Corruption in state institutions has eroded all remnants of civilian trust in governing authorities. Desperate to be heard, local communities are now turning to informal avenues to voice their anger.
Poor performance of institutions
Communities in regime-controlled areas are negatively affected by the poor performance of state institutions, as illustrated by shortages of goods and services. While external factors such as sanctions have an impact, the main causes are inefficiency and widespread corruption in government entities. Local communities understand the difficult conditions that hinder the production of much-needed goods and services, but they are dissatisfied with the unfairness in how they are distributed.
The regime has always intended to use the availability of basic goods and services at subsidized prices to increase its popularity, but this has been hijacked by widespread corrupt networks of traders, security personnel and public officials. These networks in regime-controlled areas dominate the governance of vital sectors such as education, health, energy and bread production. They sell subsidized goods and services intended for ordinary Syrians on the black market. For instance, traders in the city of Damascus and Rural Damascus collude with public employees to illegally sell available subsidized gas cylinders on the black market at inflated prices.
Moreover, the financial position of the majority of people living in regime-controlled areas has sharply decreased, especially since the beginning of 2020. This is widely thought to be linked to regime–profiteer power dynamics and to the role of profiteers in manipulating currency exchanges. This affects the purchasing power of local communities to obtain basic goods and services.
External factors – such as the collapse of the currency, the wholesale destruction of basic infrastructure and continued fighting – have contributed to the poor performance of de facto authorities. These factors, in addition to the internal power dynamics discussed in this paper, negatively affect communities in those areas. In the northwest, the policies of the Salvation Government have been largely driven by its desire to make basic goods and services available and accessible to residents in areas it controls. This is evident in its decision to allow rival and private entities to provide key functions, goods and services. But despite its relative success at making these available, residents generally struggle to access them, especially bread, electricity, fuel and water. The Salvation Government’s ability to regulate and monitor the prices of such commodities can only achieve so much. What is more crucial is its ability to provide them or to secure substantial financial support to make them affordable, which it has largely failed to do, due to its ties to HTS and the international donor community’s red lines.
In the northeast, while the performance of the Self Administration varies from one region to another, its quasi-formal institutions have generally fallen short of meeting people’s needs. The large scale of destruction in Arab-majority areas that were recaptured from ISIS, such as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, increased the cost of restoring basic services. The lack of international support to the northeast – which is in part due to Turkey’s objection and the Self Administration’s links to the PKK, even in Arab-majority areas – has made this task even harder. The sizable resources in the northeast (fuel, grains, water and dams) have allowed the Self Administration to become more successful than actors such as the Salvation Government in providing basic services. However, some areas (such as eastern Deir ez-Zor and rural Raqqa) still struggle to gain access to publicly provided commodities or are unable to afford the necessary quantities of some basic goods such as fuel, bread and electricity.
Lack of participation in decision-making and accountability
Communities also suffer from not having a voice in decision-making and a lack of accountability. The regime only uses parliament and local councils to present itself as a legitimate authority in Syria. It ensures that their members are Ba’athists, loyalists or close associates whose main duty it is to implement the instructions of the office of the Presidency, security agencies and the Ba’ath Party. The regime therefore created a legal framework to maintain control over participation and election processes by issuing Law No. 5 of 2014. This law organizes all election processes in a way that ensures the security entities have control over them. For instance, the law does not grant Syrians residing outside the country the right to vote in local and parliamentary elections. This means that millions of Syrian migrants and refugees, who are out of the reach of the regime’s intelligence apparatus, are unable to participate in elections.
Nominally, local councils should represent the needs and aspirations of their communities. They should also be the channel for people to participate in making local decisions and to hold government entities accountable for their activities, including service provision. The Local Administration Law (Law No. 107), which organizes the governance of local councils, was promoted by the regime as an important step towards decentralization and effective local participation. Yet, in practice, it gives governors, who are appointed by the Presidency, control over these councils. Additionally, the law does not include any clear measures, such as effective monitoring systems, to facilitate public participation and impose accountability. This has created negative perceptions of this law among local communities.
Local councils should also be the channel for people to participate in making local decisions and to hold government entities accountable for their activities, including service provision.
Local civil society has launched several initiatives to activate participation and accountability at the local level, especially in reconciled areas like Daraa. One example is the services committee in Daraa al-Balad that coordinates with formal entities in the area to ensure the availability and quality of goods and services. However, the role of this committee has been limited by security agencies, and it also has no legal and effective tools to hold state entities accountable.
Communities in non-regime areas also suffer from the dearth of ways to make their voices heard. Officially, the structure of the Salvation Government creates multiple channels for people to participate in the decisions that impact their lives, such as mukhtars (the town’s mayor), neighbourhood committees and follow-up commissions. Most of these mechanisms remain largely nominal and thus useless in connecting locals to decision-making circles. Subsequently, people lack the required access to discuss and shape decrees and policies when they are still in the early drafting stages. Besides, many people rightly view the Salvation Government and its structures as a proxy for HTS, which imposed its authority on people by force. Resentment towards the group has kept the population from engaging with quasi-formal institutions. In terms of transparency, the councils affiliated with the Salvation Government generally publish news on some of their services and activities, but avoid publicly sharing any data on strategies, programmes and finances. The lack of such key information is another factor in residents’ inability to monitor the work of the Salvation Government or to hold it accountable. Nonetheless, civil society groups are still able to play an important role, in spite of the Salvation Government’s dominance, in providing services in their areas, in shedding light on the work of local councils and in amplifying the voices of local communities. Their ability to engage in governance related activities outside of the de facto structures is greater in the northwest and northeast than in regime-held areas.
The Self Administration takes pride in its focus on building a bottom-up participatory decision-making process. Residents should therefore be able to take part in the different stages of the decision-making process regarding councils’ policies and activities. However, those formal channels are largely inactive, which means that people only know about laws and regulations after they are issued. The lack of transparency also prevents locals from having access to key information about the activities and finances of quasi-formal institutions, which limits their ability to monitor them. The inability of the local communities to select their representatives, who are generally appointed, has negatively impacted the legitimacy of these entities and stripped residents of the ability to influence their decisions or hold them accountable. The limited power of the quasi-formal institutions over decision-making, due to the dominance of the cadros, is another factor that makes residents question the value of their participation. That said, community participation is generally higher in governance structures at the neighbourhood or village level, such as communes. However, the role of these low-level bodies is largely tied to implementation rather than planning or monitoring.
Informal avenues for community voices
The lack of trust in official institutions has driven local communities to look for informal alternative means to express their frustration about service provision and hold relevant institutions accountable. Yet, the coercive measures that the regime has used throughout the conflict against civil movements have limited the ways in which people can fight for their rights, including the right to have adequate public service provision.
Within this security context, social media has become the primary tool used by local communities to share information about the availability and quality of goods and services (or lack thereof) in their areas. These channels also serve as platforms to criticize the performance of public officials and highlight corruption incidents and corrupt networks that abuse state entities. Some of these platforms, such as the ‘Syria against corruption’ Facebook page, are managed by pro-regime activists. There is speculation among local communities that many of these platforms are created and supervised by security personnel for people to vent and release their frustration in a controllable manner. Social media platforms could also be used as an indicator of potential insurrection, allowing security agencies to judge how and when to act to prevent social unrest.
Public demonstrations in regime-controlled areas are very risky but still an option for people in some regions to protest for their rights.
Public demonstrations in regime-controlled areas are very risky but still an option for people in some regions to protest for their rights. For example, the sharp economic deterioration since the beginning of 2020 has triggered widespread demonstrations in Sweida. The civil movement is largely supported by activists on social media platforms such as the ‘We want to live’ Facebook page. The movement is not only asking for better living conditions but also calling for bringing down the whole regime, which it sees as the principal cause for the current economic disaster. The regime has detained many activists to contain the movement, and many community leaders, including religious figures, have negotiated with security agencies for their release. The agencies refused to do so until all demonstrations stopped, which was not acceptable to the local communities. In response, a local non-state armed group, Rijal al-Karameh (men of dignity), kidnapped military and security officers to exchange them with the detainees. The intelligence agencies were therefore forced to release the majority of those who were detained during the recent demonstrations.
The inability of locals to improve the performance of de facto authorities has increased their anger. This is evident in Greater Idlib where the number of popular demonstrations against HTS and the Salvation Government has dramatically increased since they expanded their role in administrating the region in 2019. Some of the demonstrations pointed out the illegitimacy of both entities and expressed the people’s desire to expel them. This was the case in various HTS-controlled areas, including Idlib, where people frequently chanted slogans such as ‘Idlib will remain free’ and ‘HTS will be kicked out’. Other demonstrations focused on the deteriorating living conditions due to the poor performance of the Salvation Government. While the majority of those incidents were peaceful, others led to armed confrontations with HTS and its affiliates. For example, the zakat tax on olive oil imposed by the Salvation Government pushed people in Kafar Takharim to use force to kick the collectors out of the town, which led to intense clashes with HTS. Some of the protests have been effective in pressuring the Salvation Government to improve people’s access to basic needs. For example, the mounting public anger against the increased bread prices pushed the Salvation Government to lift taxes on imported ingredients and to increase the scale of its subsidies to make bread more affordable.
The increased frustration with the poor performance of the Self Administration and the inability of locals to shape policies has also driven residents in Arab-majority areas to protest. People in Deir ez-Zor have frequently demonstrated against the Self Administration’s strong grip over local decisions and the policies it has imposed despite popular disapproval. In addition to their demands for increased agency in managing their communities and resources, demonstrators have also asked for better access to services as well as for reform of security policies and practices. On other occasions, communities have protested against specific policies. For example, people in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor have recently demonstrated against the Self Administration’s decision to change the school curriculum without consulting local communities. The new textbooks promote the leftist ideology of the Self Administration, which is widely rejected in Arab-majority areas. While the general demands of the protestors remain largely unaddressed, the demonstrations might be successful in preventing the Self Administration from enforcing the new curriculum in Arab-majority areas. The ability of local communities to demonstrate in the northeast varies from one region to another based on the issues involved (complaining about services is tolerated, but political protests against the Self Administration less so) and their locations (Arab-majority areas, especially Deir ez-Zor, have more room to protest due to the US presence and the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Forces not to fuel tensions with local communities).