An edited version of this piece was published at the National.
You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant binary choice, between Assad – a mass-murdering dictator who at least shaves – and the jihadist with the beard, the dripping knife, the global agenda. Which perhaps makes Assad the lesser evil. Yet the real choice being fought out by Syrians isn’t between the dictator and the jihadists (the two feed each other), but between various forms of violent authoritarianism on the one hand, and grassroots democracy on the other. The democrats deserve our support.
Interviewing activists, fighters and refugees for our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, we discovered the democratic option is very real, if terribly beleaguered. To the extent that life continues in the ‘liberated’ but brutally bombed areas – areas independent of both Assad and ISIS – it continues because self-organised local councils are supplying services and aid.
For example, Daraya, a suburb west of Damascus now suffering its fourth year under starvation siege, is run by a council. Its 120 members select executives by vote every six months. The council head is chosen by public election. The council runs primary schools, a field hospital, a public kitchen, and manages urban agricultural production. Its military office supervises the Free Syrian Army militias defending the town.
Amid constant bombardment, Daraya’s citizen journalists produce a newspaper, Enab Baladi, which promotes non-violent resistance. In a country once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’, today there are more than 60 independent newspapers and tens of free radio stations.
And as soon as the bombing eases, people return to the streets with their banners. Recent demonstrations against Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise) across Idlib province indicate that the Syrian desire for democracy burns as fiercely as ever. After five years of horror, protestors repeat the original revolutionary slogans of freedom and unity. Assad, having no answer to this, bombs the province’s marketplaces in reply.
Where possible (in about 45% of cases), the local councils are democratically elected – the first free elections in half a century. For the poor, these are the first meaningful elections in Syrian history.
A Syrian economist and anarchist called Omar Aziz provided the germ. In the revolution’s eighth month he published a paper advocating the formation of councils in which citizens could arrange their affairs free of the tyrannical state. Aziz helped set up the first bodies, in Zabadani, Daraya, Douma and Barzeh, all suburbs of Damascus.
He died in regime detention in 2013, a month before his 64th birthday. But by then, as the Assadist state and its services collapsed, councils had sprouted all over the country.
Some council members were previously involved in the ‘tanseeqiyat’ committees, the revolution’s original grassroots formations. They were activists, responsible first for coordinating protests and media work, then for delivering aid and medicine. Other members represented prominent families or tribes or, more often, were professionals selected for specific practical skills.
In regime-controlled areas, councils operate in secret. In Selemmiyeh, activist Aziz al-Asaad told us, security constraints meant that the council practised “the democracy of the revolutionary elite” – only activists voted.
But in liberated territory people can organise publically. Anand Gopal reported in August 2012 that the citizens of Taftanaz had elected professional councils – of farmers, merchants, teachers, students, judges, engineers, the unemployed – which “in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council … the only form of government the citizenry recognized.”
These are tenacious but fragile experiments. Some are hampered by factionalism. Some are bullied out of existence by jihadists.
Menbij, a northern city, once boasted its own 600-member legislature and 20-member executive, a police force, and Syria’s first independent trade union. Then ISIS seized the grain silos and the democrats were driven out. Today Menbij is called ‘Little London’ for its preponderance of English-accented jihadists.
In some areas the councils appear to signal Syria’s atomisation rather than a new beginning, the utter impossibility of reconstitution. Christophe Reuter calls it a “revolution of localists” when he describes ‘village republics’ such as Korin, in Idlib province, with its own court and a 10-person council, “WiFi on the main square and hushed fear of everything beyond the nearby hills.”
But Omar Aziz envisaged councils connecting the people regionally and nationally, and democratic provincial councils now operate in the liberated swathes of Aleppo, Idlib and Deraa. In the Ghouta region near Damascus, militia commanders were not permitted to stand as candidates. Fighters were, but only civilians won seats.
In Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, collectively known as Rojava, a similar system prevails, though the councils there are known as communes. In one respect they are more progressive than their counterparts elsewhere – 40% of seats are reserved for women. In another, they are more constrained – they work within the larger framework of the PYD, or Democratic Union Party, which monopolises control of finances, arms and media.
The elected council members are the only representative Syrians we have. They, and strengthened local democracy, should be key components in any serious settlement.
In a post-Assad future, local democracy could allow ideologically polarised communities to coexist under the Syrian umbrella. Towns could legislate locally according to their demographic and cultural composition and mood. The alternative to enhanced local control is new borders, new ethnic cleansings, new wars.
At very least, the councils deserve political recognition by the United States and others. Council members should be a key presence on the opposition’s negotiating team at any international talks.
And the councils deserve protection from Assad and Russia’s scorched earth – the first cause of the refugee crisis. Assad’s bombs hit the schools, hospitals, bakeries, and residential blocks that the councils are trying desperately to service.
If the bombardment were stopped the councils would no longer be limited to the business of survival. They could focus instead on rebuilding Syrian nationhood and further developing popular institutions.
In the previous decade, ‘democracy promotion’ was sometimes used as rhetorical justification for the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Of course that didn’t work out very well – ‘demos’ means ‘people’. Only the people themselves can build their democratic structures. And today Syrians are practising democracy, building their own institutions, in the most difficult of circumstances. Their efforts don’t fit in with the easy Assad-or-ISIS narrative, however, and so we rarely deign to notice.