Civil Society is a Force that Threatens the Enemies of Democracy—Bashar al-Assad and Islamic Factions

Despite their best efforts, pro-democracy groups in Idlib and Aleppo, provinces with a strong opposition presence, have failed in their repeated attempts to create a strong, civil administrative system in the vacuum left by the Assad regime. The challenges these pro-democracy groups face vary significantly between the two provinces. Nonetheless, the greatest threat to a successful civil administration comes from the Assad regime and Islamist factions who are trying to nip any democratic system in the bud because it threatens the arbitrary rule they promote.

In Aleppo, the prospects for civil society initially appeared promising in Aleppo, where rebel groups liberated extensive parts of the city and surrounding countryside from regime control in late 2012. Opponents of the regime designed an effective and democratically elected provincial council, and civil society groups assumed many of the roles and responsibilities once unscrupulously carried out by entities loyal to Damascus. The Aleppo-based civil administration successfully performed many of the state’s duties and public services, stopped armed groups from committing violations against Assad’s remaining supporters in the area, and enjoyed wide support from other regional revolutionary councils.

Faced with the real threat of losing Syria’s largest urban area and commercial hub, the regime forces laid siege to the city, indiscriminately attacking Aleppo with warplanes, barrel bombs, and heavy artillery, all while sowing the countryside with land mines. Additionally, Assad directly targeted the provincial council’s headquarters, severely damaging its ability to work in an efficient and effective manner. Thousands of civilians, faced with certain death should they remain in their homes, fled Aleppo in the first waves of what became the mass exodus from Syria’s industrial capital. Rather than combatting the Islamic State (ISIS)—which since 2013 has rapidly expanded its control of the province’s rural areas and remains engaged in fierce battles for additional territory—as Assad has repeatedly claimed, the regime has systematically dismantled and destroyed Aleppo’s moderate opposition and civil society under the pretense of fighting terrorism.

Salim, the pseudonym of a member of Aleppo’s provincial council, speaks mournfully about what could have been, “We (civil society and local governance groups) were able to restore electricity to most neighborhoods and reopen schools. Shoppers once again flocked to streets packed with vendors and salesmen, and the markets were busy. If the international community had only instituted the no-fly zone, Aleppo would be free today, and nearly a million people would not have fled to Europe.”

In rural Idlib, opposition forces freed most areas from Assad control in late 2012 and early 2013, giving physical and administrative space for local councils to form. When representatives from different local councils began coordinating, they agreed to establish a provincial council as an umbrella structure. However, Idlib’s provincial council was unable to achieve the same degree of success as its Aleppo counterpart. The then recently formed Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and interim government put external political pressure on it, damaging its grassroots basis. The infighting that plagued the national bodies in exile carried down to the provincial council, further harming its effectiveness. Similarly, the politicking and fighting between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated armed groups and moderate Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Suqur al-Sham carried down to the local councils.

Moreover, local councils in Idlib have suffered from a lack of leadership since their establishment. The Muslim Brotherhood sent a representative to the local councils to ensure their presence in this key area, but they never got buy-in from local civilian activists. Meanwhile, armed groups sharing little else in common other than their opposition to Assad forced their members onto local councils in every city and town, such that local councils became more concerned with waging war than managing civil services.

The situation for civil administration worsened when the Nusra Front and Jund al-Aqsa—two Islamist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda—expelled many of the effective, FSA-affiliated armed groups that received support from United States, including Jabhat Thuwwar Suriya and Harakat al-Hazm. Extremist groups solidified their control of the region and sought to Islamize its laws and collective character. Though Islamist factions did not prevent local councils from operating, they categorically prohibited members of the SOC and the interim government from participating in these assemblies. Contemporaneously, the SOC made no serious effort to move its headquarters or its work to Syria, and failed to demonstrate any tangible evidence as to why it could successfully replace Assad’s government.

As soon as the Islamist factions became a dominant force in northwestern Syria, they set forth establishing Shura councils staffed by armed militants and local elders who enjoyed a good reputation for respecting Islamic law. Though these newly formed bodies did not disband non-sectarian local assemblies, Shura councils with Islamist groups’ backing significantly weakened moderate local bodies by directly interfering in their affairs, monitoring their activities, and competing with them for public popularity. For example, the Shura councils receive complaints about local councils and their members, and have the power to dissolve a local council and replace it with one composed of of hand-picked individuals, as occurred in the city of Kafranbel this summer.

Soon after Jaish al-Fateh, a coalition composed mainly of different Islamist factions including the Nusra Front, succeeded in routing Assad’s troops from Idlib province between March and June of this year, it began working to solidify its presence on the ground. Accordingly, Jaish al-Fateh leadership established the Idlib Province Administration as its civil façade. It has begun opening annex offices at universities throughout the province to encourage students to enroll for the new school year, and administrating social and civil services throughout the province and city proper.

Though Jaish al-Fateh’s administrative profile continues to expand, and an honest appraisal of its capabilities and impartiality cannot yet be rendered, two facts are clear. First, it is staunchly opposed to the policies of the SOC and interim government. Second, it has yet to differentiate its role from the local councils originally founded by civil society activists in 2012 and 2013, which remain operational. Nonetheless, activists expect the Idlib Province Administration to eventually resemble civil administration at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. Run by Ahrar al-Sham, locals consider Bab al-Hawa to be fairly and effectively managed, especially in light of it being run an armed group.

Despite numerous challenges, civil society in Syria remains remarkably resilient. It represents the only chance to fulfill the 2011 revolution’s original goals, and is the lone alternative capable of viably replacing the Assad regime. The array of popular movements and local councils in which tens of thousands of Syrians are already participating serve as the very essence of any democratic system. The fact that the Assad regime, ISIS, and other Islamist factions have displayed such vitriol for Syrian civil society underscores just why it remains so important.

Nouriddin Abdo works in Idlib province, where he founded the organization Together for Community Development.