As we enter the fourth year of the Syrian crisis, it has become quite common, almost reaching the level of truism, to frame the conflict as a revolution gone awry, hijacked by warlords, jihadists, and foreign infiltrators. The subtext of such a narrative is that the Syrian revolution is dead, having only served as a midwife to a sectarian civil war.
The regime and its supporters have peddled the narrative of an armed insurrection backed by foreign conspirators from day one. In a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the protestors did become more militarised, armed rebel groups emerged, and foreign jihadists penetrated the country en masse.
Western fears that there were few good guys in such a scenario fuelled political indecision and weak attempts to bring about a solution to the conflict. It may not be ideal, the thinking seems to be, but the Syrian crisis will be solved on the battlefield.
Western indecision, coupled with regional support for continued militarisation, has only strengthened the view that the crisis has always been defined by a civil war.
There is indeed a civil war occurring in Syria. This war is not as simple as the regime-versus-rebels narrative we are often subjected to, but involves a wide array of armed groups that often have competing strategic goals and interests. Syria’s “four civil wars“, and the overlapping and constantly changing international alliances implicated therein, gives further credence to the narrative that the Syrian crisis is a complicated mess of rebel in-fighting and regime resiliency.
This, however, is only part of the story of the Syrian crisis. Despite the humanitarian catastrophe and political setbacks of the last three years, the Syrian revolution remains a reality that is being fought for throughout the country. Beyond the battlefield and beyond the headlines, Syrians are working tirelessly to organise their society and to move the country closer to a post-Baathist future.
All revolutions have contained elements of civil violence. The Spanish Revolution in 1936 is an obvious example. Like Spain in the 1930s, Syria today is experiencing parallel realities. On the one hand, there is a protracted civil conflict in which regional actors are supporting and militarily sustaining various sides. On the other hand, there has been a political revolution that has attempted to spread new ideas, principles and institutions of social and political organisation throughout the country.
Responsibility for the essential aspects of daily life – prosecuting crimes, issuing death, marriage, and birth certificates, teaching school children, providing electricity and so on – had been long taken up by local councils who face the daunting task of organising society while protecting it from violence.
In the city of Manbij, just east of Aleppo, many residents have been forced into self-reliance since mid-2012 when the regime’s forces and state institutions effectively withdrew. Residents immediately began to organise themselves amidst the acceleration of violence and chaos.
Such organisation began on the neighbourhood level and eventually morphed into larger structures of governance and accountability, including the creation of courts and a police force.
Regime withdrawal invited armed groups, ranging from brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed jihadist groups, to enter Manbij as well. Such groups coexist – sometimes peacefully, sometimes not – among each other and the various revolutionary council structures that have been established. Responsibility for the essential aspects of daily life – prosecuting crimes, issuing death, marriage, and birth certificates, teaching school children, providing electricity and so on – had been long taken up by local councils who face the daunting task of organising society while protecting it from violence.
As one revolutionary council member stated in 2012, “we are trying to build a new system, even as the old one continues to bomb us”.
Elsewhere in the country, institutions of governance are slowly emerging. In Douma, a suburb of Damascus, a local council consisting of 25 members was recently elected underneath the continued besiegement of the area by regime forces. In Aleppo, a civilian administration has emerged to provide security, judicial, and other support services.
This administration has its roots in the popular mobilisations in 2012, suggesting that the mobilisation and organisation capacity of protestors in Aleppo expanded significantly as the conflict has dragged on.
Indeed, the maturation of protestors into local leaders seems to be replicated throughout many parts of Syria where the administration and governance of daily life has been left to ordinary people. Despite the presence of alternative institutions operated by the FSA and other armed rebel groups, the civilian administration of Aleppo and others like it, enjoy a high degree of legitimacy among the population.
This legitimacy derives from their embeddedness in Syrian society and their sustained role in the revolution. Thus, unlike foreign fighters, or even the Syrian National Coalition, viewed by many as being disconnected from Syrian realities on the ground, local organisations have incorporated popular aspirations into their activities that have allowed them to gain substantial support.
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Despite the continued presence of revolutionary organisation in Syria, we should resist the temptation to romanticise or idealise these new structures of political participation, such as elections or the formation of civil councils.
These will likely prove to be extremely important shapers of Syria’s future. Yet, these processes have not been without their shortcomings and obstacles.
Many local council projects have failed miserably. Indeed, almost every area of Syria has a declared local council but only few of them have demonstrated the ability to organise as in Douma or Manbij. In some areas, there is considerable competition among different groups over who is going to serve as the governing authorities.
Some Syrians living in areas outside of regime control, have to contend with a patchwork of different authorities. In some cases, competition has led to cooperation, such as in Manbij where there is a centralised court, but this is rare. In Aleppo, the civilian administration exists alongside administrations run by better-funded armed groups.
Councils also suffer from a severe shortage of financial resources to pay for services. This has caused many of them to collapse or for Syrians to look elsewhere for their needs. Local councils have proven adept at organising and establishing themselves in areas, but their lack of financial resources to perform basic services like garbage collection meant that other, much better-funded, armed groups could assume responsibility in their place.
Competition from other groups for the loyalty of Syrians and a lack of a sustainable financial base has meant that many popular organisations lack any real monopoly on authority and governance in areas outside of regime control. In a context where regime, Western, and Arab officials insist on viewing the Syrian crisis through the narrow prism of a civil war, it is not surprising that the opportunities for revolutionary organisation have been stunted.
The one strategy that the various regime and rebel supporters seem to agree on is that the solution to the Syrian crisis will be on the battlefield. As time goes on and violence becomes more entrenched, there is the risk that the regime’s self-fulfilling prophecy will be fully realised.
The lack of financial resources and the difficulties of sustaining structures of political participation amidst continued violence may ultimately render political, let alone revolutionary, change impossible. In the meantime, it is too early to write a requiem for the Syrian revolution.
Samer N Abboud is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University, Pennsylvania. His current focus is on Syrian capital flight.