Since July, the rebel battalions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have increased their attacks on Damascus and Aleppo, while regime forces have reinforced garrisons in the cities with forces drawn from other areas. This has weakened government authority in the northern province of Aleppo, as well as in large swaths of Idlib, Daraa, Homs, Deir el Zour, and in the predominantly Kurdish regions. In the vacuum created by the regime’s absence, new self-governing structures are filling in. In August, I crossed the Turkish border cities of Kilis and Antakya into Syria twice and entered rebel-held Aleppo province and the towns of Binnish and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib, where the rebels have also claimed large tracts of territory. I wanted to see how the daily life of locals continued in the aftermath of the fighting and the regime forces' withdrawal.
The district of Al Bab in the broader province of Aleppo boasts a population of 200,000. Peaceful protests began there as early as April 2011—only three weeks after demonstrations first broke out nationwide—and they endured despite the government’s brutal crackdown. A year later, according to local accounts, the newly founded (first) FSA battalion in Al Bab started its armed uprising in April 2012, when the regime began its unprecedented use of force. FSA battalions eventually consolidated control of the area, chasing out 400 regime troops and a few tanks. The present fifteen FSA battalions stationed in and around the city recently united to form the Umawiyeen Brigade under the command by Zaher Sharaqad, the former commander of the Abu Baqr Battalion—Al Bab’s largest unit.
Now under FSA control but lacking access to public services, residents have been making do. In order to reestablish Al Bab’s city council, the various facets of society have been conducting forms of consensus-building with new stakeholders: revolutionary youth, elders (who kept open channels with regime authorities until their departure), and “educators” (some of the earliest backers of protests). I participated in three of the meetings where these various segments came together in sessions usually over two hours long. On the last day of my stay, August 11, mediations with the groups (conducted mainly by the youth team) seemed to bear fruit: the council’s 21 members agreed on a new structure of 36—twelve from each party—and concurred on issues to be tackled.
The author (second on left) with FSA fighters outside of Al Bab
According to Barry Albab, a local Aleppo activist, this compromise marked the town’s “first political victory.” Hozaife Taleb—another member of the new city council who represented “the youth”—argued that the city’s most important task would be to recreate the police force and ensure public safety, while also removing the FSA from the city center. Al Bab is currently readying for the election of its first “chief manager” after the withdrawal of regime authorities from the city. But with no reliable financial support (the battalions themselves are paid in part through donations), the area faces major problems in providing basic public services to its population.
Since declaring itself liberated, the city council has had—primarily out of necessity—to replace traditional state institutions. For example: in lieu of state courts (now vacant from the departure of Assad’s judges) the city council put in place "sharia courts" to fill the vacuum and provide a structure for justice and rule of law. So far, the courts have not heard cases, nor made rulings—or administered sentences. However, fatwas—Islamic law-based decrees and official policy opinions—have been issued to aid in the city’s administration. Half a dozen qadis have stepped in, though court logistics are still being determined. Prior to the establishment of the sharia courts, the 15-battalion Umawiyeen Brigade set up a 15-member “religious council, ” with each battalion submitting a civilian representative from its respective town to provide oversight for the founding of the sharia courts and establish a roadmap for their functioning. With its mission complete, the fifteen-member body has since been disbanded.
During a visit to the courts in August, I met one of these qadis, Mr. Osama Zo'aiter, who noted that one theft and one murder case are pending before sharia courts. According to Zo’aiter, members of the now-disbanded religious council were popular among the people and have been pro-revolution from the beginning; he did not, however, explain how its members were selected by the FSA battalion. Zo’aiter himself does not have any formal law training, nor was he a member of the religious council itself, but he insists that he has plenty of experience—enough to conduct judicial business according to his personal study of Islamic law. He was also more than ready to share his vision for the post-Assad period; Zo’aiter thinks that Syria should stick with democracy, though it should reject secularism and allow sharia to make up the essence of the new country. “Alawis and minorities can run their own courts,’’ he said—conceding that, if it had to, Syria could “live with” secularism (something that many citizens identify with Assad).
The author with Osama Zo'aiter, one of the sharia court qadis in Al Bab.
Born out of necessary, sharia courts are quickly becoming a fixture of local governance. Furthermore, there is the wide expectation and hope within the community that sharia courts become institutional, as they stand a stark contrast to Assad’s secular regime. And more broadly, the desire to create a markedly Islamist form of governance is undeniable; a number of Syrian activists and locals I spoke to regard Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be a near perfect model—Zo’aiter is yet another. It remains to be seen if this reflects the broader opinion of Syrians or that of a single isolated community.
Later in August, I made my second crossing to Binnish—a town 10 kilometers northeast of Idlib. Unlike Al Bab, the town had little to show in terms of self-rule. Assad’s forces left Binnish in November 2011, when a few hundred troops with half a dozen tanks came into town—arresting some activists, only to leave a short while later. Before the uprising Binnish had 40,000 inhabitants. That number has been more than halved due to regime attacks and arrests, though the town has also experienced an influx of about 900 families—mostly from Damascus and Hama—fleeing violence elsewhere.
Throughout most of 2012, an FSA commander governed Binnish and used his unit as a security force to preserve public safety. Several locals I had a chance to speak with stated that they would have preferred any governing body to Assad’s forces, and that things are better off under FSA rule. Though lacking an overall structure for governance as in Al Bab, a number of people in the surrounding villages carry out smaller scale forms of civic arbitration out of their homes. Unable to select a civil council and to fill in the gap left by the regime, locals—typically pro-revolution—have since quibbled over the lack of leadership, and tensions between and among the local Islamist and moderates have been on the rise. In one particular incident during my visit to a local organization of about 300 youth (referred to as the “Binnish Youth Organization”) Abu Anas—a member of the group and a leading activist—explained how the moderates are experiencing increasing tensions from the town’s Islamists. The youth group has proudly emphasized unity among different sects and ethnicities in Syria—including Alawis—through a biweekly publication and with public demonstrations, but now is witnessing pressure from conservative members of the community. Salafis have started visiting the organization’s media center, asking its members to join their ranks, and condemning the organization’s “embrace” of Alawis—and for not being “good Muslims.” According to Abu Anas, Salafis comprise only a small percentage of FSA militants in Binnish, but they are extremely organized and disciplined—as well as equipped with better arms.
Author in the house of Ismail Safi, commander of the Mujahidini fi-Sabilillah, town of Nahle. Safi is the bearded man in green, left of author.
Conclusion: Jebel al-Zawiya
Thirty kilometers from Binnish and 10 kilometers from the center of Idlib, the mountainous area of Jebel al-Zayiwa is also under FSA control. One battalion (called mujahidini fi-sabilillah, or “The Fighters on God’s Path”) defends the town of Nahle and is under the command of Ismail el-Safi, who oversees about 200 men and whose unit is part of one of the FSA’s largest brigades—the “Damascus Eagles.” There are five brigades—twenty battalions—around Idlib, and are all still struggling with regime forces.
Besides defending Nahle, like other many other katibahs, the Mujahidini fi-Sabilillah sends reinforcements to other battalions when there are clashes with the regime army—lately in and around Ariha. FSA militants in this area go to nearby villages where bakeries still operate and distribute bread to houses. Even with this sort of outward display, it remains almost impossible to objectively assess the level of local support for the FSA. What is telling, however, is that of the dozen battalions I encountered, fighters were locals and appeared to get on well with noncombatants.
Breadline in Bleen, Idlib province
Contrary to the situation north of Aleppo—where the FSA has a firm control over its territories—northern Idlib’s is in constant flux; main roads between the towns are unsecured and thus carry bigger risks to move on. Daily artillery bombardments continue (as do airstrikes) and, as a consequence, survival has taken clear precedence over organizing for self-rule. Absence of leadership gives way to pronounced divisions among various factions—at the local levels—and civilians face enormous challenges in creating a governing body that will effectively enforce a local peace.
I found the sustainability of these newly-found freedoms questionable. A litany of issues plague the FSA and even the most developed of local self-ruled towns: rising sectarian tension, infighting, lack of leadership, and a dearth of resources. Simply put, the militias in these areas are inadequately armed—especially against the regime’s increasing air attacks. Of more than half a dozen members of the youth organization I had a chance to talk with, the main complaint was always the same: lack of logistical help from the outside.
My conversations, interviews, and observations in two weeks on the ground have reinforced my opinion that the quest for self-rule is well-rooted and real. But while the international community wants to see a better Syria in a post-Assad period, the present form of Syria’s conflict poisons the possibility of a quick transition to a constellation of self-ruling structures in the capillary towns. The small steps that have been taken thus far fall short of ensuring long-term success, and whether these ad hoc political and judicial structures will be able to evolve into a new national government is not yet clear.
Ilhan Tanir is the Washington correspondent for the Turkish daily Vatan.
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