Opportunity Arises to Test a New US Strategy in Syria

Residents of Douma, a rebel-held city of 350,000 in the Ghouta suburbs east of Damascus, have elected a new civilian council. Against great odds—August 2013 chemical weapons attacks, and an ongoing regime siege—a civic culture has somehow survived in Douma. The opposition’s external allies, including the United States, Gulf Arab states, and the US-supported Syrian Opposition Coalition (Etilaf), have an opportunity to help the Douma experiment succeed, or allow it to become the latest of many failures to establish decent civilian governance in opposition territory. These failures have weakened the moderate opposition, empowered Islamist extremist groups, and sabotaged efforts at pressuring the regime to agree to a political transition in Syria.

As argued in the Atlantic Council’s recent issue brief “Zooming in on Syria: Adapting US Policy to Local Realities,” there can be no political transition in the absence of a coherent opposition willing and able to fight, govern, and negotiate on behalf of Syrians. A nationalist opposition—open to negotiating and sharing power with (rather than subjugating) minorities—cannot emerge or survive if it cannot effectively control liberated areas and provide for the local population.

In the past, the nationalist opposition’s external supporters, including the United States and Etilaf have inadvertently contributed to rebel infighting, radicalization, fragmentation, the emergence of radical sectarian militia, and the ensuing collapse of civic activism and governance. At the same time, US policy has single-mindedly and fruitlessly pursued a top-down diplomatic settlement, while ignoring local realities that show the opposition is too weak and fragmented to participate or have leverage in any meaningful negotiations with the regime. Douma’s experiment is a precious opportunity to rectify these mistakes, and adopt a local approach to the Syrian conflict, which requires empowering moderate local councils and ensuring they receive the support they need to survive and govern effectively.

The Local Council of Douma is tasked with administering civilian affairs including infrastructure, education, healthcare, business, and legal matters. Crucially, and unlike the failed, Etilaf-backed civilian councils in Binnish and Raqqa, Douma’s was elected by and from locals, with minimal outside interference, and appears to enjoy support from many armed groups in the city. In principle, these factors will help it maintain legitimacy and operate effectively.

This is where its advantages end. The council faces tremendous challenges. The regime imposed a complete siege on and continuously bombards Douma. The council must therefore contend with chronic fuel, water, and power shortages, and operate under constant bombing. However, according to the head of the council, its greatest danger stems from competition with Islamist groups who enjoy greater financial support from abroad—including from elements of the Etilaf. Armed Islamist elements have a history of forcibly displacing unprotected civilian councils and their rebel allies. Given external players’ record of selective support for favored groups in ignorance of or opposition to popular, broad, local coalitions, the council-head’s claims are credible, and the threat from Islamist militia is real.

Given its constant citing of the opposition’s weakness and radicalization as a reason to withhold meaningful support for it, and its professed championing of political transition in Syria, the United States should not allow Douma’s attempt at decent, moderate civilian governance to fail. A collapse of the local council would empower sectarian militants, support the regime narrative that it is fighting terrorists, and signal to Syrians that the revolution can offer nothing better than the tyranny and incompetence of the regime. The United States must think local in Douma, and make sure the Etilaf does the same, by connecting with key members of the council. Council allies must work towards understanding its standing among the local population, ensuring it receives the financial support it desperately needs to do its work, and providing material support to armed rebel groups that support it. Without this assistance, the council cannot protect its members from extremist violence—whether from the regime or jihadists.

The fruitless negotiations at Geneva, the regime’s recent military successes, and the rebellion’s deepening radicalization are clear proof that the United States needs a new approach in Syria. The local approach is its best option, and Douma presents an opportunity to implement sound policy. Its besieged population has given the United States and its allies a chance to get things right in Syria. It would be a strategic failure and moral tragedy to waste it.

Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Peaceful protests in the Douma suburb of Damascus, Syria in 2011. (Photo: syriana2011/Flickr)