Dispatch from Syria: Can Rebels Learn to Govern?

By Deasy, Kristin | World Affairs, November-December 2013 | Go to article overview

Dispatch from Syria: Can Rebels Learn to Govern?


Deasy, Kristin, World Affairs


ATMEH, Syria -- A sprawling tent city has sprouted up here amid the sand-flecked hills and ancient olive groves. Giant tarps twist up into the branches as rivulets of contaminated water run below. A tank watches from down the road, which leads to the nearby Turkish border.

The twenty-two thousand Syrian refugees who live in this ragged tent community are conducting an improvised experiment in civil society. While running the nation's largest refugee camp is not the same as running a nation, the attempt to mesh nation-building and humanitarianism in the Atmeh camp speaks to the dual challenge facing a post-Assad Syria.

Fittingly, at the time of my visit the camp was run by a former double agent. Sheikh Mohammad Zakour is a short, burly man with thick sideburns and a winning smile. Conscripted into mandatory military service just months before protests first broke out against President Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, Zakour soon found himself face-to-face with a growing revolution.

"We came to Homs and saw it with our own eyes--how Assad's soldiers treated women and children," he says. "So on my first leave, there was a sheikh in our village, he asked me to stay with the regime and cooperate with the rebels."

Zakour agreed. He spied on the movements of other regiments and "every time we had a chance, we'd steal ammunition from Assad's army and give it to the rebels," he said. About thirty soldiers were part of the covert operation, but Zakour defected after seven people were arrested and identified the rest of the group.

Now he is the "commando" of Atmeh, as one of his camp staffers called him when he joined me for bright, sunflower-yellow lentil soup on the floor of the kitchen unit. Running Atmeh is a big job. A former camp director, Yakzan Shishakly, told me it was like being "mayor for chaos area with no budget."

After learning that he had specialized in Islamic law at Damascus University, I decided to sound out Zakour on the question of governance in a new, post-Assad Syria.

"At the time of Prophet Muhammad, there were all the other religions, and he was quite just with them--we will do the same, God willing," he said. He believes sharia law can be reconciled with a more democratic system in Syria. Most Syrians, moderate Sunnis, agree; the nation has often been known for its religious diversity and tolerance.

As for experimenting with more democratic methods of governance, Zakour noted approvingly that "now some organizations are trying to establish typical villages" with local governance in rebel-held areas.

He was likely referring to various local council units, some of which have been organized by the main opposition group outside the country, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been recognized by many Western nations, including the United States, as the official representative of rebel-held Syria.

Under the coalition, these local councils are tasked with "re-establishing the concept of a Syrian state" from the ground up. The project is supposed to unfold in three stages--"formation, activation, and empowerment"--which spiral into a byzantine number of sub-stages from there. In fact, in areas won by the rebels, local councils, including military and revolutionary councils not affiliated with the coalition, quickly form themselves and begin the business of governing without paying much attention to the prescribed stages. Rania Kisar, an independent consultant who has been providing free management training to civic leaders in rebel areas for the past year and a half, told me that opposition forces outside "all claim that these local councils are actually under their supervision, but meanwhile, they're really not."

Hundreds of these units are now said to be operating in rebel-held areas. However, many struggle under leaders who came of age in Assad's totalitarian state and struggle with the theory as well as the mechanics of self-governance. …

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