Decentralization and Local Councils in Post-Conflict Syria:  What Role Can Youth Play?

As part of its broad research project “Arab Youth as Political Actors”, the Arab Reform Initiative organized on 31 October 2018 in Gaziantep, Turkey a Policy Dialogue meeting that brought together 17 youth representatives from seven Syrian local councils as well as researchers and practitioners from the Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, the Syrian CSOs Coalition (Shaml), the Local Administration Councils Unit (LACU), and the Sharek Youth Forum of Palestine. The Policy Dialogue aimed to discuss how youth engagement in local councils during the war in Syria could be sustained if a process of decentralization of governance takes place in the post-conflict period, and the potential for youth political engagement more broadly.

Decentralization Processes and the Future Role of Local Councils
The policy dialogue commenced with two presentations by researchers from the Omran Centre for Strategic Studies on the concept of decentralization, its link to peacebuilding processes, and the potential scenarios for local councils in post-conflict Syria. This included an explanation of the differences in decentralization processes between stable, independent states and states emerging from conflict, and the necessity of redefining the meaning of a “strong centre” and the relationship between the centre and periphery. This also included an assessment of the current situation and the prospects of the local councils.

In the case of Syria – which was governed under a strong and closed central state in the pre-revolutionary period – a process of post-conflict decentralization must rely on a feasible and practical framework that builds trust between the central state and the provinces, and that consolidates and promotes stability, in order to succeed. Indeed, decentralization can be a pillar of stability in post-conflict Syria; yet, for this to happen, it must be inscribed in the constitution in terms that detail the relationship of power with sufficient flexibility to allow lawmakers to continually promote the rights of the provinces. However, there is currently a lack of political consensus on the Constitution. Moreover, the question of the security sector and the extent to which it could be subject to a process of decentralization is also a critical element in the broader discussion. Having a multiplicity of security services – meaning in the Syrian case a provincial security agency alongside the central security agencies – is standard practice in other countries. Yet in Syria, this would require reconceiving the concept of security in order to be more inclusive.  A thorough strategic security plan that goes beyond the issue of national security should be developed. In particular, it is necessary to assess security threats in Syria with a view to delegating powers to administrative units and local authorities, especially local councils who are currently lacking legal frameworks.

At this stage, two scenarios for decentralization in Syria can be envisioned. The first and most obvious would involve strengthening the current local structures of power and self-administration. In practice, this would mean that local and provincial units would have a high degree of autonomy and the centre would have less control of the provinces. The second scenario presumes that the regime will not concede to the devolution of power, which it views as undermining its authority. On the contrary, the prevailing of the regime would most likely lead to the maintenance of the strong and authoritarian nature of the central state. Yet, the current political and administrative position of the state renders crucial a discussion about decentralization and its limits in terms of the allocation of responsibilities and the social, economic, and political roles that should be played by the centre and the provinces.

With the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, local councils have acted less as political structures and more like administrative service-providers, responding to the development and relief needs of local populations. Yet they have also become gradually aware of the importance of local resources, going as far as to impose taxes and duties to ensure the financial independence of local units. Moreover, the contribution of local councils to development, their work towards achieving civil peace through the provision of services, and their promotion of political participation and civic engagement, have all in fact been a source of enhanced political legitimacy. This new source of popular political legitimacy could be leveraged in the post-conflict period by strengthening their role in local decision-making processes, and consequently in national decision-making.

The central authority’s control through governorships, along with the centralization of security authorities and the role of the military, deprives the political system of local authorities. This leads to the division and disintegration of communities, and an absence of civil peace. This trend can be countered by activating community participation in local and national decision-making process via the local councils.

Youth in Conflict and Post-Conflict Syria
In the second half of the policy dialogue, the presentations turned to the question of youth, their needs and aspirations, and what types of capacity building can be done in order to strengthen their political participation and future role in local councils in particular. As was presented at the end of the first session, although the 2011 revolution was started by the country’s youth in response to the monopoly of political decision-making by the Baath party, they have, nonetheless, been marginalized as political actors during the conflict and have been largely absent from the political checkerboard that has been playing out. It is as such critical to raise awareness among youth of the meaning of political participation by redefining what participation can mean and how it can be a source of political power. More precisely, youth political engagement and participation must be conducted through certain channels, among them the local councils. And youth, who have been actively engaged in local councils since 2011, can harness the political legitimacy of the councils in order to increase their own political participation.

Regarding youth needs and aspirations, the Shaml Coalition conducted a survey of 1,328 individuals (both male and female) aged between 14 and 25 in north-western Syria, focusing on five domains: political rights and justice; social rights; economic rights; education and health; and the role of youth in leadership and the process of social change. In the study, 55% of those surveyed attributed their political problems to the Syrian regime, with only 4% blaming extremist groups for their problems. Sixty-four per cent expressed a feeling of marginalization, stating that they are excluded from the decision-making process and are unable to make their voices and positions heard. However, only 43% of those surveyed believe that local councils are more capable of leading social change in their communities. Indeed, the study found that youth participation in civil society organizations is higher than their participation in local councils.

A specific study carried out under ARI’s research project concerning Syrian youth as political actors and their role in the local councils in particular added qualitative nuance to these findings. While Syrian youth were the mainstay of political life in the pre-independence period, the ascendance of the Baath party to political power saw a sharp curtailing of their participation with the rise of political repression. Instead, social work became the vector through which Syrian youth could participate in public affairs. This shifted in the early months of the revolution, when youth were able to take the reins of political action through fieldwork and revolutionary formations until new political bodies began to form.

As the revolution has worn on, young men and women have been excluded from the political process and newly formed political structures. This exclusion has been compounded by their own reluctance to engage in political action. For those who have remained engaged, local councils serve as an extension of their community work and their desire to meet the needs of local populations. Indeed, youth engaged in local councils have preferred this grassroots representation over the higher-level political processes that they see as subject to the wills and interests of major powers. In their view, local opposition councils – which are largely based on the work of youth –are the true representative of the popular will in the regions they represent. Local councils thus form an alternative political agency for these engaged Syrian youth. Nonetheless, Syrian youth today must re-think the meaning of political action and the role of politics in order to assess their own future role in Syria’s post-conflict political development.

In a comparative example from Palestine, presented by the Sharek Youth Forum, developing local youth councils can provide youth with the experience to build their political and leadership skills before entering more formal municipal political structures. This can be formalized through cooperation between municipalities and local youth councils. For example, in the case of Palestine, local councils receive funds from the state budget and are a source of consultation for the municipalities. Such an arrangement thus provides youth with direct knowledge of and experience in political participation.

The discussion following the presentations focused on actions that can be undertaken to strengthen the participation of youth in post-conflict Syrian political life, and in particular how to keep Syrian youth currently active in local councils as part of the political process. The need to conduct field surveys on the extent of youth involvement in local structures was cited as an important first step in order to take stock of the variety of current forms of participation. More precisely, this would involve an assessment of the extent of practical engagement of young people in public and political work beyond their simple enrolment as members of local councils.

At the same time, participants in the policy dialogue expressed the need to understand the impact of militarization: how did militarization affect young people’s patterns of political engagement, and what challenges have local councils faced as a result of armed presence? In the case of Eastern Ghouta, for example, the armed factions are the biggest obstacle to local authorities; how does this, in turn, impact youth participation?

More broadly, the capacity to engage youth in future political affairs in post-conflict Syria requires in-depth analysis of which factors hinder them from assuming more direct political roles. In particular, this should focus on everyday-life requirements that impede young people from developing their political tools and skills.

Here, further comparative work on the experiences of others, such as the Palestinian youth and their participation through local councils, can facilitate the development of meaningful local structures in Syria. This would entail developing specific political tools for youth while also enhancing their knowledge of the real-life political process that is unfolding in Syria. This combination of tools and knowledge would allow youth cadres in the local councils to participate more effectively in Syrian decision-making processes and would provide them with the self-awareness to identify as political actors.