While fighting in Syria has claimed more than 70,000 lives and turned more than 1 million Syrians into refugees, four panelists detailed ongoing grassroots efforts to begin laying the foundations for post-Assad Syria.
Mona opened with framing the crisis in Syria and the potential for establishing provincial governance in areas under armed opposition control. Highlighting the potentialities for the fragmentation of the country, and the devolution of the conflict into a humanitarian and refugee crisis, she pointed out the threat of violent spillover into neighboring countries.
Rafif Jouejati, director of FREE-Syria, a nonprofit humanitarian organization devoted to women’s empowerment, questioned grim portrayals of Syria in the Western media. She noted “the Syrians remain optimistic” that they will oust Assad and achieve “freedom, dignity and democracy,” she added that women in the opposition are employed, hospitals are functioning and areas under opposition control are being rebuilt. Groundwork is being laid for rebuilding communities and the opposition is discussing urban planning once the conflict is over.
Honey al-Sayed, co-founder and a board member of ROYA, the Association for a Better Syria emphasized that media in Syria must be used to empower citizens and engage communities on becoming more responsible citizens and promote awareness of the concepts of the rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech and dialogue, which did not exist in Syria before the revolution. She also outlined the challenges facing opposition media outlets, such as government cyber-attacks, a dispersed listenership, the disconnect between outlets and large groups of individuals displaced into refugee camps, and inspiring the Syrian people in a time of war. Al Sayed is also a host and producer on Radio Souriali, an Internet radio station that supports efforts to create a free and democratic Syria.
Panelist Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation, underscored the challenges faced by provisional councils, emphasizing difficulties in establishing clear lines of authority as well as coordination with both external opposition groups. She also raised questions about the role of minorities and women in emerging councils. Although opposition fighters may liberate a village, the threat of government reprisal is always present, and she noted that in some cases villagers have resisted armed fighters from entering towns or neighbors in order to protect their communities from eventual regime airstrikes or bombing. In her opinion, local councils share less a clear identity than what she refers to as a brand of activism defined by the interplay between different kinds of councils and committees run by civilians and the armed opposition.
Panelist Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said her visits to Syria and interviews with people there convinced her that troops fighting to end Assad’s rule are not seeking to establish a military government. “Most of the rebel groups I’ve talked to are reluctant to take on governance, they see their role as fighting the regime,” O’Bagy said. “They don’t want to be responsible for establishing basic services, maintaining schools” and doing the other work of governing.” Rebel groups are not going in and acting as warlords, they’re working with civilian groups.” She added that the contention that does exist between local councils and armed groups is indicative, in her observations, of the widespread reach of a few franchised rebel groups that work across large geographic areas to fight the regime and are organized more hierarchically than the many local defense groups working within specific communities. Despite American media portrayals of warlordism in Syria, she believes civilians are empowered by the opposition to assume local governance. At the same time, O’Bagy acknowledged issues with discipline and looting on the part of the armed groups and an uneven track record in terms of their relations with civilian councils.
Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser on the Middle East at Stimson, moderated the 90-minute discussion.
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