Committees are preparing for life after the civil war and include a common system of cleric-approved Islamic administration.
Damascus residents reject SNC in favour of Islamic committees
ISTANBUL // With little fanfare, the remaining civilian residents and rebels in a besieged corner of Damascus recently formed a panel to manage the essential, mundane affairs of their district.
They plan to organise everything, from medical care and food distribution to enforcement of law and order and coordination of armed groups fighting the regime.
It is not the first administrative committee to have been set up in Moadamiya, on the south-western edge of Syria's capital, since the uprising against the regime of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad began more than two years ago.
Nonetheless the Moadamiya Association for Relief and Development, inaugurated on Tuesday, marks a new departure. Leading activists involved in its creation said it is explicitly Islamic, proposes to unite a civilian and military administration and is intended as a system for future governance in a post-war, post-Al Assad era.
Known by the informal title, Heyaa Al Sharia, or Islamic justice committee, the association is one of a series of similarly named organisations quietly springing up in Damascus and the countryside surrounding the capital.
On Thursday, talks involving seasoned opposition activists from central Damascus began establishing an Islamic justice committee in the heart of the city, according to opposition organisers.
While there are differences in the details from one Islamic justice committee to the next and all are at different stages of evolution, rebels and activists involved with them described important unifying factors.
These include a common system of Islamic administration - approved and arbitrated by Syrian clerics - a major role for Islamist rebel groups and a fervent independence from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the fractured opposition alliance backed by the West and Arab states.
"Islamist groups are becoming more powerful in Damascus and the countryside around Damascus, not just militarily but in all areas of life," said an opposition activist based in the capital who acts as a liaison between opposition humanitarian organisations and armed rebel factions.
He, and others familiar with the expanding network of Islamic justice committees, said they were slowly revolutionising the way neighbourhoods were being managed in Damascus, spreading and entrenching Islamic principles of governance, and showed signs of bringing more efficient management to areas riven by conflict and material shortages.
They are also further eroding the already shallow influence of the SNC in and around the capital, opposition activists said, with the Islamic justice committees appearing, in part, as a response to failures of the official opposition to deliver aid or decisive, effective leadership more than two years into the Syrian uprising.
An Islamic justice committee in Aleppo, run by hardline fighting groups for several months, has imposed a controversial and uncompromising form of Islamic law on Syria's commercial capital. It has also, with some success, built an effective system for running an urban municipality, supplying food, water and electricity, under difficult wartime conditions, and helped to stop looting. Similar committees operate in other areas of northern and eastern Syria outside regime control.
The newer, more embryonic committees in Damascus have not been running long enough to give a clear idea of how moderate or extreme they will be. The concept of Sharia is open to broad interpretations, running from Taliban-type governance to a separation between religion and the state similar to that in western nations.
In Moadamiya, the committee was elected and will be held accountable by residents, according to a leading member of the board, although many details about how it will function in practice remain unclear.
"It is the only representative of Moadamiya for all aid and development," he said. "If any one commits crimes this committee will hold them responsible for those mistakes, we have representatives from the military groups and civil society groups, all according to Islamic law."
The association's rules and regulations were drawn up under the direction of Syrian clerics, who will continue to steer it and advise it on what is and is not acceptable conduct according to Islamic teachings, the board member said.
Nonetheless, a written draft of its constitution makes almost no reference to Islamic law, in what opposition activists and rebel fighters said was a reflection of prevailing moderate sentiments in the area, and an effort to fight against deepening sectarianism by not alienating Christians, Druze, Alawites and other minority communities.
"Most of the people involved in steering the Islamic justice committees are moderates, they were educated in Islamic law in Damascus, they have lived with non-Muslim communities their whole lives and want to continue to do so, they are pragmatic not dogmatic in their enforcement of laws, they do not want to impose anything," said a leading member of Liwa Al Sahabi, an Islamist rebel group fighting in the capital.
He described an expanding network of Islamic courts administering law and running rebel police forces in Damascus.
"The Islamic system is spreading. It gives a comprehensive solution to our situation and more people want it because it can deliver law and order and fairness, but we don't have the institutions to match that need - the Islamic justice committees will help to give us that institutional power," he said.
There is unease about the committees' widening influence however, in particular their desire to monopolise military and civilian control over neighbourhoods and the influence wielded by Islamist rebel factions.
"Better organisation, discipline and unity is certainly needed in the opposition, but all the armed rebel groups are now Islamists and they hold the real power in the Islamic justice committees," said the activist who works closely with armed factions to get humanitarian aid into besieged areas.
"The committees will be as good or bad as the rebel groups behind them," he said.
One opposition group, the Revolutionary Council of Damascus, has already felt the impact of the Islamic justice committees recent expansion.
Working in conjunction with the SNC and private donors, it has provided humanitarian aid and cash handouts to hard hit parts of Damascus for more than a year. Although it is an Islamic organisation, its operations are in limbo, a member said, after rebel factions it once co-operated with decreed all aid now had to be channelled through Islamic justice committees.
"Most of the fighting groups inside Damascus reject the SNC now and they are establishing their own management systems outside of its influence - they want to run their own affairs. They say: 'We are the ones who are fighting for the future, we are making the sacrifices and we should not give control over politics to others'," a member of the Revolutionary Council of Damascus said.