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Dispatch from Syria: Can Rebels Learn to Govern?

ATMEH, Syria — A sprawling tent city has sprouted up here amid the sand-flecked hills and ancient olive groves. Giant tarps twist up into the branches as rivulets of contaminated water run below. A tank watches from down the road, which leads to the nearby Turkish border.

The twenty-two thousand Syrian refugees who live in this ragged tent community are conducting an improvised experiment in civil society. While running the nation’s largest refugee camp is not the same as running a nation, the attempt to mesh nation-building and humanitarianism in the Atmeh camp speaks to the dual challenge facing a post-Assad Syria.

Fittingly, at the time of my visit the camp was run by a former double agent. Sheikh Mohammad Zakour is a short, burly man with thick sideburns and a winning smile. Conscripted into mandatory military service just months before protests first broke out against President Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, Zakour soon found himself face-to-face with a growing revolution.

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“We came to Homs and saw it with our own eyes—how Assad’s soldiers treated women and children,” he says. “So on my first leave, there was a sheikh in our village, he asked me to stay with the regime and cooperate with the rebels.”

Zakour agreed. He spied on the movements of other regiments and “every time we had a chance, we’d steal ammunition from Assad’s army and give it to the rebels,” he said. About thirty soldiers were part of the covert operation, but Zakour defected after seven people were arrested and identified the rest of the group.

Now he is the “commando” of Atmeh, as one of his camp staffers called him when he joined me for bright, sunflower-yellow lentil soup on the floor of the kitchen unit. Running Atmeh is a big job. A former camp director, Yakzan Shishakly, told me it was like being “mayor for chaos area with no budget.”

After learning that he had specialized in Islamic law at Damascus University, I decided to sound out Zakour on the question of governance in a new, post-Assad Syria.

“At the time of Prophet Muhammad, there were all the other religions, and he was quite just with them—we will do the same, God willing,” he said. He believes sharia law can be reconciled with a more democratic system in Syria. Most Syrians, moderate Sunnis, agree; the nation has often been known for its religious diversity and tolerance.

As for experimenting with more democratic methods of governance, Zakour noted approvingly that “now some organizations are trying to establish typical villages” with local governance in rebel-held areas.

He was likely referring to various local council units, some of which have been organized by the main opposition group outside the country, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been recognized by many Western nations, including the United States, as the official representative of rebel-held Syria.

Under the coalition, these local councils are tasked with “re-establishing the concept of a Syrian state” from the ground up. The project is supposed to unfold in three stages—“formation, activation, and empowerment”—which spiral into a byzantine number of sub-stages from there. In fact, in areas won by the rebels, local councils, including military and revolutionary councils not affiliated with the coalition, quickly form themselves and begin the business of governing without paying much attention to the prescribed stages. Rania Kisar, an independent consultant who has been providing free management training to civic leaders in rebel areas for the past year and a half, told me that opposition forces outside “all claim that these local councils are actually under their supervision, but meanwhile, they’re really not.”

Hundreds of these units are now said to be operating in rebel-held areas. However, many struggle under leaders who came of age in Assad’s totalitarian state and struggle with the theory as well as the mechanics of self-governance.

Even so, some Syrians are already raising the alarm over threats to the new civic efforts already under way. One of them is Ghassan Yassin, a sharply dressed Aleppine I met on the sidelines of a Syrian American Council conference in Gaziantep, Turkey,
in late August.

The event mostly drew local leaders from around the country. They discussed the challenges facing their communities—how to protect makeshift hospitals in areas seeing heavy fighting, how to reconcile Islamic values with representative governance, how to get schools up and running again, and so forth.

Some council heads complained that local tribal leaders, accustomed to more authoritarian governance, did not respect their positions. It was also said that those with the most experience in management, bureaucrats under Assad, feared putting themselves forward. Other leaders complained that they couldn’t get various groups to cooperate if the money and salaries they promised them were not delivered. The councils they lead, the first of which formed in December 2012, are meant to serve as a sort of transitional interior ministry—a place where funds are allocated so that buildings can be repaired, electricity can be restored, food can be distributed, and communities can function. But hostility between them and the opposition’s main aid distribution unit (the Assistance Coordination Unit), which was established to assess their proposals and distribute a fund of some $20 million, was evident, highlighting the level of frustration with relief efforts in Syria as well as the fractious nature of the nation’s nascent political life. Kisar, echoing grievances expressed by local council leaders and activists working inside Syria, said the ACU “money that was derived from actual humanitarian aid went to buying political agendas.”

Nonetheless, there are efforts to cooperate. “Let’s be honest, to topple this regime [requires] . . . rebuilding the civic state that was stolen,” chief council program director Abdulhadi Tabbaa urged his disgruntled audience of local leaders, most of whom felt not enough help was reaching their impoverished communities. Don’t give in, he told them. Assad “wants to prove the Syrian people can’t rule themselves.”

But statecraft doesn’t come easily—particularly in wartime. “We are still not organized, distracted, un-empowered, with no organization,” complained another speaker, Izzat Baghdadi. There was a lot of talk like that. Indeed, it remains to be seen how these men (the number of female delegates could be counted on one hand) would share power and implement justice in a new Syria. “They love to talk,” a Syrian American Council member remarked. “They’re all budding politicians.”

Yassin was invited to the Syrian American Council’s conference in Gaziantep because he likes to talk, too. He had been demanding big changes in his city’s local election system. According to him, pro-revolution neighborhoods in Aleppo, a rebel-held city, should not get more representatives just because of their history of protest activity; similarly, candidates known for their loyalty to the rebel cause should not be politically advantaged over others.

Yassin was at the forefront of demonstrations against Assad nearly three years ago, so the existing criteria favored people like him, even though he argued against the privilege. There was no doubting his credentials: Yassin was arrested twice, his life was threatened, one of his brothers was killed by the regime, another by the rebel army. Right now he’s on television and platforms like Facebook (yes, you can access Facebook in some parts of Syria, thanks to satellite units erected by the opposition) calling for political reforms. “There’s five reasons to have a revolution in Tunisia and ten reasons to have a revolution in Egypt, and ten thousand reasons to have a revolution in Syria,” he laughs.

His activism started with the first whiff of the so-called Arab Spring. “I was the too-dumb guy who went on live television to announce that we’d be having a demonstration on the 10th of February, 2011, in solidarity with the uprising against [soon to be deposed Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak.” After this impromptu appearance, Yassin was promptly tracked by security forces, arrested, eventually released, and forced to flee the country in fear for his life. After the Free Syrian Army seized control of Aleppo, he returned to his hometown.

But he says he’s concerned about the way things are going in one of the first areas to free itself of Assad’s control. Yassin wants candidates to be elected to office because they are qualified for the position, not because of their alleged heroism during the war against Assad, so he is leading a media campaign to level the playing field for the coming vote.

The debate in Aleppo gets at the heart of the Syrian question: How will a nation that has been through years of war with itself work itself into statehood?

Yassin said he wants to see Syria become a “democratic, civil, pluralistic state.” But reconciliation is not going to come easy with “so many warlords and militias on both sides.”

 

An experiment in self-governance is clearly under way in Syria, but it is threatened by the overwhelming humanitarian crisis wrought by the war. It will take years, if not decades, for the nation to recover from the catastrophe, which grows larger with each passing day. At present, the relief that does reach Syrians on the ground is reportedly only a sliver of the billions donated by various nations, with overhead costs and sub-contractors eating up a majority of the funds. Human Rights Watch reported on September 5th that not even half the money needed to meet basic refugee needs had been delivered.

As a result, Syrians who might otherwise be founding new towns, rebuilding bombed ones, establishing newspapers, or running for office are instead delivering food baskets or staffing makeshift hospitals. The humanitarian crisis has unfortunately become Syria’s shadow tyrant—and one the world is engaging about as effectively as it has engaged Assad. One metric tells the story: a staggering ten million Syrians don’t have the medical care they need.

For all the enthusiasm about self-rule in Syria, Syrians are well aware that the collapse of the regime would vindicate Syria’s rebel armies and further empower them to take the law into their own hands, and that local political leaders who’ve been running war-ravaged communities may seek to tighten their grip on power instead of hold new elections. The National Coalition will offer a prescription for some cosmetic form of statehood, but their authority is questioned inside the country. Several people politically active inside Syria told me an independent government is forming itself on the inside, setting the stage for a potential standoff. But waiting in the wings is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an extremist group seeking to establish a pan-Arab Islamic empire, which has already moved into much of Syria’s north.

How united can any nation become after enduring three years of violence that has so far killed more than one hundred thousand people? The majority of the survivors in Syria are deeply scarred by the brutality of the regime’s psychological and physical assault—be they opposition activists who were spied on and betrayed to the state by loved ones, or parents who were sent their children’s corpses with their genitals cut out.

“It’s not even normal slaughter,” a Syrian lawyer working on behalf of the opposition told me in Gaziantep. “The way they are killing people is absolutely inhumane. People are being cut up while they’re still alive, burned while they’re still alive, raped. . . . Even worse than that is that a lot of the killing has been recorded on video and put online.”

 

In this barbaric environment, the people behind the very first nonviolent protests against Assad are likely to be those most committed to governance that respects fundamental freedoms.

Among them was twenty-one-year-old Omar Zakour, a Free Syrian Army soldier who served as one of my “minders” during my visit to the Atmeh camp. Zakour didn’t seem like a soldier. The day we met, the ruddy-faced youth from Idlib was wearing a bright red “The Million Marijuana March” T-shirt and jeans, no weapon in sight. In contrast to many of his war-scarred comrades, Zakour was rather sanguine. “We cannot just stand still and do nothing,” he said. “We need to work, to live, to rebuild Syria as it was.”

But his cousin Ali worried that things in Syria could go the way of Syria’s largest refugee camp. “We need democracy, and such a thing is not happening in Atmeh,” he said.

The camp is currently run by individuals selected by a board that is appointed by the Free Syrian Army. Baleegh, the head chef for the camp, dismissed concerns about this non-representative situation. “The people here are living in a desperate situation,” he said. The camp has also become a magnet for the nation’s beggars and lowlifes.

But he admits that the frequent threats of violence and intermittent demonstrations in the camp, as well as the rough treatment of children, does worry him. “We are afraid that what’s happening in this camp will be moving and transitioning into Syria,” he said.

Zakour was more optimistic. When people go back to their old lives, he said, things will start to stabilize, national institutions will be established, and a new constitution will be adopted. “Once we activate this in the right way, we will have a new economy” led by a new Syrian state, which he envisioned as an “elected government—elected by the people.”

It’s all about activation—which is where independent press comes in. A new newspaper just started up in the northwestern rebel-held town of Kafranbel, while other liberated communities have been producing their own one-page, broadsheet-style missives. In just one diverse Damascene suburb called Youbroud, three independent papers have arisen to serve the mixed population, according to Syrian journalist Moaz al-Shami. In some places, when there isn’t enough ink to go to press, “some civil people who are responsible for the newspaper [will] take the microphone in [the] mosques [and say], ‘Please, sorry people, we don’t have the newspaper this week because we don’t have ink, we don’t have paper.’” Shami poses as a trucker to smuggle in ink and paper and satellite units into some rebel-held areas near the capital. Such activity is not always welcomed by authorities even on the rebel side. Shami says, “When the Free Syria Army makes any mistake, they write it in the newspaper and on Facebook!” Often, the fighters are not pleased, but have had to accept it. They have threatened people, including Shami, with violence or forced eviction, a response he said shows how deep “regime thinking” goes.

“That is the problem with the regime, there’s no one in the regime [who] criticized the regime,” he said. “No, I’m with the Syrian revolution, but the Free Syria Army [may] have a mistake. And our opposition in Istanbul [may] have many mistakes. And also, we as activists and journalists, we have many mistakes. . . . The problem is, how to change the mind in the community.” He believes journalism can jump-start critical enquiry in Syria and challenge mistaken thinking.

Rania Kisar, the management consultant, is on a similar mission. She describes her work as helping “my people learn what it’s like to be free.” Taking refuge in Turkey after a missile strike threw her a hundred feet and left her injured two weeks ago, Kisar’s work over the preceding fifteen months took her to communities throughout the war-ravaged nation. A no-nonsense, blonde-haired thirtysomething born in Damascus and educated in the US, Kisar coaxes local leaders into her seminars on civic leadership by showing up at their doors (if they have them) with food baskets. According to her, it will only take a week for Syrians to establish governance after Assad falls because “we have been learning, on the inside, how to form a new government.”

“And it’s not going to be from those who are outside,” she added. “We have very intelligent people in Syria, but they are quiet now. We have true leaders in Syria. They’re not bringing out their voices, and nobody knows about them yet, and those are the people who control what’s going on, whether it’s a peaceful movement or a military movement.”

One such leader may be a man named Mohammad Sabra. The day I met him he was sporting a shamrock-green polo shirt, his hair vaguely reminiscent of James Dean’s. Speaking in gasps of growling Arabic, he said: “It’s up to the Syrian people to restructure the mechanisms that are in place under this government, and run them properly so as not to give America any excuse to step in and be like, ‘Oh, we have to show you how to do this properly,’” he said.

In fact, such programs are already under way. The US State Department says it is trying to “empower” Syrian women “to play a more active role in transition planning,” for example, and has just started a new training program for a Syrian police force. But even though Sabra himself works on behalf of a foreign-backed organization, the main opposition group’s Local Administration Councils Unit program, he continues to have reservations about outsiders’ influence.

“There’s no such nation as a nation that just wants to do good,” he told me in Gaziantep, a city south of his office in Istanbul. “If they’re doing something like training cops or training military, it’s because they want to protect their interests in the area.”

Sabra, who lives temporarily in Turkey because there’s a warrant out for his arrest at home, has become a guiding presence in local council leaders’ attempts to feel their way to democracy. “The definition of democracy to Syrians is the type of parliament we had that was in Syria in the ’30s and ’40s, prior to this regime,” Sabra told me, describing the short-lived parliamentary democracy in effect after Syrian independence in 1946. The experiment was cut short by a Russian-backed military coup three years later, followed by the Baath Party power grab, which sought the establishment of a pan-Arab socialist state, setting the stage for the Assads’ Alawite dynasty.

“The thing I fear the most,” Sabra said, “is the hatred that Assad has been implanting in people through the onslaught of the past three years.” He thinks the judiciary will be key for a new Syria, but the court in the Atmeh camp is rarely used. Most people keep weapons in their tents to feel safe. (They used to walk around carrying them, until camp leaders initiated a disarmament campaign.)

Atmeh already has one school, and another one under construction, but there’s only one therapist for the camp’s twenty-two thousand people. Other needs are better met. The kitchen is impressive, featuring a half-dozen bathtub-sized cauldrons. Many refugees are being employed by camp institutions, notably the medical establishment. Even an economy of sorts has emerged—some tents sell fruits and vegetables, others clothing and shoes. About half the residents have some kind of gainful employment, legal or otherwise. Smuggling is big.

The camp recently trained students for their high school exams and shuttled them over to Turkey to take them. In other areas in Syria, education efforts are also under way. Aleppo Province recently kicked off a high school exam program and has enlisted four thousand volunteer teachers.

“This is the whole point, we have a new generation,” Baleegh, Atmeh’s head chef, said. “We are raising a new generation in free areas. We can open schools, teach them love, teach them tolerance. In other regions, they don’t have schools. So students don’t listen to anything except the sound of shelling. This is the only thing. We need to get them out of this atmosphere and teach them something new. Keep the revolutionary principles, everything, and freedom, but we should teach them love, and how to love life. And how to be peaceful with other people.”

There was an urgency to his words that I had also sensed at the half-built school I visited earlier that day. A cluster of squat, empty, square structures, it seemed like a ghost town amid all the bustling tents. I stooped inside a classroom and tried to visualize bright-eyed Syrian kids sitting on the new concrete floor.

Look, said my guide, his long, dark finger tracing a large circle on the new, bright white wall. I was told it was where the blackboard was supposed to go, “Insha’Allah.” The translation of this oft-invoked Arabic phrase, a kind of shorthand serenity prayer, captures the spirit of those seeking self-rule in Syria today—“God willing.”

Kristin Deasy is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

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