POMED Notes: Syria in Transition, An Insider’s View
On Tuesday, December 11th, the New America Foundation hosted a panel “Syria in Transition: An Insider’s View” featuring Mohammed A. Ghanem, Senior Political Advisor for the Syrian American Council, and Ilhan Tanir, Washington Correspondent for the Turkish daily newspaper Vatan. Both panelists had recently returned from areas in Syria under control of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). The panel was moderated by Leila Hilal, director of New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.
For full notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
Mohammed Ghanem highlighted the presence of citizens’ governance structures in “liberated areas” under FSA control, citing their development as the missing narrative in Washington on Syria. In liberated areas, the government is barely a presence, and Syrians are organizing for the first time since 1962 to fill gaps in services. Specifically, in Aleppo Governorate, the countryside is fully liberated, and 70% of Aleppo city (Syria’s most populous city) is also outside regime control. Ghanem visited with the main revolutionary civilian council in Aleppo and was impressed at its sophistication; it consisted of a 32-person elected board chaired by a distinguished individual, and included specialized committees for finance, the judiciary, relief efforts, and daily administration. Commenting on relations between the civilian council and the FSA, Ghanem called the relationship both cooperative and competitive. The councils depend on the FSA for protection from regime forces, and in this sense, the relationship is cooperative. However, in the longer term, both the civilians and the FSA gain legitimacy by providing services, leading to questions over who will ultimately have the upper hand in Aleppo. Both the FSA and civilians were underfunded, but because military councils also gain legitimacy from their fighting prowess, Ghanem deemed funding shortages especially damaging for civilian councils.
Ilhan Tanir also expressed his surprise at the sophistication of revolutionary civilian councils across the country, despite their inability to organize under the Assad dictatorship. According to a conversation Tanir had with the head of logistics for the revolutionary youth of Damascus’ Eastern Ghuta area, there was no organizing whatsoever in the area before the revolution, and the current system was set up within a few months after the revolution began. Tanir also visited Al-Bab town, in northeastern Aleppo Governorate near the Turkish border, after that town was liberated this summer. Sitting in on three council meetings, he witnessed what he called Al-Bab’s first political victory: the appointment of a 36-person council with equal representation for youth revolutionaries; “teachers,” or businessmen and other financial supporters of the revolution; and “elders,” or older, well-to-do revolution supporters. Recounting how the civilian councils in Al-Bab asked FSA affiliates to leave in a vain attempt to avoid aerial bombardments by the regime, Tanir stated that the first challenge of liberated areas is to defend themselves. In general, Tanir found in his discussions with activists and rebel fighters a strong consensus in favor of holding elections as soon as possible, although there were discrepancies over what form the government should ultimately take and the role of Sharia Law.
During the question-and-answer session, the topic of cleavages within the Syrian opposition came up repeatedly. Regarding sectarian divisions, Ghanem pointed out that defections from the regime by religious minorities are mounting, although they were often low-profile due to the potentially grave consequences. Minorities currently participate in revolutionary civilian councils, as in the liberated Turcoman-majority areas, and in rebel battalions including a Christian FSA battalion. Regarding ethnic divisions, Ghanem described efforts by the Aleppo city council to mediate tensions between Arabs and Kurds throughout Aleppo Governorate. Regarding Islamic-secular tensions, however, Tanir recalled how one town he visited could not decide on a civilian council due to such tensions. Ghanem mentioned dueling videos, one by Aleppo Revolutionary Military Council leaders expressing support for the new Syrian opposition council, and the second by Nusra Front leaders rejecting it in favor of an Islamic state, while noting that 80% of rebel fighters in Aleppo work under the Military Council.
This conversation segued into a closing discussion on the U.S. role in Syria. During the discussion, Tanir was sharply critical of the recent American designation of Nusra Front as a terror group, and said that the timing of this decision meant it would not benefit the rebel cause in Aleppo. He also faulted Obama Administration officials and other decision-makers for equating military intervention with “boots on the ground,” and for failing to identify trustworthy rebel commanders worthy of military aid. Ghanem added that the U.S. could increase its regional influence by meeting the needs of the Syrian people, especially by directly aiding civilians councils, a step Britain and France have already taken. Both panelists speculated that failure to act for opposition could result in drastically reduced American leverage in a post-Assad Syria, with negative repercussions for U.S. national security.