Note: This report is the third in a series dedicated to the institutions set up by the opposition in the areas controlled by the opposition in Eastern Ghouta. You can read the first two reports here and here.
Eastern Ghouta, Syria – The National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces in the Ghouta of East Damascus is trying to create a political and administrative umbrella in Damascus’ Ghouta region, an area liberated months ago but still subject to a siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The coalition was established in January 2013, and included political activists, civilians and rebels from more than 58 towns and cities. Its founding charter called for a civil state, pledging the coalition’s “commitment to the goals of the revolution to topple the Assad regime and establish a pluralistic, free state that enjoys the rule of law and justice, equality and respect for human rights, and which considers Islam the main vehicle of its culture and history.”
One of the coalition’s objectives is to “work to mobilize all the energies and efforts of civilians and fighters to achieve the goals of the revolution” and to “coordinate with all actors and representatives of the revolution in all parts of Syria, in order to achieve a national body of unified forces of the Syrian Revolution” and to “manage the revolution and safeguard its principles.
The Secretariat includes representatives from local councils and armed opposition groups. It has a number of specialized sub-offices for the management of political affairs, services, relief and agriculture.
In its charter, the coalition welcomes “any international action to stop the killing and destruction suffered by the Syrian people, while ensuring the principles of the revolution and its goals.” It goes on to say that “any political solution will not work and cannot succeed without internal support, and the first basis of any political solution must be the departure of the criminal Bashar al-Assad, the transfer of power to the rebels, and the handing over of the leaders of the Assad gangs [Shabiha] to fair national courts.”
The coalition also includes an office of military liaison, which aims to “coordinate with the various military councils of the Free Syrian Army and its cadres, to contribute to the unification of military formations on a national basis independent of politics and free of temptation, and the establishment of a national army whose mission is to protect the homeland and defend its borders.”
Nizar al-Smadi, an engineer and the general coordinator for the coalition, said that the formation of the coalition came in response to changing realities on the ground, particularly the decline of the existing representative bodies such as the Local Coordination Councils, and the administrative vacuum left after the area was liberated and the regime withdrew its services. Smadi said the need for a new representative body emerged to face these challenges and unite the civilian and military forces of the revolution.
“We were proactive in forming a strong relationship between the revolutionary forces and the Free Syrian Army in the Ghouta,” al-Smadi told The Damascus Bureau. “The second challenge was the administration of services, and on finding alternatives to replace the institutions of the regime in order to administrate daily affairs and to organize the distribution of public services. We also hope to set an example of administrative decentralization for the future government of Syria.”
The problem, however, is that each new revolutionary body or group has not taken into account existing entities and tried to cooperate with them. This has led to new disputes within the revolutionary forces. The coalition appears to be a compromise solution, neither blessing the existing bodies nor seeking to replace them.
“The unified service offices, which have been formed in the Ghouta, were a result of a top-down decision made by the opposition outside the country and its public offices, and neither the people nor the [rebels] had a say in their formation, nor were they granted any power of supervision over them,” explained Smadi. “We are not trying to create new offices, but we are working towards finding a system for the distribution of services in which the people have a say and can oversee the work being done.”
“Many of the members of the coalition have contributed to the formation of local councils in their cities and towns,” he continued. “We in the coalition supported these efforts and tried to replicate them in all the cities and towns of the Ghouta. We, and others, strive to create a unified internal system for these councils that take into account the specificity and circumstances of each region. We are working to build connections between each of the local councils and find a truly representative model for a unified local council for the Eastern Ghouta to serve an elected local government and manage the affairs and public services of the region.
The coalition intends to build an internal opposition force as an alternative to the exiled opposition which has failed, in its eyes, to represent the revolution as it should.
“We in the coalition were among the first revolutionary bodies to work towards unifying the forces of Syrian revolution, to create a unified leadership of the revolution on Syrian territory for the people, and to withdraw the mandate of the exiled opposition, which has failed to manage the conflict with the regime or the lead revolutionary action on the ground. In this regard, despite all the difficulties we have faced in engaging the revolutionary forces in many provinces, we have made progress on this front.”
But recently, the formation of another coalition, with nearly identical goals, was announced following a conference in Eastern Ghouta. Smadi said this latest group, the Union of Revolutionary Powers, is attempting to start from scratch rather than build on the experience and efforts of so many who came before.
“Despite [our misgivings], we participated in this conference because we strive for unity and organized, responsible teamwork,” said Smadi. “The major challenges and barbaric war we face, the rivers of blood being sacrificed every day, call on us to take this responsible, historical stance before God, the people and our consciences.”
The coalition does not hide its ambitions to play a leading role in the Eastern Ghouta.
“We in the coalition aspire and work towards becoming a political and administrative umbrella in the Eastern Ghouta,” said Smadi. “We support and have contributed to the development of local councils in most of the towns and cities and we have provided both theoretical studies and practical experience to all.”
He goes on to list all the service projects currently being carried out by the coalition, including a potable water project and the repair of breakdowns in the electricity network, and creating a central office for waste collection. The coalition has also helped support relief campaigns for the poorest and most affected areas in the Ghouta as well as setting up field hospitals.
In any case, it seems likely that more than one initiative will come to fruition in the liberated areas soon. The hope is that the opposition inside Syria does not make the same mistakes as the opposition abroad by succumbing to fracturing and infighting, and that it is able to work under such exceptionally difficult circumstances.