ANADAN, SYRIA --- Electricity here is as rare as the sun. With gas stations shuttered, people buy their petrol from smugglers who charge five times what they used to. Schools are now used to shelter fighters rather than teach children reading and writing. Two years into Syria’s revolution, the government has collapsed and with it the ability to provide basic services. In rebel controlled areas, the opposition has struggled to replace a central government that controlled everything from crop prices to college admissions.
The rebels’ ability to provide these services may be the only way they can regain popular support. They are organizing city councils to provide services. But many residents complain it is too little too late.
This village lies seven miles north of Aleppo, and over a year ago the government of President Bashar Assad ceded it to rebel forces. At first, residents were elated to have thrown off the yoke of the regime. But the necessities of self-government soon dissipated the euphoria. “When the gas ran out, we didn’t know where to get more,” says a member of the new village council who would only give his name as Ahmad to avoid regime reprisals. “We don’t run oil trucks, the government did.”
The village quickly formed a municipal council and doled out responsibilities. Ahmad, an upholsterer by profession, was tasked with securing fuel to power generators and ensure there was enough cooking oil. “I drove into regime areas looking for businessmen and traders who could help,” he says in his spacious but empty home. Like many here, he sent his wife and children to Turkey.
Soon Ahmad found a band of smugglers willing to brave fighter jets and tank shelling to cross regime lines. Today, the contraband ring brings gas to Anadan like clockwork twice a week. Customers line up at the arranged time with their bright yellow jerry cans. “The gas makes it possible to go to Turkey to see our families,” says Mustafa Hamadani a 38 year old construction foreman.
But in nearby Tel Rif’at, residents are not as fortunate. Most of the city’s 20,000 residents fled when the regime began air attacks last year. Today the city looks like an abandoned California mining town after the gold ran dry. Tel Rif’at’s residents are not much luckier than those failed prospectors. Those left behind have little more than Turkish canned goods and stale potato chips to eat. The electricity rarely functions and medicines are hard to come by.
Unlike Anadan, Tel Rif’at was slow to organize a city council. And when it did, it focused its efforts on supplying fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), not providing residents services. Only those too poor to leave stayed behind along with the fighters. Their poverty however has rendered them too weak to complain about their plight. “The stores have almost nothing to sell when they are open,” 64 year old Salim Dari tells The Media Line. “The water doesn’t run and the electricity cuts out every hour. But the jets still bomb us.”
Dari and others scoff at rebel promises that the situation will get better. “We just want to live. If the regime can help us do that, then we are with them.” It is a refrain often heard throughout rebel controlled areas. Syrians yearn for a return to their quiet pre-war lives and are ready to support any side which can do that.
Nowhere is this truer than in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo. Its first winter under rebel control was a disaster, turning many away from the rebel cause. Lack of heating oil led the destitute to forage in city parks for wood to burn. Exorbitant food prices forced families to cut essential staples from their diet, and children to go to bed hungry.
Unlike their rural counterparts, city elders were simply unprepared for the challenges. They were slow to create replacement bodies for the ones that disappeared with the retreat of regime forces. Today, Aleppo is run by neighborhood associations rather than one large municipal council.
“It is difficult to provide services when you don’t have money and the experts to do so,” Sharif Husseini, a member of the Hananu quarter’s council tells The Media Line. “When the regime collapsed, we struggled to find a way to replace it. But we haven’t found the magic formula yet.”
Instead, it is the smugglers who dominate the neighborhood. They hawk everything from bread to medicines at exorbitant prices which few of the lower middle class families can afford. With the Hanunu council unable to fill the gap, residents have largely given up on the rebel cause. “The bombings, no school, no doctors, it’s taking its toll here,” laments 43 year old electrician Badr Mustafa. “The people just don’t believe the opposition can fill the regime’s big shoes. They want the FSA to go home.”
It is a dilemma the organization faces throughout Aleppo. Eight months of war have taken their toll on the population. For months they bore their suffering, willing to give the FSA a chance. But with the organization unable to provide even the most basic services, residents have lost their patience and just want a return to their lives before the war. And that means a return of the Assad regime the rest of the world wants gone. For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org