Aleppo, Syria – In recent weeks, Aleppo’s rebel-held Jasr al-Haj neighbourhood has escaped the intense bombing that has ravaged other neighbourhoods in the city.
Jasr al-Haj is home to the Council of Free Aleppo Governorate, a local government formed in 2013 to offer services no longer provided by the state in rebel-controlled areas in and around Aleppo.
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Its offices were bombed in 2013, leaving about 45 employees dead, according to Brita Haj Husn, an engineer who runs the council. Today, large swaths of Aleppo governorate remain without adequate electricity, water and sanitation as bombs, now from Russian jets as well as the Assad regime, continue to pound the city.
“The differences that set us apart from the council in [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s part of the city are that they work in a small area with great and unlimited resources, whereas we deal with bombardment and little support,” Husn told Al Jazeera.
This year, the council – which says it has more than 500 employees – is planning several development projects to address critical water and electrical needs in the area. But council members say that they lack the funding and resources needed to deliver on their promises for the new year, and civilians living in the area say they have yet to see major improvements.
“[We are working on] digging water wells and the purification of drinking water, which constitutes a big problem in the city,” said Husn, noting that Aleppo’s water supply has suffered from disruptions and the spread of disease. Most of the water-related projects will begin this February, he said, although some have already started.
According to Zakariah Aminah, a lawyer and the council’s deputy director, “citizens suffer from interruptions of water and electricity”, and fixing this consumes a large portion of the council’s time. “[We are] organising private generators … and repairing the main lines of sanitation that were bombed.”
Fuel in Aleppo is bought from the regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as is the case in other rebel areas.
While Husn is hopeful that the infrastructure projects will succeed, the council is aware of the many obstacles it faces. Professionals living in areas controlled by the council have been leaving in search of a better life. “One problem we face is the emigration of competent people, [especially schoolteachers],” Ayman Amr Hashem, president of the council’s education and social office, told Al Jazeera.
Another major problem is funding, Husn said. While he does not receive a salary as director, lower-level employees do, but it was cut off for several months in 2015. Some financial support has come from abroad and from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
Civilians appear lukewarm as to whether the council is succeeding at its tasks.
“The council does some useful things to serve the city, such as their work on hygiene recently,” said Mohammad Khamis, who works in a local supermarket. The council has launched a number of recreational, sanitation and hydro projects. Nevertheless, Khamis complained that “electricity and water are often cut off … and electric and water bills eat up a large part of income”.
Yassin Muhammad, a taxi driver, is critical of the council, saying it “works at a substandard level” on road maintenance and water supply. Despite his hardships, Muhammad is unable to leave Aleppo.
“If I moved to regime areas I would be arrested … I was arrested several times during the days of the protests in 2011,” he said. “I have moved several times due to bombings and clashes, but I returned to the neighbourhood where I have lived since my youth.”
The council is far from being the only local government formed in areas of Syria where Assad has lost control. Most prominent, of course, is ISIL, which has set up a de facto capital in the city of Raqqa and governs according to an extremely harsh interpretation of Islamic law. The Free Syrian Army, Jaish al-Fatah, Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and other rebel outfits have also attempted to provide governance to the areas they control.
As the Council of Free Aleppo Governorate and other local governments struggle to provide services to their embattled populations, rebels are rejecting peace talks with the regime. They argue that certain United Nations resolutions are not being implemented, or refuse to talk while Russian air strikes continue to hit rebel positions.
“If the negotiations work towards the demands of the revolution and the people, then we are with them,” Husn said.
Others have suggested that self-governing bodies such as the council may help to bring an end to the country’s five-year civil war.
“A demonstration of rebel governance is crucial to a political settlement,” said Kyle Orton, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, who believes such a scenario is the regime’s “biggest fear”.
“For as long as the Assad regime can present the alternative as chaos and extremism, it will hold a section of the population.”