Stability from the bottom up

On Wednesday April 12, New America hosted a conversation with Ammar Kahf and M. Yaser Tabbara, co-founders of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, on the role of local councils and security sector reform in shaping the future of Syria.

Kahf began by describing the security landscape in Syria, specifically focusing on restructuring the security architecture given new realities on the ground post-2011. Because scrapping and revamping the entire system is idealistic, the more pragmatic approach is to gradually and systematically change the function of security in Syria, from controlling the population’s actions and solely serving the regime to promoting peace, preserving security, and protecting citizens. Before Arab Spring, the Syrian government functioned through a bureaucratically complex and overwhelming state structure of overlapping agencies designed to remain loyal to the regime, focus on its security, and restrict political activity.

Now, as the country has devolved into zones of control or influence, Kahf sees decentralization as the most effective means of governing the state. Despite its current state of fragmentation, if Syria can plan and coordinate negotiations on how to decentralize, and determine which government functions should be localized and which centralized, it can strengthen its security architecture and successfully reorganize. Security sector reform, aiming to create a professional service that works to preserve state institutions rather than the regime, must go through a legal and structural process that codifies any changes and ensures durability and stability for the long term.

Kahf stressed that it is important not to dismantle entire institutions but rather create changes within the existing frameworks. For peace negotiations, this means relying on those operating on the ground and learning from their lived experiences. He said that these individuals should not be overlooked and can act as reliable interlocutors in developing new state systems. Tabbara also advocated for local governance as a foundation on which to build a new state once the conflict ends.

Tabbara specifically saw local councils as an excellent model for state government at large. Looking at local administrative councils (LACs) across Syria, he highlighted the relative success these councils have achieved absent regime control. In the early stages of the revolution, activists worked together to form coordinating bodies to govern local affairs, developing functional local governance from the bottom up. Responding to a political vacuum in opposition-held territory, LACs work to provide basic services and to a large extent are politically inclusive and democratically run. Indeed, in a report surveying the LACs operating across Syria, 38% of the councils are elected and 57% chosen through consensus, leaving less than 5% established through appointment or individual activist efforts. Tabbara says these councils are far more transparent and accountable (than the regime) to the people they govern, providing a good template for future state governance.

Despite their effectiveness, LACs present a direct threat to the regime. Given the de facto decentralization that is currently dividing Syria, LACs could be a tool to stitch the country back together and strengthen the peace process. But the regime, which wants a more unified governing structure under Assad, stands in opposition to this and continues to prevent the success of the current negotiations. Tabbara argued that LACs form a direct threat to the regime, challenging the state’s entrenched governing philosophy that denies grassroots participation and rejects any manifestation of democracy.

Ultimately, Kahf believes that a paradigm shift, in which LACs are treated as legitimate governing structures, needs to happen in order to change the reality in Syria. Stability from the bottom up is possible, and LACs can provide the ideal building blocks for reconciliation and reform for long-term peace.

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