Readers of my report on my visit to the north Aleppo town of Azaz near the border with Turkey will recall that authority in Azaz is divided between two bodies: the local council and the Shari’a committee. Broadly speaking, the local council covers the realm of public services, while the Shari’a committee, working with the Northern Storm Brigade as the police force, is responsible for criminal law and order, family and public morality. Both bodies are officially ‘civil’ (madani) and ‘independent’ (mustaqill), but in particular, the Shari’a committee’s own links with what was then the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front) were clear during my visit with the presence of the rebel coalition’s flags at the entrance to the building.
This post explores in greater detail the activities of the local council in Azaz, which is located in what used to be the regime’s local security centre that also held detained opposition activists. The local council’s funds primarily come from its own members and charging of locals for some services it provides (e.g. street cleaning).
As the Syrian civil war enters into its fifth year, with so much attention on the Islamic State (IS) phenomenon and its system of administration of territories it controls (for an ongoing extensive archive of IS administrative documents, see this post on my site), one should not forget that life and governance in Syria exist beyond IS, jihadi groups and the regime. Though there is a Jabhat al-Nusra presence in the town that has a base and controls one of the mosques, it still does not exercise governing authority and thus has no presence in Azaz’s local council or Shari’a committee. An interesting notable Jabhat al-Nusra figure in Azaz who was reportedly assassinated in January this year was Shari’a cleric/judge Abu Shu’aib al-Masri, a defector from the Islamic State.
The Azaz local council describes its activities thus in a statement it released earlier this year (beginning of February 2015):
“Local Council in the town of Azaz
Clarification statement on the activities and specialties of the local council in Azaz.
The local council undertakes to guide civil affairs through self efforts and very sparse financial support. Through this statement we clarify the specialties that the local council bears on its shoulder as far as possible:
1. Cleaning/Sanitation: With all its burdens and requirements including securing fuel for the municipality’s vehicles, regular maintenance for them, and securing ‘nature of the work’ for the cleaning/sanitation workers- whose number is at 40- at a sum of 250000 Syrian pounds a month.
2. Electricity: That also through fuel for the electricity network’s mechanisms and regular maintenance for them in addition to supporting the electricity network with maintenance necessities for the town’s network as far as possible, it should be noted that we have received from the Energy Ministry real materials and necessities for the electricity network in the town of Azaz but they are insufficient on account of the accumulation of malfunctions in the network for 4 years and we have undertaken to restore the functioning of the al-Asyana network whose malfunctioning has continued for more than 3 years.
3. Education: We have begun our project on the education situation in a self-effort with the help of some of the generous families and guarantee of male and female teachers recruited from all specialties and the number of schools’ students in all study stages has reached 6500. Let it be known that the schools in the town of Azaz have been interrupted in functioning since the beginning of the revolution but Chemonics and the Syrian Promise movement have moved forward in supporting us in restoring suitable furniture for eight schools including doors, windows, fibres, heaters, and fuel to heat the schools over the course of the winter season and work is now proceeding excellently in the town.
4. Health expenditure: The local council has begun its work in maintaining some of the drainage pointswith very simple capabilities and we are continuing this project.
5. Water: The local council has undertaken to prepare uncovered wells and the water main in complete form and to draw water from the Midanki Dam so we are continuing to work and by all available means to prepare this project and complete it in the nearest time possible to provide water for all the town of Azaz.
6. Aid: We are now working to restructure the aid staff with areas directors and organizing the distribution operation. As for the operation to distribute milk and diapers, the local council is undertaking to verify children’s vaccination cards on account of the widespread existence of fake vaccination cards and we have undertaken to publish the names of all the beneficiaries for the distribution of milk and diapers on our page and we have asked families to help us identify the names of those not entitled.
7. As for the issue of restoring roads, the engineering office is responsible for this matter in the town in cooperation with the local council and the military office and we will undertake this project at the beginning of the spring because of the lack of possibility at the current time with the rain.
8. As for the bakery (reserve/relief), we undertake to secure aid-provided flour for the bakery through aid of some of the organizations for us and as for its functional management we have nothing to do with that at all.
The local council is ready to be held accountable and open up all to its financial reports and our door is open to any citizen who wants to hold us accountable and hold us to an inquiry by legal means and principles.”
To give some context to the various points statement, sanitation operations for Azaz are reportedly being implemented in cooperation with the World Vision humanitarian organization. ‘Nature of the work’ (tabi’atu l-‘amal) refers to compensation for unusual work undertaken to complete one’s job. In another post,expenses are given as follows for various aspects of sanitation in January 2015:
Municipality vehicles’ fuel: 356275 Syrian pounds.
Vehicles’ maintenance: 141600 Syrian pounds.
Vehicles’ frames: 60200 Syrian pounds.
Oils for the vehicles’ engines: 17590 Syrian pounds.
‘Nature of the work’ for workers: 220000 Syrian pounds.
Sanitation workers’ salaries: 78000 Syrian pounds.
Besides World Vision, the local council has also received assistance from GIZ, a German international development organization, claiming to receive 350 garbage containers.
As regards electricity, al-Asyana area mentioned here is a part of Azaz that has suffered from a lack of electricity over long periods. In December 2014, the local council claimed to fix technical problems with the network for the area, including by extension of new cables, but the February statement suggests malfunctioning is still an issue. More generally, problems with electricity will have begun since the outbreak of unrest in Azaz in 2011 and become more acute since July 2012 when the town fell out of regime control. Electricity has since that time come almost wholly from private generators. The “Energy Ministry” that has provided the local council with some aid is that of the opposition-in-exile’s declared Syrian “interim government,” which has been hoping to supply electricity as a public service to rebel-held areas viaconnection with Turkey’s electricity grid using the town of Azaz as the main link. That said, there has been no sign of real progress on these plans thus far.
The education system is one of the areas in which the Assad regime maintains leverage in Azaz as public school teachers still receive salaries from the regime, which they must collect from regime-held areas of Aleppo province. The system is also disliked by the Jabhat al-Nusra presence in Azaz, which set up its alternative in the Mus’ab ibn Umair mosque it controls in the town. The local council has mostly advertised maintenance and repair of school furniture and equipment as well as provision of appropriate materials for heating in the winter. For example, this statement from mid-February 2015:
“Local Council in Azaz
Intended recipient: Syrian Promise Movement
Thanks to the Syrian Promise Movement
The Syrian Promise Movement has provided a financial sum of $500 as simple aid (for month of February) from the movement to meet the guarantee of fuel for three primary schools in the town- the well-being of the primary schools have precedence since they have a large number of children whose bodies cannot bear the cold of winter.
Head of the Local Council in Azaz
On the plans to secure water, it is of interest to note the local council’s mention of the Midanki Dam, which is located in the Kurdish PYD autonomous canton of Afrin. Northern Storm and the PYD were once enemies, and tensions between the two sides meant that water, which before the civil war would come from the Midanki pumping station two days a week, was subsequently cut off.
However, there was some limited cooperation of convenience in the fight to drive ISIS out of ISIS’ declared ‘Emirate of Azaz’ once wider infighting broke out between the rebels and ISIS in January 2014. Since Northern Storm returned to Azaz officially under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid and the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front), there has been official neutrality despite suspicion that reinforcements come from Afrin to the regime-held Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara.
Securing water from Afrin would therefore require greater outreach to the PYD, which may be one of the underlying reasons behind the agreementpublicly announced in February between the PYD’s military wing the YPG and the Levant Front, stipulating a united judicial system, establishing joint Shari’a and da’wah offices in Aleppo and Afrin, and working together to crack down on crime. Of course, Jabhat al-Nusra is opposed to any such arrangements with the PYD/YPG, which it considers to be apostate entities.
Provision of aid and vaccinations has also been advertised by the local council in Azaz. For example, in January, the local council’s aid office claimed to distribute 3500 packs of milk to locals, while also noting the problem of those not needing the milk but receiving distributions to sell for profit. On 24 February, a notification was put up for a polio vaccine campaign for children in Azaz running from 28 February to 5 March. This vaccine campaign was also advertised by the Azaz Media Centre that exists in a single room on the second floor of what was once a café, now otherwise abandoned.
Perhaps more notable is the omission by the local council of mention of hospital services in Azaz, likely because the local council has no influence over such services that are private in nature. This similarly applies to the mention of only one bakery for which the local council provides flour, for it is public in nature whereas the other three bakeries in Azaz are privately run.
In sum, it can be seen how the council wishes to present itself as an accountable body caring for local needs. Some sense of order has also been brought to the town particularly as Northern Storm is no longer an independent group but must answer to a higher rebel coalition authority (the Levant Front) if trouble arises. The opposition-in-exile, despite its unpopularity with locals on the ground in Azaz and more widely in Syria, maintains limited indirect influence in Azaz through its “interim government” provision of some aid.
Yet by the local council’s own admission, resources are still highly strained, undoubtedly further pressured by the internal refugee influx into Azaz and the wider district. In comparison with direct Islamic State administration that spans significant contiguous territory and has greater financial revenues, the Azaz local council’s administrative system is much less complex and also suffers from the inherent problem of localization of rebel administration.