Aleppo takes first step toward post-Assad governance in Syria

Syria's Aleppo Province elected a local council this weekend, replacing an interim local government and taking a step toward restoring some semblance of order to the war-torn province.

Sarmad Al-Shamali/Shaam News Network/REUTERS
A Free Syrian Army fighter looks back while pointing his weapon at a police academy as smoke rises during fighting between FSA fighters and forces loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, on the outskirt of Aleppo, March 2, 2013.

Syrian opposition members elected a local council to manage civilian affairs in rebel-controlled Aleppo Province this weekend, taking a major step toward restoring governance to areas under its control.  

But it remains unclear how much funding will be available to the Syrian local administration council or if it will be able to win legitimacy among citizens being courted by a number of well-funded conservative Islamist groups that have flocked to Syria to fight alongside the opposition.

Conducting the election amid regular airstrikes and artillery and missile attacks, organizers opted to hold voting just over the border in the Turkish city of Gaziantep to avoid these and other security threats.

To make the election as representative as possible while still hosting it in a foreign country, Syrian committees in the towns and villages throughout the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo Province selected about 225 delegates who traveled to Turkey to cast the ballot for their district. In results announced on Monday afternoon, the 29 members selected to represent the opposition area of Syria’s largest city are all men and will begin work within the coming week. 

In Aleppo Province rebels control large swaths of the city and surrounding countryside, making it the only province capable of forming such a council right now. Here, more than anywhere else in Syria, the opposition has managed to establish its own civic structures, such as courts and police squads. With only loose central leadership, the province has been held together by these unofficial civilian and military councils, as well as a number of grass-roots humanitarian organizations.

The new council will be charged with formalizing many of these efforts to manage civilian life and provide services for the opposition-controlled areas. 

“This meeting is a historic event for the city and I also believe it is one for all of Syria,” says Abdul Rahman al-Haj, spokesman for the Syrian local administration councils. “This is the first freely elected democratic council in the freed or liberated areas. It will be the frame that will hold together the whole city within the liberated areas.”

The Aleppo Council will begin work with a budget of just $900,000, inherited from Aleppo’s now defunct Transitional Revolutionary Council, previously the largest civilian governance effort in the city. Most of the funding is expected to come from a patchwork of sources, including wealthy Syrian donors and Gulf states. 

Last week the United States pledged $60 million to help such local councils, but no one affiliated with the Aleppo Council has heard of plans for any portion of that money to reach them. It’s also unclear if they’ll receive any financial help from the Qatar-based Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is recognized as the legitimate representative of Syria in the international community. 

Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, tempered expectations that the coalition would offer any major financial support in remarks to the media as delegates cast their ballots last night.

“We get very little assistance and we don’t have really a lot of money, but some people are trying to help us. We hope we will be successful to finance the civil council of Aleppo soon,” Mr. Khatib told reporters. He also offered no clear indication that US money given to his coalition would reach the Aleppo Council.

The shortage of funding may make it difficult for the council to assert itself inside Aleppo, where a number of well-funded Islamist groups – who did not have representatives at the meeting – have curried favor among locals by providing aid and some semblance of order. Jihadists are said to make up about one-fifth of those fighting on behalf of the opposition, and many Syrians say they are among the best supplied. They are quickly gaining popularity among the general population for their effectiveness at helping people meet basic humanitarian needs. They often serve as the most reliable brokers when it comes to managing civic concerns.

Jabhat al-Nusra, an ultraconservative jihadist group fighting on the side of the opposition that was recently classified as a terrorist organization by the US, has even managed to gain the begrudging support of some Syrian moderates who disagree with its politics, but say it is among the most fair and trustworthy opposition armed groups.

Most of these Islamist groups have said they want to transform Syria into an Islamic state, though they often disagree on the particulars of what that would entail. Their exclusion from the council election could prove a hurdle as the council works to establish itself as the governing body in Aleppo. 

Without representatives from conservative Islamist and jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, it remains uncertain if these groups will accept and support the new council. And without their buy-in, it may prove difficult for the new council to effectively reach many of its constituents.

“Jihadists or extremists cannot be here because they don’t believe in democracy or the process of voting,” says Sameer Nasar, a member of the executive office of the Syrian National Council and a general member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. “It’s a big concern. I think there will be a conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra and this council and the activists.”

The hope among those who formed the council is that they will be able to provide civilians in Aleppo with a civilian government they can rely on and hold accountable for their basic needs, rather than the nearest Free Syrian Army unit. 

“We are doing all of this effort to fill the gaps of civilian services. We want to prevent any armed groups, not just Jabhat al-Nusra, from getting involved with civilian issues,” says Saad Wafai, former head of public relations for the now defunct Aleppo Transitional Revolutionary Council. 

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