As Syrian rebel forces expel President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in more and more areas across Syria, municipal services often stop or experience severe interruptions. Yet in many of these communities, local councils are popping up to fill the void, and provide electricity, water, sewage and trash collection, among other services.
Political opposition groups like the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the Syrian National Council struggle to provide municipal services to Syrians in many opposition-controlled areas. A lack of resources and internal political squabbling have rendered them unlikely to evolve into legitimate future governmental bodies, many critics say.
Mustafa, 32, is a member of the local governorate council in the Idlib province, situated in northwestern Syria. It took a year for the council to eventually form due to internal disputes and personal rivalries among members, he told Syria Deeply. “It’s finally in place, but it still doesn’t provide public services,” he said. “The council is broke and cannot provide any services.”
Explaining that the Syrian Interim Government, a shadow institution in exile, hasn’t provided Idlib’s local provincial council with funding, members have had to foot the bill for all of the council’s expenses. “Even building the office was paid for with the members’ own personal money,” he recalled.
The lack of resources, namely finances, isn’t exclusive to Idlib, says Mustafa. Many local councils in areas across Syria had to stop operating shortly after they were formed. “We don’t have enough money to pay our members and employees, which will eventually lead them to quit and look for another source of income,” he said. “Our funders are partly responsible for this situation, too. They only cover the cost of the projects themselves without taking into consideration the daily expenses and operating costs that we need in order to finish the projects.”
The situation is no different in Aleppo, where Yassir, 41, is a member of the new city council. “Local councils suffer on many levels,” he told Syria Deeply, explaining that Aleppo’s council also doesn’t have the funds to hire people or provide services.
Yassir says that the councils also face opposition from armed groups – including the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) – who seek to interfere in their projects. “In some areas, the councils actually received direct threats from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra,” he recalled.
Yet, in some parts of the country, local councils claim they have received widespread support. In Douma, a city in the Damascus province, the city council has been very busy and enjoys strong local backing. “We receive very low salaries,” Abd al-Wahab, a 23-year-old employee of the council, told Syria Deeply. “We are more like volunteers than salaried employees, but we are very happy that we can serve the people.”
Al-Wahab explains that the council serves both civilians and people from military factions. “This helped improve our relationship with [armed groups]. In terms of administration, we are responsible for providing services for all areas in and around Douma, but right now we are only able to serve the city itself,” he said, adding that the council intends on expanding its range to new areas.
Ahmad, a 29-year-old pharmacist from Douma, says that the local council is doing a “great” job. “There are offices for all types of services,” he told Syria Deeply. “There is even an office to organize funeral and cemetery services. I can’t speak for other areas, but the local council in Douma is one of the best.”
With poverty steadily rising as Syria’s civil war continues without pause, local councils do not collect taxes or charge for services. Ahmed, a 52-year-old member of the Kafr Nabl city council, says that local residents are already struggling to put food on the table. “It doesn’t make any sense to enforce fines or charge people for services at this time,” he told Syria Deeply. “People can’t afford food, so providing food has actually become one of our tasks. We’re facing a lot of challenges, but we’re not going to give up. We are doing the best we can.”
Though the vast majority of these councils do not include female members or employees, public criticism successfully pressured at least one to allow female participation. Last month, the city council in Maarat al-Numan – a city in northwestern Syria – designated two of its 25 seats for women.
Maarat al-Numan’s local council is presently considering the establishment of an office for women’s affairs, although these changes were not publicly celebrated by the council for fear that hardline Islamist armed groups may interfere.
Photos courtesy of Tamer Osman