Murad Abdul Jalil | Mais Hamad | Ali Darwish
In one of the offices of al-Bab Local Council in Aleppo countryside, an electronic device with a green light saves the fingerprints of citizens, before inserting them in their personal data, which are saved with a “code” on new personal IDs, linked to the Turkish “system.”
This room plays the role of the Personal Status Directorate or the Passports Department. Although the idea of the local councils, which had arisen during the past years in areas that went outside the control of the regime forces, is based on defining a developmental service role for them, the northern Aleppo countryside councils, specifically after 2016, have played additional roles.
Cars numeration, setting prices, changing the currency of the commercial exchange of some goods and other tasks are performed by the northern Aleppo countryside councils, which operate under exceptional security and military conditions, compared to the rest of the Syrian regions controlled by opposition factions, and political states governed by the nature of their relationship with southern Turkey governorates.
In this file, Enab Baladi tries to shed light on the role of the local councils in rural Aleppo, the reasons that have prevented their unification under one umbrella of the Syrian Interim Government, as well as the Turkish role in the work of these councils, the nature of its relationship with them and the level of its involvement in them.
The councils of northern Aleppo countryside…
Administrative experience subject to military fluctuations
The northern countryside of Aleppo witnessed the establishment of local councils with the direct support of the Turkish government, after the Euphrates Shield military operation that the opposition factions launched with Turkish support, in August 2016, to expel ISIS from the region, and which, after five months of fighting, took control of the most prominent cities in the area, namely Jarablus, al-Bab and Azaz. This was followed by the start of the establishment of civil administrations under Turkish supervision.
The councils were the beginning of the control of the Turkish-backed factions under the domination of their military committees that were formed in the city centers, which led to the downsizing of their role. However, the popular pressure helped them to play a more significant role in providing services to the residents, and they managed to get out of the domination of the military factions, only to fall later in the trap of administrative affiliation with Turkey.
There are central-local councils in the area that have municipal councils, and the number of central councils is ten in Azaz, Suran, Marea, Akhtaren, Al-Bab, Bazaa, Qabasin, Al-Rai and Jarablus, in addition to the Local Council of Afrin, after controlling them in 2018.
A service or a much more significant role?
Despite the severe and unstable conditions that the region faced and still facing, in addition to its unclear future, at the political, security and humanitarian levels, the local councils, which represent the governments in their regions, have been able to play a role in managing the area at the economic and service levels, according to the financial analyst Munaf Quman.
Quman told Enab Baladi that the northern Aleppo countryside councils “managed the recovery phase and made remarkable progress in securing services, such as electricity, water, sanitation, roads and transportation. They also raised the level of work in a manner that secured job opportunities and managed the work of organizations, associations and the private sector.”
In contrast, the head of Jarablus Local Council in Abd Khalil stressed to Enab Baladi that the councils are playing a much more significant role, as the role of the local council is limited to service matters. However, they are currently playing the role of full management of the region; they bear the burdens of all the institutions in the region and contribute to support and operate them within its capabilities, especially in the absence of any government.
What is the legal framework of the councils’ work?
The Local Administration Law N. 107 issued in 2011 is the legal reference for the work of the councils, as confirmed by the head of the Local Administration in the Interim Syrian Government, Ali Hallaq. The law stipulated the creation of administrative units capable of planning and implementing operations, setting development plans for the local community, efficiently implementing their projects, and enhancing the financial revenues of the administrative units to enable them to exercise the developmental role in the local community in addition to the service role.
Hallaq pointed out in an interview with Enab Baladi that “the Interim Government is working to develop the law and frame the relationship with the local councils, in a way that suits the reality of the increasing numbers and proportions of forcibly displaced persons.”
Crossings are the most crucial source of funding
Since the beginning of the formation of local councils, they started looking for self-financing resources in order to implement their projects in the region, ensure their continuity and provide their services to citizens. However, these councils first relied on external support that has been provided by regional and international governmental and non-governmental organizations, in addition to Turkish support, especially in the early stages of their formations.
The head of the Re-stabilization Committee, which was formed under a decision from the Free Aleppo Governorate, Monzer al-Sallal, said that with the beginning of control over the cities of the northern countryside of Aleppo, the Committee, which has been receiving support from international organizations, started supporting the councils with equipment to remove debris and rubble from the streets, activate water pumps, secure generators, light the roads and set up a water and cleaning system. He also tackled the provision of ten large and medium machines to the councils, in addition to simple equipment.
The current primary financial source of the councils is the funds allocated to them from the share of border crossings between their regions and Turkey, according to the Director of the local administration, Ali Hallaq, who confirmed that two and a half years ago, an agreement of border crossings was signed and it stipulated the sharing of quotas, part of which goes to the Interim Government to finance its employees and continue its work, and another part goes to the local councils.
For his part, the head of Jarablus Local Council, Abd Khalil, told Enab Baladi that a third party shares the revenues of the border crossings, which are the military factions, pointing out that the revenues are deposited in a bank in Turkey. Each party takes a share of these revenues, and its value is determined according to the revenues of the three border crossings (al-Rai, Jarablus and Bab al-Salameh).
According to the researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Ayman al-Dassouky, local councils in the northern countryside of Aleppo do not only depend on the revenues of the border crossings, but also on several funding sources, the most important of which is the direct or indirect support that the Turkish side provides, such as paying the salaries of the education and police sectors.
This in addition to the local taxes and fees that the councils impose on the local population (on services such as water, sanitary, commercial licensing and the civil registry), as well as the support provided by organizations and donors working in the councils’ areas, and the revenues from the investment and management of state property, al-Dassouky confirmed to Enab Baladi.
According to Enab Baladi’s correspondent in the northern countryside of Aleppo, the cost of obtaining an ID card from the councils is five Turkish liras (950 Syrian Pounds), in addition to the licensing of vehicles. The numeration of a motorcycle costs 50 Turkish liras (9,500 Syrian Pounds), while the cost of numeration of machines differs according to their type. All these amounts are added to the treasury of the councils.
The Re-Stabilization Committee provides non-financial support to the local councils, as it trains the councils on administrative and political stability, according to its chairman, Monzer al-Sallal, who explained that the Committee had trained several councils, during the previous months, on civil administration, project management, information and reporting.
This is in addition to training in political awareness, and the involvement of local councils and the local community in the constitutional process that is currently taking place within the framework of the “Constitutional Committee” between the regime and the opposition in Geneva so that these councils can demand matters related to their regions.
Local councils were created in the areas that were outside the control of the regime’s forces, with the beginning of the revolutionary movement in Syria, as an alternative to state institutions in providing services to people. Their start coincided with the decline of the regime’s control over many Syrian regions and cities, but with the passage of the years of the revolution, roles changed, and councils have diminished, according to the decline in opposition military control in a few areas.
On the tasks assigned to the local councils previously and what they are today, the researcher and former member of the Coordination Office of the Local Councils in Damascus, Mounir al-Faqir, told Enab Baladi that the local councils, politically, arose after a request by people of the revolutionary movement to present an example in the areas that are no longer under the regime’s control, which distinguished it from the local councils of the government that had a more representative political role than the service role.
In light of the continuation of the revolution for the second year, activists and volunteers joined to work under the umbrella of local councils in all Syrian cities, to cover the administrative vacuum.
According to Youssef Nairbeh, CEO of “Local Development Organization” (LDO), local councils witnessed the peak of their development in 2014 with the emergence of the “Syrian Interim Government,” which assumed ensuring the logistical support and continuity of these councils, at a time when the councils worked on laying down the regulations governing their work.
“The relationship of the councils has developed administratively and organizationally with the local community, and their role went beyond its development, but due to the scarcity of resources, the local councils preferred to provide basic services in the liberated areas,” said Nairbeh.
One area but different references…
Why do not the councils of the Aleppo countryside unite?
Despite the decisive role that the local councils play in providing services in the northern countryside of Aleppo, there is no shared ground they operate through it. This has led to a situation of imbalance in its work, especially in the projects implemented over the past years.
Ayman al-Dassouky, an economic researcher, confirmed to Enab Baladi that the facts indicate that the local councils do not have integrated and consistent administrative regulations that originate from the “Syrian Interim Government.” They are somewhat similar to regional administrative units that enjoy a large margin of independence in managing the affairs of their regions, away from government interference, and by accreditation on their own regulations coming from the councils themselves, or directives and procedures sourced from the Turkish provinces that these councils are connected to.
The lack of unification of the councils under one umbrella led to the subordination of the councils to some of the nearby Turkish provinces, as each province is concerned with a number of local councils, such as the provinces of Kilis and Gaziantep, which commissioned a representative to communicate with the councils, called “coordinator” or “assistant governor.”
Why don’t councils unite in an entity?
Enab Baladi communicated with a number of local officials, whether in the “Interim Government” or the councils, as well as researchers and reached a number of reasons that led to the failure of the local councils under one entity.
The first reason is the limited financial capabilities of the “Syrian Interim Government,” which led to its inability to manage the region. The head of Jarablus Local Council, Abdul Khalil, confirmed this: “The Interim Government is attacked from the international parties and has no international support, so it does not assume its full role and has no role on the ground.”
Khalil pointed out that the “Interim Government” does not interfere with the work of the councils, due to its limited imports and its inability to pay salaries to the councils, but only supervises the crossings and distributes quotas on them. He added that the role of the “Government” is more effective in the areas of eastern Euphrates (Ras Al-Ayn and Tell Abyad), as local councils were formed in the region after controlling it as part of the Operation “Peace Spring” that Turkey launched against the “People’s Protection Units” (Kurdish) in October 2019.
The Director of the Local Administration in the “Interim Government,” Ali Hallaq, agreed to Khalil’s words, as he believed that the weakness of the resources of the “Government” led to poor performance in most regions, which led some to not deal with it, especially the donors who went to deal with organizations to implement their projects.
Hallak also believes that the large size of the resources of some councils transformed their performance, in one way or another, from local councils to local government, which negatively affected the performance of the “Interim Government” in general. He also indicated that the relationship exists between the two parties, but the strength and weaknesses of the link are directly proportional to the strength and weakness of councils’ resources.
Another reason lies in the unwillingness of the local councils to unite under one umbrella, which necessitates Turkish support and decision, according to the head of the Re-Stabilization Committee, Monzer al-Sallal.
Al-Sallal explained that producing an actual umbrella for the region requires regulation by governmental bodies, whether the provincial council or the “Interim Government,” and the will of local councils, as well as pushing the Turkish supporter. He pointed out that “the umbrella is now the Turkish coordinator from the Turkish provinces, and every coordinator works according to what the governor sees.”
Poll: “The supporter desired to prevent unification.”
According to an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its Facebook page, on the reasons for the lack of unification of the local councils in Aleppo countryside under one umbrella: 71% of the participants (846 votes) considered that the goal is the “unwillingness of the supporter,” while 29% thought that the decline in the role of the “Syrian Interim Government” is behind the absence of a single umbrella council.
Whereas, the Director of the Information Office at the Local Council of the city of Afrin, Ahmed Laila, told Enab Baladi that all the local councils in the countryside of Aleppo are legally affiliated with the Ministry of Local Administration in the “Syrian Interim Government,” and confirmed the existence of moves to return the councils administratively to a reference and central work with the Ministry.
Turkish provinces are the councils’ reference…
Domination or support and coordination?
It is not possible during the discussion of the local Aleppo countryside councils to ignore the Turkish role, amid questions about Turkey’s control of the councils’ decisions and their dependence on them.
On 31 March 2018, the Turkish newspaper “Cumhuriyet” published an article talking about the readiness of Hatay, which is located in southwestern Turkey near the border with Syria, to take charge of coordinating the administration of Afrin in the northern countryside of Aleppo. The newspaper then referred to the appointment of a deputy governor of Hatay to “ensure coordination” in Afrin through a local council-run by 35 people.
Also, last January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan published an article in the American newspaper “New York Times,” entitled “Turkey has a plan to restore peace in Syria” in which he spoke about a Turkish plan for what he called “organizing things in these areas and managing them through local councils.”
The Turkish president referred in his article to the elected local councils by “people” that will be responsible for managing these areas, adding: “Anyone who is not associated with terrorism can represent his community in these councils.”
Hallaq spoke about the existence of a direct relationship between the local councils and the Turkish provinces, and the nature of this relationship varies according to each council.
Monzer al-Sallal describes the Turkish role in the work of the local council as a “coordinator,” according to the proximity of each council to the Turkish provinces, adding: “This has benefits and disadvantages.”
“It is positive that the councils have authority after they were a group of young people who have no authority. This would not have happened without the Turkish support, in addition to organizing the work of each council and bringing in revenues for it from the crossings and taxes,” according to al-Sallal.
As for the negative aspects of the Turkish role in the councils, they lie in “the absence of a Syrian umbrella,” according to al-Sallal, who noted that there are no real governmental bodies that manage the work of the councils. At the same time, this matter can be remedied “in the event of a desire by all parties.”
For his part, the CEO of the “Local Development Organization” (LDO) that supports the local councils, Youssef Nairbeh, considered that the direct supervision by officials in the southern Turkish provinces and the dependence of some councils’ decisions to offices in Turkey imposed restrictions on the work of the councils.
According to Nirbiyeh, the Turkish-backed councils have contributed to developing the regions under its control by regulating its administrative and financial activities. These councils may move to a new stage by ensuring more involvement of the local community through planning services and setting priorities.
Nirbiyeh explained that the progress made in these regions is the outcome of the project proposals presented by the local councils to organizations or the Turkish government, to receive funds and implement the aspired plans, which must comply with the technical conditions imposed by some Turkish consultants.
Mounir Al-Faqir, the researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies and former official at the Damascus Local Coordination Committees, described the mechanism of workers employed by the local councils that play the role of government agencies in the region as “improper.”
The council’s decisions are made by a representative or coordinator in a Turkish province to which it belongs, and directs the progress of projects in those councils. In contrast, the councils justify this intervention with “the weakness of the Interim Government.”
Bashar Abdul Qader, a member of the Re-stabilization Committee, has a different opinion, as he emphasized that the local councils “make autonomous decisions, with the presence of a follow-up to their work by the Turkish provinces of Kilis and Gaziantep, and even approving the budgets is an internal matter for each council.”
Abdul Qader added: “Although Turkey allocated salaries for the local councils’ staff, in addition to funding projects using a proportion of the resources coming from the crossings’ profits, this does not mean that the councils are subordinated to the Turkish province.”
Did the councils succeed in accomplishing the required tasks?
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll that targeted a number of the locals in Aleppo countryside on the performance of the local councils. Some of the respondents complained about the “failure” of several councils to perform the required tasks, despite having convenient resources.
According to some of the respondents, the most prominent disadvantage of the councils’ work is the lack of the appropriate administrative sense to execute the missions, i.e. failing to hand positions over to competent professionals and degree holders. In contrast, others indicated that some departments are stagnated due to the official’s reluctance to make the necessary staff changes for five years.
The economic analyst, Manaf Quman, believed that the local councils played positive roles despite the presence of some drawbacks, i.e. the councils’ adaptation to fluctuating circumstances, implementing projects and services for the population, signing memoranda of understanding with organizations and institutions, and resolving major problems burdening the region’s inhabitants, such as providing electricity and water services; in addition to focusing on implementing essential facilities like roads and means of transportation, after restoring tens of kilometres of ways inside and outside the area’s towns and cities, which contributes to facilitating transportation.
According to Quman, the local councils have worked to use renewable energy resources to light the roads and have also contributed, in cooperation and coordination with many organizations, to creating job opportunities in the region, and ensuring relative stability in the displacement camps.
He asserted that the weaknesses lie in the fragmentation between the different councils and the lack of a unified discourse, work and economic vision, in addition to the fact that the councils are disregarding the legal regulations of property and capital rights, which pushes businessmen and investors away and weakens the business climate in the region. Nevertheless, the area also lacks a unified statistical body that issues numbers, data and all the relevant information concerning all aspects of life there.
The agricultural sector is characterized by an evident weakness in terms of implementing agrarian projects, which worsens the food security situation in the region and contributes to increasing the prices; and thus deepening the sector’s failure to provide the majority of the population with the necessary services, as Quman put it.
Financial and security challenges
What is the fate of the councils?
In light of the security and political situation in the region, the work of the local councils faces several challenges that might significantly hinder the development of its performance, such as the ability to secure financial revenues that can achieve self-sufficiency.
The Head of the Local Council in Jarablus, Abdul Khalil, spoke to Enab Baladi about two challenges facing the councils: the first is the shortage of resources to set up large projects that need international support, and the second lies in the security situation that prevents the implementation of any projects and scares the investors away; in addition to the lack of coordination between the organizations and the councils, which resulted in their failure to meet the population’s needs.
For his part, researcher Ayman al-Dassouky considered that one of the most critical challenges facing the councils is the inability to prove its independence in managing its internal affairs, away from external interferences, fighting corruption, and strengthening its local legitimacy; in addition to the enormous challenge regarding the extent of the councils’ ability to achieve mutual institutional linkages at the horizontal and vertical levels, on the one hand, and with the Interim Government on the other.
Al-Dassouky added that the lack of interconnectivity between the councils within a unified system, and the lack of international and regional political protection threaten their work.
On the fate of the councils, the researcher expected that they will remain in the short and medium-term in their present form, with a possible emergence of another pattern of local administration, which will be the result of a Russian-Turkish consensus or dispute.
Head of the Re-stabilization Committee, Monzer al-Sallal, confirmed that the local councils are currently heading towards restructuring their working bodies, amid an attempt to activate their political role. He also expected that they would turn in the future into a real authority that contributes to ruling Syria and improving the conditions of the different regions while indicating the possibility of becoming the Syrian opposition’s most recognized body.
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