Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as special adviser for the Syria transition at the State Department in 2012.
OWith Iran circling the wagons around a shrinking Syrian state nominally led by Bashar al-Assad, a key question looms large: who could ultimately replace the ruling clan if Tehran cannot not keep its customers afloat? The answer is both complex and hopeful: local-level self-reliance is taking root in Syria and laying the foundation for what is to follow.
One of the few uplifting experiences to have in any Syrian context these days is meeting young Syrian activists, as I did recently in Gaziantep, Turkey. A young lawyer said something striking: “It’s not just a revolution against Bashar al-Assad. It is a revolution for self-government. Replacing Bashar with someone else issuing decrees from Damascus – even someone much better than Bashar – is not acceptable.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, unarmed militants have formed, in the worst imaginable security conditions, local councils to provide government services to their neighbors. It’s revolutionary. For 40 years, the Assad family had concentrated in their hands, in Damascus, the direct government of all Syrians. The civil servants assigned to the Syrian hinterland were, at best, command clerks. At worst, they were active members of a clan-dominated police state and terrorist network. Unless Iran helps its client to resubjugate Syria, the days of Damascus-dominated governance are over.
There are now hundreds of local councils in all parts of Syria that are not Assad. Some operate clandestinely in areas overrun by the so-called Islamic State. Some operate in areas where the Assad regime – with the full support of Iran – is unloading helicopter-borne “barrel bombs” on schools, hospitals and mosques. Some operate in neighborhoods under starvation sieges facilitated by Iran. These local councils are supported by a vast network of civil society organizations – the kinds of voluntary professional associations that underpin Western democracies. All this is new in Syria. This is the essence of the Syrian revolution.
This combination of local councils and civil society organizations is a cocktail of grassroots and bottom-up efforts. The women and men who risk everything for their neighbors are heroes. Yet these heroes are literally misunderstood. Everyone in Syria knows Assad and his rapacious family. Many in Syria know the names of exiled opposition figures and leaders of armed groups inside the country. Yet those who represent Syria’s future political elite are largely unknown. It is essential to integrate these battle-tested leaders into the Syrian national political mainstream.
The challenge is to forge links between a Syrian opposition in exile recognized by the United States and others such as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and those in the field who are gaining legitimacy the old-fashioned way. Young activists tell sad stories of their attempts and failures to attract the interest of the opposition ‘Syrian interim government’ in Gaziantep. They offer compelling stories of vocational training for women while Assad’s bombs fell, of promoting an independent judiciary in the face of Assad’s despotism and sectarian alternatives, and of helping local councils to educate children so that young Syrians can be kept out of the clutches of the armed forces. extremists. They also recount meetings with acting government “ministers” who spend 20 minutes feigning interest before pulling out their cellphones and moving on to other matters.
After acknowledging outside opposition in 2012, the United States and its partners should prepare it for prime time – prepare it to govern in case an opportunity, perhaps in the form of a safe haven, arises. would suddenly present. Yet the links between Syria’s future political masters and actual governance on the ground in territory other than that of Assad and the Islamic State are tenuous. Activists complain that visits to Syria by Turkey-based opposition officials are few, far between and often invisible.
Western support to local councils and civil society organizations has often been excellent. America’s direct love for exiles – often left in the clutches of embattled Saudis, Qataris and Turks – has been abysmal. If the Syrian interim government moved inside the country now, it wouldn’t push any buttons connected to anything. It would be insane. That would be instantly irrelevant.
The alternative to Assad comes from the Syrian base. This alternative must be nurtured and protected by the United States and its partners. And it must be connected to external structures recognized by the West as legitimate. The failure to do so to date partly explains the bizarre worries voiced by Obama administration officials that Assad – the mass murderer – might fall too quickly. He can’t fall fast enough. Yet those in government who worry about the apparent lack of alternatives have done far too little to promote one. They have failed to bridge the gap between potential leaders in exile and those inside Syria who are leading a self-government revolution.