March 28, 2021
From Autonomies
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We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.

Omar Aziz, 2012

The “Arab Spring” as revolution risks falling into oblivion, reduced to State centred and geo-political interpretations of civil and proxy wars. If the latter cannot be ignored – and even these must be read on a global scale (See: “The Syrian Revolution: reflections on a decade of struggle”, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Roarmag) -, they cannot serve to cover over the revolutions that so many gave themselves over to.

Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in the case of syria. We post below are collection of articles, already familiar to some, dedicated to the syrian revolution and the work of the anarchist, Omar Aziz.

Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes

March 18, 2021 by Leila Al Shami (Originally published at The Funambulist)

On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries. 

On 18 March another anniversary will pass, but surely to much less acclaim worldwide. On this date a decade ago, large scale protests were held in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a in response to the arrest and torture of a group of school children who had painted anti-government graffiti on a wall. Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least four, provoking wide-spread public anger. Over the next few days protests spread across the country, transforming into a revolutionary movement demanding freedom from the four-decade dictatorship of the Assad regime. In the following years, as people took up arms and forced the state to retreat from their communities, Syrians engaged in remarkable experiments in autonomous self-organisation despite the brutality of the counter-revolution unleashed upon them. As early as 2012, Omar Aziz a Syrian economist, public intellectual and anarchist dissident, compared the first of these experiments to the Paris Commune.

Omar Aziz was not a mere bystander to the events underway in Syria. Living and working in exile, he returned to his native Damascus in 2011, at the age of 63, to participate in the insurrection against the regime. He became involved in revolutionary organizing and providing assistance to families displaced from the Damascus suburbs under regime assault. Aziz was inspired by the movement’s level of self-organisation in its resistance to the regime. In towns and neighbourhoods across the country, revolutionaries had formed local coordinating committees. These were horizontally organised forums through which they would plan protests and share information regarding both the accomplishments of the revolution and the brutal repression the movement faced. They promoted non-violent civil disobedience and were inclusive to women and men from all social, religious and ethnic groups. Revolutionaries were also organising the provision of food baskets to those in need and setting up medical centres to tend to injured protesters who feared going to hospitals due to risk of arrest.

Aziz believed that whilst such activities were an important means to resist the regime and had indeed challenged its authority, they did not go far enough. Through their organisation, revolutionaries were developing new relationships independently of the state based on solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, yet were still dependent on the state for most of their needs, including employment, food, education, and healthcare. This reality enabled the regime to maintain its legitimacy and perpetuate its power despite people’s wide-spread opposition to it. In two papers published in October 2011 and February 2012, when the revolution was still largely peaceful and most of the Syrian territory remained under regime-control, Aziz began advocating for the establishment of Local Councils. He saw these as grass-roots forums through which people could collaborate collectively to address their needs, gain full autonomy from the state, and achieve individual and community freedom from structures of domination. He believed that building autonomous, self-governing communes, linked regionally and nationally through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, was the path towards social revolution. According to Aziz, “the more self-organizing is able to spread … the more the revolution will have laid the groundwork for victory.”

Aziz was not concerned with seizing state power and did not advocate for a vanguard party to lead the revolution. Like the Communards, he believed in the innate ability of people to govern themselves without the need for coercive authority. In his view the new self-organised social formations that were emerging would “allow people to take autonomous control over their own lives, to demonstrate that this autonomy is what freedom is made of.” Aziz envisaged that the role of the Local Councils would be to support and deepen this process of independence from state institutions. Their priority would be working together with other popular initiatives to ensure the fulfilment of basic needs such as access to housing, education and healthcare; collecting information on the fate of detainees and providing support to their families; coordinating with humanitarian organisations; defending land from expropriation by the state; supporting and developing economic and social activities; and coordinating with recently formed Free Army militias to ensure security and community defence. For Aziz, the most powerful form of resistance to the state was a refusal to collaborate with it through building alternatives in the present that prefigured an emancipatory future.

In November 2012, much like so many of Syria’s revolutionaries, Omar Aziz was arrested and died in prison a short while later. Yet, before his arrest, he helped found four local councils in the working class suburbs of Damascus. The first was in Zabadani, an agricultural and touristic town surrounded by mountains, some 50 kilometres from the capital. The town was quick to join the uprising in March 2011, holding regular demonstrations calling for freedom and the release of detainees. By June, young men and women had formed a local coordination committee to organize demonstrations and carry out media work to communicate what was happening in the town to the outside world. Like the female Communards of Paris, the women of Zabadani also created their own forums. In mid- 2011 the Collective of Zabadani Female Revolutionaries was formed. They participated in demonstrations in huge numbers and called for peaceful civil disobedience. They played a leading role in the Dignity Strike in December 2011, a nation-wide general strike that attempted to place economic pressure on the regime. In January 2012 they established Oxygen Magazine, a bi-monthly printed magazine providing analysis of the revolution and promoting peaceful resistance.  The group later evolved into the Damma women’s network, which continues to work to support women to build resilience and alleviate the impact of violence in conflict affected communities, as well as providing education and psychological support for children.

Zabadani was liberated by local Free Army militias in January 2012. Barricades were set up and the town was brought under the control of its residents. A local council was established to fill the vacuum created by the regime’s departure. The town’s Sunni and Christian residents came together to elect the council’s 28 members from respected individuals within the community and to choose a president. This was Syria’s first experience of democracy in decades. The council established a number of departments to administer daily civil life, including for health care and humanitarian assistance, as well as a political committee involved in negotiating with the regime, and a court to resolve local conflicts. A military committee supervised the Free Army battalions to ensure security. Whilst the council representatives were all men, the Collective of Zabadani Female Revolutionaries played an important role in supporting the Council’s activities. Like the Communards of Paris, the people of Zabadani, who dreamt of a free and just society, managed to creatively self-organise their community independently from centralized state control.

Local autonomy and grass roots democracy was seen by the regime as its greatest threat. As the government of Versailles, which had refused to fight against the Prussians, turned their weapons on the Communards, so the Syrian regime directed all of its might against the people of Zabadani. The town was subjected to a siege, enforced by the regime and its ally the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and daily bombing led to a dramatic worsening of humanitarian conditions. Inside the town, revolutionaries also faced challenges from extremist Islamist battalions which gained in prominence over time and finally wrested control from the local council in 2014. After a number of failed cease-fire agreements the regime regained control of Zabadani in April 2017, after which many of its residents were forcibly evacuated.

The experience of Zabadani was remarkable, but not unique. Over the course of the Syrian revolution, land was liberated to such an extent that, by 2013, the regime had lost control of around four-fifths of the national territory. In the absence of the state, it was people’s self organisation which kept communities functioning and allowed them to resist the regime, in some cases for years. Hundreds of local councils were established in the newly created autonomous zones providing essential public services such as water and electricity supplies, rubbish collection, and supporting schools and hospitals to keep operating. In some areas they grew and distributed food. People also worked together to set up humanitarian organisations, human rights monitoring centres, and independent media associations. Women’s centres were founded to encourage women to be politically and economically active and to challenge patriarchal mores. One example is the Mazaya centre in Kafranbel, Idlib, which taught vocational skills to women, held discussions on women’s rights issues, and challenged the threats posed by extremist Islamist groups. Unions were established for students, journalists and health workers. In the northern city of Manbij, revolutionaries established Syria’s first free trade union, which campaigned for better wages. Cultural activities flourished, including independent film collectives, art galleries and theatre groups. In the liberated town of Daraya, close to Damascus, revolutionaries built an underground library from books they salvaged from people’s destroyed homes.

After 2011, before the counter-revolution ground them down, communities across Syria lived in freedom from the tyranny of the regime. Power was brought down to the local level and people worked together for their mutual benefit, often in extremely challenging circumstances, to build a pluralistic, diverse, inclusive and democratic society that was the very antithesis of the state’s totalitarianism. They were not motivated by any grand ideologies, nor led by any one faction or party. They were driven by necessity. Their very existence challenged the myth propagated by the state that its survival was necessary to ensure the fulfillment of basic needs and stability. Syrians showed that they were more than capable of organising their communities in the absence of centralised, coercive authority by building egalitarian social structures and recreating social bonds of solidarity, cooperation and mutual respect. There was no one model or blueprint. Each community organised in accordance with its own needs, unique local circumstances and values – the very essence of self-determination – essential in a country which is as socially and culturally diverse as Syria. What they shared was a desire for autonomy from the regime and a commitment to decentralized, self-managed forms of organisation.

Whilst the experience of the Paris commune is well known and celebrated in the West, we must ask why similar experiments happening in our own time in Syria are not – why they have usually failed to attract even the most basic forms of solidarity. Whilst much radical theory holds pretentions to universalism, it often pays little attention to other, non-Western contexts or cultures. When leftists in the West think of Syria they often think of foreign state intervention, extremist Islamist groups, and numerous armed brigades jostling and competing for power and territory. Little attention is given to ordinary men and women and their courageous acts of defiance against a tyrannical, genocidal regime. These people formed the backbone of Syria’s civil resistance. They not only resisted the regime but built a viable, beautiful alternative to it. Their struggle became multi-faceted. They defended their hard-won autonomy from the regime and later numerous foreign forces and extremist groups that saw their existence as the greatest threat. They were shunned and often slandered by the international community, including by people who consider themselves part of the anti-imperialist left. Their existence became an inconvenience to the grand narratives people wanted to indulge in regarding Syria’s revolution and counter-revolutionary war. Epistemological imperialism left little room for Syrian’s lived realities.

As with the Paris Commune, there is much to be learnt from Syria’s revolutionary experience. In times of insurrection or at times of crisis, new ways of organising often emerge which provide alternatives to the hierarchical, coercive and exploitative systems practiced by both capitalism and the state. Through decentralised self-organisation, without the need for leaders or bosses, but through voluntary association, cooperation and the sharing of resources, people can transform social relations and effect radical social change. They show us that emancipatory futures can be built in the here and now, even in the shadow of the state.

*****

All quotes are taken from the English translation of Omar Aziz’s two papers on The Formation of Local Councils by Bordered by Silence,except for the introductory quote which came from Twitter, now deleted.

To Live in Revolutionary Time

Translator’s Introduction to The Formation of Local Councils by Omar Aziz (From “Bordered by Silence)

Translator’s introduction to the English translation of Omar Aziz’s text The Formation of Local Councils. The translation can be found here. As well, we have laid out the introduction and the translation as a pamphlet for easier reading and distribution, and the PDF can be found here.

On 17 February 2013, the Local Coordination Committees of the Syrian revolution reported that Omar Aziz, prominent Syrian intellectual, economist, and long-time anarchist dissident, died of a heart attack in the central Adra prison. Held incommunicado by the air force intelligence since 20 November 2012, the big and warm – albeit ailing – heart of Omar Aziz could not stand almost three months of detention inside the infamous dungeons of the Assad regime. The reports of his passing emerged on the second anniversary of the Hariqa market protest, when 1,500 Syrians vowed for the first time not to be humiliated in the heart of Old Damascus. Aziz leaves behind a rich, significant legacy of ground-breaking intellectual, social and political contributions as well as an unfinished revolution and a country in desperate need for people like him. (Budour Hassan: Rest in Power)

Omar Aziz, revolutionary anarchist born in Damascus, was a friend and comrade to many and is fondly remembered and deeply missed. His text, The Formation of Local Councils, remains one of the core strategic proposals of the social revolution in Syria. He first published it in late 2011, and then released an expanded and revised version in February 2012 with a new introduction. This present translation offers the introductions to both versions and the full text of the second version. It doesn’t seem that Omar’s intention was to produce a static, finished text — with his emphasis on adapting to local context and changing conditions, it’s likely he would have continued to revise and change his proposals. You will notice some repetition between the two introductions, which is simply because the second was written to replace the first, and so they weren’t meant to be displayed side by side.

Although Omar’s name is somewhat well known, there has not been an adequate English translation of his writings. As well, the text was very much an internal document, circulated among people organizing in Syria. There are large sections presented as bulleted lists of proposals, and there is essentially no context given. The Formation of Local Councils was only published publicly online after Omar’s death in 2013; perhaps the lack of translation since then reflects the difficulty of presenting this important text to an English-speaking public in a way that allows it to be understood. However, the text is tremendously rich and offers many concrete ideas and reflections for those in western countries engaged in struggle against the state and reactionaries, and for autonomy and freedom.

This introduction will seek to provide some of the background needed to understand The Formation of Local Councils in context, and for this we will draw on texts written by Leila al-Shami and Budour Hassan. We will also share translated excerpts of the introduction to the French translation of Omar’s text by Éditions Antisociales, published in November 2013 under the title The Revolution of Everyday Life Under Sniper Fire. As well, we believe it’s important to situate this text within the debates and priorities that exist, broadly-speaking, within the anglophone anarchist world; this also speaks to some of the decisions made while translating.

Our hope is that by translating and distributing this text to make more visible the Syrian revolution, which has so often been denied or conflated with the armed groups that share its territories. Often leftists who support the Assad regime or anarchists who support the YPG/PYD will ask things like, “Are there really liberatory groups in these areas? What are their names? What are their ideas?” as if the organization of daily life needed a name, a website, and an English-language spokesperson to exist.

At a time when many activists were forced to flee, [Omar] chose to relinquish his safety in the United States and return to Syria to participate in the popular uprising that has swept through the country.

At a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the ‘hijacking’ of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.

While most secular and modernist intellectuals sat on the fence and even denounced protesters for marching from mosques, Aziz and his comrades created the first local council in Barzeh, Damascus. The local councils, an idea proposed and crystallised by Aziz at the end of 2011, are voluntary, horizontal associations inspired by the writings of Rosa Luxemburg. This idea was later adopted in most liberated areas in Syria.” (Budour)

Without ever intending to, Omar’s life and writings can serve as an example of what we mean when we say “the Syrian revolution” — definitely not the official opposition in exile or the foreign-funded militias profiting off the war economy, as the above detractors try to claim. The Syrian revolution is in the formal and informal organizing that goes on in hundreds of places every day. As Leila al-Shami points out, in March 2016 there were at least 395 local councils operating throughout the Syrian territory, with practices and projects as varied as the people who compose them, but largely sharing a vision of self-organizing local tasks in what Omar calls revolutionary time — creating their lives outside of the time of authority.

According to Muhammed Sami Al Kayyal, one of Aziz’s comrades, “Omar Aziz stood for the complete break-up [of] the state in order to achieve collective liberation without waiting for regime change or for one ruling power to replace another. He believed that communities are capable of producing their own freedoms regardless of political vicissitudes.” Aziz recognized that the time of revolution was the moment the people themselves should claim autonomy and put in place as much of an alternative programme as possible. He again called for the establishment of local councils [in the second version of the text from Feb 2013], this time highlighting more roles such as coordinating with relief activities, medical committees and educational initiatives. Building autonomous, self-governing communes throughout Syria, linked through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, organizing independently of the state, he believed a social revolution could be initiated. (Leila al-Shami: The Legacy of Omar Aziz)

The Formation of Local Councils is fundamentally a strategic proposal. As Omar writes in both introductions, massive combative demonstrations had created spaces and times outside the control of the state. These demonstrations were often pushed forward by small affinity-based groups of revolutionaries called coordinating committees that operated clandestinely to avoid repression. In the space created, many forms of autonomous self-organizing began to emerge as the state withdrew or was driven back. The Local Council would serve to deepen and expand these practices of self-organization as well as share more broadly the organizing skills and experience of coordinating committees and other groups. Omar and his friends believed that the human energy freed up by creating these spaces outside of authoritarian control would allow for the creation of new social forms, which would in turn further erode the state.

Omar Aziz wrote about the importance of establishing non-hierarchical grassroots local councils that are independent from state control, and he did so long before there were liberated areas in Syria. When Aziz prepared the outline for the local councils, the uprising was still overwhelmingly peaceful, and most of the country was under the military control of the regime. At the time, he was mocked and ignored by the very people who would later adopt his idea and take credit for it.

Omar Aziz’s vision of the local council was founded on the premise that revolutions are exceptional events in which human beings live in two parallel time zones: the time of authority and the time of revolution. For the revolution to emerge victorious, it must break free from the domination of the authorities and become involved in every aspect of people’s lives, not just in demonstrations and political activism. (Budour)

Here, Budour translates Omar’s phrase as “the time of authority”, and our translations renders it the same way. Omar uses an Arabic word that could be translated as “power” to refer to both the power built up by people organizing their own lives, as well as to the coercive power that limits their autonomy. For this translation, we thought it was important to make the distinction clear: Omar and his comrades were not against power (they wanted to build grassroots horizontal power), they were against authority.

This emphasis on anti-authoritarian practice entered the text in subtle, linguistic ways too. Budour notes: “Omar Aziz avoided using the term ‘The people’ and instead referred to people as ‘humans’. His comrade Mohammad Sami al-Kayal writes: “He did not believe in ‘The people,’ that jargon coined by authority to maintain its power. He saw human beings who live, thrive, and spout their potential.” In the translation, in effect, the phrase “the people” does not occur — we translated Omar’s phrasing as “humans”, “human beings”, “people” (as in the plural of ‘person’), and “individuals”. Sometimes this leads to sentences sounding a little strange, but perhaps it’s necessary to break with common phrasing to break with common ideas.

We could make a similar argument about the word “society”. Omar is focused on specific projects that are adapted to local context – if he had a vision for all of “Syrian society”, it was of local, autonomous self-organizing. The word “society”, by lumping everyone together, is generally used to erase the diversity and possibility that would grow from the multiplication of these initiatives.

This quote from Leila is illustrative:

Aziz saw positive examples all around him. He was encouraged by the multiple initiatives springing up throughout the country including voluntary provision of emergency medical and legal support, turning houses into field hospitals and arranging food baskets for distribution. He saw in such acts ‘the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the system, the systematic killing and destruction of community’. (Leila al-Shami: The Life and Work of Omar Aziz)

Though we translated this sentence a little differently, we agree with Leila’s choice to use “community” here, whereas other translations have used “society”. It would be possible to translate this text in such a way that “society” was one of the most common words. However, we translated the Arabic word in question several different ways throughout the text to avoid what would be, to our ears, an excessive insistence on society. Because what is society? It is how the state sees the collected individuals, milieus, communities, families, political structures, classes, and so on that inhabit the territory it controls. An anarchic break with the state will also be a break with society, this non-free association of individuals held together by the shared experience of being ruled. As with “the people”, we believe avoiding the word “society” is consistent with Omar’s emphasis on “human beings” and decentralization, and so we’ve translated the Arabic word more often as “group”, “community”, or “collective”.

Omar insists repeatedly that what he is describing will vary based on local situations. He is not seeking to impose a model on all of “society”, but he does believe there is space for everyone to build a life for themselves and the people around them outside the control of the state on a non-hierarchical basis: groups of people adapting to local conditions with a shared commitment to collaboration and to not being ruled.

Omar Aziz’s work has had a huge impact on revolutionary organization in Syria. Whilst the mainstream political opposition failed to achieve anything of note in the past two years, the grassroots opposition movement, in the face of violent repression, has remained dynamic and innovative and has embodied the anarchist spirit. The core of the grassroots opposition is the youth, mainly from the poor and middle-classes, in which women and diverse religious and ethnic groups play active roles. Many of these activists remain non-affiliated to traditional political ideologies but are motivated by concerns for freedom, dignity and basic human rights. Their primary objective has remained the overthrow of the regime, rather than developing grand proposals for a future Syria. […]

There is no one model for the Local Councils, but they mainly follow some form of representative democratic model. Some have established different administrative departments to take over functions previously held by the state. Some have been more successful and inclusive than others which have struggled to displace the bureaucracy of the old regime or have been plagued by infighting. (Leila: Life and Work)

One of the biggest critiques to be made of The Formation of Local Councils and of the local councils themselves is that there is a current that seemingly favours bureaucratic, representative democracy. In a moment where many western anarchists are describing their projects as distinct from or hostile to democracy, it can be difficult to understand what moves anarchists elsewhere to push for local-level representative democracy as a form of governance. The local councils have not yet produced a cast of professional politicians, and in the ones we’ve heard most about in Aleppo and Daraya, the roles rotated often, had little or no coercive power, and the people holding them continued doing other kinds of work. But that doesn’t mean they would be able to avoid the pitfalls of representation in years to come.

Omar writes about the need to build administrative capacity to resume service provision, which can, among other more pressing concerns, include things like issuing birth certificates and recording marriages. We’ve read accounts of career bureaucrats joining the local councils in Daraya and busying themselves producing license plates with the revolutionary flag on them. The tension in the local council project that Leila describes above, and that Omar didn’t live to see arise, is the tension between social revolution and governing. Again, in practice, the local councils have been minimally bureaucratic, but not everyone involved sees them as a fundamental transformation of how people live, but rather as little democratic states-in-waiting. Obviously we still support these projects and think they’re beautiful and worthwhile, but we can’t ignore these kinds of tensions that arise in every mass movement when lots of people find themselves in the same spaces, opposing the same forces, but without necessarily sharing common goals.

And yet, there are fundamental differences between government and the local councils. The local councils as described in this text form by inviting people already doing important work, then slowly expanding to include more people in a wider geographic area as their capacity increases, while encouraging and making links with similar projects elsewhere. Their territories are defined by who participates, not by borders. And, unlike what some militias affiliated with the Rojava project have done, they spread by encouraging self-organizing elsewhere, not by conquering.

Omar helped found several local councils, including one in Daraya, which was one of the capitals of the revolution. Leila’s description of the revolution in Daraya can be found on her blog and is well worth reading, but here she describes its story as exemplary of the potential of local councils as well as the threats they face (written, of course, before the fall of Aleppo in late 2016, early 2017):

Omar Aziz didn’t live to see Daraya’s remarkable achievements. Nor was he able to witness other experiments in local self-organization, with varying degrees of success, across the country.

These local councils are not ideological but practical. Their first concern is to keep communities functioning in areas where the state has collapsed. They remain independent of political or religious directives, focusing instead on issues of immediate relevance such as service provision and food assistance. They work through the prism of their own culture and experience. As alternatives to state authoritarianism, their libertarian tendencies are undeniable.

By March 2016, it was estimated that there were 395 active councils in cities, towns and neighbourhoods, half of them concentrated in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. This estimate was made a few months following Russia’s military intervention to prop up the failing regime, which saw the loss of great swathes of liberated territory, placing these autonomous communities under threat. At the time of writing, other revolutionary suburbs around the capital are at risk of falling to the regime as a result of its “kneel or starve policy.” So too is Al-Waer, the last remaining revolutionary stronghold in Homs. And the 300,000 residents of liberated eastern Aleppo are under siege once more. (Leila: Legacy)

Omar wrote in the early days of the revolution, when areas completely free of Assadist control were only just emerging. As Editions Antisociales points out, “from the macabre perspective of the victim count of this massacre, which is almost the only “objective information” on Syria transmitted to a wider public, the first version [of the text] was written when there were ‘only’ about three thousand dead, and the second when the count suddenly swelled due to the shelling with heavy weapons of the first ‘liberated’ areas, such as the martyr neighbourhood of Bab Amr in Homs”. Omar only lived to see a taste of the overwhelming, one-sided violence that has all but swallowed up the Syrian revolution.

Perhaps the emphasis on democracy, administration, and society criticized above are pitfalls of organizing in a war zone against an authoritarian state that uses sectarianism as a key weapon. There was, and continues to be, an urgent need to create resilient social structures that can position themselves as an alternative to the Assadist state in meeting people’s needs. At the time, Omar didn’t see this as a burden, but rather as a revolutionary strategy. He, along with many other Syrian revolutionaries, had tremendous faith in the human potential that is unlocked when time and energy are freed from authoritarian structures. This is exemplified by the immense creativity and joy of the revolution’s early days, as it emerged from the smothering dictatorship. However, Omar writes that very quickly, time opened up by the revolution was filled up by a desperate struggle for survival — the regime’s ability to impose misery meant that this enormous human potential wasn’t able to manifest. In providing services and organizing people around them in non-hierarchical ways, the local councils hope to unlock this immense energy once again to defeat the regime and to rebuild new models of community (or even “society”). However, without outside support, the liberated areas have all too often been cut off and crushed through siege.

The main Assadist counter-insurgency strategy has been to transform a popular uprising into a civil war, forcing the opposition to militarize and favouring its most reactionary elements. Drawing on the analysis of Yassin al-Haj Saleh, we can talk about three tendencies within the Syrian conflict: revolution, civil war, and proxy war. All three tendencies have been present throughout and continue to be factors, but generally there was a chronological progression from revolution to civil war to proxy war, each of which also has forms of social organizing attached to them. The revolution is characterized by the local councils and their associated local self-defense groups that are more or less answerable to popular structures. As the conflict territorialized and large coalitions of rebel groups that were not accountable to grassroots formations emerged, the conflict increasingly became a civil war. The push towards civil war is strongly characterized by the power of counter-revolutionary islamist groups, especially ISIS and al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham. Those groups then, in turn, became more and more dependent on their outside sponsors, and the political concerns of external states came to dominate; thus, the situation became the proxy war that currently confronts us.

However, just because the dynamics of civil war overtook the revolution, it doesn’t mean that revolutionary organizing stopped or that the revolution disappeared; in the same way, just because the proxy war dimension only came to dominate later on, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t important meddling by other states in 2011.

A major threat facing these diverse initiatives has not only been the persecution of activists by the regime, lack of resources, the onslaught of the state’s attack of civilian areas and increasingly deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions. Some local councils have been hijacked by reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces. For example, in Al Raqqa non-local rebel groups with salafi/takfiri leanings took much of the power away from the local council. As they have tried to impose an Islamic vision which is alien to almost everyone, the people of Raqqa have been holding continuous protests against them. In [a video linked to on her blog] from June 2013 people are demonstrating against arrests of family members by Jabhat Al Nusra. The women are shouting “shame on you! You betrayed us in the name of Islam”. Throughout August 2013 the people of Al Raqqa have been protesting almost daily against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) demanding the release of hundreds of detainees, abductees and missing persons. (Leila: Life and Work)

Omar’s text only touches in an indirect way on the threat of reactionary counter-revolution, but the multi-polar nature of the revolutionary struggle became clearer around the time of his death. Though Omar was killed by the state, many of his comrades in developing the local councils were killed by reactionary conservative armed groups, notably the Douma 4 — Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazem Hammadi. They were kidnapped in a liberated area near Damascus by Jaish al-Islam, where they had tried to ensure that the local councils remained in control of the revolution and could act as a check on the armed groups. In the additions made in the second version of the text, we can see Omar’s increasing concern with this.

So we see, among other additions, a call to cooperate with the deserters who make up the Free Syrian Army, who had, in the meantime, rallied to the National Council which had “taken up the idea of local councils as its own”, as well as a dramatic call to establish more field hospitals. It was only five months later, in mid-July 2012, that the regime bombarded a rebel neighbourhood of Damascus for the first time. Abu Kamel’s (Omar Aziz’s pseudonym) project can only be understood in this frightening context […] (Editions Antisociales)

Omar’s position on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and on the National Council is presented discretely but unambiguously in his text. He wants to collaborate with the FSA in order to ensure that the armed elements of the revolution answer to local, popular formations, rather than to defecting officers (and later, we could imagine, to foreign sponsors). The areas where this was most successful are also the areas that most successfully resisted the counter-revolutionary islamist forces — spectacularly, free Aleppo drove out first the Islamic State and, later, Jabhat al-Nusra. Similarly, Omar isn’t fully comfortable with the National Council, the official opposition in exile supported by western states; his vision is that power comes from the bottom up, so the only useful purpose of this higher structure is to co-ordinate fundraising, distribute resources to local councils (according to needs they define), and to promote and support the formation of councils. But if there was still hope in 2012 that the National Council would be at all worthwhile, that hope is now long gone.

The Formation of Local Councils should make it clear that the revolution cannot be resumed by the militarized formations, in spite of what every mainstream news source would say. Although not a pacifist movement as we would usually understand the term, much of the grassroots Syrian revolution does not believe that armed struggle is what will bring about a better life. Rather, it is the dual approach described in this text: destroying the state while producing new forms of life. Neither of those actions particularly require violence, but they must be determined and willing to defend themselves.

The revolution of “local co-ordinating committees” as it has been sketched out in Syria, doesn’t require any terror to reach its goals, it hates and abhors murder. It doesn’t seek vengeance, but rather justice. It is not a desperate attempt by a minority trying to squeeze all of reality into the mould of its ideals. It is the product of the actions of hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals who resolved to take their lives in their own hands and to go as far as possible towards their dream of freedom and dignity. And it is precisely this experience of universal importance that the Holy Alliance of its enemies tries at all costs to bury under ruins and lies. Bashar and Putin, the Iranian mollahs and the American congress, the pseudo-resistance of Hezbollah and the very christian Venezuelan police, the United Nations and al-Qaeda, the Communist Party of China and French know-how… The profiteers of the globalized system would rather transform Syria into a mass grave than willingly surrender their place at the table of those who divide up the world and ‘negotiate’ the future. (Editions Antisociales)

As this quote makes clear, none of the actors in the proxy war want to see a revolution based on local autonomy succeed in Syria, and ensuring continuing violence is the best way to suppress it. Revolutions are exceptional moments in time though, and even if they don’t last forever, they fundamentally transform the people who participate in them and open up possibilities for everyone around the world. Think of how much inspiration we still draw from struggles like the Paris Commune or the Spanish Revolution — the Syrian revolution is no less rich. As Omar said, “We are no less than Paris Commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.”

This brings up one last note on the translation. we have avoided referring to Omar, his comrades, or all the Syrian revolutionaries as “activists”, an identity that’s defined relative to a supposedly passive majority. As one friend pointed out, “You’d never refer to Durruti as an activist, or Louise Michel, so why would you talk about the coordinating committees that way?” It’s true, they have certain skills and experiences that are useful to the broader mobilization, but they are not distinct from it, nor are they leading it. Omar and those engaged in similar work created something vast and far-reaching, even if ultimately limited in time. Their commitment to radically doing away with the old world and dreaming a new one in its place is deeply inspiring, as Budour shows in this final quote:

Omar Aziz told his friends: ‘If the revolution fails, my life and that of my whole generation would be devoid of meaning… all that we have dreamt of and believed in would have been mere illusion.’ He passed away before seeing the triumph of the revolution and reaping the fruits of his majestic work. Syrians who are still alive owe Omar Aziz and the tens of thousands of Syrian martyrs a massive debt. It is a debt that cannot be paid with tears and moving tributes. Nothing less than fighting like hell for a free Syria would suffice. (Budour)

The translation of The Formation of Local Councils is available here.

Cited texts:

Omar Aziz: Rest in Power, by Budour Hassan, February 2013
https://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/omar-aziz/

The life and work of anarchist Omar Aziz and his impact on self-organization in the Syrian revolution, by Leila al-Shami, published on Tahrir-ICN in August 2013
https://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/syria-the-life-and-work-of-anarchist-omar-aziz-and-his-impact-on-self-organization-in-the-syrian-revolution/

The Legacy of Omar Aziz: Building autonomous, self-governing communes in Syria, by Leila al-Shami, published in November 2016 on Leila’s blog
https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/the-legacy-of-omar-aziz-building-autonomous-self-governing-communes-in-syria/

Sous le feu des snipers, la révolution de la vie quotidienne (The Revolution of Everyday Life Under Sniper Fire), published by Éditions Antisociales in November 2013
https://www.editionsantisociales.com/AbouKamel.php

Introduction from October 2011: Authority’s time and revolutionary time

(From “Bordered by Silence)

This translation of The Formation of Local Councils was published along with a detailed introduction to offer help contextualize it and to situate its ideas within ongoing conversations in the anglophone anarchist world. That introduction can be found here: To Live in Revolutionary Time. As well, we have also laid  out the translation and introduction as a pamphlet for easier reading and distribution, and the PDF is available here.

A revolution is an exceptional event that alters the history of a society while also transforming each human being. It is a rupture in time and space, during which humans live two experiences of time simultaneously: authority’s time and revolutionary time. For a revolution to succeed, revolutionary time must become independent, so that people can collectively move into a new period. The Syrian Revolution has entered its eighth month and still has days of struggle ahead to topple the regime and open up new spaces for life.

Throughout the preceding phase, continuous demonstrations were able to break the absolute control of authority over space. Its control over the territory now varies, shifting from place to place, day to day, or even hour by hour. The continuous demonstrations also produced a National Council, which included participation from the popular movements, formal organizations, and political parties. It was tasked with being a legitimate alternative authority among Arab states and internationally that could incite the necessary action to protect the Syrian people from the brutality of this murderous regime.

However, the revolutionary movement has remained separate from day-to-day activities and so has been unable to enter into everyday life, which continues as it had in the past. It’s as though there exists a “daily division of work” between the tasks necessary to live in this world and revolutionary activities. This means that self-organizing in Syria is happening in two overlapping times: authority’s time, which continues to structure everyday activities, and revolutionary time, in which people take action to overthrow the regime. The danger doesn’t lie in the overlap of these two times, which is part of the nature of revolution, but rather in the separation between the progress of daily life and that of the revolution, for everyone involved. In the coming period, the movement will face two different threats : that human beings will get tired of the revolution and its impact on their material needs and family life, or that an increasing use of weapons will make the revolution a hostage of the gun.

Accordingly, the more self-organizing is able to spread as a force through the efforts of human beings to live in revolutionary time rather than in authority’s, the more the revolution will have laid the groundwork for victory. Let’s not forget that these past months were rich in all sorts of initiatives, especially ones focused on emergency medical care and legal support, and now we must urgently deepen these projects in order to take in broader spheres of life. Merging life and revolution is the key element for continuing the revolution and winning. This involves organizing for flexibility within social groupings by developing processes to co-ordinate revolution and everyday human life, which we will call here “local councils”.

Introduction from February 2012: Linking collective self-defense and continuing the revolution

The revolution has made it through its first year and still has many days of struggle ahead to bring down the regime and open up new spaces for life. During this past phase, continuous demonstrations succeeded in breaking the absolute control of power over space. Its control of the territory now varies, changing from place to place, day to day, and even hour by hour.

During this period, Syrians changed the course of their society while also transforming themselves. Drawing on an unprecedented courage and close cooperation, the sacrifices they have made show their desire for freedom and their commitment to collectively restructuring their lives.

Against the murder and atrocities of the regime and against its systematic destruction of community, the Syrian people’s spirit of resistance rises up with incredible skill and creativity, in an epic act of love that allows life to continue. Providing emergency medicine, turning houses into field hospitals, preparing food baskets, and finding creative ways to spread information : these are all actions that oppose tyrannical power and contribute to rich human relations based on cooperation and mutual aid.

Engaged people in Syria started forming coordinating committees in the early days of the revolution to organize media coverage, ensure the spread of information, and document both the accomplishments of the revolution, as well as the regime’s reprisals. These revolutionaries then broadened their activities to include relief work and medical care. It’s clear that these self-organized formations are collaborating and are contributing to a revolutionary strategy that would allow for resistance over the long term. This collaboration made new relationships possible that could break with the regime’s control over time and space, as part of the ceaseless effort to allow people to take autonomous control over their own lives, as they know this autonomy is what freedom is made of.

The past months have been rich with many projects to develop self-organizing, in a colourful diversity of initiatives and expressions that spans different regions and social groups. In the beginning, the revolutionary movement was separate from basic human activity and didn’t enter into daily life, as though there was a “daily division of labour” between the tasks necessary to live in this world and revolutionary activity. But popular solidarity developed, as people began choosing to share food and housing and to help one another in whatever way was needed. These practices spread throughout the areas where revolutionary activity was most intense, which made the link between revolution and life evident.

It’s clear then that the more self-organizing grows in power, the more able these deep social bonds will be to defend themselves and others against the repressive violence of the authorities, against moral slippage, and against the risk that the use of arms will slowly make the revolution and society as a whole hostages of the gun. Blending life and revolution is the necessary condition for the revolution to continue until the regime is destroyed. This in turn requires adaptable forms of social organization that enable a co-ordination between the revolution and daily human life. These efforts have been referred to in different ways, but here we will call these new social formations “local councils”.

The Formation of Local Councils: Main text from February 2012

This introduction and what follows are an invitation to form local councils composed of people from different cultures and from different segments of society that will work to achieve the following goals:

  • To support human beings in managing their lives autonomously, without state institutions or structures (even if this autonomy is not complete)
  • To create space for collective expression that can reinforce cooperation among individuals and that can encompass more necessary tasks as political engagement grows.
  • Incite social revolutionary activities on a regional level while unifying supporting structures

As well, the following issues are important and need to be addressed by the local councils:

1) Human interdependence and civil solidarity

Objectives

  • Relieve the physical and emotional suffering of families displaced by the barbarous violence of the authorities
  • Provide emotional and practical solidarity to families impacted by death, injuries, arrests, or disappearances or who have suffered other physical or psychological harm
  • Improve living conditions for families
  • Create the best possible conditions for medical practitioners
  • Ensure that educational services continue

Role of the local councils
At a minimum, local councils should :

  • Provide support and assistance to those arriving in a specific area or departing from it: the role of the local council here is to step in to alleviate the misery created by the authorities through actions arising solely from popular initiatives
  • Find safe housing and supplies for displaced individuals and their families in the area where the council operates and in co-ordination with its counterpart in the area they left
  • Organize the collection of information about arrestees and ensure its distribution to the appropriate groups involved in the revolution. Set up lines of communication with people with legal expertise and support families in following-up about the situation of arrestees
  • Keep track of the needs of affected families and work to meet those needs by creating solidarity funds and through regional revolutionary funds
  • Provide physical, emotional, and logistical support to affected families, make sure they have the supplies and funds they need. This war by the authorities against people has transformed the time they would have spent living into time spent looking for safer shelter for themselves and their families. It has transformed their daily work into an endless search for information about their loved ones who have dissapeared, to figure out where they are being held, with only the support of their families or the people they happen to know in the area where they took refuge. It is therefore necessary to:
    • Support and collaborate with revolutionary individuals and groups with legal expertise to document abuses carried out by the army, by the intelligence agencies, and by the shabbiha [informal enforcers], such as murder, rape, arrest, property destruction, and theft.
    • Provide a caring environment that allows for less psychological and material stress for displaced families, especially for women and children. Coordinate with skilled providers to ensure support for physical and psychological health, especially for those who need the most attention.
  • Civil administration: Because of the ferocious regime attacks, it falls to the local councils to create administrative records for those who struggle against the regime, especially those who have gone underground. And in those areas where the revolution has gained some independence, they could even begin registering births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and so on.
  • Co-ordinate with relief organizations to provide humanitarian and financial aid, in particular:
    • Identify food and medical needs, as well as any other necessities of life
    • Organize to receive and distribute aid
    • Compile and spread statistical data
  • Co-ordinate with medical committees
    • Identify homes suitable to be turned into field hospitals and organize their defense alongside their owners
    • Prepare the field hospitals in coordination with the medical committees
    • With medical and aid groups, identify the needed medical supplies and training, and work to receive and store those supplies
    • Follow-up on responses to emergencies, especially those coming from outside the area
  • Support and help coordinate educational initiatives
    • Identify the educational requirements at all levels
    • Co-ordinate with educational institutions in the area and with anyone who is able and willing to teach
    • Organize and administrate educational activities
  • Support and co-ordinate outreach initiatives

Note: Such work requires organization and knowledge of the arts of administration, but these above tasks are not impossible, whatever the environment may be. This revolution has produced many people skilled at the organization of demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins, and so it can also push to create experts in the fields in which people have already engaged spontaneously. But let’s also remember that projects like these are not meant to replace family and friendship bonds (at least not at first) and under no circumstances should there be any coercion to participate. Humans who have begun learning to live without services provided by the state and who have found temporary replacements for them through family relationships will need time and practice to integrate themselves into a broader social sphere that’s more effective and elaborate.

2) On relationships between individuals: Creating new common interests

Objectives

  • Increase the capacity for action and initiative by individuals in the social body
  • Create spaces for discussion of human concerns and of solutions to problems of daily life
  • Build horizontal relationships of interdependence between local councils in a given region and broaden these to include other geographic areas

Role of the local councils: What should be, at a minimum, the local council’s work

The revolution has transformed individual humans by opening up new horizons in their lives, particularly once they were sure that confrontation was the way to gain their freedom and that by continuing on this path they would find new possibilities for tomorrow. By developing new ways of defining themselves rich with innovative, inventive power, they were able to overcome the smothering individualism of a half-century of authoritarian rule. They discovered that mutual aid pushes open the doors to exciting and colourful social richness.

The challenge facing the local councils consists of making people comfortable with this social environment, by creating open space for free dialogue. This is necessary for achieving ongoing, friendly relations while also securing the future of the revolution as a collective project. Towards this end, the local councils will pursue these goals:

  • Form “social spaces” that allow people to discuss the difficulties in their daily lives, debate what is needed, and develop appropriate solutions. To keep the delicate balance between the continuation of the revolution and the protection of those around them, these solutions will have to consider the following points:
    • Local concerns
    • Infrastructural concerns
    • Social harmony
    • Regional fundraising
    • Delve into all issues relating to people’s livelihoods and their expectations for life and work and find collective solutions wherever possible
  • Analyze questions that demand solutions beyond the local context, such as funding or support for other regions
  • Defend the land in the region from being expropriated by the state, because such expropriations of land in Syria’s cities and countryside and the consequent displacement of their inhabitants are one of the core pillars of the politic of domination and social exclusion on which the regime relies. This policy was adopted to create residential areas for government employees and soldiers and officers of the army, or in the name of business, to create shopping centres for the rich. In rural and suburban areas, the revolutionary movement formed partly as a rejection of this policy of expropriation and exclusion that cuts human beings off from their subsistence base. The work of the local committees is then’:
    • Inventory the lands affected by expropriation
    • In the event of expropriation of land for security purposes: support the local residents in defending the land and property in their region
    • In the event of expropriations of land for residential purposes or other development projects: do what you can to preserve good relationships with the local residents and seek a solution that meets the needs of all parties

Note: Clearly, these kinds of actions are only possible in areas that are secure or nearly “liberated” from the authorities. But its possible to carry out plans specific to an area that take into account what’s possible there.

3) On the relationship with the Free Syrian Army: The need to protect communities while continuing the revolution

Objectives

  • Make the people around us safer and protect demonstration so that they can expand to new areas
  • Ensure lines of communication between regions by protecting the movement of people and providing logistical support

Role of the local councils: What should be, at a minimum, the local council’s work

  • Provide safe housing and supplies to members of the Free Syrian Army
  • Coordinate and build consensus with the Free Syrian Army on strategies for the defence of the region
  • Work with the Free Syrian Army to empower people in the area to take charge of security and administration

4) On the formation of local councils and their organizational structure

The process of forming local councils faces many obstacles, not the least of which are the deadly violence of the regime, how areas are cut off from each other, the frequent raids cities and villages. Each of these factors greatly limit the ability of people to move around and shut them into closed circles. Confronted with this, the revolution has demonstrated in every region that mechanisms to resist these killings give rise to adaptability and creativity. They also contribute to new practices aimed at overcoming the limits put on peoples collective dreams for freedom and that are able to react appropriately to the shifting balance of power on the ground. Therefore, the formation of local councils is influenced by the following factors:

  • The formation of local councils is a dynamic process that responds to the needs of the situation and how people engage with it
  • Every success achieved by one council will contribute to the efforts of the others and will increase the determination of all their members
  • The formation of local councils will vary based on the intensity of the movement in a given region, meaning it will be more difficult in those areas subjected to a heavy presence of security forces and easier in areas where the revolutionary movement has more capacity
  • This important process of creating local councils will not be easy, but it’s critical if the revolution is to continue. It’s hard not only because of the security deployment and the sieges targeting communities and areas, but also because it involves trying new and unconventional ways of living and relating to one another. This requires becoming independent while breaking with authority, so the role of the councils is to support and develop economic and social activities in their area, based on administrative experience in different domains.
  • In light of the difficulties involved in organizing elections under current circumstances, the local councils will consist of those whose social engagement has earned them wide respect, on the basis of their social and technical skills and their organizing experience. They should have the capacity and desire to work as volunteers, as well as the adaptability necessary to engage with the family structures or political groupings present in an area
  • The activities of the local councils develop in stages according to local priorities. From the beginning, the following people will be involved:
    • Members of the local council
    • Engaged people from the region
    • Willing people participating outside the region with expertise in the questions at hand

Taken together, this all lets us imagine an organizational structure that could take on the tasks of the local council. Ideally, the council should organize on a practical basis, starting small and developing further according to the needs of the community. This organizing will also change in accordance with the transformations brought about by the revolution to the balance of power with the regime in specific areas and what this entails for relationships with neighbouring areas.

5) The role of the National Council

The Council plays a pivotal role in the following matters:

  • The legitimacy of the initiative: By adopting the idea of local councils, the National Council helps give them the legitimacy they need to develop and it contributes to their acceptance by other people engaged on the ground
  • Funding: The National Council has agreed to take on the administration of “the revolutionary funds”, a necessary role that allows for greater flexibility in launching local councils by covering initial costs as well as later expenses that could not be covered locally
  • The National Council can facilitate organizing between areas and increase the level of organization on the provincial level, while each region and locality continues to engage in projects in line with their idea of the movement. This independence has clearly given the movement its tremendous adaptability, even though it was often affected by the lack of supportive spaces to protect it. The role of the National Council here is important for finding common ground and strengthening collaboration between different areas

The above translation includes the introduction to the version of Omar’s text published in October 2011 and the full text of the version he released in February 2012. These works were not published online until after his death at the hands of the regime in February 2013. It is based on the Arabic text found here: https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=143690742461532&

This translation drew on a rough English translation of the first version of Omar’s text by Yasmeen Mobayed found on muqawameh.wordpress.com and on the French translation published by Éditions Antisociales in 2013: http://editionsantisociales.com/AbouKamel.php

November 7, 2016 by Leila Al Shami (This article was first published at Fifth Estate.)

“A revolution is an exceptional event that will alter the history of societies, while changing humanity itself. It is a rupture in time and space, where humans live between two periods: the period of power and the period of revolution. A revolution’s victory, however, is ultimately achieving the independence of its time in order to move into a new era.”
—Omar Aziz [1]

Omar Aziz was in his sixties when he returned to Syria in 2011. He’d been working for an information technology company in Saudi Arabia but now he wanted to participate in the uprising raging against the four-decade dictatorship of the Assad family. Together with other activists, Aziz began distributing humanitarian assistance to displaced families from the Damascus suburbs under attack by the regime. He was inspired by the ongoing protests in the face of regime bullets and tanks, yet believed that demonstrations alone were not enough to break the regime’s dominance, and that revolutionary activity should permeate all aspects of people’s lives.

Before his arrest on 20 November 2012, and death in prison in February 2013, he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state.

Writing in the eighth month of the revolution, when protests were still largely peaceful and communities still lived under the authority of the state, he argued that “the revolutionary movement remains separate from daily human activities.” He continued: “there are ‘divisions of daily work’ between day-to-day activities and revolutionary activities.” The risk lies “in the absence of correlation between the spheres of daily life and the revolution itself.” [2]

Aziz advocated the establishment of local councils to narrow this gap. In his vision the councils, made up of volunteers with experience in various fields, should have a number of responsibilities: finding safe houses for the displaced, organizing on behalf of detainees in the regime’s prisons and providing support to their families. Aziz also believed that it was the role of the councils to promote human solidarity and cooperation by providing a forum in which people could collectively find solutions to the problems they face, and to build horizontal links between councils in different regions.

He argued that the councils should also coordinate the resistance to the state’s takeover of land in cities and suburbs and the eviction of residents to make safe residential zones for government officials and army officers, shopping areas, and the implementation of other business plans in order to accommodate the wealthy.

A few months later, Aziz wrote a second paper. [3] The situation in Syria was changing rapidly. The state’s brutal response to the protest movement led to the militarization of the revolution as people took up arms in self-defense. And land was beginning to be liberated. The community organizing the uprising had brought about inspired him, such as organizing food baskets and converting houses into field hospitals. Such acts, he believed, showed “the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the regime, the systematic killing and destruction of community.” He described how activists formed coordination committees at the beginning of the revolution to organize media coverage, document activities and record regime violations, and how they then expanded to include emergency aid and medical services. He believed that new relationships were being formed which enabled people to break free of the state’s dominance, and he saw this as evidence of a transformation occurring in social relationships and values. For Aziz, this independence was the path towards liberation.

According to Muhammed Sami Al Kayyal, one of Aziz’s comrades, “Omar Aziz stood for the complete break-up [of] the state in order to achieve collective liberation without waiting for regime change or for one ruling power to replace another. He believed that communities are capable of producing their own freedoms regardless of political vicissitudes.” [4] Aziz recognized that the time of revolution was the moment the people themselves should claim autonomy and put in place as much of an alternative programme as possible. He again called for the establishment of local councils, this time highlighting more roles such as coordinating with relief activities, medical committees and educational initiatives. Building autonomous, self-governing communes throughout Syria, linked through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, organizing independently of the state, he believed a social revolution could be initiated.

Omar Aziz helped found four local councils in the working-class suburbs of Damascus, before his arrest. One was in the predominantly agricultural town of Daraya. This town had a history of non-violent civil resistance, existing prior to the revolution with religious, not secular, roots. [5] Its activists followed in the tradition of liberal Islamist scholar Jawdat Said (1931), who called for non-violent civil disobedience, democracy and the rights of women and minorities.

In Daraya, young men and women had organized campaigns against corruption as well as protests against the Israeli invasion of Jenin refugee camp in 2002 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This protest, daringly organized without regime permission in a police state, led to the imprisonment of several activists.

When the revolution broke out in 2011, Daraya’s youth from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds took to the streets calling for democracy and the downfall of the regime. They held flowers as a symbol of peace in the face of soldiers sent to shoot them. Many were rounded up, detained and tortured. In August 2012, the town was subjected to a horrific massacre; hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered by regime troops. This brutality only increased the determination of the resistance. Three months later the regime was driven out by locals who had taken up arms in self-defense. The town was now completely in the hands of its residents, and Daraya’s commune was born.

A Local Council was established on 17 October 2012, to manage the town’s affairs and help the internally displaced and injured. Its 120 members chose executives by vote every six months, and the council head and deputy were chosen in public elections, some of the first free elections to have occurred in Syria in over four decades. The Council provided all essential services such as water and electricity to the approximately 8,000 residents who remained from a pre-uprising population of 80,000. It set up a relief office which operated a soup kitchen and tried to build self-sufficiency by growing crops which it distributed to residents. The council ran three primary schools (all other educational facilities were out of operation due to repeated aerial bombardment). A medical office supervised the only field hospital which provided for the sick and wounded. Daraya’s autonomy was defended by a local Free Army brigade which was subject to the civil authority of the council.

Daraya represented the antithesis of the Assadist state. The people themselves built a society which was democratic and free. Alongside the activities of the council, a group of women founded Daraya’s Free Women to organize protests and humanitarian assistance. They began producing and distributing an independent magazine called Enab Baladi [Grapes of my country] to challenge the regime’s media monopoly and promote peaceful resistance to counter the state’s sectarianism and violence. Activists built an underground library, a safe haven where people could go to read, learn and exchange ideas. Grafiti artist Abu Malik Al-Shami painted hope onto Daraya’s bombed out walls.

But, in November 2012, the regime implemented a starvation siege trapping residents inside and stopping food and medical supplies from entering. Those who tried to flee or forage in surrounding land were shot by snipers. Poison gas, napalm, and over 9,000 barrel bombs were dropped on Daraya. The Local Council repeatedly called on the humanitarian community to fulfill its promises to break the siege: “We are being punished for daring to rise up peacefully for our freedom and dignity,” one statement said. “There are no extremists like ISIS here or Nusra. Those defending our neighbourhoods are all locals, protecting the streets from a government that has tortured, gassed and bombed us and our families.” [6] Women and children also held protests, recording and uploading them to the Web, calling on a deaf world to break the siege and end the regime’s violence. By the summer of 2016, the situation had deteriorated. A Jordanian/American arms embargo on the Southern Front, a coalition of secular and democratic Free Army forces in the south, had freed up regime resources to intensify its assault on the town. The Americans had been pressing the Southern Front to focus its fight on extremist Islamist groups (which have limited presence in the south) rather than the regime. The last remaining hospital in Daraya was destroyed and agricultural land, the sole source of food, was seized and crops burned.

With a limited supply of weapons, no assistance from outside, facing starvation, the resistance in Daraya held out for four years against the state and its imperialist backers. But on 25 August 2016 the town fell to the regime. All residents, both civilians and fighters, were evacuated, perhaps permanently. Some civilians evacuated to the Syrian government controlled town of Harjalleh were arrested and are now in the regime’s dungeons. Assadist troops celebrated their ‘victory’ in an apocalyptic waste land of destroyed buildings, in a town empty of its people.

Omar Aziz didn’t live to see Daraya’s remarkable achievements. Nor was he able to witness other experiments in local self-organization, with varying degrees of success, across the country.
These local councils are not ideological but practical. Their first concern is to keep communities functioning in areas where the state has collapsed. They remain independent of political or religious directives, focusing instead on issues of immediate relevance such as service provision and food assistance. They work through the prism of their own culture and experience. As alternatives to state authoritarianism, their libertarian tendencies are undeniable.

By March 2016, it was estimated that there were 395 active councils in cities, towns and neighbourhoods, half of them concentrated in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. [7] This estimate was made a few months following Russia’s military intervention to prop up the failing regime, which saw the loss of great swathes of liberated territory, placing these autonomous communities under threat. At the time of writing, other revolutionary suburbs around the capital are at risk of falling to the regime as a result of its “kneel or starve policy.” So too is Al-Waer, the last remaining revolutionary stronghold in Homs. And the 300,000 residents of liberated eastern Aleppo are under siege once more.

These experiments in community democracy pose the greatest threat to all the states now involved in Syria (whether pro- or anti-regime) as well as to the extremist and authoritarian groups which seek power for themselves. This is why they are under such savage attack.

September 2016

Endnotes
1. Omar Aziz, A Discussion Paper on Local Councils (2011) https://muqawameh.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/translated-quota-discussion-paper-on-local-councils-in-syriaquot-by-the-martyr-and-comrade-omar-aziz/
2. Ibid.
3. Omar Aziz, The formation of local councils in Syria, 2011 (in Arabic) https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=143690742461532
4. cited in Budour Hassan, “Radical Lives: Omar Aziz” (2015) http://wire.novaramedia.com/2015/02/radical-lives-omar-aziz/
5. Mohja Kahf, “Water bottles & roses: Choosing non-violence in Daraya” (2011) http://www.mashallahnews.com/water-bottles-roses/
6. Letter written by a member of Daraya’s Local Council. Cited at “The Syria Campaign” https://act.thesyriacampaign.org/sign/save-daraya?source=tw&referring_akid=.166567.9L5obO
7. Agnes Favier, “Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition-Controlled Areas in Syria” (2016) https://isqatannizam.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/local-governance-dynamics-in-opposition-controlled-areas-in-syria/

The film “Ecos del desgarro/Echoes of the tear”, tells the story of an impossible revolution. In 2011, a grassroots movement begins in Syria. Despite the repression, activists are able to establish various projects of self-management. This film gives voice to these activists, their work, their hopes and the risks that they faced from the Syrian regime, the Islamic state and a costly foreign intervention. The film mixes interviews with the activists as well as footage about Syria provided by activists.

The documentary was made by the collective of libertarian cinema, Camara Negra. http://camaranegra.espivblogs.net/




Source: Autonomies.org