By Nasser Weddady

Ms K is a young Syrian from the Idlib province in Northern Syria I met in Turkey this summer. She is part of a local group of 29 women who are trying to set up a local coordination unit in her area to address the needs of orphaned children. Local and international NGO’s provided her, along with a group of other activists, with training on specific issues, such as media, conflict-resolution, and even transitional justice.  There are thousands like MS. K in war-torn Syria today.  They work within Syria’s local councils.

Few in the outside world realize the local councils’ potential in resolving Syria’s conflict and transitioning to a post-Assad Syria. Valuable expertise is going to be wasted if it is not coupled with an ability to strategically plan and coordinate her group’s efforts to steer towards a larger vision of self-reliance and local governance in her area.

The local councils currently form the backbone of Syrian society in the liberated areas. They perform all the basic functions of a local government, dealing with their fellow citizens’ primary needs in often very difficult circumstances. They supervise education and aid distribution when possible. They also mediate and resolve conflicts between citizens.

Unfortunately, they are caught between the Assad regime’s war machine and an increasingly chaotic scene of armed militia, including in some areas, where Al-Qaeda affiliates try to impose harsh Sharia laws through their own self-appointed Sharia court judges.

Yet, the local councils are the ultimate moral and civic authority in these areas because they are often composed of people who share kinship ties with fighters and commanders in their areas’ fighting groups. Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades cannot coerce them entirely, or disband, them because they know that without them their communities will be in total chaos. In areas such as Raqqa, Deir Zor, Idlib, and Aleppo, among others, local councils are playing a vital role filling the void left by the collapse of the central Syrian state institutions. In other words, Syrians are self-governing in ways impossible to fathom under the Baath’s highly centralized state.

Although the Syria debate in the West is dominated by talk about the impending war, and the big geopolitical contest between all the outside powers involved in the Syrian conflict, very few give any thought to the potential role Syria’s local councils could play in the reconstruction and stabilization of the country during and after the end of the war.

Plainly put, neglecting them would be a missed opportunity at developing a credible solution to Syria’s governance crisis. It would also play to the hands of the extremist groups who are flush with cash from Gulf country donors. These extremist groups could begin running social services as happened in some areas already. The choice is stark: how do we benefit from having Syrian children schools run by Al-Qaeda affiliate groups? The other choice is that empowering Ms K, would turn her to a credible candidate with a plan and a vision for a future post-Assad municipal or regional election.

Nasser Weddady is AIC Outreach Director