Syria’s Coordination Committees: A Brief History

A handout picture released by the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC Syria) shows a Syrian anti-government demonstrator flashing the victory sign and showing her palm reading "Freedom" during a protest in Idlib in northwest Syria on 30 September 2011. (Photo: AFP)

By: Asi Abu Najm

Published Saturday, October 1, 2011

Syria’s coordination committees began as local networks of anti-regime activists. They have now grown into a web of commissions, councils, and unions that take different forms and names but are striving for unity.

Interrogators at Syria’s General Intelligence building and other security agencies are interested in detainees’ knowledge of opposition coordinating committees. These committees are an important network of activists who have helped sustain the seven-month old uprising. Each committee takes a different form and name. There are the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), the Federation of the Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution (FCC), the Free Committees, and the National Action Committees (NAC), among others. Syrian authorities are expressly interested in these committees’ organizational and hierarchical structures, as well as their membership.

Filling the Void

The emergence of these committees and their structure cannot be understood in the context of the uprising alone. They are a product of the political and social transformations in Syria under the Assad regime.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Syrian regime was exhausted by its internal conflicts with the Muslim Brotherhood, the war with Israel, its military engagements in Lebanon, a hostile relationship with Iraq, and the betrayal of Anwar Sadat’s unilateral peace with Israel. In this context, the internal front was a source of concern whose management was handed over to security agencies. These agencies in turn clamped down to promote ‘stability,’ dissolving unions, harassing political parties, and terrorizing the population with imprisonment and torture.

By the time mass protests swept across the Arab world, Syrians had barely any independent organizations or political life to speak of. People, especially the youth, did not have any experience in political organizing or the slightest idea about what to do under such circumstances. Inexperienced and unaware of their potential, the people’s task in this new environment was not easy. They had to learn on the job.

Early in the uprising, young activists focused their energies on finding alternative avenues for change in Syria outside traditional political parties. After all, these parties were already crippled through state repression, were outdated and disconnected from ordinary Syrians, and were well known to the authorities, who could round them up in a matter of hours.

It took some time before the popular movement could develop new organizational networks, the most important of which are the coordinating committees. Syrian society had been shut off from every political outlet. People were reduced to secrecy and denied the right to organize themselves for almost five decades. What developed was a natural and progressive social response attempting to break the chains that shackled Syria for far too long.

Building from Scratch

From the moment the uprising began in mid-March, it became clear that the protest movement needed to move beyond spontaneous action to a more organized campaign able to withstand the regime’s repression. Modern technology and Internet use offered new ways of peaceful struggle, especially in light of the government-imposed blackout.

The earliest manifestations of the ‘coordinating committees’ were neighborhood gatherings in locations across the country. Representatives of active anti-regime groups would meet in neighborhoods and residential areas to get to know each other better and build trust. These gatherings slowly developed internal structures through a long process of trial and error.

Over the course of the uprising, it became evident that these committees were more involved in media coordination than leadership of the protest movement; rather, they covered the protests and relayed information to Arab and international media outlets. This job requires technical knowledge mostly held by educated young people. Most committee members come from this social group. In some cases, the committees work solely on media, especially in regions that are relatively calm. Larger committees, on the other hand, often have other groups that plan protests. Their work determines the path of protests based on location, entry and exit points, and the window of opportunity available before security forces arrive.

As these committees spread across Syria, they experienced brutal repression. Despite the best efforts of the traditional opposition, rights groups, and intellectuals, it became evident that the uprising needed a political leadership — a network of activists able to speak for the movement and help direct its actions. New kinds of committees emerged to serve this purpose. The National Action Committees (NAC), for example, act as intermediaries between the political sphere and activists on the ground. Others, such as the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) and the Federation of the Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution (FCC), were also formed to play a more explicitly political role.

The Committees Expand

The FCC defines itself as a legal body, consisting of several member committees. Its mission is to articulate the political message of the protest movement in the media, coordinate and unify action on the ground, and to provide a base for a council of youth and activists whose goal is to protect the revolution and ensure its success.

The Federation’s founding statement on June 1 said that coordination committees from Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Daraa, Deir al-Zour, and Homs agreed to form a representative body that would become the nucleus of the Federation. The statement also spelled out the conditions that local committee groups have to meet to join the FCC. Their membership is to be determined by their activism in a committee (on the ground or in the media) that holds significant weight in its region, their effective participation in revolutionary activities, their commitment to the martyrs and the rights of the Syrian people, and their compliance with the Federation’s positions regardless of their other political affiliations. This statement appears to be an open invitation to other coordination committees to join the Federation.

On 18 August 2011, the founding statement of the Syrian Revolution General Commission announced its commitment to collective action and argued for the urgent need that all committees and coalitions unify their efforts and work together under one revolutionary vision in order to topple the regime. The statement appealed to Syrians to build a democratic civil state that would guarantee freedom, equality, dignity, and respect for all citizens. It also called on committees and opposition groups to unite under the Commission to serve the revolution by providing the uprising with a unified vision that lives up to the protesters’ sacrifices thus far.

The Commission consists of all the Syrian groups who signed the statement. In addition to the Federation, the Commission includes about 59 committees, groups, networks, and web pages.The Federation itself consists of 56 committees, some that work on the ground and others focused on media activism, such as the News Flash Network, the Sham Network (SNN), and the Free Hackers Union of Syria in Support of the Syrian Revolution.

Local Coordination Committees

The LCC are well organized and have a clear political vision. Their pamphlets say that from the start of the revolution, tens of small groups formed across Syria. Each group took upon itself the obligation of meeting, planning, organizing, and coordinating locally on the ground. As the protest movement evolved, these groups joined under the LCC banner to better coordinate and communicate their efforts. They include representatives of activists from all over Syria, and have a media office, as well as committees in Syrian expatriate communities that help them communicate with the Western media.

Activism in Syrian expatriate communities and among allies of the Syrian revolution are meant to garner international support and to reach out to international organizations, Syrian and otherwise, to support a national council that would have legitimacy in the eyes of activists in Syria. The national council would, in turn, use its diplomatic relations to delegitimize the Syrian regime internationally.

LCC and the Federation are among the few organizations that are in touch with the protest movement in the street. They are committed to the LCC’s vision for Syria’s political future, a road map of how the country can emerge out of the crisis. These Local Committees always issue statements and take clear positions on developments in Syria.

Other Alliances and Coalitions

New organizations, political coalitions, and alliances have emerged since the uprising began. These groups share a common connection with the street and the protest movement. The Ghad Democratic Coalition, for example, aims to support other forces on the ground with the protests and also engage in media and political activism. Their goal is to ensure a peaceful transition of power once the regime is overthrown. This coalition also aims to encourage unengaged Syrian social groups to join the protest movement. The coalition works within a collaborative framework of several parties that allows them to maintain their individual identity. It consists of three forces active on the ground: the April 17 Movement for Democratic Change in Syria, the Nabd Coalition for Syrian Civil Youth and the LCC. Another recently emergent coalition is the Leftist Coalition, with its obvious political leanings.

Attempts to unify forces active on the ground are ongoing in Syria. This process is facilitated by modern communication technology, which has opened up new political spaces. The last of these attempts was the agreement between the LCC and the Federation announcing the founding of the Syrian National Council, whose aim, according to its founding statement, is to support the just cause of the Syrian people in all its components until the regime is toppled and a civil, pluralistic, and democratic state is established.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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