In Syria, local councils—city-based governance structures generally operating in areas held by the opposition but also present in Kurdish regions—have proliferated in areas where government control has receded. These councils base their legitimacy on Legislative Decree 107, a decentralization law passed in Damascus in August 2011 as part of a package of legislative reforms to appease the popular protests that had spread across the country. The decree has become an established part of the Syrian political landscape and could provide the basis of a potential framework for a post-conflict Syria. The Syrian constitution Russia proposed in January during the ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, contains provisions outlining precisely the type of decentralized system enshrined in Decree 107.
Decree 107 has since been a key component of ongoing peace negotiations in Geneva and enjoys wide support from the Syrian government, the opposition, and even external actors such as the United States and Russia. Despite its popularity, however, it remains unclear precisely how Decree 107 would be implemented on a national scale or how it would impact the political development of country. An empowered and expanded local council system may allow Syrians throughout the country to engage more directly with their government, but it may also form yet another layer of unaccountable bureaucratic control. Much depends on whether local councils will be representative of their constituencies (that is, democratically and transparently elected), and whether they are empowered with sufficient political authority to respond effectively to local needs and concerns.
Commonly known as the “Local Administration Law,” Decree 107 devolved a number of political responsibilities from the central government in Damascus to a combination of elected and appointed officials operating at regional and local levels. Many see this devolution of political authority as a mechanism that will allow all sides of the conflict to retain some degree of control over the areas under their jurisdiction and will introduce some degree of democratic governance at the local level. The Local Administration Law operates on two parallel tiers. First, it gives locally elected councils the political authority to finance and implement local development and community support projects, backed by a small portion of the state budget allocated to each governorate. In addition, at the governorate level, “provincial councils” deal with issues that affect individual governorates as a whole—but the centrally appointed governor maintains primary responsibility for ensuring that local efforts fall in line with national strategies and holds vague but broad authority over most affairs.
Though this structure marks a massive departure from the traditionally centralized Syrian state, in government-controlled areas it still exists mostly on paper. The ongoing military conflict—and the state’s according reluctance to cede authority to less stalwart local figures—has perpetually postponed enacting the decree.
The areas in which the provisions of Decree 107 have most been implemented are those under the control of various armed opposition groups, who have adopted a slightly modified form of the decree to empower the local council structure that has proliferated in northwestern Syria. In the absence of credible centralized authority, local councils have become the primary mode of civilian governance in opposition areas. These include local councils in cities and towns, “sub-local councils” in municipalities, and provincial councils in governorates, even though many of these are required to operate from neighboring countries due to limited control on the ground.
The opposition’s formal “interim government,” operating out of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, also contains a Ministry of Local Administration that ostensibly oversees the management of these bodies, despite mixed levels of recognition from the councils themselves. In addition to their disputes with formal structures of the opposition in exile, local councils have viciously battled with extremist armed groups in their areas, often competing for political legitimacy by controlling the provision of services and managing judicial processes.
As a consequence of these councils’ perceived power and legitimacy, many activists and reformists have come to see Decree 107 as a potential catalyst for future change in Syria. Given that Decree 107 is clearly desirable to many opposition-affiliated groups but remains acceptable to the government in Damascus, its implementation has become a central organizing principle for ongoing ceasefire negotiations. Even if negotiations do not pursue such proposals, political decentralization is still likely to be part of a future Syria to some extent, as other decentralization options have repeatedly been floated by various sides of the conflict. It is very likely that some extension or iteration of Decree 107 will form a key component of a final agreement between the government and the opposition.
However, views on the role and power of the bodies outlined in Decree 107 remain widely divergent. For example, one of the main differences between how the government and opposition conceive of the Local Administration Law concerns the role and authority of governors. The original decree grants wide powers and oversight to each province’s governor, an unelected official appointed directly by the president. In opposition areas, where no such political figure exists, most of that authority has been transferred to the provincial councils, which are at least ostensibly elected by citizens of that governorate. Similar divisions exist over the inclusion of the prime minister as the chair of the Supreme Council for Local Administration and this council’s authority over local proceedings. These and other differences will need to be ironed out in any final agreement in a mutually acceptable manner.
Furthermore, without a significant devolution of power to local bodies, Kurdish-controlled areas are likely to balk at the idea of handing significant power back to Damascus. This implies that either Decree 107 will have to be applied very liberally or that special considerations must be added to enshrine some degree of Kurdish autonomy within its structure, an option that currently appears deeply unpalatable to both the opposition and the government.
These complications serve as an important reminder that Decree 107 is not in itself a panacea and that its inclusion in the current peace negotiations in Geneva will not inherently produce a more representative political arrangement. Nevertheless, the mechanism enjoys broad legitimacy, and even a marginal devolution of political authority to the local level could empower a wide variety of actors, producing tangible stability and innovative political arrangements to weather the difficult years ahead.
Samer Araabi is an independent consultant and researcher on Syria, with a focus on political violence and systems of governance.