarized according to personal interests and partisan agendas, and were backed by rival regional sponsors (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar). At the height of regional rivalries in 2013 and 2014 these structures therefore mostly worked in competition with each other, seeking to secure their presence and impose their influence on local councils inside Syria through financial support. These internal conflicts delayed efforts to consolidate the local councils under a standardized administrative structure, which would only be developed at a later stage (when a single homogenous group took over the direction of all the units at the end of 2014).

It is worth noting that the local council framework has been perceived by the Syrian opposition and Western countries friendly to it as a practical step to obtaining a decentralized administration system in the country in the post-Assad era. Although the bylaws of the local councils differ from one location to another, most of the local councils were formed according to the administrative divisions provided for by a governmental decree (decree 107) promulgated by Bashar al-Assad in August 2011.16 Moreover, the ministry of local administration of the SIG has adopted the same law (after dropping specific articles that referred to the regime), and it has been trying to impose it on the local councils as the main administrative law.

Competition and Cooperation with the Other Local Powers

Despite the continuous challenges – both external and internal – facing the local councils on the ground, they remain a necessary engine to secure everyday services or at least to continue to fulfill certain tasks. As mentioned, they are one among many other actors who operate on the ground to provide public services.17 In general, their role has turned out to be more that of coordinators or intermediaries (in particular in civil defence, education, health and development projects) rather than direct implementers (which is more the case in supplying water, electricity, bread and street cleaning). They operate on a local scale and coordination of municipal services at a regional level is uncommon (the experience of the United Service Offices in East Ghouta in Damascus is an exception). Furthermore, the effectiveness of the local councils is highly dependent on the local context, in particular on their location (the local councils in Idlib and Aleppo provinces with direct access to Turkey are more efficient than elsewhere, whereas those in the south remain weak because of Jordan’s unfriendly policy towards the development of local administrative structures near its borders). Their efficiency also depends on their relationship with armed groups and civilian organizations that operate in the same area.

The Relationship with Local NGOs18: from Competition to Coordination

Until recently, the relationship between local councils and Syrian NGOs was characterized by competition. A large number of NGOs have their headquarters in neighbouring countries, where they are registered and enjoy direct access to donors. At first, these local NGOs were competing with each other to act as implementers of NGO and UN agency programmes inside Syria. They then gradually succeeded in becoming the direct beneficiaries of some pooled funds, such as the Humanitarian Pooled Fund (HPF) managed by U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Gaziantep, which is available to Syrian NGOs but not to the local councils, which are perceived by the UN agencies as a ‘political structure of the opposition.’ As a result, most of the local NGOs have imposed themselves as the de facto actors in humanitarian aid distribution and field hospital management while the local councils have concentrated more on maintaining and repairing local infrastructure. Until 2014, few Syrian NGOs were concerned about the necessity of cooperating with the local councils as a way of promoting ‘state-building.’ However, new dynamics of cooperation have emerged during the last two years. The shrinking of financial and human resources and the increasing military pressure together with the failure of the SIG to deliver aid inside Syria have led to a rapprochement between the local actors operating on the ground. This cooperation has also been stimulated by some Anglo-Saxon donors. For instance, since 2014 the ‘Tamkeen program’ funded by the UK has provided small grants to implement infrastructure and public service projects at the local level by associating local councils, civil society organizations and local communities in several localities in the north and the south of Syria. At the regional level, for example in Idlib, informal coordination (including all the NGOs, the provincial council of Idlib, the local councils in the governorate and the Health Directorate and Civil Defence Directorate) has also seen the light. This covered the health and civil defence emergencies in April 2015 when the regime bombed all the public infrastructure inside the city and the countryside. Another example of coordination between local councils and Syrian civil society organizations has been observed in the justice sector: many civil documentation centres and courts of arbitration have been established by the Free Syrian Lawyers Association in close coordination with the local councils in opposition-held areas.

The Relationship with Armed Groups: from Protection to Competition

Military groups often have a strong influence on the local councils, but the nature of the relationship depends on several factors. In some places, the armed opposition has sometimes cooperated with local councils, and in others it has developed its own competing administrative structures.

At the very beginning of the conflict, armed groups encouraged and endorsed the creation of local councils. At this point the armed groups were largely composed of local fighters, native from the locality just liberated, and they predominantly relied on the support of the local community. In many locations, members of local councils and brigades shared similar social backgrounds and trajectories, which facilitated and led to close cooperation and harmony between the two groups. The city of Daraya offers a rare example where armed groups are fully integrated in the local council and fall directly under its authority. In cities such as Saraqib and some neighbourhoods of Aleppo, some Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades have fulfilled the task of protecting local councils from criminal elements, predatory bands and extremist groups that attempted to impose their control over these areas. More broadly, most FSA brigades have not attempted to publicly take control over local councils by force.

With the intensification of the conflict, increasing access to funding and weapons for armed groups has encouraged them to set up their own local governance structures. This was particularly the case at the end of 2012 with the advent of Islamist-nationalist armed groups, which constitute the bulk of the mainstream opposition (Ahrar al Sham, Army of Islam, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front and the Islamic Front, to name a few). These have developed their own governance structures known as Islamic committees or Shura councils (majalis al shura). These structures aimed to act as municipal administrations, and were hence in direct competition with the city councils and governorates.19 This competition has been taking place in three main essential sectors: the supply of bread -– a crucial means of gaining popularity and generating income — justice, and police.

Throughout the conflict, the dynamics of competition or confrontation have, however, been reduced by mutual interests. On the one hand, the opening of a second military front against IS early in 2014 relegated to second rank the ambitions of the armed groups to manage the population. Moreover, the aim of armed groups to dominate local administration has sometimes been confronted with popular dissent due to bad management, corruption, and a lack of expertise. By the end of 2015, a few armed groups had maintained their own administrative structures in the north of Syria, such as the ‘Public Services Administration’ of Jabhat al Nusra (JaN), which is operating in some areas of Idlib and Aleppo (but this body does not have a uniform presence in all the territories where JaN has a strong presence and the al Qaeda-affiliated group continues to allow the other local councils to operate),20 the ‘Civil Islamic Commission for the administration of the liberated areas,’ mainly linked to Ahrar al Sham and still active in some parts of Idlib province,21 and the Zenki brigade, which continues to provide a considerable range of public services in the western countryside of Aleppo. Other armed groups have, however, relinquished their ambitions to govern local structures (such as Army of Islam in Douma, for instance). Nevertheless, the influence of the armed groups remains strong as they sometimes nominate their own representatives on the local councils (such as in the city of Idlib in 2015).

On the other hand, local councils have no interest in adopting a confrontational approach towards the brigades as they do not have the means to provide security. In order to continue their work on the ground and to consolidate their fragile local power they needed to establish a healthy working relationship both with the armed opposition and civil society organizations. This healthy relationship has been cemented on previously existing personal networks such as tribal affiliations, solidarity between neighbours, friendship, and families. The daily and shared experience of the war has also contributed to forging new solidarity between civil and military groups.

In the light of the war fatigue that has drained both military and civil groups, a self-imposed mutual understanding has gained momentum and power over the previously-dominant dynamics of competition between armed groups, civil activists and local councils. The cessation of hostilities – partially respected during the first month of its implementation – could be an opportunity to redefine the respective roles of the local councils and the armed groups, by strengthening and empowering the councils to manage and administer their localities, as is currently being discussed in some opposition circles.

Conclusion

Like that of the conflict in which it is inscribed, the trajectory of local councils has never been linear. Even after five years of conflict that has caused widespread destruction, local councils — and more broadly networks of civil activists — remain embroiled in the struggle to create alternatives to the authoritarian practices of both the regime and extremist groups. Today geographically concentrated in the two strongholds of the opposition, Aleppo and Idlib, local councils chiefly draw their legitimacy from the services that they are still able to provide to impoverished local communities and from their daily interaction with them. Nevertheless, these councils have gradually been weakened, firstly by the systematic destruction policies adopted and implemented by the regime and its allies (which have to some extent achieved their main goal, that no state-like actors or governance structures should arise in the liberated territories) and then by IS. At a second level, they have also suffered from the absence of a long-term coordinated donor strategy, from the internal political rivalry between opposition groups, and even from their ambivalent collaborative or competitive relations with armed groups. Their gradual marginalization, exacerbated by a dominant understanding of Syria focused only on war, whether civil war or by proxy,22 has nourished various forms of radicalization and extremism.

The marginalization of local civil actors today presents a major risk for the future of Syria, specifically within the context of the two major aspects of the Syrian question as seen at this stage by the international community: the endeavour to find a political solution and the struggle against IS. On the one hand, sidelining these groups from the debates and negotiations that aim to define the framework of a political solution for the Syria of tomorrow could eventually undermine the foundations of a potential acceptable and lasting solution by and for all Syrians, especially because any potential agreement on a political transition will, in the end, be applied by the local actors present on the ground, and particularly if the regime is forced to make some concessions in favour of a decentralized system. On the other hand, the struggle against IS, which cannot only be strictly approached from a military angle, again poses the question that has already been addressed since 2014: who are the actors that can replace terrorist organizations wherever and whenever they lose control over certain territories?

Footnotes

  1. This working paper has greatly benefited from insights by Amer Karkoutly and Assaad al-Achi The author also thanks Jamil Mouawad for his careful reading of the text. The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own.
  2. Thomas Pierret, “Damas: l’heure de la décomposition”, Politique internationale, n°150, winter 2016.
  3. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, Burning Country: Syr­ians in Revolution and War, London, Pluto Press, 2016.
  4. According to a survey of 405 local councils (that were formed or reformed during the Syrian revolution and were almost all active) in the first quarter of 2015, the total number of local councils was estimated at around 800. The survey was held in all Syrian districts except for Raqqa and Suweida. The num­ber includes district or provincial councils at the governorate level, and municipal, city and neighbourhood councils at the local level. The majority of the local councils (almost 80%) were formed for the first time during 2012 and 2013. “Local Councils of Syria Indicator needs”, published by the Local Administra­tion Council Unit, July 2015.
  5. The main architect behind the idea of the local councils was Omar Aziz, a 63-year-old activist who was arrested in October 2012 and died under torture in a regime jail in February 2013. His first call to establish ‘local councils’ appeared in October 2011, at the same time when the first political platform of the opposition was being created in Istanbul (the ‘Syrian National Council’, or SNC).
  6. Most of the analyses of local administrative structures in op­position-controlled areas were published between 2013 and 2014, based on fieldwork conducted in 2012 and 2013 at a time when the armed insurrection was gaining more and more ter­ritory and when civil administrations were being established. See, for example, A. Baczko, G. Dorronsoro, A. Quesnay, “The Civilian Administration of the Aleppo Insurgency”, Noria, October 2013; Menapolis, “Local Councils in Syria. A Sover­eignty Crisis in Liberated Areas”, Policy Paper, September 2013; Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures in opposition-held areas in Syria”, Research Report, April 2014; Institute For War & Peace Reporting, “Local Gov­ernance inside Syria”, 2014; Rana Khalaf, “Governance without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building during Conflict”, Syria Studies, 2014; Frantz Glasman, “Vie locale et concurrence de projets politiques dans les territoires sous con­trôle de l’opposition, des djihadistes et des Kurdes en Syrie”, October 2014. For more recent studies in Arabic, Sabr Darwiche, Syria: Experience of liberated cities, Al Rayyes Books, January 2015; and Omran Center for Strategic Studies, The Second Annual Report, March 2016.
  7. Kheder Khaddour, “The Assad Regime’s Hold on the Syrian State”, Carnegie Middle East Center, July 2015.
  8. ‘Control’ of territories by opposition groups has always been partial since to date the opposition forces have never been able to have control over, or even neutralize, air space. Moreover, the fact that the opposition-held areas have never had geographical continuity can be seen as a result of the military strategy of the regime.
  9. While it is difficult to present accurate data, given the shifting situation and the considerable internal displacement, it is esti­mated that much of the population from the Aleppo and Idlib governorates is living in the coastal area, whereas many civilians from the rebel countryside area around Damascus have fled to the centre of Damascus.
  10. While IDPs are often underrepresented on local councils, a few councils deliver humanitarian aid to local IDPs.
  11. See, for instance, “Civilian Life in the areas controlled by the Is­lamic State in Syria, Orient Research Center, March 2015; and the research on “The Military and Administrative Structures of IS” (in Arabic), published by Ain al-Medina (a Syrian on-line opposition newspaper), May 2015.
  12. D. Darwiche, “Local Governance under the Democratic Au­tonomous Administration of Rojava”, in this e-book or this blog post.
  13. According to the latest estimates provided by the Local Ad­ministration Council Unit (Skype interview with the author in March 2016), the estimated 395 valid local councils in the op­position-held areas count 6,136 local council members and they are distributed as follows: 113 local councils in Aleppo (1,850 members), 112 local councils in Idlib (1,700 members), 45 local councils in Rif Damascus (892 members), 40 local councils in Homs (380 members), 35 local councils in Hama (664 members), 35 local councils in Daraa (523 members), 6 local councils affili­ated with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in Hassakeh (32 members), 6 local councils in Lattakia (50 members), 3 local councils in Qunaitra (35 members) and 10 local council members in Damascus.
  14. M. Sabbagh is the head of the Syrian Businessmen’s Forum and he was elected as the first Secretary General of the SOC in No­vember 2012.
  15. Only 36% of the councils are formed through community nom­inations with a closed self-election process through an ad-hoc electoral body. 5% result from individual initiatives by activists and 4% are appointed by the military forces. “Local Councils of Syria Indicator needs”, ibid.
  16. The decree has not been implemented, but it provides for a decentralized organization of the administrative divisions and grants them new prerogatives.
  17. A main difficulty in providing a clear understanding of the local dynamics in opposition-held areas is that the local actors who attempt to administer these territories are diversified and are subject to a very rapid generational turnover, to the extent that some emerge and disappear very quickly.
  18. A recent study lists 802 active civil society entities (including relief, media, civil and advocacy groups, both inside Syria and abroad). “Mapping civil society in Syria”, Citizens for Syria, No­vember 2015.
  19. Frantz Glasman, op.cit.
  20. In eastern Aleppo city, the public services administration (PSA) and the Aleppo city local council are the main municipal ser­vice providers and their relationship seems competitive and sometimes tense. The local council is reportedly a larger entity and plays a dominant role in sanitation services, in maintaining water pipes, and at times electrical wires. The PSA is a smaller body which controls key points in Aleppo City’s electricity grid and water network, giving it an outsized role in the maintenance of these services, electricity in particular. It also plays a key role in the provision of flour to Aleppo’s bakeries.
  21. This Commission is still in its formative stage, but it has been reported that it is outperforming in Idlib province, in particu­lar in support of IDPs. Idlib currently constitutes a key area of competition between local councils, armed groups and NGOs in areas close to the Turkish border.
  22. As noticed by Ghaleb Attrache, the struggle of individuals, or­ganizations and civil activist networks for change “is actively erased when we speak only of civil war. Such an erasure, it should be noted, is not merely (or never only) discursive or symbolic; quite significantly, it helps reproduce these actors’ marginalization from the current political process and perhaps also any future settlement and reconstruction phase”, Ghaleb Attrache, “The Perils and Promise of Wartime Analysis: Lessons from Syria”, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, March 2016.

Agnés Favier is a Senior Research Analyst. She holds a PhD in Comparative Political Science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Aix en Provence). She worked as a Programme Director at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (IFPO, Beirut) focusing on local governance in Lebanon and the Arab World (1999-2003). She was also an associate researcher at the College de France in Paris (2004-2006). She has experience as a policy adviser on North Africa and the Middle East, notably with the French government. Her research has focused mainly on Lebanese politics and processes of social and political mobilization before and after the civil war and on the political and social transformations in Syria since the beginning of the uprising.

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