Frederic C. Hof writes: With Iran circling the wagons around an ever-shrinking Syrian statelet nominally headed by Bashar al-Assad, a key question is coming into sharp focus: Who might ultimately replace the ruling clan if Tehran cannot keep its clients afloat? The answer is both complex and hopeful: Self-government at local levels is taking root in Syria and forms the basis for what should come next.
One of the few uplifting experiences to be had in any Syrian context these days is to meet with young Syrian activists, as I recently did in Gaziantep, Turkey. A young lawyer said something striking: “This is not just a revolution against Bashar al-Assad. It is a revolution for self-government. Replacing Bashar with someone else issuing decrees from Damascus — even someone much better than Bashar — is not acceptable.”
From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, unarmed activists have formed, under the worst security conditions imaginable, local councils to provide governmental services to their neighbors. This is revolutionary. For 40 years the Assad family had concentrated in its own hands, in Damascus, the direct governing of all Syrians. Officials assigned to Syria’s outback were, at best, order-taking clerks. At worst they were active members of a clan-dominated police state and terror network. Unless Iran helps its client re-subjugate Syria, the days of Damascus-dominated governance are done.
There are today hundreds of local councils throughout non-Assad parts of Syria. Some operate clandestinely in areas overrun by the so-called Islamic State. Some operate in areas where the Assad regime — with Iran’s full support — unloads helicopter-borne “barrel bombs” onto schools, hospitals and mosques. Some operate in neighborhoods subjected to Iranian-facilitated starvation sieges. These local councils are supported by a vast network of civil society organizations — the kinds of voluntary professional associations that undergird Western democracies. All of this is new to Syria. It is the essence of the Syrian Revolution. [Continue reading…]