Local Opposition Councils Act As Government In Parts Of Syria

Now that the U.S. and more than 100 other countries have recognized Syria's opposition coalition, the dynamics are changing for local councils in provinces under rebel control. These councils are going to get money and become humanitarian aid organization and now they have to figure out how to deliver 1,200 tons of bread a day for a population of 6 million people in Aleppo province. Melissa Block talks to Deborah Amos.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To Syria now, where rebel forces are claiming a string of territorial gains, including six towns in the central province of Hama. As the fighting continues, there are also diplomatic efforts to establish leadership that could take over when Bashar al-Assad's regime falls. This month, more than 100 nations, organized as the Friends of Syria, backed an opposition coalition to replace Assad.

Now local councils loyal to that coalition are beginning the work of government in rebel-held areas. NPR's Deborah Amos has been in Syria's northern provinces over the past few weeks. She joins me now from Istanbul. And Deb, talk a little bit about who is in these local councils and what they're doing.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Melissa, I recently spent an afternoon listening to the debates of the local council for Idlib province. These are 18 people, activists, mostly professionals, lawyers, a pharmacist, a baker. There were three women in the group. And like most local governments, what they were debating was their budget, $800,000. It's the Idlib province share of an $8 million donation from the Gulf state of Qatar.

This is the first international donation that came directly through the Syrian coalition now recognized by the U.S., and these councils in all of Syria's 14 provinces, are directly linked to that coalition. So the idea is to create a pipeline of funds down to the grassroots.

BLOCK: You mentioned, Deb, that the U.S. now recognizes this coalition, as well. So apart from the money from Qatar, is the U.S. or any other country sending financial support to these councils?

AMOS: I have seen no evidence that the U.S. is sending any money to these local councils or to the coalition. An activist from Barzay, a neighborhood in Damascus, told me that local council members from seven neighborhoods in the capital slipped out to Jordan to pick up $300,000 from the French. Now, the money is to get these councils up and running - again, from the French to the newly recognized coalition and down to the grassroots.

For the councils, there's a humanitarian crisis in the country. Flour and fuel are in short supply. The electricity is off in many places. It's snowing here in Istanbul, so it is very grim in Syria. So these councils are now in crisis management. They have to get fuel and flour into these cities where the bread lines are up to six to eight hours long.

BLOCK: And do these local council members have any real authority in these areas where rebels are fighting?

AMOS: They have legitimacy among activists and some rebel groups are represented on the council. What counts is the larger population, and they are desperate as it gets colder and the food's running out. So the bread crisis is a test. For example, in Aleppo, there's a 250 member transitional revolutionary council. The head is a 67-year-old civil engineer. His name is Dr. Jalal Kangi(ph).

They got $1 million from the Qatar donation and what they did this week is they made a deal with the Turkish government to allow donated fuel intoAleppo without paying taxes. Dr. Kangi and his advisors say they have to get 1,200 tons of flour into Aleppo to feed people. So you can see that this million dollars doesn't go very far.

BLOCK: Deb, you've been reporting a lot on how fragmented the various rebel groups are in Syria. And let's talk a bit about the radical Islamist groups - for example, the al-Nusra front. Would those groups accept a civilian democratic leadership in Syria like these local councils would represent?

AMOS: Not at all. Al-Nusra has been very specific. In YouTube videos they are fighting for an Islamic state. The council represents activists. In the early days of the revolt, these were the people that were leading the peaceful protests and these are the people who want a civilian democratic Syria. When you ask them about the radical Islamists, what they say is money will make the difference.

If the councils can show they can govern; if they can supply bread, fuel; if they can get a police force operating; they can blunt the radical argument. They can't make it go away. The longer the war goes on, the more sectarian it will be and the stronger the Islamists become. Dr. Kangi in Aleppo, said you have to begin this funding now. Syria is a ruined country but the aid is only trickling in.

BLOCK: That's NPR is Deborah Amos, who's been reporting from northern Syria over the past few weeks. She's now in Istanbul. Deborah, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you, Melissa.

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