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Syria in Transition: An Insider's View

While fears of chemical weapons and of an impending "failed state" dominate discussions on Syria, a narrative is being largely lost: civil leaders inside Syria who are taking matters into their own hands.

The New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force recently convened a conversation about how Syrian civilians are creating a government of their own,  and how this movement may impact the country's future. Read a dispatch from the event below:

On Dec. 11, President Obama announced that the United States would recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the umbrella organization that formed to fight and oust President Bashar al-Assad, as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” But the prevailing view at a New America event held on the same day is that it will take much more than diplomatic proclamations to hasten an end to the 20-month-old conflict.

“Time is not on the administration’s side,” said Mohammed Ghanem, the senior political adviser for the Syrian American Council, an organization that advocates for civil liberties in Syria. “They [must] either step in [soon] and fill the void, or they risk jeopardizing U.S. national security interests in Syria.”

What does filling the void mean, exactly? To Ghanem, it involves sending aid to the civilian-led governing councils that have sprouted up in parts of the country. Tuesday’s event, a conversation between Ghanem, Ilhan Tanir, the Washington correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Vatan, and Leila Hilal, the director of New America’s Middle East Task Force, explored the genesis stories of those new governing coalitions and shed light on the geopolitical tensions – internal and external – that are crippling the opposition’s ability to defeat regime forces and build a new Syria.

The biggest obstacle? Paltry aid contributions from the international community –  targeted to both civilian and military efforts.

“The ones providing the most military assistance are the Qataris,” said Ghanem. But the Qataris’ aid role is often overstated.

The wealthy Gulf nation is only providing enough assistance to “perpetuate the conflict indefinitely – never to put it to rest,” he explained. One military council, for example, reported receiving supplies from Qatar once every 15-20 days ¬– enough materials for one day of fighting. “Yes, assistance is being extended, but it’s very meager…relatively speaking it would border on nothing,” he said.

And that nothingness is fueling the country’s violent impasse. “When you talk to Syrians on the ground and through Skype from every part of country, the understanding and perception is that the West, and outsiders, are helping just enough to…contribute to stalemate,” explained Tanir, who recently visited Syria and has written extensively about the conflict. The current trickle of supplies ensures Syrians don’t feel abandoned, but is “ a recipe to drag this war on even longer.”

It’s the reality of the continued strife between Assad’s forces and the opposition coupled with the lack of international aid that has inspired the civilian-led governing coalitions to develop in “liberated” areas across the country. “Liberated” cities – in quotes because many are still patrolled by Assad’s fighter jets –currently struggle to provide basic services, like medical care and trash pickup, for citizens. The new civilian councils are trying to meet those needs. And it’s a particularly surprising development, says Ghanem, because “Syrians don’t have experience governing themselves – since 1962 the state has been highly centralized.”

Ghanem recently visited Aleppo to investigate how these new councils are attempting to gain acceptance and provide basic services amidst ongoing violence.

“The operation we encountered was a lot more sophisticated than we had thought,” he said. “They held elections and elected a 32-member board. They also created 12 different specialized committees” – on judiciary and finance, for instance – “and they were working on several projects to stabilize the city.”

Tanir described a different governing structure in Al-Bab – a city northeast of Aleppo that he stopped in a few weeks ago: There, the council members were appointed rather than elected.

“Councils aren’t operating in response to any framework or plan,” Hilal pointed out after listening to Ghanem and Tanir’s descriptions. “What are the challenges to their long-term sustainability?”

If the councils aren’t empowered to meet basic needs of citizens, they won’t be sustainable long-term, said Ghanem.  

“They have ambitious projects to stabilize the community” like a proposals to start a community police force and restore the court system, but they lack the funds to execute their projects.  Another possible challenge: the future relationship with the Free Syrian Army. In the short term, they’re cooperating with the FSA. Long-term, however, Ghanem worries that the new councils may compete with the FSA for governing power in cities.

Hilal challenged Ghanem on his conclusion that the panacea for sustainable Syrian civil society is money.

“In my thinking, what is more important for empowerment in a country going through a fundamental revolution is legitimacy,” she reasoned. “How are these civilian formations on the ground in Syria able to build legitimacy?”

“Meeting needs can gain legitimacy,” Ghanem maintained. History, too, can bolster it: Many council members are former committee activists who did relief work and organized protests. Still, building legitimacy can’t happen without funding, he suggested.

Which brings us back to the Obama Administration – and its reluctance to step into the Syrian crossfire. Aiding Syrian citizens – particularly those in the civilian councils – is “good for strategic reasons,” Ghanem argued. The U.S. can “forge relationships with people [on the ground], empower a nascent democracy, and help shape what comes after Assad. If you meet needs, you have leverage.”

And if we don’t move in soon?

“Terrorist groups will continue to fill the vacuum and meet needs,” warned Ghanem, dismissing the argument that “we don’t know the bad guys and the good guys,” as a reason to withhold aid. The State Department, he says, has a vetting process – and can distinguish the good from the bad.  

Tanir continued the criticism:  The United States is deluded when it comes to its role in Syria, he suggested: “Washington thinks it is doing good work and is well liked by Syrian people, and that things are getting better everyday.”

But that’s far from reality.

Recently, protests in Syria condemned the United States along with the governments of Russia and Iran. “The [Obama] administration is not doing enough – it’s not winning the hearts and minds of the Syrian people,” he said. 

--Elizabeth Weingarten


Mohammed A. Ghanem 
Senior Political Advisor, Syrian American Council

Ilhan Tanir
Washington Correspondent, Vatan (Turkish Daily Newspaper)

Leila Hilal
Director, Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation

Event Time and Location

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 12:15pm - 1:30pm
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

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Event Photos

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A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.