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Governing the Most Dangerous City in Syria

Aleppo has long been one of Syria’s most violent battlefields, but despite the ongoing fighting and clashes for control between various warring factions, local councils in opposition-held areas of the city continue to govern.

Written by Hasan Arfeh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Syrian man rides a motorcycle passing by a damaged building that was destroyed by airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo Media Center via AP

ALEPPO, Syria – Since 2012, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has been a microcosm of the civil war itself, its territory split between the various warring factions. The west is controlled by the Syrian government but the eastern part of the city is a key opposition stronghold where a number of groups operate, including the Free Syrian Army and the so-called Islamic State group.

In the eastern opposition-held area, Aleppo city, like hundreds of other opposition-controlled towns and cities in Syria, is governed by a provincial council, set up in early 2013. For the majority of the time since then, eastern Aleppo has been plagued by continuous violence, electricity and water cuts and indiscriminate barrel bombings, making it singularly difficult for the local council to govern and provide services for its roughly 300,000 residents.

According to the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force (ETILAF), each of Syria’s many local councils was created to govern and provide services in areas where the opposition had pushed out the Syrian government. The responsibilities and level of influence of each provincial council differs from place to place, but they were all set up with media, relief, medical, military, legal and civil service divisions, according the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

In Aleppo, the inaugural local council was established on March 1, 2013, with the objective of providing vital services and taking care of the city’s civil and economic needs, Fakhri Haj Bakri, a member of the inaugural council, told Syria Deeply.

Aleppo’s provincial council and the smaller, local councils were quickly and easily formed through popular elections in the early years of the war, but Bakri recalled that, once in power, undertaking daily operations was much harder.

“We faced many problems, but … the most significant challenge was funding,” he said.

Initially, the Aleppo provincial council received the majority of its funding from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organization. Provincial councils generally receive the majority of funds from donors and are then expected to distribute it to the municipal, or local, councils, according to IWPR.

“Support came mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood and countries that support it, such as Turkey and Qatar,” Bakri said, “but none of the elected representatives [on the 25-member board] ended up being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, so the funding dried up.”

Funding has continued to decline into the fourth term, which began on November 21. The council received $910,669 for its second term, and just over $275,000 during its third term.

Initially, the council also faced pushback from the various Islamist militias in Aleppo, such as the former al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other hardline groups like Ahrar al-Sham, Al Tawhid Brigade and Liwa al Fajr.

In order to appease these various groups and still ensure there was a governing body in Aleppo, members of Jabhat al-Nusra were allowed to provided “general management and oversight” on the provincial council, Bakri said.

During the first term, the leaders of the local councils met with general management representatives from the provincial council of Aleppo. Their objective was to look for ways to coordinate the services they were providing for civilians, said Ahmad, another inaugural council member.

They were able to come to an agreement that would see work split evenly between the local and provincial councils, but it never materialized. Members of Nusra-dominated “general management” took most of the supplies intended to be dispersed among the local councils.

“We were surprised that general management seized control of supplies belonging to the local councils, using the excuse that they would use them for the elderly,” Ahmad said. “They left us with barely enough supplies to cover one-third of liberated neighborhoods.”

Later in the council’s first term, the general management members belonging to Nusra also seized control of all of the electricity stations in Aleppo, except for one in Hanano. According to sources in Aleppo, many of the local council members were kidnapped.

The second term, which ran from December 2013 to July 2014, presented even more challenges – the most dangerous of them being the entrance of the so-called Islamic State group. ISIS militants seized control of a military airport in Aleppo’s suburbs in August 2013, and then began to advance into the city itself, attempting to take over opposition areas and forcing the population to submit to their rule.

ISIS frequently disrupted the work of the local council, from blocking their work on electricity stations to seizing control of bakeries and flour distribution, Aleppo activist Mujahid Abu al-Jud said.

“At that time, the Islamic State group was fighting anyone who was trying to serve the public, and resisting them was not easy,” Abu al-Jud said. “Their tactics ranged from the threat of armed force, to the theft of supplies from the city council. They also stole public service vehicles.”

Further challenges arose last year when the government cut electricity and water supplies to all opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo. Water, electricity and sanitation workers now only have basic supplies that are replenished only when absolutely needed, due to a shortage of equipment such as transportation vehicles, cranes and excavators, Aleppo municipal council co-director Zakariah Aminu said.

The number of local boards under the Aleppo municipal council reached 62, boasting 600 employees.There are currently five corporations that run services for the city council, each with departments for water, electricity and garbage removal and disposal. An “Office of Education and Learning,” supported by the opposition’s interim government, oversees 148 schools.

“There is always a shortage,” Aminu said. “Support organizations are not providing us with what we need; we do not even have enough to pay our employees.”

The local council in Aleppo has faced some of the biggest challenges in governance, but the recent violence has now made it even more difficult. Earlier this month, forces allied with the Syrian government seized the only supply route to eastern Aleppo, effectively besieging the area and leaving hundreds of thousands of residents trapped without food or water.

On Thursday, Aminu declared a state of emergency and announced the council would reduce operational and service-related expenses by 50 percent and increase the supply of flour sold in markets in an effort to maintain the price of bread during the siege, according to ETILAF.

Before the siege, the council was forging ahead with the little it had. It was planning to purify water from municipal wells, acquire more electricity generators, and even conduct a census of the general population, as well as detainees, the disabled and the war dead.

But now, “everything is almost suspended,” a media activist from Aleppo who asked to remain anonymous told Syria Deeply. “People inside do not have food to eat.”

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