Syrian rebels in the embattled city of Homs this week announced the formation of
a joint revolutionary military council in the city. The council is intended to
act as a leadership and coordinating body with the powers to decide on both
military and civil issues in areas controlled by the rebels.
development in Homs comes a week after the founding of a similar council in
Aleppo, which is witnessing heavy fighting as troops loyal to the regime of
President Bashar Assad battle rebel forces.
The Aleppo and Homs
revolutionary councils join a number of similar bodies already in existence in
those parts of Syria under the precarious control of the rebels. The emergence
of these bodies is an important development. They are the first embryonic sign
of an attempt to build an alternative administration to that of the Assad regime
on the ground in Syria.
The councils themselves are disunited, reliant
more on local power structures and strongmen than on any remit from above.
Groups of independent jihadi and Salafi Islamist fighters in their localities
remain outside their authority. But Western countries are now paying particular
attention to the councils, seeing them as the best chance for developing a
coherent leadership for the rebel side in the Syrian civil war.
the notable paradoxes of events in Syria in the last months has been the
discrepancy between the growing strength of the insurgency at ground level in
the country and the absence of any coherent revolutionary leadership.
Syrian National Council, formed under Turkish auspices to provide such a
leadership, is fading. It has failed to unite the disparate forces of Syria’s
external opposition behind it. More important, it has proved unable to gain the
loyalty of those Syrians actually fighting the regime inside the
Predictably, rebels and activists within Syria see little reason
to subordinate themselves to a squabbling external “leadership” which has shared
none of the sacrifices of the past 18 months.
The National Coordinating
Body, a supposed rival of the SNC, is even less relevant. Opposed to pexternal intervention, this largely secular and leftist grouping is considered
by its opponents to be a stooge of the regime. Certainly, it has little presence
or effect on the ground.
As a result, the Western former backers of the
SNC are ignoring it and looking elsewhere. France and Saudi Arabia are backing
former Republican Guard commander Manaf Tlass as a possible interim leader. But
Tlass lacks support among the armed rebels because of his late defection and
long record of participation in repression.
In the absence of any
coherent external direction for the revolt, the revolutionary councils are
growing in importance. The rebellion now controls – by default – considerable
parts of the country. These “liberated zones” are precarious in that Assad’s
army can still enter any area that it chooses to. But since the regime army is
overstretched, it has, in practice, ceded control of these areas.
visitors to northwest Syria described a network of local revolutionary councils
which now administer daily life in these areas. The councils, usually headed by
a political chief and a military leader, are responsible for law and order,
education, health provision, justice and the administration of all aspects of
life in the areas they control.
The revolutionary councils now control
large parts of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama governates. In sharp contrast to the
situation just a few months ago, rebel fighters travel freely on the highway
from town to town in daylight hours.
The details of life under rebel
control vary. A recent Associated Press report from the town of Qurqanya in
Idlib Governate noted that a rebel-appointed council of judges applies a strict
interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law in the town.
eyewitness account from the mountainous Jebel Zawiya area, a heartland of the
insurgency, profiled three rival guerrilla leaders who have divided up the the
area. The three – Abu Issa, Jamal Marouf and Ali Bakran – were not prominent men
prior to the revolution.
Each has his own backers and political
orientation. The most powerful, Abu Issa, is an Islamist.
governments are now engaged in trying to map the loyalties and orientations of
the myriad commanders in control of areas of Syria. A clear understanding of who
is who in this complex and confusing political and military terrain is essential
in order to know whom to back. And it is now clear that the real issue of who
leads the Syrian revolution will be decided here – and not in the hotel
conference rooms of Cairo and Istanbul.
But the US and its allies are
entering the game very late. For most of 2012, it has been the Saudis, the
Qataris, the Muslim Brotherhood and extreme Salafi networks which have made the
running in supplying and financing the disparate rebel groupings active on the
ground. Unsurprisingly, contracting out the job of backing the insurgency to
Sunni Islamists and their supporters has helped to produce an insurgency with an
influential and growing Sunni Islamist element.
As these groupings now
move to take de facto control of areas of the country, the West will be hoping
to ensure that a representative and civilian government can be achieved at the
local level. But the decision on this will depend on local military
The outcome is likely to vary largely from area to area and
to depend on the local ideological topography and the sources of support and
personal opinions of the commander on the ground.
But what is clear is
that the issue of leadership on the rebel side in the Syrian civil war has
shifted decisively from external organizations to the emergent revolutionary
military councils within Syria.