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Bridging the Gap: Local Governance Committees in ‘Reconciled’ Areas of Syria

  • Kalam Admin

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

In recent years, the Syrian government’s depleting financial and human resources have highlighted governance gaps and shortages in all sectors, which has spurred the creation of local governance initiatives in some ‘reconciled’ areas like Al-Tal in the Damascus countryside and parts of Daraa province. Such areas have organized themselves under the Syrian government’s watch – and even with its blessings – to create self-financed local governance committees to fill these gaps.

Yet, the experiences of Al-Tal and parts of Daraa are relatively unique. Only kilometers away, the communities in Eastern Ghouta and other parts of former rebel-held Daraa have not been able to establish similar community-led initiatives to support with governance and service provision. This is due to three key factors: the security assurances afforded in Al-Tal and parts of Daraa (that don’t exist elsewhere); the communities’ ability to organize; and the state’s failure to provide basic services, particularly to areas that had previously rebelled.

The role of security assurances

Whereas Daraya came under the control of the brutal Air Force Intelligence and large parts of Eastern Ghouta (where there was heavy fighting) came under the control of the Republican Guard and 4th Armored Division, Al-Tal was managed by the Syrian regime’s Political Security Division – a security branch known to be less ruthless and more open to concessions. Al-Tal’s community leaders capitalized on this and the personal relationships they had within the Syrian regime to create the National Reconciliation Committee and subsequently the Local Development Committee (LDC), a self-financed quasi-official body that maintains some fiscal and administrative autonomy, having a separate bank account from the municipality and hosting community meetings to assess needs and service priorities.

But security assurances are not always based on personal relationships. They can also be dependent on external parties. Facing very different political and military circumstances, former rebel-held parts of Daraa, including most notably Busra al-Sham, Tafas and Daraa al-Balad, have capitalized on Russia’s presence as a guarantor state to similarly form two central committees composed of armed groups, notables and activists. Ostensibly overseen by the regime’s military security, these committees act with considerable autonomy – but very limited resources – to mediate conflicts with the regime (through Russian intercession) and oversee some aspects of governance, service provision and coordination of technical personnel.

Possibilities for community organization

With the security assurances provided by Russia, Busra al-Sham, Tafas and Daraa al-Balad starkly contrast from other former rebel-held parts of Daraa, such as Nawa and Jasim, where the regime’s security and military branches have returned and precluded nearly all attempts at local activities.

Where permitted by the state, the success of any delegation of power or power-sharing also depends on the ability of the community to organize itself, collect funds and respond to basic needs. Both Al-Tal and parts of Daraa did not see large displacements of their populations pursuant to the reconciliation agreements with the Syrian government. Trusted community leaders, notables, armed groups (in Daraa) and activists were able to come together to help create order and build enough confidence within the local community to raise funds to partly address the gaps left by the state. Yet, in other ‘reconciled’ communities like Eastern Ghouta, large portions of the population, including community leaders and activists, were forcibly displaced or detained following the return of the state’s security and police apparatuses. With the social fabric ripped apart, the necessary familiarity and trust required to organize local governance initiatives to support communal welfare no longer existed.

Failure by the state

The state’s limited tolerance of local community governance is inextricably tied to its own inability to service areas and a lack of local support and trust in state bodies. In both Al-Tal and even more so in Daraa, state bodies have failed to provide even the most basic services. While the local population in both areas are unwilling to financially support state bodies beyond paying the mandatory taxes and fees, they have donated money to Al-Tal’s LDC, for example, to rehabilitate schools, provide waste management, build wells and even partly subsidize teachers’ salaries. Similarly, in Daraa, residents have donated to the central committees for repairs to essential infrastructure and distribution of emergency aid.

Yet, even with the growing weakness and limited resources of the state, the Syrian government still views local governance as an existential threat and a push for separatism. Despite its success in collecting money from locals and addressing service gaps in Al-Tal, the LDC has faced tremendous hostility from the Ba’ath Party, which is perpetually seeking to dissolve it. Similarly, individuals affiliated with the central committees in Daraa have been interrogated by the mukhabarat – the military intelligence service – for their work in raising funds and distributing emergency aid.

Without a real political will to devolve power in a meaningful way, the Syrian government is unlikely to allow similar local community governance initiatives to continue or emerge in the future, should it gain more resources or face less pressure by external guarantors. But with the state’s resources becoming only scarcer as a result of Lebanon’s financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Rather, as seen in parts of ‘reconciled’ Daraa under the highly-regulated control of the 4th Armored Brigade, community initiatives have recently been allowed to form and partner with the municipality to provide public health recommendations on the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities in other ‘reconciled’ areas may seek to negotiate similar arrangements with the regime and state bodies to help address the rapidly worsening situation and to ensure their mere survival.