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Syrian Civil Society Strives to Rebuild Communities

New America Foundation’s Leila Hilal describes how local councils have tried to manage and rebuild Syrian communities.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

In 2011, civil governance groups began forming in Syria under the banner of the donor-financed Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). The network, active in opposition-held areas throughout the country, focused on media relations and documenting human-rights violations.

Today, a broader array of local councils and all-volunteer governments have sprung up to concentrate on basic services and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Civil society groups dedicated to emergency response can often found driving makeshift ambulances around the hardest-hit areas of Aleppo and other cities.

We asked the New America Foundation’s Leila Hilal, who has worked with and studied civil groups in Syria, to describe how local councils have tried to manage and rebuild their own communities.

Syria Deeply: What are the LCCs, and how did they give way to today’s dominant local councils?

Leila Hilal: The LCCs were the initial activist units that were formed at the beginning of the uprising, and their primary role was to do media work, document the violations and speak to the outside world about what was happening inside Syria. Over time, they were also doing relief work.

Today, many of the people who were working with the LCCs remain inside and are still active and working with local councils: those are really the emergent bodies. They are organized by city, town, sometimes neighborhood and province. They are volunteer based. The provincial councils have received a lot of backing from external countries, the Gulf in particular. Others are funded by Syrian expats. Western donors will provide some training and infrastructure support, or sometimes the provision of food aid will be channeled through a local council.

Syria Deeply: How are local council members selected? Is it a democratic process?

Hilal: In some cases they are elected and in others they are nominated. The first round of elections [and nominations] were held across the border, in Turkey, and the nominees decided internally who would go outside to participate. So not everyone was included in the voting process, and it raised a lot of questions among civilians of legitimacy in respect to these councils.

Syria Deeply: Today, what is their role?

Hilal: The idea is to have these new bodies be governance structures, because the governance structures that were in these communities before no longer exist. The civil defense is code for emergency response. Now you have civil society organizations or even NGO contributions to relief efforts. They work with local councils or coordinate with them.

They do a lot of humanitarian work, provide food, coordinate the delivery of relief items. They do civil defense, which is largely emergency response. They typically have media units – this is where you see a lot of former LCC members contributing to the councils. They also do things like fix broken infrastructure. If the electric line is cut, they will get it back.

But there are a number of civil society organizations that have sprung up over the last few years. Some are in neighboring countries, with satellite offices or members operating inside Syria. There are a lot inside the country. These organizations are doing relief work or media relations, others are promoting certain principles related to democratic governance. Some are doing local mediation and conflict prevention, or supporting educational work. There’s a lawyer’s union that has been trying to document property rights where there’s a high level of internal displacement. These groups will sometimes collaborate with local councils, but they are not the same. There’s been a proliferation of civil society organizations.

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