Report Summary: The Local Administration in Deir Ezzor

This summary based on the Justice for Life Organization report which describes a number of potential reforms for the governorate of Deir Ezzor in Syria once a political solution allows it to reintegrate into the state. The future of the Syrian state remains unclear, but in its current form is no longer the centralized power it was prior to 2011.

Local and regional councils and administrations currently operate and may continue to do so in the future as reconstruction and reform take precedence over complete governance. Essential services provided by local and regional councils are vital to local residents especially in healthcare, electricity, and water. Reforming and further improving the local Deir Ezzor administration could act as a model for other governorates and local councils under a new or reformed government in Syria.

The population of Deir Ezzor is approximately over 600,000 people from six sub-districts, eight towns, and forty-eight villages with abundant natural resources including oil fields, gas plants, salt mines, grain silos and sugar mills. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) took control of the majority of Deir Ezzor province in July 2014 along with the administrative institutions and natural resources. Areas ISIS did not control it besieged including three cities and the military airport. Infrastructure and natural resources were damaged due to the increase of aerial bombing from regime forces, allies, and the US-led coalition targeting ISIS. This has caused the displacement of the Deir Ezzor population to Damascus, Hasakah, Idlib, and Aleppo provinces and even Turkey. Civilians are subject to the violent rule of government forces, in addition to constant shelling by Islamic State rockets. Attacks during January of this year have left drinking water, fuel and food scarce, forcing civilians to drink untreated water from the Euphrates. According to JFL’s report this rapid degradation and subsequent humanitarian crisis could have been prevented with comprehensive local governance reforms. Due to the instability brought on by ISIS, lack of local structures, and dependence on the state, reform is imperative to stabilize the region.

The two primary points areas of reform are:

1.       Deir Ezzor must align administrative and legal in a process of decentralization, and not just political decentralization. That is to say, it is not enough for the governorate and sub districts to have their own courts, police forces, elections, etc. It must have an administration run and governed by local Deir Ezzor civilian residents who are accountable to their fellow citizens.

2.       The military or security forces cannot carry the responsibility for assigning new administration to liberated areas. The councils put in place would inherently be less democratic, accountable and legitimate in the eyes of local citizens.

Previous research on local governance found that the inability to pay salaries led to local professionals, academics, and administrators not participating. Additionally, the reluctance to get involved with politics has created an overreliance on Assad-regime officials and institutions. Lack of executive power within local administrative councils caused indecisiveness, resource mismanagement, and lack of security. Despite these problems, the majority of locals surveyed are in favor of reviving local councils, around 80.3 percent, because of the essential services, healthcare, electricity, water, and humanitarian relief that local councils provide which are not provided by the Syrian government.

However, the local governance of Deir Ezzor and similar areas have never been able to gain an adequate level of operation independent of the Assad regime. The high level of centralization in the Syrian government has caused localized administrations to suffer due to instability. Future attempts at building these administrations must have a codified legal framework and a system by which local officials are elected and held accountable for their practices. There also needs to be a framework for managing the natural resources of the region so that the governorate budgeting office is held responsible for funding these services.

Establishing this structure must occur in two phases: The first is to support the civilians recently released from the control of the Islamic State and help to rebuild infrastructure and prepare a vision of the governorate’s new public institutions. Secondly, establishing subsidiary primary councils for districts and sub-districts is necessary, as well as secondary councils for towns and municipalities. The local councils would also need to establish a “stabilization committee” of professionals to conduct economic, infrastructural, and demographic reviews. Additionally, there would need to be a “peace committee” made up of tribal and community leaders to prevent family-related revenge attacks and mitigate conflicts between groups. Heads of new executive offices in local councils would also all have to be university degree-holders in towns with populations above 100,000.

Additionally, reform is needed for the relationship between the military and local councils. According to the report, the regional and international military are likely the main forces to remove ISIS and the siege within the province. The role of the military after that point must be to ensure security and return administrative control of the province back to the local councils in place that continue to represent and provide services to the citizens. Manbij and Jarablus removed ISIS from its areas through military force, but the military established separate local councils not representative of the local population causing further instability in the area. It is crucial that military forces relinquish control of the areas after removing ISIS and focus on the security and implementation of local council decisions.

To ensure these reforms take place, it is essential that adequate funding is available for the first and second phases. Rebuilding essential infrastructure in addition to institution reform is necessary to re-develop Deir Ezzor to a functioning and vibrant province.  This support is likely to originate from the Syrian interim government or regional and international donors. This financial support is the beginning of practical steps to ensure that local councils continue to serve the needs of its citizens. Political support and legitimacy of local councils is essential to the continuation of institution building for the Deir Ezzor governorate. The alignment of legal and administrative control as well as decentralization of the governorate will ensure accountability and allow justice to prevail. With the military returning to its role of security and enforce, administrative and legal control can return to local councils to continue to meet the needs of the people.

Husayn Hosoda is an intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Deir Ezzor street on January 1, 2011 taken by Jose Javier Martin Espartosa