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.

This latest 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.

One of 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.

The 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 country.

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.

Recent 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.

Another recent 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.

Western 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 commanders.

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.

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