BERLIN, 26 September 2012 (IRIN) - Citizens are taking control of services in rebel-held areas of Syria. In al-Bara, a village in the rural northwest, dustmen are collecting rubbish. If there are power line problems, an electrician does the repairs. If someone is accused of theft, he has to stand trial, and if found guilty, he is sent to prison.
“We are running things ourselves now,” said Ahmed, a local engineer IRIN spoke to on the phone. “It was difficult at first, but now it’s normal.” Amid headlines of fighting and carnage, the steady growth of civil society in Syria’s rebel-held areas has gone largely unnoticed.
Widespread infrastructural damage means many towns and districts lack access to basic goods and services, but ordinary residents are stepping in, developing sometimes sophisticated networks of support and self-rule. Al-Bara is one of over 70 villages in Jebel Azzawiyeh, a rebel-held upland area near the Turkish border. Since the army left, residents have set up their own municipal councils in each village.
“We elected 45 people, who then chose the 12-member council,” said Ahmed. “All of them are people with a university degree.”
The council presides over a variety of committees, each responsible for a different aspect of community life. There are work groups for cleaning the streets, for gathering donations and passing them on to families in need, or for making sure food, fuel and gas are evenly distributed. The emergence of similar structures is reported in many other areas abandoned by the state.
“We have a new government now,” an activist called Mohammed Sayid* in Hretan, near Aleppo, told IRIN by phone. “Some people take the decisions, but everybody has a job to do.”
Though food prices have risen sharply, and some items like flour are often difficult to obtain, communities are still able to share what is available, say residents in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.
"Without these committees, there would be a lot of problems. Everything would probably fall apart," said Ibrahim, a student in Maaret al Horma, another village in Jebel Azzawiyeh. Ibrahim's father used to support the family as a construction worker in Lebanon, but with the roads unsafe due to the fighting, he cannot travel across the border anymore. Now, the family is living off their small farm, but the yields are not sufficient. "The humanitarian aid committee in our village is giving us food packages. Usually there is cooking oil in it, tea, sugar and other basic stuff. It is very basic, but it is keeping us alive."
As Ibrahim says, the committee has a list of names of people in need who are entitled to receive the packages. Activists and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters purchase supplies in nearby Turkey using donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, then funnel it across the border into the village. "Life is still very difficult, particularly for the refugees from Hama Province who are living in our mosques. But somehow, we still manage to make do."
However, in other areas, where people are not at liberty to organize their own systems of supply and support, the humanitarian crisis is deepening.
“We cannot set up committees because we do not have the freedom to move,” said Abu Emad*, an activist in a village near Homs.
Though the army has withdrawn from the village itself, soldiers are still surrounding it, frequently launching attacks. “It is too dangerous to walk around outside, so we have to pass food and water from house to house.”
But even in the most self-sufficient rebel-held areas, some services like electricity still come from the government - though there are hour-long power cuts every day.
A new legal system
The provision of food and other basic items seems to be the primary concern in most rebel-controlled communities.
Residents in these areas are also taking charge of other sectors. In al-Bara, a five-member council of elders is now responsible for all legal issues. These councils, say residents, are part of the traditional system of conflict resolution. Now, they are the only legal authority left.
“There are two reasons why I am a member of this court: One is my age and the other is that people respect me,” said retired construction worker Abu Fadi, 62.
The court recently had to deal with the case of a man who was accused of stealing figs. “First we listen to all sides. Two of us are prosecution, two of us are defence,” Abu Fadi explained. “The fifth member is the judge, and he decides if the defendant is guilty or not.”
The fig thief was found guilty and sentenced to a week in prison. He also had to pay a fine amounting to three times the price of the figs and sign a statement in which he promised not to steal again.
If a defendant is convicted of a more serious crime, such as murder, he is usually banished from the village. In cases of family disputes or neighbourhood conflicts, the court tries to act as an intermediary, negotiating agreements between the different sides. The judge leading the council is a sheikh with a degree in Sharia law.
We are running things ourselves now. It was difficult at first, but now it’s normal
“I am very good at solving problems,” Abu Ramez*, a cleric, said by phone. The sources for his verdicts are local customs and religious texts: “The problem is that you cannot rule people here with the Koran. They wouldn’t accept it. So I usually use my own common sense. If I am not sure what to do, I will see if I find something in the Quran.”
The new legal system, said the sheikh, is actually working much better than the previous state-run one. “The official court here was very slow. It sometimes took them years to deal with a case. There was also a lot of corruption, so people didn’t trust it. People accept us as the legal authority because our verdicts correspond with their traditions,” Ramez said.
Several residents interviewed by IRIN agreed, saying that legal disputes are usually resolved quickly and efficiently.
Cases of abuse?
While FSA fighters have, in some areas, assumed the role of a de-facto police force, trying to maintain security and carrying out court sentences, cases of abuse have given rise to accountability concerns. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented cases in which rebel groups not only tortured detainees but also carried out extrajudicial or summary executions.
“Usually, those prisoners belonged to the army, the security forces or were suspected of being government informers or members of pro-government militias,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director with HRW in Beirut.
The administration of justice is complicated by the absence of clear and consistent standards, particularly for cases involving serious accusations, Houry said. “It is one thing if a judicial council is solving a local dispute, but another if it is dealing with the accusation of a serious crime.”
Legal practices, he said, differ from region to region, with some councils relying exclusively on Sharia law, and others applying a mixture of Sharia and Syrian criminal law. “Of course, there are concerns that they don’t provide due process standards,” said Houry. “In most cases, people who are being accused of crimes don’t have access to a lawyer, or an opportunity to prepare their defence and challenge the evidence or witnesses against them.”
The FSA says it is trying to fill a wider role within emerging civil society structures in areas under its control.
“We try to make things go as normal as we can,” said Hutheifa*, a spokesman for the Damascus Area Command, the leadership council of the FSA in the capital.
“We are making sure people still have access to food,” Hutheifa said, describing one of the FSA’s most critical services. “If a district is besieged, we purchase food from nearby… and take where it is needed.”
For example, in Zabadani, a small town in Damascus Province, government forces have been driven out, but army checkpoints still block entry roads. "The Free Syrian Army tries to bring us as much flour as they can," said Abdallah*, a resident. "They deliver the flour in trucks from outside, but they have to carry it on foot over the last five or six kilometres across the mountains into Zabadani because all the roads are cut... If it weren't for them, there would be no bread at all."
In Aleppo, protecting and arranging deliveries to local bakeries has become one of the FSA’s main tasks, said Mohammed Sayid*, the activist from Hretan.
“They try to prevent assaults on the bakeries, and they make sure that customers stand in line without pushing. Bread is scarce, so if it weren’t for the FSA, people would be fighting over it,” he said.
Maintaining a degree of normalcy is just as crucial for the rebels as military gains, with public support hinging on their ability to provide for communities, residents and activists say.
“It is more important than the fighting,” Hutheifa said. “We want to take the place of the government and build a new state. It is our duty to keep the cities safe and quiet, and that process is starting now.”
*not a real name
Due to the limited access to Syria, interviews in this report were conducted over the telephone.