New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 1, 2013
TILALYAN, Syria » Bundled in a thick overcoat against the frosty afternoon, Mohamed Moussa watched with concern as the town baker worked by flashlight to repair the conveyor belt on his aging oven, the town's principal food source.
Miles from the front lines of the Syrian civil war, Moussa, the 33-year-old English teacher who leads the new governing council of this rebel-controlled town, spends his time locked in a more mundane battle against desperate shortages of almost everything.
Until about three weeks ago, Tilalyan's roughly 3,800 residents had bread at most twice a week, and its appearance set off a fierce melee among hundreds of families. There was no consistent supply of electricity or water, to say nothing of medicine or heating fuel.
"The people get crazy," he said. "They will have a revolution against the revolution because they are so hungry."
With Syria's 2-year-old civil war showing signs of stalemate, scores of new local councils in rebel-held towns like Tilalyan are not only fighting deprivation but trying to set up courts, police forces and social services. Their efforts amount to Syria's first experiments in self-government after decades of tyranny under President Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez Assad.
They are struggling to outlast Assad in what is increasingly a war of attrition. But civilian leaders say the councils are also trying to pry power from the armed rebel brigades that are already staking out control of resources and territories in the vacuum left by the government's retreat. Tilalyan's council illustrates the challenge: It has been forced to depend entirely on the patronage of either the Western-sponsored opposition-in-exile or competing armed factions, including hard-line Islamists.
Three months after it was formed, though, the council can claim two achievements: four hours a day of electricity and a daily ration of two pieces of flatbread for each adult and child. That in turn has brought credibility and legitimacy, even in the eyes of skeptical town elders.
"Young people will be the future of Syria," said Mustafa Osman, 39, the imam of the local mosque, who first drafted Moussa and other young council members into the job.
Those modest accomplishments reflect the contradictory mix of resilience and fragility that characterizes life in the rebel-held countryside around Tilalyan, a swath of farmland stretching as far as 40 miles from the Turkish border in northeastern Syria.
Residents say they have not faced the threat of a government ground attack since lat fall, when the rebels mined the roads. The biggest threat these days is the government's attack jets, but they typically concentrate their bombs on larger towns like Marea and Azaz. And they do not fly on cloudy days, allowing residents to walk the streets at ease, until the sun reappears.
On a recent visit, a tow truck was trying to haul the burned-out wreckage of a handful of government tanks and armored vehicles from the rubble of a mosque near Azaz. A scavenger hoped to profit by selling the scrap metal. But rebel fighters stopped him, insisting that the rusted hulks remain as monument to their victory, "the tank graveyard," as locals call it.
Farmers tossed fertilizer through fields of lentils. Carcasses of meat hung in butcher shops, and storekeepers warmed themselves by burning scraps of wood. Boys played in the streets or lined up outside a barbershop. There were few checkpoints and no weapons in sight.
When community leaders in Tilalyan decided in December to form a provisional local government, they started by bringing together the patriarchs of about two dozen big families, to elect a council from among themselves.
But the meeting dissolved into bickering. "They could not agree on anything," said Osman, the imam.
Many were still too afraid of Assad to link their names to a rebel government.
"Not to be slaughtered with their families," Moussa said, chuckling. "The old people think Bashar Assad is very strong and he will never leave," he said. "But we think they are not thinking the right way, because we see every day that he is vanishing and going away."
Exasperated, Osman made a surprise announcement late last year at Friday prayer: A new council had been set up and was ready to hear complaints. Two hours later Osman summoned Moussa and four others. The job was theirs, the imam told them, by his own unilateral appointment.
All are bookish graduates of Aleppo University with little aptitude for combat. Two are 26, one is 27; the oldest is 34. Until then, their only involvement in the war was forming a "media committee" to spread information. (Osman and the town's military leader, Mustafa Jaber, 38, sit on the council as well.)
The elders were scornful. "I need men standing in front of me, I need men to talk to, I don't need children!" one patriarch complained, as Moussa, the imam and others recalled.
The local military brigades resisted more forcefully.
"The civil council takes away some of their power," Moussa said. "They say, ‘Where did we see you when they were shooting at us? Where were you when we were outside in the cold? You were in your house and going to work, so shut up!"'
Each brigade, most of them loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, now has its own rival relief and political wings to position itself for post-Assad Syria, and at one point the Tawhid Brigade from Marea confiscated about a ton of flour from Tilalyan's dwindling supply.
Ahmad Khatib, in charge of relief efforts for the Tawhid Brigade, said Moussa had no right to make demands since his town had paid so small a price in the fight.
"If you bring them 10 prophets from God they will still keep complaining!" Khatib said of Tilalyan's young council.
But the young civilians quickly shouldered their mandate. With $1,000 given to the council by the Western-backed Syrian national coalition, they fixed damaged converters to restore electricity, needed to power the well in the town. They then set out to negotiate for electricity.
A brigade from the town of Al Bab had recently seized control of the hydroelectric generators at the Tishreen Dam but initially refused to share the power. How did they know that the council was not a pack of thieves, the brigade demanded?
Then the larger neighboring town of Tal Rifaat was hogging all the electricity, refusing to allow any to pass through to Tilalyan or Marea, Moussa said. But when it came to electricity, Marea's powerful brigade and civilian leaders stepped in to help; Marea and Tilalyan are on the same power line.
To supply bread, the council pleaded in vain for flour from the international groups camped at the Turkish border. Then they tried to buy it through Tal Rifaat and finally in the battle-torn provincial capital, Aleppo.
The answer, council members said, came from Jabhet al-Nusra, the Islamist militia that the U.S. recently classified as a terrorist organization. The group has distinguished itself not only through its battlefield prowess, aid workers say, but also through its determination to capture resources like wheat silos from the government, so the group could dispense the spoils as patronage.
"They give us flour at less than 20 percent of the real price from the black market," said Moussa, surveying the 14 metric tons stored in the Tilalyan bakery, enough for 13 days.
Adhan Naser, 34, another teacher on the council, interrupted him.
"Jabhet al-Nusra now controls the most important things for life — like flour, water and electricity — to make the people see Jabhet al-Nusra as the model, the perfect thing," he said. "This plan is very clear to all of us. But this kind of game is not going to work, because our future is not Jabhet al-Nusra. We don't need Afghanistan in Syria."
To end the daily melee for bread, the council counted the town's 3,824 adults and children and arrived at a ration of two loaves of flatbread per person and arranged to have it delivered for 5 Syrian pounds — less than a dime. By then, the council had spent all of its $1,000 in seed money and $300 more from its own pockets.
"It would not matter if we were rich, but we are not," Moussa said.
In a recent meeting in a chilly schoolroom, the council tore into Moussa for failing to consult it before giving the garbage collector a raise of 200 Syrian pounds a week, about $3. And a donor had provided 13 pounds of macaroni for local refugees, but could the council manage the backlash if they had none for others? No, they decided, the refugees would have to wait.
At least there was bread. "For about seven days now we have had bread every day, and the people are very happy," he said. "Or at least a part of them is happy."