The Manbij Experiment Rebels Make a Go of Governing in Liberated City

By and Abd al-Kadher Adhun

Part 2: Competing Rebel Units


Rebel units throughout Syria have grown from the bottom up. They are fighting for the same goals, but they compete with each other for power and sponsors. Without the FSA, there will be no new government in Syria, and yet the FSA will also make it difficult to establish a new government.

"We want all units to finally transfer their prisoners to the central prison," demands one of the attorneys at the nightly meeting of the revolutionary council.

The chairmen of the committees for the police, judiciary, social affairs, energy and medical care meet almost every evening. The city's most prominent citizens have assumed power, although they claim that they will relinquish it as quickly as possible, as soon as the situation stabilizes. It is a colorful group of engineers, clerics and pharmacists, a chain-smoking former intelligence official who used to drink with the terrorist "Carlos the Jackal" decades ago, the pragmatic tile manufacturer, as well as an attorney and a poet who was in prison for 15 years.

When they argue over which of the local regime thugs should be locked up, it is the attorney, Hassan Naifi, who calls for forgiveness, even though he was the one who suffered the longest. "We are waging our revolution for values, not for revenge. We are opposed to Bashar, but we don't want to become just like him."

"That's nicely put, Hassan," counters another committee member. "So if I speak nicely to a Shabih, he'll confess to all the murders he committed, won't he?"

They grapple over compromises, chain-smoking, and it's well after midnight when they reach the unanimous decision that at least one cleric and former mouthpiece of the regime will no longer be allowed to deliver Friday sermons.

The Experiment Appears To Be Working

Despite the many obstacles, Manbij functions relatively well. It's the only city in the north where even the gold shops are still open. City cleaning workers are back on the streets. Two new newspapers are now being published, including one called "The Street of Freedom," which bills itself as a "political, independent weekly." In the space of a week, we see more Che Guevara T-shirts (two) than al-Qaida flags (one). Even the handful of hardened Islamists talk about elections.

Manbij has made the most progress among Syrian cities, but it isn't an exception. In the embattled major city Aleppo, the leaders of the largest units consisting of more than 4,000 troops have come together to form a military council. Attorneys from Aleppo Province are trying to implement uniform legal standards for investigations and interrogations in the FSA prisons. Everywhere in the areas of the north controlled by the rebels, village councils and committees are forming to manage the vacuum, even as the Syrian air force continues to pulverize the country's infrastructure on a daily basis.

It is an eerie synchronicity of the dissimilar, and some of the more levelheaded among the rebels hope that it will last a while longer. One of them is a gaunt, older man who spent 32 years working as a technician in a local sugar plant.

He was one of the three emissaries who drove to the transformer station at the Euphrates dam to convince the personnel there to maintain the power supply. "Assad's people believe in their victory. It won't happen, but they should hold onto that belief for a while longer," he says thoughtfully, "or else they will destroy everything."

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