Aleppo's elected council ignored as foreign funds go elsewhere

Syria's most-developed rebel government is struggling for legitimacy because it can't afford to provide public services. Foreign aid is going to fighters, NGOs instead.

A view of a street filled with rubble and damaged buildings in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood April 28, 2013.

Abu Araf lives under the Syrian opposition’s most well-developed transitional government, complete with elected officials. But with most residents still turning to a patchwork of aid groups and fighting units for support and leadership and with electricity running only a few hours a day, it hardly feels like there is a government in charge – especially not one for which he and so many other Syrians have risked everything by joining the revolution.

In the two months since the government was officially seated, it’s done nothing for him, says Mr. Araf.

“Sometimes I have to fight with them to get what I need,” says Araf, who uses his own money to run an independent aid organization that provides food aid and helps maintain his neighborhood’s power grid. “If it continues like this I might have to close my aid office – not because I’ve run out of money, but because of these frustrations and problems I’m having.”

The city's newly formed Aleppo Administrative Council has struggled to establish itself as the legitimate seat of power in opposition territory. Lacking the funds to provide expected government services, it is limited to planning and organizing within its constituency, while aid organizations and well-funded fighting groups actually deliver.

As the opposition wrested control of large parts of Aleppo city and the surrounding province last summer, grassroots aid groups and Free Syrian Army units filled the void left by the disappearance of the Syrian government. Now, throughout the rebel-controlled city and the countryside, countless organizations do everything from repair infrastructure to run hospitals. 

Elected in Turkey

In March, after months of planning, opposition leaders gathered over the border in Gaziantep, Turkey, to create the Aleppo Administrative Council. The new officials were elected there to avoid the dangers of voting in a region still suffering heavy aerial and artillery bombardment, but returned to Syria immediately following the election.

The council officials were elected by representatives of the communities, rather than the residents themselves, so many don't know much about the council or what capabilities and resources it has. In most neighborhoods, residents are more inclined to seek help from fighting groups or local aid organizations, rather than the council. 

The council inherited a budget of $900,000 from its predecessor, the Transitional Revolutionary Council, to govern Syria’s most populous city and province, about the size of New Jersey and home to 4 million people. It was only enough to set up the administrative framework for the council and fund a few basic projects, such as street cleaning and repairing power lines.

Money running out

Officials have been searching for additional funding since the election. They are in talks with several potential donors, but they have yet to officially secure funding – and in about two weeks the government will run out of money. 

“It’s a big problem, but we must believe in God and trust that we will find help,” says Mohammad Yahia Nanah, head of the Aleppo Administrative Council. “I’m angry with the promises that the world has made but not acted on. I think they support Bashar more than the revolution.”

The council has started taxing bread (4 cents per 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds) to generate a modest amount of revenue for the government. It is also exploring the possibility of investing in projects such as acquiring electricity generators that could be used to sell power to factories. The effort would create both revenue for the government and much-needed jobs for local residents.

But right now the council lacks even enough money to make the initial investment.

"We’d get a profit from this project. Printing, plastic, and textile factories are ready to buy power if we can create the mobile generator, but this project requires a lot of money. It’s a financial problem," says the Aleppo City Council’s director of business management and planning who withheld his name for security reasons.

A startup feel

Faced with these financial limitations, the council has been constrained to fundraising, planning, and coordinating work with aid groups operating inside Syria.

“Our job doesn’t depend on money, it depends on the organization of these activities,” says Abdul Rahman, director of social and aid work for the Aleppo Administrative Council. “If we get money without first organizing, it will be a hopeless situation.”

The Aleppo city branch of the council is spread out over one large floor of an industrial building. Only thin particle boards separate the various sections. Both the layout and the fact that almost everyone is new to their job gives it more the feeling of a Silicon Valley startup in the late 1990s. And like any startup, the head of the city council, Abu Azouz, isn't sure if he'll still be here next month. 

"If no one supports us we will have to stop working. Even our backup plan to create a factory needs financial support to get started," he says. "If no one helps us maybe I will get a gun and fight. We will take our rights by force."

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