A Dispatch from ‘Free’ Syria: How to Run a Liberated Town

Although from last year, this is yet another example of what goes on on
the ground in Syria, when people take over control of their own towns
and expel the reprerssive forces of the state (a process known as “the
Syrian revolution”). Since this is really what the discussion is about –
the actual revolution going on below all this “geopolitics” etc, which
is all very useful and relevant but rests on the actuality of a
revolution below – I think reading this kind of stuff is very important,
given all the obfuscation about “Islamists” etc. Especially since there
is apparently a problem around here of not being able to recognise a
revolution if you tripped over one.

No doubt since these people are running the place themselves, they are
cnadidates for being wiped out by scuds, tanks, attack aircraft etc from
the “great progressive anti-imperialist regime of Assad”, perhaps
becoming part of the 50% of the Syrian population that ought to be wiped
out in Adam’s view.

Or on a more sensible note, no doubt Fred will say how this is very good
etc, just as long as they don’t soil themselves by receiving any arms
with whcih to defend themselves from Assad’s heavy weaponry, because if
they did that they would be encouraging imperialist intervention, and by
actually fighting back to defend themselves, they would be “fuelling the
war” and “imposing a military solution.” Only prayers are allowed in
front of tanks etc.


A Dispatch from ‘Free’ Syria: How to Run a Liberated Town

By Rania Abouzeid / Idlib provinceJuly 24, 20122

Saraqeb is still at the mercy of the tanks of President Bashar Assad,
just as it has been for about a year. The military invaded during the
holy Muslim month of Ramadan in 2011. It re-entered on March 24 for a
couple of days. It also shelled Saraqeb on July 19, in response to an
attack by local elements of the rebel Free Syria Army on a checkpoint on
the outskirts of the town. Some 25 people were killed in several hours
of shelling on that night. It is Ramadan once again and the tanks every
now and then lob a shell in the direction of town to remind Saraqeb that
Assad’s forces are still around.

(MORE: In Syria, Rebels Celebrate Stunning Assassinations-and Send More
Forces to Damascus)

But a different flag flies in Saraqeb: the three starred one belonging
to the rebels. And the local government works. The Baladiye, or local
council, in this Sunni town of some 40,000 in northwestern Idlib
province is still functioning. Its 90 or so civil servants still show up
for work and still draw their salaries. Most of the people of Saraqeb
say their town is free, liberated of Assad’s regime. But they have
consciously retained some elements of the old order.

Around the corner from the nondescript Baladiye building, other
government offices like the records of births, deaths and marriages, and
the agricultural office (which dispenses subsidized fertilizer and other
staples crucial for the livelihood of this agricultural region) are
untouched. Not so the nearby headquarters of the ruling Baath Party. “We
burnt it because it didn’t serve a purpose,” says Mohammad, 21, an
economics student turned activist and Free Syrian Army fighter. “But we
didn’t burn the trees outside it.”

The 17-month Syrian crisis is now in its endgame, that much is clear. In
the past few weeks, the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups have
brought the fight to the regime’s two main strongholds; the capital
Damascus and the country’s commercial hub of Aleppo in the north. What
remains unclear is what and who will fill the vacuum the moment four
decades of Assad family rule come to an end. Members of both the
political and military Syrian opposition have repeatedly said that they
want the fall of the Syrian Baathist regime, but not the Syrian state.
In other words, to maintain functioning institutions – including the
military – but remove senior regime officials from them.

(MORE: As Syria Teeters, So Do Decades-Old Assumptions About the Middle
Syrians know what a complete collapse would be like. Post-Saddam Iraq,
next door, is a clear example of what not to do. The clumsy,
heavy-handed U.S-inspired and sanctioned Debaathification – which tarred
every member of Iraq’s ruling Baath party as an enemy of the fragile new
state – helped foment an armed insurgency that found ready recruits
among the millions of angry unemployed soldiers and state workers, as
well as other disenfranchised groups.

The rebel fighters in Syria have a more limited goal, it seems. “The
state is still present here in its offices and, at a distance, in its
tanks,” says Fayez, 40, a lawyer in Saraqeb. “We want to remove the
tanks.” The form of a post-Assad Syria will obviously depend on how
Assad is removed. The longer it takes, the uglier it is likely to become
and the more difficult it will be to reconstruct a new system from the
ruins. “We know that even if the regime falls, the harder battle will be
forming a new country,” says Moutaz, 30, a local teacher and a former
member of the town’s Local Coordination Committee, or LCCs. “We will
sacrifice a lot more to create a new country than we will to bring down
the regime.”

Moutaz is a former member of Saraqeb’s Local Coordination Committee. The
LCCs have emerged as a grassroots social services system and are likely
to play a pivotal role in any post-Assad period. Decades of one-party
Baathist rule meant Syria did not have any real semblance of a civil
society, yet these local groups quickly and efficiently emerged to fill
that space. Initially formed to meet, plan and organize anti-regime
demonstrations in their local communities and disseminate that
information to the media, the LCCs have increasingly taken on a larger
role, with varied success – and with diminishing amounts of money.

(MORE: A Syrian Soldier Claims to Have Witnessed Atrocities)

In Saraqeb, the committee’s nine members are each tasked with a
different role – there’s a media liaison, finance officer, military
liaison, political officer, revolutionary courts representative,
services coordinator, medical services, donations officer, and
demonstrations coordinator. They are rotating, elected posts of three
months’ duration. “There is no leader in the group,” said “al-Sayed,”
one of the nine representatives who requested anonymity. “We want to get
rid of this idea.”

Eradicating ego and family politics, as well as corruption, is not going
to be easy. The LCC in the nearby town of Binnish some 15 kilometers
away for example, has long been held up by activists in exile as a
successful example of an administrative system replacing that of the
state’s. But the committee has been bedeviled by a dispute between two
of the town’s largest families, the Sayeds and the Sayed Alis, over a
laundry list of issues.

Saraqeb’s LCC has its own troubles, mainly financial. The committee has
suspended its activity because of a 1.2 million Syrian pound ($18,700)
bill accrued by the organization’s two free medical clinics. False
receipts – a lot of them – are suspected of being issued by some and the
matter is under investigation.

The LCC in Saraqeb relies on donations, mainly from Syrians in the
diaspora, but the money doesn’t arrive regularly. “This month we might
get 10 million (syp),” a former LCC representative said, “other months
perhaps 1 million.” The Syrian National Council, the overarching
political umbrella organization comprised mainly of exiles, gave Saraqeb’s
LCC 40,000 euros ($48,400), a one-off payment after the Syrian army
invasion last Ramadan. Committee members, past and present, say they
haven’t seen a cent since. Some 113 properties have been burnt in the
various army incursions.

Many of the homes remain blackened and derelict, some of the stores in
the town’s main souq are closed, their bullet-riddled shutters blown-out
and distorted by the force of explosions in the street. Abel-Ilah, the
local house painter, says he is still trying to repair and paint over
much of the damage. Home owners often can’t pay him, he says, or end up
paying him a tenth of his regular rate. But he does the work anyway out
of a sense of civic responsibility.

Al-Sayed, of the LCC, says civic responsibility must extend to paying
the LCCs. For months now, residents have stopped paying state utility
bills, including electricity, power and water. (the services continue,
although electricity outages are becoming more frequent). “We need to
tell the people that whatever they paid the regime, in terms of water,
electricity, they should give to the [LCC], so we can work with it. We
don’t want to ask this of people who are struggling, but this is our
reality,” Al-Sayed says.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev)

Many townsfolk, like Iyad, a 36-year old barber and father of two,
expect to receive assistance from the LCC, not provide it with funds.
His barbershop was burnt in late March, when the army rolled into town.
TIME caught up with him in a small town on the Syrian-Turkish border,
just before he crossed into Turkey. He was livid with Saraqeb’s LCC, and
lashed out at a member who had also sought refuge in the small safe
house. “It was my livelihood,” Iyad said of his store. “I am forgotten.
Nobody asked me what I need, how I am feeding my family, forget about
fixing my store!”

“There are other, more critical cases than yours,” the LCC member
said. “Who is more important than me and my family? Thieves were given
money, people with connections to you! I was told by the [LCC], you have
land, go and sell it! I fought in this revolution, and this is how I am
treated? Why? Because there is corruption in the LCC.” The LCC member
did not respond.

Back in Saraqeb, the townsfolk were working on restructuring their
committee. Instead of nine members, a plan was put forward for 45, and
15 sub-committees. Most of the major families in the town would have
members in the new group. The key sticking point was how to ensure that
the various armed groups in the town would come under civil control.
Multiply this by the number of towns in so-called free Syria and you can
get an idea of the trouble that may lie ahead

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