You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant choice between Bashar Al Assad and the jihadists. But the real choice being fought out by Syrians is between violent authoritarianism on the one hand and grassroots democracy on the other.
Interviewing activists, fighters and refugees for our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, we discovered the democratic option is real, even if beleaguered. To the extent that life continues in the liberated but heavilybombed areas – areas independent of both the Assad regime and ISIL – 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 schools, a hospital,and a public kitchen, and manages urban agricultural production. Its 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”, there are more than 60 independent newspapers and many free radio stations.
And as soon as the bombing eases, people return to the streets with their banners. Recent demonstrations against Jabhat Al Nusra across Idlib province indicate that the Syrian desire for democracy burns as fiercely as ever.
Where possible, the local councils are democratically elected – the first free elections in half a century. Omar Aziz, a Syrian economist and anarchist, 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 suburbs of Damascus. He died in regime detention in 2013, a month before his 64th birthday. But by then, councils had sprouted all over the country.
Some council members were previously involved in the revolution’s original grassroots formations. They were activists, responsible first for coordinating protests and publicity, then for delivering aid and medicine. Other members represented prominent families or tribes, or were professionals selected for specific practical skills.
In regime-controlled areas, councils operate in secret. But in liberated territory people can organise publicly. These are tenacious but fragile experiments. Some are hampered by factionalism. Some are bullied out of existence by jihadists.
Manbij, 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 ISIL seized the grain silos and the democrats were driven out. Today Manbij 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. 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.
But Aziz envisaged councils connecting the people regionally and nationally, and democratic provincial councils now operate in the liberated parts 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 per cent of seats are reserved for women. In another, they are more constrained – they work within the larger framework of the PYD, which monopolises control of finances, arms and media.
The elected council members are the only representative Syrians we have. They should be key components in any serious settlement.
In a post-Assad future, local democracy could allow 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 cleanings, new wars. At the 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 talks.
And the councils deserve protection. Mr Al 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 survival. They could focus instead on rebuilding Syrian nationhood and further developing popular institutions.
As the US-led invasion of Iraq showed us, 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-ISIL narrative, however, and so we rarely deign to notice.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War