The sign erected outside the former mayor’s office of a small village in rebel-held northern Syria is surprisingly lacking in revolutionary fervor.

“Anyone who throws rubbish in the street will be fined,” it says, before warning that repeat offenders face a month in jail.

“It’s not serious,” admits Kheireddine al-Ahmad, the head of the newly formed local council. “It’s just meant to deter people.”

The chief of the village police sitting next to him, a fighter loyal to the local commander, chuckles as he nods in agreement.

As the central Syrian government has pulled back from areas under rebel control after two years of conflict, necessity has forced rebel fighting brigades to take on the task of governing in the towns and villages across the poppy-dusted farmlands of the rural north.

To do so, they have created local authorities that are far from perfect entities. Many are unelected and are entangled in the power dynamics of local armed groups. They are also acutely short of resources and in many cases trying to get basic services such as water and electricity up and running while still under regime bombardment from the skies.

In many corners of this region, along the border with Turkey, people are constantly on the move. Towns that bear the brunt of the bombings are emptied. Safer areas are overpopulated by the influx of the displaced.

Nonetheless, the local councils are what free areas of Syria are now developing, and they are the most likely conduits for the assistance the world community is promising. Given the reluctance to support the Syrian opposition with lethal aid, Western governments are pledging to help strengthen emerging local government structures.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the main opposition group recognized by Western and Arab states, says it has channeled tens of millions of dollars through local councils for humanitarian aid, though councils complain they have yet to see any significant sign of this largess.

On his desk in the village of Babassalemeh, Kheireddine al-Ahmad has two flags on display, the flag of the Syrian revolution and the black banner of hard-line Islamists. He is, in effect, prepared to please both Western donors and Islamic charities, some of which have been providing aid since rebels took over last summer.

Ahmad’s council was appointed by local families and with the consent of the main brigade in charge of the area, and seems to have evolved largely to free up fighters.

“We don’t want to have responsibility for water, electricity, the bakeries; people came to us for everything,” said the head of police, another member of the al-Ahmad family.

Nearby in the town of Azaz, the dilemma of accountability is on full display. In the eerily empty, rubble-strewn streets of the town, graffiti denounce the members of the local council as “thieves of bread.”

One member, Sheikh Walid, says that people misunderstood a decision to ration bread during recent flour shortages.

As in other opposition-held areas, a court has been set up. It is run on Islamic principles, with the help of religious scholars.

“If bakers are caught three times selling bread at inflated prices or if they play with the ingredients mix, then they are arrested,” Walid said. “We are strict, and the brigades cooperate with us; there’s a member of the brigades who watches the issue of bread.”

There is a limit to how much local officials can do about inflation. Prices have rocketed since the outbreak of the revolt. The owner of a truck that sells fuel to local suppliers says the price has quadrupled over the past year.

Though technically liberated, Azaz still feels very much in the middle of a war. Smoke billows from a nearby air base that rebels have been trying to capture, and before midday a fighter jet appears in the distance.

Rather than attempting to escape, the minority of Azaz’s residents who have stayed in the town freeze and squint at the sky. Several bombs are later dropped on the outskirts of the town.

The Azaz local council was created when a rivalry between two brigades led to a decision that armed groups should remain out of town. Sheikh Walid insisted that the council upholds the law, but local residents muttered dissent. “Only the brigades have authority,” one said.

Farther east, across the fertile agricultural land where grimy-faced children whose education has been disrupted scamper among young goats and daisies, lies the town of Suran. Quieter than Azaz, Suran has been flooded with refugees from more dangerous spots, and a few shops are open, including a grocer and a bookstore.

Some of the teachers still collect salaries from the central government. It is one of the ironies of opposition-controlled areas that the government is still paying many of the public employees, as if to prove to itself that it remains in control.

While Syrian schools have long used heavily redacted history books authorized by the Assad regime, in Suran, teachers have received new books printed by the Aleppo provincial council, one of three elected regional governing structures in rebel-held areas that are tied to the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

The local economy in Suran and the surrounding areas is mainly based on farming, and people consider the plentiful rain since the outbreak of the revolt in 2011 as a divine intervention because it followed several years of drought.

But Suran, like other rebel-held areas, remains economically dependent on government-controlled territories. Last year, the regime bought much of the wheat harvest from local farmers. This year they say they have no indication of its intentions. In other towns, meanwhile, the roads are dotted with barrels of fuel for sale, much of it brought in from government-controlled areas.

Yasser Hamsho, one of Suran’s local officials, details the needs of the town and scoffs at the assistance received from the opposition front — $3,600 in total, delivered through the Aleppo provincial council.

Running an electricity generator for the town could cost several hundred dollars for one day, he said. “I’ve lost my voice talking and appealing to the world about what we need, but no one listens,” Hamsho said.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition is trying to formalize such local administrations and bring them under one umbrella: This, it hopes, will unlock more international support.

But for all their weaknesses, the idiosyncratic governance structures being forged across northern Syria will not easily be corralled into a single coherent entity in the near future. The fighting brigades who are ultimately in control are far from united, and the areas they have seized from the government are not totally free, as the jets and missiles remind people nearly every day.

— Financial Times