SOURAN, Syria — The leaders of the council governing Souran, a town in rebel-controlled Syria, decide to hold an impromptu meeting right on the footpath along its main street, a gesture of open government that would impress Canada or Sweden.
They draw together some plastic chairs and a table, pour tea and, as pedestrians listen in, explain the workings of the government they have set up to replace the Baath Party and the security officials who ran the region with an iron fist under President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
“This is a new thing for us,” says Faez Hamsho, a businessman and one of 11 members of the town’s governing council. “But when Bashar’s men fled, we had to solve the day-to-day problems of the area.”
A commotion suddenly erupts. Word trickles in that a missile fired by one of Assad’s fighter jets has struck a nearby village. There are numerous injuries. Drivers on motorcycles and cars full of children and loaded with suitcases zoom past, fleeing in fear of further bombs. Aircraft can be heard circling overhead. A minor panic erupts.
The experiment in open democracy is adjourned and the men rush indoors.
As a ferocious war pits Syrian rebels against Assad’s regime, a self-rule experiment has begun to take root in the parts of the country under the control of the opposition. Much of the country’s north is under rebel control. The regime still controls Damascus, but parts of the capital city remain contested. Elsewhere there are rebel enclaves.
Under the shadow of Assad’s fighter jets, shelling and helicopters, the self-described revolutionaries manage local affairs such as refuse collection or food distribution, house the many displaced by war, mete out justice and resolve potentially cataclysmic disputes between clans before they get out of hand.
Syrians have little democratic experience. They lived for decades under the tight-fisted, centralized rule of Assad and his father, Hafez. But many of those now leading their communities took part in the peaceful protests last year, a time of intense political education and dialogue infused with the democratic spirit that ignited revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
As the security situation worsened, some of those activists took up guns to prepare for battle against Assad’s forces. But others began making plans for governance should the state’s authority collapse.
All, or almost all, council members are men. They say they act under the guidelines of “sharia” or Islamic law. But they are poorly versed in Koranic teachings and scripture, and when they refer to “sharia” they are using it as a catch-all term to contrast with the arbitrary, brutal and corrupt Baath Party system. In at least some of the councils, they apply civil codes dating to 1956, before the Baath Party took over.
“Before, the Baath Party headquarters controlled everything and if you knew someone there, everything was okay for you,” Hamsho said. “But if you didn’t, you were ignored or worse.”
The councils have sprung up during the past few months in the parts of Syria under rebel control. They address local concerns such as distribution of water, food and shelter for the displaced.
They are an ideologically mixed lot, some more religious than others. On occasion the civilians challenge the conduct of the rebel fighters. Several months ago in the town of Maraa, townspeople backed by the local council demanded that rebels stop executing suspected operatives of Assad’s regime and imprison them instead. The fighters complied. A rebel code of conduct is now being promulgated and at least nominally enforced throughout Syria. On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing rebels of extrajudicial killings and torture.
Activists and local leaders acknowledged widely varying degrees of civilian authority over the armed fighters on the front lines of the battle against Assad.
“We want to separate the military from the government,” said Omar Brimo, a member of the Souran council, referring to the tensions between fighters and civilian authorities. “We revolted to get the military people off our backs. We don’t want a military government again.”
Local councils in Aleppo province answer to a Revolutionary Council based in the city of Tal Rifaat. But there is poor coordination between the councils, a symptom of the political fragmentation that has bedeviled the Syrian uprising. An activist, journalist or aid worker operating freely in one village can easily be detained and accused of espionage if he slips into a neighboring hamlet.
Meetings are also complicated by the air strikes. The council members worry that Assad’s helicopters or aircraft will spot a large gathering of cars and attack. Yet despite the omnipresence of Assad’s air power, the newly formed authorities somehow manage the region’s minutest affairs.
On Thursday, the judiciary committee of the Maraa council heard the case of Raghia Tabsho, whose husband had abandoned her for another woman without paying her any restitution. For weeks, the husband had ignored requests to come to the court, her mother claimed. The judiciary committee dispatched armed rebels to bring the man to the tribunal.
“Under the old system it took two months to send police and bring someone to court,” says Ibrahim Najjar, a lawyer. “Now he’ll be brought here in two days.”