[Vredeslijst] Syrians roll back extremism in Idlib without military intervention

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Ma Jun 5 18:00:40 CEST 2017

[The following account of civil society activism in rebel-held Idlib 
city paints a refreshing picture of political life and empowerment of 
the population in this and other areas from where government forces have 
  been expelled. Of course the future of Syria must be decided by Syrians 
themselves and not solidarity activists (or governments!) in the west, 
however it is important to challenge the narratives which paint the 
revolution as mainly having empowered Islamic currents, totally ignoring 
the power seized by the local populations whose aims are largely secular 
and democratic. Not mentioned so much in the following article are many 
citizens' protests in Idlib province favoring unity among the 
revolutionary forces and calling on the Islamic factions to stop making 
war among themselves. The article shows that the struggle for popular 
control of the city is incomplete and continuing. But appreciating the 
activism and involvement by the citizenry in managing their own affairs, 
one can envision the future of a democratic Syria dependent on neither 
the hated government nor armed factions intent on extending their own 
power. - Jeff]

Syrians roll back extremism in Idlib without military intervention
By Julia Taleb May 23, 2017

The U.S. airstrikes in response to the chemical weapons attack in Idlib 
province last month triggered calls for greater outside military force 
against the Assad regime by some of the Syrian opposition. Yet, in a 
country exhausted by armed struggle and the presence of extremist 
groups, local civil initiatives have proven to be more effective at 
building peace than increased military involvement. In Idlib City, 
ordinary citizens have shown that they are capable of managing their 
civil affairs, alleviating suffering at the local level and rolling back 
extremism by themselves.

On March 3, 2015, an umbrella group of Islamic armed factions called 
Jeish al-Fateh expelled the Syrian government from Idlib City, sparking 
an ongoing struggle by citizens and civil resistance groups to gain 
control of the city’s administration. After it took control of the city, 
Jeish al-Fateh — which includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formally known as 
al-Nusra Front, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda — formed a Shura 
Council to manage the city’s military and civil affairs. The armed group 
appointed its members and loyalists to administer the city without 
paying attention to qualifications or proper recruitment procedures. A 
state of repression was imposed, and there were continuous violations of 
basic human rights and freedoms under the pretext of applying proper 
Islamic Sharia law.

This brought activists and civil organizations into direct confrontation 
with the armed group, which assumed the administration of all public 
services, including education, health, security and justice. In 
response, residents and civil resistance groups have been working to 
establish a local council of qualified civilians to prevent military 
factions from interfering in civil affairs and protect peoples’ rights 
and freedom.

“We wanted to prove our commitment to our initial goal of revolting 
against all type of corruption and injustice,” said Sakhr Baath, a 
lawyer and member of Idlib Youth Group, which was established by 
activists at the early stages of the Syrian uprising in 2011 to 
galvanize citizens against the regime and now the inhuman practices of 
Jeish al-Fateh’s leadership. The group also initiated relief and 
humanitarian projects, including the rehabilitation of schools and the 
formation of volunteer teams to direct traffic and crowds. “These 
activities helped them [the civil organizations] gain a great reputation 
and the community’s support,” Baath added.

Idlib City was one of the first cities after the uprising began to show 
open and organized civil resistance, even in the presence of the 
government. The city’s professionals established the National Opposition 
for Idlib Intellectuals in August 2011 to find solutions to sectarian 
divisions that plague Syrian society. According to Baath, the group used 
to host meetings and invite government figures and supporters to discuss 
their views with the community. At that time, activists — with the 
support of Syrian expatriates — began to self-manage areas outside of 
the government’s control, provide humanitarian assistance, guard the 
city at night and control traffic.

Established six months after Jeish al-Fateh took control of the city, 
Al-Idlibi House became the largest civil organization in Idlib, with 
more than 400 activists and members. They met every Thursday to discuss 
the city’s affairs and decide on the best tactics to pressure armed 
factions to hand over civil administration to the community. They 
organized media campaigns, public demonstrations and sit-ins to demand 
civil rights and express their opposition to the control of the city by 
extremist groups.

“We established Al-Idlibi House to unite the voices of the people and 
have a body to negotiate with the Shura Council on behalf of the 
community,” said Abd al-Latif Rahabi, the head of Al-Idlibi House 

The security forces of Jeish al-Fateh worked hard to disperse 
demonstrations and damage their reputation by calling them secular or 
anti-Islam. “However, as the number of protesters increased and reached 
the main squares of the city,” Baath explained, “it was impossible for 
them [Jeish al-Fateh] to control public frustration or ignore their 

Women were also active in this struggle and established many groups and 
humanitarian organizations, including Women’s Fingerprints, Glimmer of 
Hope, and the Association of Educated Women. These organizations raised 
awareness of women’s role in building society, and provided educational 
and vocational courses. They also established orphanages and care 
centers for people with special needs, and initiated projects involving 
sewing and producing homemade food for women who could not leave their 

Women also challenged female preachers recruited by armed factions to 
impose strict Sharia law, which prohibits women from walking outside 
without men or showing their faces. “Last year, when a preacher harassed 
my cousin for wearing makeup and not covering her face, more than 200 
men gathered in less than 20 minutes and began protesting against the 
preacher and armed factions’ oppression,” said Shadi Zidani, a member of 
Idlib Local Council. “Repeated incidents like this and women’s 
resistance have always triggered demonstrations and by the end of last 
year, we were able to expel all female preachers from the community.”

Female preachers were also reaching out to poor and vulnerable women to 
convince them to comply with Sharia law. “We formed volunteer groups of 
female psychologists and sociologists to visit vulnerable women and 
raise their awareness of basic rights and freedoms to counter the 
extremists’ views,” Zidani said.

Local civil efforts persisted for about a year and a half, using all 
possible means and tactics. In August 2016, Al-Idlibi House, with the 
support of other civil organizations, formed a committee to represent 
the community in their negotiation with Jeish al-Fateh. “With our 
continuous pressure, they [Jeish al-Fateh] had to give in to the 
public’s demand that they elect a local council.”

According to Rahabi, Al-Idlibi House’s committee nominated a group of 
lawyers and judges to establish rules and regulations to manage the 
electoral process, protect the right of voters to freely choose their 
representatives, and ensure candidates’ rights to monitor the election. 
Al-Idlibi House, with the support of the community’s members, 
established and equipped an electoral center with ballot boxes and 
private rooms for those wishing to vote secretly. On January 17, about 
900 people voted, including 43 women. Eighty-four people were nominated 
for 25 spots on the council. All stages of the electoral process on 
election day were filmed and documented — by the media, community 
activists, and groups of lawyers and judges — to ensure that the process 
was legitimate, Zidani said.

Those organizing civil activities faced many challenges, including 
regime airstrikes on the city, continuous fighting between armed 
factions and regime forces, and pressure from Islamists who tried to 
disrupt and discredit their efforts. “Despite all of the hardships, we 
continued with our regular meetings, demonstrations, sit-ins and media 
campaigns until we got what we wanted,” Zidani said.

Three month after its establishment, the local council is managing most 
services, including water, electricity, bakeries, civil defense, 
firefighting, and the directorates of transportation, communications, 
agriculture and environment. With their vibrant activities, women’s 
organizations are participating in the council’s activities, voicing 
their concerns and suggesting solutions.

The tale of civil resistance in Idlib has not ended. “Our next goal is 
to pressure armed factions to abandon the courts and security services 
and hand them over to civil entities, along with the rest of the 
directorates, including the civil and private land registries,” Rahabi 
said. “We are working on uniting all local groups and organizations 
under one body to make our voice even stronger.”

While many international organizations and donors refuse to work in 
places under the control of Islamic armed factions — fearing that funds 
could end up in the hands of extremists — one of the most important 
tactics to fight extremism is to support civil organizations and 
initiatives. As evidenced by these civilian efforts, such initiatives 
are effective, and they are bringing peaceful and constructive changes 
into their communities.

Meer informatie over de Vredeslijst maillijst