PHOTO: A local council in opposition-held district of Aleppo city:
Alexander Starritt writes for The Guardian:
While we bomb Islamic State and [Mayor of London] Boris Johnson advocates supporting Assad for the sake of stability, we ignore the people who right now are running the only version of Syria that is neither a dictatorship nor a murderous caliphate, and that embodies a riposte to them both.
In the “free areas” of Syria loosely held by the moderate opposition, there has been essentially no central government since the revolution four years ago. In this vacuum grassroots local councils have emerged and are providing essential public services such as water, electricity, education, and health care.
This year, every provincial council in this network was — albeit with many inconsistencies and imperfections — democratically elected. That this has happened in a country with no living tradition of democracy, where the Ba’ath Party has been in power since 1963, is remarkable.
In the midst of war, the moderate opposition is trying to build a state from the ground up, and they see themselves as laying the foundations on which Syrians may one day construct a government that is accountable to the people. Their work means that the battle for Syria is not the duel between Assad and ISIS that we have come to think of in the west.
But even though the US State Department has recently allocated them $100 million, their situation remains parlous, to say the least. Part of the trouble is getting the money through, because banks are understandably uneasy about setting up new accounts, and the State Department is understandably nervous about bags of cash ending up in the hands of its enemies.
We tend to imagine help in terms of humanitarian aid and, though that is a matter of life and death, it is surely to the moderate opposition that we must lend our strength if Syria is ever to become a workable country again. They are crucial because, after four years of misery and confusion, people just want to go where things are stable and their children can attend school. As one council member told me: “Anyone who will give you a safe shelter, you will go there.”
One response is to flee the country. But, as The Guardian’s reporting has just highlighted, even Isis is trying to build a credible alternative, a functioning state with “cadres of administrators”. By characterising it as a fanatical death cult, we underestimate just how serious it is. In Raqqa, it has a consumer protection office and is said to have built an ice-cream factory as part of a job creation scheme.
In the struggle to assert legitimacy, both Isis and Assad single out the councils for attack. An NGO official who works with the councils told me about persistent assassinations and proudly said they were “Number Two on ISIS’s hate list” behind the US-led coalition. A councillor in Deraa, in the south of the country, told me about regime forces trying to bomb their meetings, saying, “I was there when it was targeted by air-bombing, not once, not twice, but more than 10 times. Luckily, if it doesn’t hit you exactly in the head, you will be safe.”
Dropping our own bombs on ISIS may well usefully damage its military capabilities, but the only lasting victory will come by ending the chaos that allowed it to flourish in the first place. That is also the only means, since it seems we are so shamefully unwilling to accept them, of stopping Syrians from emigrating towards us.
To end the chaos, what is needed is infrastructure, public services and effective government. That may lead people like Johnson to look to Assad as the person best placed to offer a stability that does not involve Isis. But what a betrayal it would be of the things we believe in. Not least because these local councillors will presumably be put up against a wall if the regime ever gets its hands on them again.
But over and above that, the councils are our natural allies and our allies in fact, and we cannot continue to overlook the people who are trying to construct the kind of Syria we want to see. If our country spent as much time talking about local councils as it does about the brutality of the caliphate, we might work out how to offer them some more meaningful help.