Leila Shrooms writes this excellent survey of Syrian civil activists for Tahrir-ICN.
The discourse on Syria has been dominated by discussions of militarization, Islamization, sectarianism and geopolitical concerns. Conversely there has been relatively little focus on Syria’s grass roots civil opposition. This has led to a lack of knowledge outside of Syria for activists who want to stand in solidarity with Syria’s revolutionaries but don’t know where to start. This article attempts to provide an introduction to some of the many civil resistance initiatives taking place on the ground and efforts at revolutionary self-organization. It is by no means a comprehensive overview. It focuses on initiatives that are non-party political or religiously aligned. It must be remembered that prior to March 2011 there was not a functioning civil society in Syria as rights to free expression, assembly and association were highly restricted with severe consequences for those who failed to comply.
Who are the grass roots civil opposition?
The core of the grassroots civil opposition is the youth, mainly from the working and middle-classes, in which women and diverse religious and ethnic groups play active roles. Many of these activists remain non-affiliated to traditional political ideologies but are motivated by concerns for freedom, dignity, social justice and basic human rights.
Local committees and local councils
The main form of revolutionary organization in Syria has been at the local level, through the work of local committees and local councils. These were influenced by the work of Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz. He argued that it was inconsistent for revolutionaries to participate in protests by day and then return to living within the hierarchical and authoritarian structures imposed by the state. Aziz believed that revolutionary activity should permeate all aspects of life and advocated for radical changes to social relationships and organization. He called for autonomous, non-hierarchical organization and self-governance, based of principles of cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid. Together with comrades he founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus.
Today hundreds of local committees/coordinations have been established in neighborhoods and towns throughout the country. In the local committees revolutionary activists engage in multiple activities, from documenting and reporting on violations carried out by the regime (and increasingly elements of the opposition) to organizing protests and civil disobedience campaigns (such as strikes and refusing to pay utility bills) and collecting and providing aid and humanitarian supplies to areas under bombardment or siege. They operate as horizontally organized, leaderless groups, made up of all segments of the society. Whilst organizing on the local level, they have built up networks of solidarity and mutual aid across the country.
At the city and district levels local councils have been established. There are 128 throughout Syria. They are often the primary civil administrative structure in areas liberated from the state, as well as some areas that remain under state control. These ensure the provision of basic services, coordinate with the local committees, coordinate with armed resistance groups and maintain security. They mainly follow some form of representative democratic model and free local elections have occurred in areas where they have been established, something that has not happened in Syria under four decades of Baath rule. Some councils change their elected representatives every three months and their is no leader amongst them. As the humanitarian situation has deteriorated they have taken on an increasingly vital role but they face many challenges. The scarcity of resources has meant that some have had to suspend work, such as happened in Aleppo. In an appeal for support to local councils, human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh says “We cannot continue to demand local councils to play their role without support and employment plans that assist them to do the simplest actions helping civilians to survive under siege and shelling. These plans include providing potable water, collecting garbage from residential areas, and supporting projects that provide food from inside the besieged area exposed to hunger.” She also highlights that lack of resources make local councils susceptible to influence by armed groups and that help is needed for them “to be independent from supporting parties that try to arm the region to establish their authority on the ground, rather than enable [them] to have neutrality- as much as possible- and make independent decisions.”  At least one Local Council in Manbej, Aleppo, suspended work in protest against the excess of the militant Jihadi group ISIS in the town. Some local councils have been more successful and inclusive than others which have been plagued by infighting or found themselves unable to displace the bureaucratic structures of the old regime.
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