Governance In Rebel-Held Syria

Since the fall of al-Raqqa city into rebel hands in mid-March 2013, many Syria commentators have been closely tracking events in the city as an indicator of Syria’s future under rebel control. To this end, al-Raqqa has been a litmus test for the direction governance will take in Syria, particularly in light of the growing power and dominance of radical Islamist groups within the opposition.

To date, the rebels have largely maintained order and services. Following the rebels’ conquest of the city, very few homes were looted and disorder was largely avoided with rebel groups ensuring a level of stability in the post-regime security vacuum. In fact, special units were formed prior to the fall of the city with the aim of protecting public and private property and maintaining services in the city.[1] As a result, power outages have been brief, with nearly 24-hour electricity continuing in the city; bakeries continue to function, and there is fresh fruit and meat in the markets.[2]

Yet order in the city has been maintained largely at the hands of the FTO-designated, Salafi-jihadist group Jabhat Nusra and its allies Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Wahda al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya. These groups are intent on establishing a strict interpretation of Islamic law in Syria. Already Jabhat Nusra has established a Sharia court to hear cases and implement transitional justice. They have reportedly created a “morality police” to monitor residents’ attire and behavior, in rumors that are reminiscent of Iran circa the 1979 Revolution.[3] Their leaders have denounced elections as un-Islamic, and they have distributed pamphlets encouraging people to accept Islamic Law. In other pamphlets, they have depicted what is considered appropriate dress for Muslim women, outlining the only acceptable form of dress as a long cloak of black material and a waist-length headscarf that covers the entirety of a woman’s face.[4]  

These acts have caused fear among many Syrians who believe that radical Islamists are replacing the old form of dictatorship with a new Islamist version. There is growing anger over some of the new rules being implemented by these more radical Islamist groups, and protests against their actions are becoming more frequent throughout the country.  

For example, in al-Raqqa, at least a few hundred citizens protested against the raising of the black flag in the square outside the governorate.[5] In Aleppo province, Syrian activists and more moderate Muslims are objecting to hard-line factions dominating the courts and have worked to ensure that lawyers are involved in proceedings.[6] In Mayadeen, Jabhat Nusra’s attempts to establish a religious police force in the area prompted three days of demonstrations calling for the group’s departure.[7] 

Overall, the growing contest for power in Syria is emblematic of the larger battle for Syria’s future that is taking place in rebel-held areas throughout the country.  Powerful Islamist and Salafist brigades have at times competed with pro-democracy civilians to shape governance in these areas. Yet, with the rise in power of armed groups throughout 2012, the civilian councils and committees have faced many disadvantages in asserting their authority, including limited funding and fewer resources. As a result, many activists have lamented the decline of the grassroots civilian opposition.[8]

Thus, the nature of the relationship between civilian governance structures and armed groups will continue to persist as a vital question for how rebel-held Syria will be governed over the long-term. Although many analysts have accused the armed groups of weakening the grassroots movement and eroding popular support for the revolution, in some cases cooperation between the two has significantly boosted the capacity of local councils. There are numerous examples across Syria of such successful cooperation between local councils and armed battalions. This result occurs partly because the boundaries between armed commanders and civilian leaders are often blurred, despite a division of responsibilities between them. Many rebel commanders are civilians, with army defectors making up a small portion of field commanders. On the other hand, activists often float between rebel groups and local councils, serving in different roles depending on current conditions and helping to support the work of both.

Relations thus tend to favor cooperation rather than competition, especially in areas where rebel groups are composed of local fighters. This is the case in many of the towns and villages throughout Idlib and Aleppo provinces.  In Azaz, coordination between the civilian administration council and local rebel groups has been extensive. There was a clear division of labor with rebel groups responsible for general security and establishing a police force, and civilian groups responsible for the provision of services and governance. In one case, rebel leaders had facilitated the safe passage of Turkish engineers to the town to help aid the civilian council’s efforts to restore electricity. In another example, rebel leaders cooperated with other rebel groups in the area to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid that was then distributed through the civilian council.

When rebel groups move outside their localities to liberate other areas, they sometimes fail to coordinate with locals adequately.  In these cases local civilian opposition structures are generally weakened. This is what has happened in al-Raqqa where the local civilian council has been stripped of power by non-local rebel groups and no longer oversees governance in the city.[9] Civilian-military relations are especially tense in areas where rebel groups have entrenched themselves in urban centers, and thus provoked heavy regime bombardment in retaliation, as in Aleppo city.

Yet, the fight for Syria’s future is not limited to differences between military and civilian groups. Rebels have begun to fight among themselves as well. This infighting is not only about local power and influence, but about the larger issues of governance and ideology. The vast majority of rebel fighters support some type of democratic governance, even those that adhere to a more radical interpretation of Islamic law. As a result, tensions between Jabhat Nusra and other rebel groups, including its allies, have arisen over the desire to implement democratic practices in rebel-held areas.

While the case of al-Raqqa has demonstrated both good and bad aspects of potential rebel rule, it more broadly represents the enduring fight for democracy that the Syrian opposition will contend with even after Assad and his regime are gone. The desire of some rebel groups to create an Islamist form of governance is undeniable, and there is wide anticipation within many communities in Syria that aspects of Islamic law will be institutionalized in a future Syria. Yet, the population and majority of opposition groups expect that some sort of real democratic processes, particularly in the form of elections, will also occur. This desire is creating a fissure between Jabhat Nusra and its current allies, as well as the current population it has begun to govern.  

[1] Rania Abouzeid, “How Islamist rebels in Syria are ruling a fallen provincial capital,” Time, March 23, 2013.

[2] David Enders, “In Raqqa, largest city held by Syrian rebels, Islamists provide electricity, bread, and order,” McClatchy, March 24, 2013.

[3] “JAN Moral Police in Raqqa,” YallaSouriya, March 13, 2013.

[4] Rania Abouzeid, “How Islamist rebels in Syria are ruling a fallen provincial capital,” Time, March 23, 2013.

[5] Rania Abouzeid, “How Islamist rebels in Syria are ruling a fallen provincial capital,” Time, March 23, 2013.

[6] Neil MacFarquhar, “A battle for Syria, one court at a time,” The New York Times, March 13, 2013.

[7] Deborah Amos, “Courts become a battleground for secularists, Islamists in Syria,” NPR, March 14, 2013.

[8] Line Zouhour, “Wither the peaceful movement in Syria?” Jadaliyya, March 18, 2013.

[9] David Enders, “In Raqqa, largest city held by Syrian rebels, Islamists provide electricity, bread, and order,” McClatchy, March 24, 2013.