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May 19, 17

To Live in Revolutionary Time: Building Local Councils in Syria

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This is the translator’s introduction to a text written by Omar Aziz  in 2012. Omar was an anarchist born in Damascus who had been living with his family in the United States for many years when the revolution against the Assad regime broke out.

He traveled back to Syria to help build grassroots, horizontal structures that would allow people to collectively meet their needs as the state was driven back and to act as a check on new authoritarians taking power. This text was only published publically after Omar’s death in prison in 2013 and it is credited with inspiring hundreds of council projects throughout the territory.

The translation of Omar’s text The Formation of Local Councils can be found here, on the website, Bordered By Silence. As well, we have laid out the introduction and the translation as a pamphlet for easier reading and distribution.

On 17 February 2013, the Local Coordination Committees of the Syrian revolution reported that Omar Aziz, prominent Syrian intellectual, economist, and long-time anarchist dissident, died of a heart attack in the central Adra prison. Held incommunicado by the air force intelligence since 20 November 2012, the big and warm – albeit ailing – heart of Omar Aziz could not stand almost three months of detention inside the infamous dungeons of the Assad regime. The reports of his passing emerged on the second anniversary of the Hariqa market protest, when 1,500 Syrians vowed for the first time not to be humiliated in the heart of Old Damascus. Aziz leaves behind a rich, significant legacy of ground-breaking intellectual, social and political contributions as well as an unfinished revolution and a country in desperate need for people like him.

– Budour Hassan, Rest in Power

Omar Aziz, revolutionary anarchist born in Damascus, was a friend and comrade to many and is fondly remembered and deeply missed. His text, The Formation of Local Councils, remains one of the core strategic proposals of the social revolution in Syria. He first published it in late 2011, and then released an expanded and revised version in February 2012 with a new introduction. This present translation offers the introductions to both versions and the full text of the second version. It doesn’t seem that Omar’s intention was to produce a static, finished text — with his emphasis on adapting to local context and changing conditions, it’s likely he would have continued to revise and change his proposals. You will notice some repetition between the two introductions, which is simply because the second was written to replace the first, and so they weren’t meant to be displayed side by side.

Although Omar’s name is somewhat well known, there has not been an adequate English translation of his writings. As well, the text was very much an internal document, circulated among people organizing in Syria. There are large sections presented as bulleted lists of proposals, and there is essentially no context given. The Formation of Local Councils was only published publicly online after Omar’s death in 2013; perhaps the lack of translation since then reflects the difficulty of presenting this important text to an English-speaking public in a way that allows it to be understood. However, the text is tremendously rich and offers many concrete ideas and reflections for those in western countries engaged in struggle against the state and reactionaries, and for autonomy and freedom.

This introduction will seek to provide some of the background needed to understand The Formation of Local Councils in context, and for this we will draw on texts written by Leila al-Shami and Budour Hassan. We will also share translated excerpts of the introduction to the French translation of Omar’s text by Éditions Antisociales, published in November 2013 under the title The Revolution of Everyday Life Under Sniper Fire. As well, we believe it’s important to situate this text within the debates and priorities that exist, broadly-speaking, within the anglophone anarchist world; this also speaks to some of the decisions made while translating.

Our hope is that by translating and distributing this text to make more visible the Syrian revolution, which has so often been denied or conflated with the armed groups that share its territories. Often leftists who support the Assad regime or anarchists who support the YPG/PYD will ask things like, “Are there really liberatory groups in these areas? What are their names? What are their ideas?” as if the organization of daily life needed a name, a website, and an English-language spokesperson to exist.

At a time when many activists were forced to flee, [Omar] chose to relinquish his safety in the United States and return to Syria to participate in the popular uprising that has swept through the country.
At a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the ‘hijacking’ of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.

While most secular and modernist intellectuals sat on the fence and even denounced protesters for marching from mosques, Aziz and his comrades created the first local council in Barzeh, Damascus. The local councils, an idea proposed and crystallised by Aziz at the end of 2011, are voluntary, horizontal associations inspired by the writings of Rosa Luxemburg. This idea was later adopted in most liberated areas in Syria.” (Budour)

Without ever intending to, Omar’s life and writings can serve as an example of what we mean when we say “the Syrian revolution” — definitely not the official opposition in exile or the foreign-funded militias profiting off the war economy, as the above detractors try to claim. The Syrian revolution is in the formal and informal organizing that goes on in hundreds of places every day. As Leila al-Shami points out, in March 2016 there were at least 395 local councils operating throughout the Syrian territory, with practices and projects as varied as the people who compose them, but largely sharing a vision of self-organizing local tasks in what Omar calls revolutionary time — creating their lives outside of the time of authority.

According to Muhammed Sami Al Kayyal, one of Aziz’s comrades, “Omar Aziz stood for the complete break-up [of] the state in order to achieve collective liberation without waiting for regime change or for one ruling power to replace another. He believed that communities are capable of producing their own freedoms regardless of political vicissitudes.” Aziz recognized that the time of revolution was the moment the people themselves should claim autonomy and put in place as much of an alternative programme as possible. He again called for the establishment of local councils [in the second version of the text from Feb 2013], this time highlighting more roles such as coordinating with relief activities, medical committees and educational initiatives. Building autonomous, self-governing communes throughout Syria, linked through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, organizing independently of the state, he believed a social revolution could be initiated.

– Leila al-Shami: The Legacy of Omar Aziz

The Formation of Local Councils is fundamentally a strategic proposal. As Omar writes in both introductions, massive combative demonstrations had created spaces and times outside the control of the state. These demonstrations were often pushed forward by small affinity-based groups of revolutionaries called coordinating committees that operated clandestinely to avoid repression. In the space created, many forms of autonomous self-organizing began to emerge as the state withdrew or was driven back. The Local Council would serve to deepen and expand these practices of self-organization as well as share more broadly the organizing skills and experience of coordinating committees and other groups. Omar and his friends believed that the human energy freed up by creating these spaces outside of authoritarian control would allow for the creation of new social forms, which would in turn further erode the state.

Omar Aziz wrote about the importance of establishing non-hierarchical grassroots local councils that are independent from state control, and he did so long before there were liberated areas in Syria. When Aziz prepared the outline for the local councils, the uprising was still overwhelmingly peaceful, and most of the country was under the military control of the regime. At the time, he was mocked and ignored by the very people who would later adopt his idea and take credit for it.

Omar Aziz’s vision of the local council was founded on the premise that revolutions are exceptional events in which human beings live in two parallel time zones: the time of authority and the time of revolution. For the revolution to emerge victorious, it must break free from the domination of the authorities and become involved in every aspect of people’s lives, not just in demonstrations and political activism.

– Budour

Here, Budour translates Omar’s phrase as “the time of authority”, and our translations renders it the same way. Omar uses an Arabic word that could be translated as “power” to refer to both the power built up by people organizing their own lives, as well as to the coercive power that limits their autonomy. For this translation, we thought it was important to make the distinction clear: Omar and his comrades were not against power (they wanted to build grassroots horizontal power), they were against authority.

This emphasis on anti-authoritarian practice entered the text in subtle, linguistic ways too. Budour notes: “Omar Aziz avoided using the term ‘The people’ and instead referred to people as ‘humans’. His comrade Mohammad Sami al-Kayal writes: “He did not believe in ‘The people,’ that jargon coined by authority to maintain its power. He saw human beings who live, thrive, and spout their potential.” In the translation, in effect, the phrase “the people” does not occur — we translated Omar’s phrasing as “humans”, “human beings”, “people” (as in the plural of ‘person’), and “individuals”. Sometimes this leads to sentences sounding a little strange, but perhaps it’s necessary to break with common phrasing to break with common ideas.

We could make a similar argument about the word “society”. Omar is focused on specific projects that are adapted to local context – if he had a vision for all of “Syrian society”, it was of local, autonomous self-organizing. The word “society”, by lumping everyone together, is generally used to erase the diversity and possibility that would grow from the multiplication of these initiatives.

This quote from Leila is illustrative:

Aziz saw positive examples all around him. He was encouraged by the multiple initiatives springing up throughout the country including voluntary provision of emergency medical and legal support, turning houses into field hospitals and arranging food baskets for distribution. He saw in such acts ‘the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the system, the systematic killing and destruction of community’.

– Leila al-Shami: The Life and Work of Omar Aziz

Though we translated this sentence a little differently, we agree with Leila’s choice to use “community” here, whereas other translations have used “society”. It would be possible to translate this text in such a way that “society” was one of the most common words. However, we translated the Arabic word in question several different ways throughout the text to avoid what would be, to our ears, an excessive insistence on society. Because what is society? It is how the state sees the collected individuals, milieus, communities, families, political structures, classes, and so on that inhabit the territory it controls. An anarchic break with the state will also be a break with society, this non-free association of individuals held together by the shared experience of being ruled. As with “the people”, we believe avoiding the word “society” is consistent with Omar’s emphasis on “human beings” and decentralization, and so we’ve translated the Arabic word more often as “group”, “community”, or “collective”.

Omar insists repeatedly that what he is describing will vary based on local situations. He is not seeking to impose a model on all of “society”, but he does believe there is space for everyone to build a life for themselves and the people around them outside the control of the state on a non-hierarchical basis: groups of people adapting to local conditions with a shared commitment to collaboration and to not being ruled.

Omar Aziz’s work has had a huge impact on revolutionary organization in Syria. Whilst the mainstream political opposition failed to achieve anything of note in the past two years, the grassroots opposition movement, in the face of violent repression, has remained dynamic and innovative and has embodied the anarchist spirit. The core of the grassroots opposition is the youth, mainly from the poor and middle-classes, in which women and diverse religious and ethnic groups play active roles. Many of these activists remain non-affiliated to traditional political ideologies but are motivated by concerns for freedom, dignity and basic human rights. Their primary objective has remained the overthrow of the regime, rather than developing grand proposals for a future Syria. […]

There is no one model for the Local Councils, but they mainly follow some form of representative democratic model. Some have established different administrative departments to take over functions previously held by the state. Some have been more successful and inclusive than others which have struggled to displace the bureaucracy of the old regime or have been plagued by infighting.

– Leila al-Shami: The Life and Work of Omar Aziz

One of the biggest critiques to be made of The Formation of Local Councils and of the local councils themselves is that there is a current that seemingly favours bureaucratic, representative democracy. In a moment where many western anarchists are describing their projects as distinct from or hostile to democracy, it can be difficult to understand what moves anarchists elsewhere to push for local-level representative democracy as a form of governance. The local councils have not yet produced a cast of professional politicians, and in the ones we’ve heard most about in Aleppo and Daraya, the roles rotated often, had little or no coercive power, and the people holding them continued doing other kinds of work. But that doesn’t mean they would be able to avoid the pitfalls of representation in years to come.

Omar writes about the need to build administrative capacity to resume service provision, which can, among other more pressing concerns, include things like issuing birth certificates and recording marriages. We’ve read accounts of career bureaucrats joining the local councils in Daraya and busying themselves producing license plates with the revolutionary flag on them. The tension in the local council project that Leila describes above, and that Omar didn’t live to see arise, is the tension between social revolution and governing. Again, in practice, the local councils have been minimally bureaucratic, but not everyone involved sees them as a fundamental transformation of how people live, but rather as little democratic states-in-waiting. Obviously we still support these projects and think they’re beautiful and worthwhile, but we can’t ignore these kinds of tensions that arise in every mass movement when lots of people find themselves in the same spaces, opposing the same forces, but without necessarily sharing common goals.

And yet, there are fundamental differences between government and the local councils. The local councils as described in this text form by inviting people already doing important work, then slowly expanding to include more people in a wider geographic area as their capacity increases, while encouraging and making links with similar projects elsewhere. Their territories are defined by who participates, not by borders. And, unlike what some militias affiliated with the Rojava project have done, they spread by encouraging self-organizing elsewhere, not by conquering.

Omar helped found several local councils, including one in Daraya, which was one of the capitals of the revolution. Leila’s description of the revolution in Daraya can be found on her blog and is well worth reading, but here she describes its story as exemplary of the potential of local councils as well as the threats they face (written, of course, before the fall of Aleppo in late 2016, early 2017):

Omar Aziz didn’t live to see Daraya’s remarkable achievements. Nor was he able to witness other experiments in local self-organization, with varying degrees of success, across the country. These local councils are not ideological but practical. Their first concern is to keep communities functioning in areas where the state has collapsed. They remain independent of political or religious directives, focusing instead on issues of immediate relevance such as service provision and food assistance. They work through the prism of their own culture and experience. As alternatives to state authoritarianism, their libertarian tendencies are undeniable.

By March 2016, it was estimated that there were 395 active councils in cities, towns and neighbourhoods, half of them concentrated in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. This estimate was made a few months following Russia’s military intervention to prop up the failing regime, which saw the loss of great swathes of liberated territory, placing these autonomous communities under threat. At the time of writing, other revolutionary suburbs around the capital are at risk of falling to the regime as a result of its “kneel or starve policy.” So too is Al-Waer, the last remaining revolutionary stronghold in Homs. And the 300,000 residents of liberated eastern Aleppo are under siege once more. 

– Leila al-Shami: The Legacy of Omar Aziz

Omar wrote in the early days of the revolution, when areas completely free of Assadist control were only just emerging. As Editions Antisociales points out, “from the macabre perspective of the victim count of this massacre, which is almost the only “objective information” on Syria transmitted to a wider public, the first version [of the text] was written when there were ‘only’ about three thousand dead, and the second when the count suddenly swelled due to the shelling with heavy weapons of the first ‘liberated’ areas, such as the martyr neighbourhood of Bab Amr in Homs”. Omar only lived to see a taste of the overwhelming, one-sided violence that has all but swallowed up the Syrian revolution.

Perhaps the emphasis on democracy, administration, and society criticized above are pitfalls of organizing in a war zone against an authoritarian state that uses sectarianism as a key weapon. There was, and continues to be, an urgent need to create resilient social structures that can position themselves as an alternative to the Assadist state in meeting people’s needs. At the time, Omar didn’t see this as a burden, but rather as a revolutionary strategy. He, along with many other Syrian revolutionaries, had tremendous faith in the human potential that is unlocked when time and energy are freed from authoritarian structures. This is exemplified by the immense creativity and joy of the revolution’s early days, as it emerged from the smothering dictatorship. However, Omar writes that very quickly, time opened up by the revolution was filled up by a desperate struggle for survival — the regime’s ability to impose misery meant that this enormous human potential wasn’t able to manifest. In providing services and organizing people around them in non-hierarchical ways, the local councils hope to unlock this immense energy once again to defeat the regime and to rebuild new models of community (or even “society”). However, without outside support, the liberated areas have all too often been cut off and crushed through siege.

The main Assadist counter-insurgency strategy has been to transform a popular uprising into a civil war, forcing the opposition to militarize and favouring its most reactionary elements. Drawing on the analysis of Yassin al-Haj Saleh, we can talk about three tendencies within the Syrian conflict: revolution, civil war, and proxy war. All three tendencies have been present throughout and continue to be factors, but generally there was a chronological progression from revolution to civil war to proxy war, each of which also has forms of social organizing attached to them. The revolution is characterized by the local councils and their associated local self-defense groups that are more or less answerable to popular structures. As the conflict territorialized and large coalitions of rebel groups that were not accountable to grassroots formations emerged, the conflict increasingly became a civil war. The push towards civil war is strongly characterized by the power of counter-revolutionary islamist groups, especially ISIS and al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham. Those groups then, in turn, became more and more dependent on their outside sponsors, and the political concerns of external states came to dominate; thus, the situation became the proxy war that currently confronts us.

However, just because the dynamics of civil war overtook the revolution, it doesn’t mean that revolutionary organizing stopped or that the revolution disappeared; in the same way, just because the proxy war dimension only came to dominate later on, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t important meddling by other states in 2011.

A major threat facing these diverse initiatives has not only been the persecution of activists by the regime, lack of resources, the onslaught of the state’s attack of civilian areas and increasingly deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions. Some local councils have been hijacked by reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces. For example, in Al Raqqa non-local rebel groups with salafi/takfiri leanings took much of the power away from the local council. As they have tried to impose an Islamic vision which is alien to almost everyone, the people of Raqqa have been holding continuous protests against them. In [a video linked to on her blog] from June 2013 people are demonstrating against arrests of family members by Jabhat Al Nusra. The women are shouting “shame on you! You betrayed us in the name of Islam”. Throughout August 2013 the people of Al Raqqa have been protesting almost daily against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) demanding the release of hundreds of detainees, abductees and missing persons.

– Leila al-Shami: The Life and Work of Omar Aziz

Omar’s text only touches in an indirect way on the threat of reactionary counter-revolution, but the multi-polar nature of the revolutionary struggle became clearer around the time of his death. Though Omar was killed by the state, many of his comrades in developing the local councils were killed by reactionary conservative armed groups, notably the Douma 4 — Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazem Hammadi. They were kidnapped in a liberated area near Damascus by Jaish al-Islam, where they had tried to ensure that the local councils remained in control of the revolution and could act as a check on the armed groups. In the additions made in the second version of the text, we can see Omar’s increasing concern with this.

So we see, among other additions, a call to cooperate with the deserters who make up the Free Syrian Army, who had, in the meantime, rallied to the National Council which had “taken up the idea of local councils as its own”, as well as a dramatic call to establish more field hospitals. It was only five months later, in mid-July 2012, that the regime bombarded a rebel neighbourhood of Damascus for the first time. Abu Kamel’s (Omar Aziz’s pseudonym) project can only be understood in this frightening context […]

– Editions Antisociales

Omar’s position on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and on the National Council is presented discretely but unambiguously in his text. He wants to collaborate with the FSA in order to ensure that the armed elements of the revolution answer to local, popular formations, rather than to defecting officers (and later, we could imagine, to foreign sponsors). The areas where this was most successful are also the areas that most successfully resisted the counter-revolutionary islamist forces — spectacularly, free Aleppo drove out first the Islamic State and, later, Jabhat al-Nusra. Similarly, Omar isn’t fully comfortable with the National Council, the official opposition in exile supported by western states; his vision is that power comes from the bottom up, so the only useful purpose of this higher structure is to co-ordinate fundraising, distribute resources to local councils (according to needs they define), and to promote and support the formation of councils. But if there was still hope in 2012 that the National Council would be at all worthwhile, that hope is now long gone.

The Formation of Local Councils should make it clear that the revolution cannot be resumed by the militarized formations, in spite of what every mainstream news source would say. Although not a pacifist movement as we would usually understand the term, much of the grassroots Syrian revolution does not believe that armed struggle is what will bring about a better life. Rather, it is the dual approach described in this text: destroying the state while producing new forms of life. Neither of those actions particularly require violence, but they must be determined and willing to defend themselves.

The revolution of “local co-ordinating committees” as it has been sketched out in Syria, doesn’t require any terror to reach its goals, it hates and abhors murder. It doesn’t seek vengeance, but rather justice. It is not a desperate attempt by a minority trying to squeeze all of reality into the mould of its ideals. It is the product of the actions of hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals who resolved to take their lives in their own hands and to go as far as possible towards their dream of freedom and dignity. And it is precisely this experience of universal importance that the Holy Alliance of its enemies tries at all costs to bury under ruins and lies. Bashar and Putin, the Iranian mollahs and the American congress, the pseudo-resistance of Hezbollah and the very christian Venezuelan police, the United Nations and al-Qaeda, the Communist Party of China and French know-how… The profiteers of the globalized system would rather transform Syria into a mass grave than willingly surrender their place at the table of those who divide up the world and ‘negotiate’ the future.

– Editions Antisociales

As this quote makes clear, none of the actors in the proxy war want to see a revolution based on local autonomy succeed in Syria, and ensuring continuing violence is the best way to suppress it. Revolutions are exceptional moments in time though, and even if they don’t last forever, they fundamentally transform the people who participate in them and open up possibilities for everyone around the world. Think of how much inspiration we still draw from struggles like the Paris Commune or the Spanish Revolution — the Syrian revolution is no less rich. As Omar said, “We are no less than Paris Commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.”

This brings up one last note on the translation. we have avoided referring to Omar, his comrades, or all the Syrian revolutionaries as “activists”, an identity that’s defined relative to a supposedly passive majority. As one friend pointed out, “You’d never refer to Durruti as an activist, or Louise Michel, so why would you talk about the coordinating committees that way?” It’s true, they have certain skills and experiences that are useful to the broader mobilization, but they are not distinct from it, nor are they leading it. Omar and those engaged in similar work created something vast and far-reaching, even if ultimately limited in time. Their commitment to radically doing away with the old world and dreaming a new one in its place is deeply inspiring, as Budour shows in this final quote:

Omar Aziz told his friends: ‘If the revolution fails, my life and that of my whole generation would be devoid of meaning… all that we have dreamt of and believed in would have been mere illusion.’ He passed away before seeing the triumph of the revolution and reaping the fruits of his majestic work. Syrians who are still alive owe Omar Aziz and the tens of thousands of Syrian martyrs a massive debt. It is a debt that cannot be paid with tears and moving tributes. Nothing less than fighting like hell for a free Syria would suffice. (Budour)

Read the the translation of The Formation of Local Councils

Cited texts:

Omar Aziz: Rest in Power, by Budour Hassan, February 2013

The life and work of anarchist Omar Aziz and his impact on self-organization in the Syrian revolution, by Leila al-Shami, published on Tahrir-ICN in August 2013

The Legacy of Omar Aziz: Building autonomous, self-governing communes in Syria, by Leila al-Shami, published in November 2016 on Leila’s blog

Sous le feu des snipers, la révolution de la vie quotidienne (The Revolution of Everyday Life Under Sniper Fire), published by Éditions Antisociales in November 2013

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