What can Syrian opposition learn from the American Revolution?

Anisa Abeytia 2017-01-18 11:30:00

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As local councils and the opposition in Syria struggle to find a balance between local and federal authority, comparisons to long-established Western democracies are being made, but it is not a useful comparison due to the lack of similarities between an emerging democracy and an established one. Rather, it is useful to view the current Syrian context through the lens of a post-revolution emerging government. This will provide a framework that enables fluidity and flexibility to develop governance models and strategies in line with the dynamics on the ground in Syria. The American Revolution provides an apt parallel situation. 

The works of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, being three of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. political system, focus on the issues arising from a nebulous atmosphere during and after the American Revolution and the debate over decentralization vs. federalism. The parallels between the early foundations of the newly forming American state and the Syrian Revolution are useful in understanding and shaping the Syrian context.

Hamilton’s Federalist Papers provides a relevant view of decentralization, as engendering instability, lack of security and susceptibility to the “dangers of foreign force and influence,” a scenario that succinctly describes the existing circumstances in Syria’s autonomous zones. The inability of the opposition government to establish federalism has already contributed to the dissolving of the union in the north where the Kurds announced their aspiration to establish an independent state. 

“The challenge,” as former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Fred Hof, states, “is to build a link between a Syrian opposition-in-exile... as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and those on the ground who are earning legitimacy the old-fashioned way.” 

Syria’s autonomous regions are governed by ad-hoc local councils to provide civil services after the collapse of the Assad regime in these regions, thus earning them legitimacy on the ground. The advantage of local governance in times of crisis lies in their swift ability to assess and provide local goods and services.

In this chaotic environment, the opposition government has been ineffectual and irrelevant, according to Hof. Their inability to gain relevance inside Syria impedes their attempts to garner international support and lack of such support is one reason for their irrelevance.  

The opposition government is struggling to wield authority and attain legitimacy among Syrians, but has made little effort to interact with or bring in local council leadership in order to increase their legitimacy and as a sigh of good will. 

The opposition government and local councils epitomize the dynamic process of establishing sovereignty and legitimacy and the decentralization vs. federalism question is the nexus of discord. This same dispute emerged during the American Revolution and remains a core debate in the U.S. today. So important was this debate that it was the impetus for the first American political cartoon that cautioned against a weak union.

Councils are essential to the functioning of civil society and in encouraging community members to participate in self-governance. The councils serve as incubators for an emerging Syrian democracy and illustrate the evolving process of creating civil society, highlighting its emerging political, ideological trends and trajectory.

The national effects of local governance can shape the future political milieu, specifically regarding the inclusion or exclusion of women and minorities, who are now absent from local decision making roles, a concern Ghias Al-Jundi raised in a 2014 report. The practices established on the ground today will impact the governance practices of a future Syrian state. 

Local councils examined from the lens of federalism are indicative of shortcomings. As non-state players they are unable to provide the stability, accountability or international bargaining power required for the long term success of a state. 

The lack of coordination between local councils and the opposition government creates a number of challenges that require resolution for both to be effectual. Initially acknowledging the importance of both players and defining their roles will be the critical first steps.

A continued fractured union will further weaken the Syrian opposition’s and local councils’ ability to mount a robust and effective response to the Assad regime and its allies, which will only jeopardize the goals of the Syrian Revolution. Further examination of the American Revolution can provide a useful model and a trajectory for the Syrian opposition.   


Anisa Abeytia is a freelance writer who contributes to a good number of media outlets. Abeytia is actively engaged in advocating for the Syrian cause since 2012 and more recently for refugee rights. She produced/directed three documentaries on Syrian refugees. Abeytia is a graduate of Stanford University with an MA in Post-Colonial and Feminists Theory.