Residents cast ballots in Saraqib, Idlib Province, Syria, July 2017

Anand Gopal writes for The New Yorker:

The province of Idlib, a pocket of rolling olive groves and shimmering wheat fields in northern Syria, is home to three million people who, since 2015, have been effectively trapped. They live in the country’s last remaining opposition enclave, amid a chaotic assortment of rebels, the most powerful of whom are religious fundamentalists.

Last year, the US special envoy Brett McGurk called Idlib “the largest Al Qa’eda safe haven since 9/11″. Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad has vowed to launch an invasion of Idlib, which could subject its cinder-block towns and villages to rockets, barrel bombs, cluster bombs, even chemical weapons. This could spark a refugee crisis of historic proportions, driving millions of people into Turkey and Europe.

Idlib residents, in the meantime, must continue to live on a capricious battlefield with no rule of law and no clear governing authority. In the summer of 2017, for the first time anywhere in Syria since 1954, the residents of the town of Saraqib decided to seize control of their future—and hold a genuinely free election.

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Daring to Vote

On the morning that polls were to open, an activist named Osama al-Hossein woke up at five o’clock, feeling anxious. He soon headed to Idlib Gate, a former department store that had been turned into a meeting hall. A small crowd was milling about: local journalists, election monitors, and suited dignitaries who, in international circles, represented the Syrian opposition. The election was meant to choose the leader of the Local Council, a civilian body that governed the town. Poll workers checked their phones for reports of air traffic: Syrian and Russian jets were known to attack public gatherings, and activists had posted sentries around the province.

Hossein, who was thirty-five, had the deeply lined face of a man well acquainted with long nights of coffee and cigarettes. Before the war, he’d been an accounts manager at a cement company, but in recent months he’d been volunteering to organize the polls. He later admitted to me that, given the circumstances, holding a popular election was a “crazy idea”. He had attended campaign meetings for his preferred candidate, a lawyer named Ibrahim Bareesh, inside a makeshift bunker, sitting near a wall of sandbags. He’d helped organize debates, live-streamed on Facebook, in which five candidates sparred over the breakdown of the local electricity grid and over rapidly escalating food costs — some argued for price controls, others for the free market. Hossein and other volunteers had conducted a local census, distributed pamphlets, and recruited poll monitors. Thousands of voters had registered, but nobody was sure how many would turn out. Danger emanated not only from the sky but also from the concertina-wire-crowned berms and highway checkpoints ringing the town — areas under the control of Al Qa’eda.

The polls opened at eight-thirty. The sun was already powerful, but the streets were empty, the iron shutters on storefronts not yet drawn. No campaign posters hung on the town’s walls, because the candidates could not afford them. Hossein hauled eight glass ballot boxes to schools that were serving as polling stations. When he was done, he waited outside al-Baneen High School, the streets droning with generators. After an hour, the first voters trickled in. He then visited al-Salam school, where a few women were forming a line. A dizzying realization set in: people were actually coming.

Hossein saw friends, relatives, and a steady stream of people he didn’t know, including a 70-year-old man voting for the first time in his life. At noon, Hossein returned to Idlib Gate, which was now crowded. The three-star flag of the 2011 Syrian revolution hung between pillars. Plates heaped with roasted chicken, potatoes, and rice were passed around. Someone loaded a cassette by the local singer Ahmed al-Tellawi into a tape deck, and the poll workers and Hossein began to dance.

By the early evening, voting lines were spilling onto the street. Two candidates remained on the ballot for the Local Council presidency, and their camps had gathered at Idlib Gate; as the returns came in, they broke into an argument. The election bylaws, which Hossein had helped design, stipulated that, if turnout failed to reach fifty per cent, voting would be extended for a day. Bareesh’s rival, who sensed that he was ahead, demanded that the polls close. As workers huddled in a corner, counting votes, Hossein shuttled between the opposing camps, trying to persuade them to abide by the regulations. When an election worker announced that turnout was 55%, the room erupted in cheers.

Hossein was bone-tired, but he wanted to celebrate. While poll workers tabulated the results, he went with friends to a farmhouse outside town. On the porch, under the pale glow of a fluorescent light, they put meat on the grill and opened a bottle of Grant’s 25. Hossein could not believe what they had accomplished. The 2011 uprising had begun with peaceful protesters demanding reforms, but, as the government cracked down and rebel factions arose, the country entered a death spiral: bullets, barrel bombs, beheadings. One Syrian town after another fell out of government control, and from this anarchy new horrors arose. The flags of isis and Al Qaeda were raised across the country. Child refugees drowned at sea; Western hostages were murdered on camera. Syria seemed to have descended into barbarism, and, in the eyes of the international community, the harsh stability of the Assad dictatorship came to appear reasonable, even desirable. Syria was said to illustrate the folly of imagining, in a region riven by religion and ethnicity, that a better world was possible.

Somehow, Saraqib had avoided this fate. It offered an alternative history for the entire Syrian conflict — and, Hossein believed, its citizens embodied the true soul of the revolution. That evening, he imagined other tiny democracies flowering across Syria, and the rest of the world coming to understand, at last, that his country had more to offer than bloodshed and tragedy.

When he returned to Idlib Gate, at around 3 a.m., an election official announced the victor: Bareesh’s opponent, a lawyer named Muthanna al-Muhammad. Applause rolled across the room. The results mattered less than the fact that citizens had taken part in a ritual of democracy. People were in tears. Even though Bareesh had lost, Hossein received hugs and handshakes.

Just then, the doors swung open and a pack of men entered, clutching weapons and looking panicked. Hossein recognized them as local rebels who supported the election. “Everyone get out!” one shouted. “Make yourself safe!” As everyone in the hall rushed toward the door, news swept the room: Al Qaeda was storming Saraqib.

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