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

Like many other rebel towns, Saraqeb is learning to govern itself while retaining as much of the bureaucracy of the regime it wants to overthrow

  • Share
  • Read Later
Fadi Zaidan / AP

Syrian boys hold a large revolutionary flag during a demonstration at Saraqeb town in Idlib, north Syria, June 15, 2012.

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 East)
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.