Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is senior political adviser, strategist and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington.
The U.S. commitment to aiding the Syrian opposition against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad has been one of many words and few deeds. Repeated pledges of support absent material assistance have allowed fringe elements to establish themselves in northern Syria. If this trend persists, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning of “efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution” will soon become reality.
During a recent three-week trip to the Middle East, I observed both encouraging and disturbing developments. I went into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and industrial capital, to see how Syrians were coping with chaos. About 75 percent of Aleppo is under opposition control.
I expected to talk to average people overwhelmed with trying to restore order. Instead, I encountered a sophisticated civilian governance structure. The Aleppo Transitional Revolutionary Council, run by a 23-member board of university-educated professionals, has emerged in the liberated areas. To restore critical services to the heavily damaged city, the council has formed 12 committees covering law enforcement, education, bakeries, relief efforts and more. The medical council alone was running eight hospitals. (Shelling by the Assad regime leveled one of those hospitals last month.)
The people I met with impressed me with their professionalism and they way they emphasized the “interim” before their titles. All said they plan to abide by election results once peace is restored to the city.
A few months ago, the majority of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements in Aleppo coalesced into the Revolutionary Military Council under the disciplined leadership of Col. Abduljabar Ekeidi. They have shockingly few resources: Because of protocols governing how supplies can enter Syria, the council is able to scrape together enough ammunition for a day’s fighting about every two weeks. Forces loosely affiliated with the FSA make up about 80 percent of the armed groups in the city; the others are undisciplined or hard-line organizations or criminal groups taking advantage of the violence.
Civilian efforts to provide governance and medical care and bring lawless and extremist elements to heel have been hamstrung by lack of resources. Brig. Gen. Adib al-Shallaf, a defector from Syrian security forces, has plans to reestablish a civilian police force for Aleppo. But some weeks he is not able to regularly feed his recruits, much less buy them uniforms. He told me he was not sure how long his effort could survive.
Halab al-Shabaa Brigade, one of the larger FSA units under the military council in Aleppo, is considering disbanding. The unit commander, a moderate, told me he knew that the extremist militant group Jabhat al-Nusra had approached some of his men. Jabhat al-Nusra is well-financed: Many of its cells have more food and weapons than recruits, and they are approaching Syrians to expand. Their obvious advantage is that they can provide what more moderate groups and civilian councils cannot: salaries and weapons.