Terms of Engagement

Civil Surge

Can Syrian moderates prove they'd do a better job of governing liberated areas than the Islamist opposition?


It is all too easy to tick off the things the United States and other Western actors might once have been able to do, but no longer can, to help the people of Syria in their nightmarish struggle against the regime in Damascus. They won’t establish a no-fly zone, because there has never been any will to do so. They won’t seriously arm moderate rebel brigades, because those moderates are swiftly losing out to extremists who would be almost certain to seize advanced weapons. They will, however, speak about — and perhaps even hold — a conference to discuss a political transition. But it won’t work, both because President Bashar al-Assad won’t leave power and because the extremists won’t accept a ceasefire.

One thing the West can do, however, is to help Syrians try to govern the liberated cities of the north, now threatened by the regime, by the foreign jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and by the chaos that comes with the collapse of municipal government. The one place where you really can find moderates is in civil society, which is full of dedicated young activists and trained professionals (as well as parasites, grifters and incompetents, of course). And the best way, or at least the most likely way, to tip the balance between moderates and extremists is to show Syrians that the former can provide better governance than the latter.

This is a threat which foreign jihadists recognize. When an ISIS brigade took control of the city of Raqqa earlier this year, they arrested as many as 3,000 local activists and confiscated their computers and other equipment, much of it provided by the United States. This so incensed local people that even ISIS got the message: the jihadists now tolerate (though they do not help) the local council which provides basic municipal services in the city. And the jihadists are themselves competing to provide basic services: According to a recent account, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist fighitng group with a strong presence in Raqqa, picks up the garbage, supplies water and electricity, bakes bread and distributes food. Local governance, in short, has become a prime site for the battle for Syrian hearts and minds.

The Obama administration now spends $250 million on non-lethal aid to Syrian groups, much of it to train and equip local councils and civil society activists like those in Raqqa. In some ways, the effort seems sadly marginal, since civilians cannot stand up either to regime shelling or to ISIS’s terror tactics. But the stark fact is that Syria is locked in a bloody stalemate which could last for years, and the millions of Syrians now left to govern themselves must learn to do so, and get the help they need to do so.

Virtually every liberated Syrian city now has a local council providing rudimentary services, and myriad private groups which receive and distribute food and medicine, document regime atrocities, and sometimes operate radio or even television stations. Part of the Obama administration effort, conducted by the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), is to coordinate that effort so that goods and services flow through the local councils and thus enhance the legitimacy of local government. The CSO and other agencies provide grants of up to several hundred thousand dollars for councils in big cities like Aleppo so that they can open schools or health clinics or build basic infrastructure, as well as lesser sums in small towns.

It is, by necessity, a bottom-up effort. Nagham Ghadri, an activist who runs an organization called Bahr (The Sea) told me that it’s all too clear that the Syrian National Coalition, the official political representative of the revolution, is not about to form a government inside Syria. Rather than wait, she’s hoping to reform local councils by holding democratic elections. She plans to start in Darkoush, a city in the northwest. Ghadri will send activists from village explaining such unfamiliar ideas as "election" and "citizen." She concedes, however, that she will instruct her canvassers not to use the word "democracy," which the medieval lunatics of ISIS view as Western devilry.

Indeed, very few of the many activists I spoke to during a week in southern Turkey put much stock in the Syrian National Coalition, though most also blame international donors for starving it of funds. I got a powerful dose of this acrimonious relationship at a conference for lawyers, judges and police officials held in the provincial capital of Gazientep. Laser al Zakri, a local representative of the council, asked for the floor and proceeded to insult everyone in the room.

"Our only true friend," he declared, "is Turkey. The others are just playing with us. Their tools are the civil society organizations in Syria, which are just trying to get more money from foreign donors." It turned out that al Zakri was miffed that he hadn’t been invited. One of the judges shot back, "The Syrian National Coalition does not represent the Syrian people; it does not represent the revolution. And we don’t need to get a security agreement from Turkey to open up a falafel shop."

It took an hour and a half for the fury to abate.

The conference, convened by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, helped clarify what outsiders can and cannot do. Several of the lawyers and judges I spoke to had been sidelined by the sharia courts established not just by ISIS but by other Islamist rebel groups. They proved to be less interested in proposals to re-establish judicial systems in their cities than in advice on documenting crimes by the regime and getting the attention (not very likely, they were advised) of the International Criminal Court.

The police, however, are a different matter. The major northern cities all have large contingents of police officers and ranking officials. Aleppo has 1,200 policeman, according to Steven Heydemann, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace who attended the conference. Heydemann believes that the police can serve as "the leading edge of the effort to consolidate some kind of moderate presence" in liberated areas. Indeed, one of the chief eminences of the event was former Brig. Gen. Imad Dohra, who had served as chief of police of the Alawite enclave of Latakia before defecting in 2012. Dohra was now working to cultivate local police forces in his home province of Idlib, and to tie them into a single administrative unit.

The Obama administration is already channeling operational funds through the Aleppo provincial council to the city’s Free Police, and supplying them directly with communications equipment. But Heydemann suggests a much more ambitious effort involving vehicles (for which the administration has yet to authorize funds) and weapons (which at the moment are not at all in the cards). The most essential service local government can supply, after all, is security, which in liberated Syria now depends almost entirely on local military commanders. Creating an effective police force, Heydemann argues, would not only provide a space of security in terrifyingly insecure cities but would help legitimize local government and might even create opportunities for lawyers and judges to start doing the work they trained for.

Every Syrian you speak to has a conspiracy theory to explain why the United States hasn’t come to their side: Syria has no oil. Syria is Israel’s enemy. Washington has cut a deal with Moscow. And so on. The reality is that it’s probably too late to win any hearts and minds among the Syrian people, anyway; in any case, the Obama administration has no intention of intervening decisively, or even dramatically, on the side of the rebels. But it can intervene more decisively on the side of the activists who are struggling desperately to sustain a decent and democratic vision of their wrecked country. It’s not enough; but for now, it will have to do.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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