When Syrians first rose against the Assad tyranny they believed they could topple the regime while keeping the state intact. What they had not foreseen was that the regime’s concentration of power made it impossible to topple one without the other. Thus, when the regime forces left an area, all functions of the state seemed to fail as well, or fall in the hands of extremist groups with a very different vision of what a future Syria should look like. The takeover of the state’s functions in Aleppo’s countryside, and al-Raqqa by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was in essence a defeat for the civil current in the revolution.
Nevertheless, just as Daraa was the birthplace of the uprising, it is today the birthplace of another, even more important, struggle. That of extracting the state from the regime’s grip, while at the same time providing an alternative to militia rule. The General Authority for Civil Defense in Daraa was established in February 2013 after months of planning and hard work by a team of no more than twelve activists. Zaidun al-Zuabi, co-founder of the initiative shared with Syria Untold his insights on how such a successful establishment of a civil model of self-governance came about against all odds.
An idea from Duma
The idea came from the town of Duma, where Zaidun and his colleagues were first exposed to the town’s experiment in self-governance, the General Authority for Civil Defense in Duma. This provided the motivation and template to establish a similar authority in liberated Daraa. The city of Daraa was witnessing a complete collapse of public services after regime forces left the town. Basic services in the city were failing including garbage collection as well as the electricity, water and sanitation networks, and individual efforts by activists were no longer sufficient to cover the shortages. Thus, there was a dire need for institutional organization of these services.
The activists involved proceeded to draft a formal work plan that was adapted to the local needs. The activist team of 12 members were based in Damascus with an advisory and public relations role, while the implementation was done by local activists in Daraa.
Implementation and successes
The idea was implemented successfully and has taken over all of the services abandoned by the regime in the city of Daraa. The authority’s tasks range from cleaning to the streets and rebuilding what’s destroyed by the ongoing conflict, to fixing and managing the electricity and water networks, as well as expanding the small field hospital into a large medical point with 11 rooms, an intensive care unit and with 17 residents on its staff. The authority has been so successful in its work that even the outgoing director of electricity in the city calls them for support.
In the areas of aid and relief, the authority plays a mediating role, whereby it offers jobs to those in need of relief. “So that someone who used to work as an electrician and who currently needs aid can find a paying job with the authority (with a salary of 12,000 SYP),” according to Zaidun. Today the authority employs about 150 people in different areas.
All of the equipment and machinery the team uses were acquired through either donations to the authority or by taking over the equipment left behind by the retreating regime forces (which usually includes heavy equipment such as garbage trucks). According to Zaidun, “When the regime left, they abandoned the government institutions with all their equipments. We asked the armed opposition forces that took control of these assets to use these equipments in order to bring back basic services, and so it was.” Furthermore, Zaidun says that “these equipments and machinery are the property of the state, not the regime, and thus we are using them under official contracts and are prepared to deliver them back to the state after the fall of the regime.”
The authority was hugely popular in the city and their campaigns were met with great enthusiasm, because of their inclusive and reasonable slogans and the fact that their activities were to the benefit of most people. This success came about due to the impeccable organization of the project and the adept management of resources. According to Zaidun, volunteers make up only 5% in the authority and they are mostly based outside of Syria and are responsible for public relations and advocacy. The rest, however, are employees paid by the authority. The team is very transparent when it comes to which organizations provide their funding and material support: Initiative for a New Syria, Al-Asfari, the Syrian Democratic Platform and the Syrian Home Association for Relief and Development.
The relationship with armed groups
According to Zaidun, the relationship with the armed groups in the area is “neither good nor bad, but rather practical in that we avoid any confrontation with them. We work within their controlled areas as a civil authority, not as a political party. So we profess to no specific ideology (neither Islamic or Secular), and that can be seen on our homepage that has no political slogans. We are here to deliver aid and support to everyone regardless of their religious, ethnic or political backgrounds.”
But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an tensions. Jabhat al-Nusra once protested at the secular ideology of a member of the team, and tried to use this as an excuse to bring the authority under its control. But the issue was solved in favor of the authority due to the popularity of the authority in the city and the fact that fundamentalist groups don’t enjoy much support in Daraa.
For the authority work never seems to end. For every building restored or machine fixed, another is destroyed by the regime forces. Zaidun questions why they are being targeted by the regime, despite their work being limited to civil and relief activities.
“Last time one of our garbage collectors, one who is paid the bare minimum for what he does, was killed. Why? The authority’s building was bombed three times, and we’ve rebuilt it three times. God only knows how much every piece of equipment that we lose costs us. Why do you destroy them? We are not an armed faction, nor are we even political opposition, we are a civil institution. Our only aim is to protect and save the institutions of the state which you abandoned.”
Despite its success, the authority gets minimal support compared to the amount of money spent on armed factions. According to Zaidun, “what is spent in one battle (without counting the human and material loss), could help us provide people with aid and relief for three months. That same amount is enough to service and aid these liberated and besieged areas for months.” Moreover, Zaidun feels that it is better to support people through providing work rather than food baskets.
Condemned to hope
The authority’s experience in Daraa became famous all over the country, and several provinces attempted to implement similar projects. Most of these schemes were faced with failure due to the encroaching political agendas and attempts to politicize the civil domain. Duma and Daraa, despite the relative lack of support, remain unique experiments in self-governance in liberated Syria.