Building civic institutions in liberated Syria
3 Jul 2015|

Police in Aleppo

Where the al-Assad regime no longer exercises control in Syria, communities are grappling with the challenges of self-governance in an unstable political and military environment. Despite the unimpeded power of armed groups, ongoing regime bombardment and a general public distrust in government institutions stemming from decades of repression under the Ba’ath, progress has been made in certain communities in establishing civic institutions that offer a level of human security and stability to the Syrians that remain.

As the conflict enters its fifth year, it is overdue for external governments and donors to begin or increase financial or skills-based support to these newly formed police, judicial and council bodies. These bodies offer a possible blueprint for the future of the revolution and they could act as a bulwark against further violence should the regime fall. As multiple external actors jostle for influence inside Syria, aiding indigenous, community-driven stabilisation and development initiatives in liberated Syria offers an effective and nuanced way for governments, such as Australia, to provide security benefits that stretch far beyond Syria’s own borders.


Some Syrian communities have functioning local police, predominantly staffed by defected regime members and/or locals. Simple organised and regular patrols by the local police can increase security and reduce crime levels, particularly theft and looting.

In some communities such as Kafr Nobel, police and armed groups work in tandem to provide security. The main armed group operating in that area protects the community from external dangers by setting checkpoints on the outskirts of the town. This allows the local police force to implement some semblance of law and order within the town. Unfortunately, the presence of armed groups in and around a specific location also gives the regime a pretext for bombardment.

In other communities, newly established local police are often hampered in their abilities by a deeply ingrained lack of trust in the institution. Civilian awareness-raising campaigns and community dialogues are something external government can facilitate to inform the community of the role that a local or national police body should and will play in a new Syrian society.


Despite the ongoing violence and hardship, some towns such as Darat Izza in northern Aleppo province have managed to establish relatively effective judicial bodies, which operate together with the police to provide some stability. However, many judges are inexperienced in dealing with certain crimes, presumably once handled by Assad’s police state. These judges now require legal training to competently handle complex criminal cases such as murder and manslaughter in a legitimate and professional way. Additionally, other courts, such as those established in the image of armed group Jabhat al-Nusra like the Aleppo Sharia Court, may have the ways and means to enforce their rulings, but most courts have little to no ability to implement the law.

Another issue is that in order for the law to be effective, communities need to establish and develop one main justice provider (and an associated legal hierarchy) as well as decide on one consistent body of law. Sometimes if people are unsatisfied with the ruling of the court, they bring the matter before the armed brigade or local elders to receive a different result.  This kind of arbitrariness is antithetical to the rule of law and will potentially require a multipronged legal education and de-militarisation campaign to rectify.

Civilian governing bodies

Local councils or some sort of civilian governing body complement the police and the judiciary by providing necessary services to civilians with the meager funds and support they receive from abroad or from the opposition government. Such bodies were in existence from the earliest days of the uprising as informal networks of solidarity that formed to support the peaceful protests by way of aid distribution or supplying medical care. In some communities the populace elects the council members, in others they are appointed by notable families. Councils take the bulk of the responsibility for providing important civil services and public works such as clearing roads, garbage collection and rebuilding schools that make life for Syrians bearable. However, generally councils can only act to provide tangible relief to civilians in-line with the amount of funding and support they receive, which is generally grossly inadequate.

Human security and development

While religious groups or political strongmen may provide a level of security to their constituents, the catalyst for many of the Arab uprisings, including Syria’s, was the impotency felt by the populace to shape their own destiny. While fraught with political complexity, if governments such as Australia’s are keen to ward off future instability spawned by the Syrian conflict, investing in community-level structures now, either financially or alternatively through expertise, could have lasting benefits for security both within Syria and beyond. Additionally, supporting increased oversight of civic institutions is also what Syrians began asking for five long years ago.

Australia has long played a role in training and advising law enforcement bodies in its immediate region and in theatres such as Afghanistan. It has real experience working in conflict areas that it could put to good use in Syria. As Australia’s financial aid to Syria dwindles, it is well placed to augment international efforts already underway with experienced advisors and mentors that could be used to support local Syrian institutions provide law enforcement, justice and governance.