Will the Revolutionary Command Council be Syria’s New Rebel Government?

By Maxwell Martin, a researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Istanbul. He has previously written for Foreign Policy and Syria Comment. Follow him on Twitter @WilayatNowhere

RCC members at the organization's founding conference; Qays al-Sheikh

RCC members at the organization’s founding conference; Qays al-Sheikh seated second from right

Between November 27 and 29, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was formed after months of preparations, its backers having announced their intention that the RCC would be the unified body to lead the Syrian revolution. Although the RCC is chiefly a military unification initiative similar to the (now mostly defunct) Supreme Military Council (SMC), the body has also taken upon itself the ambitious task of administering territories in Syria no longer controlled by the regime. The choice of Qays al-Sheikh to lead the RCC is indicative of these ambitions; before becoming the leader of the new Council, al-Sheikh was one of the primary figures within the High Institute for the Syrian Judiciary, an organization that trains lawyers and jurists working in Syria’s opposition courts with some Qatari support. In its charter, the RCC claims for itself the right to “establish judicial institutions” and “issue all measures and promulgate laws that will organize the administration of the liberated territories,” highlighting its governance mission.

What is the RCC’s plan for administering territories outside of regime control? Will the RCC seek to supplant the opposition National Coalition (NC) and Interim Government (IG)? More importantly, is the RCC’s vision a viable solution to the fragmented provision of governance in areas outside of regime, Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra control?

In this post, I hope to sketch out some preliminary answers to these questions. In short, although the RCC has a more viable and practical plan to govern opposition-held territories than the NC or the IG, it still faces large obstacles to improving the provision of justice and other services in Syria. This post is based on my interviews with RCC head Qays al-Sheikh (Dec. 3), members of armed groups, employees of opposition courts, and members of local councils, as well as on open sources.

What is the RCC’s plan?

The RCC logo

The RCC logo

According to Qays al-Sheikh, the core of the RCC’s governance program will be the creation of an independent judiciary. However, rather than creating new judicial bodies from scratch, al-Sheikh says that existing opposition courts—mostly self-described sharia courts and commissions with the backing of local armed groups—are expected to participate. The RCC intends to transform these institutions into independent entities through the creation of a higher body with the power to intervene in and reform judicial policies and procedures. “The heart of the judicial project will be the creation of a mechanism in which lawyers and judges participate,” says al-Sheikh, “and that will ensure courts are operating effectively and set new rules for how jurists and judges are appointed.”

The RCC is considering a number of ways to remove opposition courts from the orbit of the armed groups that have backed them. The first is the creation of the Central Force, an army of 7,000+ formed from contributions from RCC component factions. Al-Sheikh noted that the central force, which is to fall under the authority of the RCC Military Office, would be used in part to enforce judicial rulings and to police non-compliant armed groups. Part of the Central Force’s mission is therefore intended to shield opposition courts from the direct influence individual armed groups by giving the courts the ability to enforce rulings against previously unaccountable factions.

The second is the creation of a central funding mechanism intended to wean the courts from their armed backers. “What has delayed [judicial independence] is the issue of funding, because the courts receive all of their funding from armed groups,” says al-Sheikh. “We know that the faction that takes funding from a source is completely subservient to that force, and we intend to become the main source of funds.” The source of the funding, however, is to come in the form of contributions from RCC component factions themselves.

As for the law to be applied within RCC-affiliated courts, a consensus around the Unified Arab Code (UAC)—a set of legal codes that resembles a civil code, but is based on a relatively strict interpretation of Islamic law—has emerged. Although the use of the UAC is contentious among Islamists—part of a larger debate over the permissibility of codifying Islamic law—the codes appear to have garnered a critical mass of support among the armed groups and religious associations that have endorsed the RCC.

This development is somewhat surprising given the relatively hardline ideology that some RCC factions espouse. For example, in August 2014, the Islamic Sham Organization, an activist salafi charity and religious association that is reportedly close to the Islamic Front, issued a ruling that not only deemed the UAC acceptable, but also encouraged its use in Syria until the revolution achieves its primary goal of toppling the regime. Even more surprisingly, Ahrar al-Sham—a salafi Islamic Front faction with links to al-Qaeda and one of the most important backers of the RCC—is reportedly on board with the use of the UAC within the RCC’s new governance scheme, while Muhammad ‘Alloush, the head of the RCC’s Political Committee and a member of Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic Front’s most powerful Damascus-area affiliate, noted the successful use of the code in opposition courts around Damascus.

However, amendments to the UAC within the RCC’s governance scheme are likely. Hardline factions will likely insist on modifying parts of the codes that do not conform with their interpretation of Islamic law. It is worth mentioning here that to many of its proponents, the UAC is Islamic law, it just happens to be codified, and is therefore not considered a mix of the sharia with other systems, even if parts of the UAC are amended to suit other interpretations. Hardline salafi-jihadi factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State—both of which have established their own judicial networks—would of course disagree with this explanation; in their view, the act of codifying Islamic law is ipso facto the mixing of Islamic law with man-made positive law, which is forbidden. This may have been one of the reasons, among others, that Jabhat al-Nusra rejected signing onto the RCC despite, according to Muhammad ‘Alloush, having been invited to do so.

The RCC does not appear to have a clearly articulated plan to create administrative governance entities that provide non-judicial services to the population. It is not clear either how the RCC intends to interface with the array of local administrative councils in opposition-held Syria, many of which are responsible for keeping water and power available, running schools, distributing aid, and providing other services. Local councils, many of which operate in areas where RCC component factions are strong, could, in theory, be compelled to collaborate more closely with the RCC or volunteer to do so. “We hope to have a role in this regard,” said Khalid Hammadi, member of the Kafranbel local council. “[Fursan al-Haqq] is the most important faction in Kafranbel and is one of the strongest supporters of the local council, and it is among the supporters of the [RCC].”

However, many local councils are dependent on the NC and the IG for support through their links with provincial councils, and they may be reluctant to collaborate exclusively with a potential rival entity unless it can give them a reason to do so. At the same time, the RCC and its component factions are not likely to disrupt the rudimentary but sufficient work of the local councils unless they can provide the material support and assistance necessary to replace or exceed what the NC and the IG could offer, an unlikely scenario.

Will the RCC seek to replace the National Coalition and the Interim Government?

Although members of the RCC, including al-Sheikh, have claimed that the new organization does not seek to replace or marginalize the NC or the IG, the RCC appears to pose a direct challenge to them. “The National Coalition and the Interim Government have not led the revolution well and have lost the people’s confidence,” says al-Sheikh. “There are good and wise people among them, but their performance has not led to victories.” Indeed, the sweeping powers the RCC claims for itself in its charter appear to be the opening shots from an organization seeking to claim the mantle of the revolution.

However, details provided about the RCC’s plans indicate that in some important respects, the organization will not actually conflict with the NC and the IG. In particular, the NC and IG have been unsuccessful in forging strong links to security and judicial actors inside the country, precisely the areas that the RCC appears most poised to address. At the same time, the RCC is, thus far, mostly silent in the area of administrative governance, where the NC and the IG actually hold some sway. As such, the RCC will not likely face meaningful resistance from the NC and the IG in the areas it hopes to have the greatest impact, nor does it yet have the vision and resources to replace the external opposition in all aspects of rebel governance.

The IG and the NC also enjoy something that the RCC is unlikely to replicate: a working relationship with Western governments. Because of the participation of hardline Islamic Front factions in the RCC, it is unlikely that the United States and other western governments will have the appetite to seriously engage with it, if at all. This is especially true after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry drew equivalence between major RCC-supporter Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State, among other terrorist organizations. At the same time, the West is unlikely to seriously consider abandoning the NC and the IG, organizations in which they have invested a not insignificant amount of time and resources, in favor of a new organization.

Still the RCC may yet carve out a role for itself as an important interlocutor for armed groups in the international arena, a role could have an impact on the course of the conflict. Recently, for example, when U.N. Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura wished to discuss a plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo city with individual rebel groups, they refused and sent RCC Head Qays al-Sheikh to bargain for them instead. If al-Sheikh is consistently called upon to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of RCC component factions and if they accept the outcomes of negotiations—a big if—the RCC may become an essential player the international community’s efforts to deescalate the conflict in Syria.

Will the RCC’s governance vision succeed?

Although the RCC has a better chance at putting together a functioning rebel government in Syria than the NC or the IG—primarily because of its strong links to some of the largest armed groups in opposition-held Syria—it still faces a number of obstacles that will likely prevent it from significantly improving the rebel administration.

Most importantly, the RCC will probably not be able to solve the problem of rebel fragmentation. The organization itself is unlikely to develop a strong command structure capable of dictating to the armed groups that support it. Instead, the RCC’s component factions are likely to retain their autonomy, their sources of funding, and their chain of command. That the RCC’s component factions include such a diverse array of groups, some of which—such as the Islamic Front—have tried and mostly failed to integrate in the past, raises doubts about the extent to which any will be willing to subjugate their autonomy to the RCC.

In terms of governance, persistent fragmentation will mean that the creation of unified, independent, and mutually acceptable judicial bodies that operate according to the same legal standards, policies, and procedures will entail high, and possibly prohibitive, transaction costs. Because the RCC will have trouble dictating to its component factions, it will have to rely on mutual cooperation between armed groups to implement shared governance plans. In practice, this means that the most important decisions—from appointing of judges to setting rules for the Central Force to deciding the structure and function of judicial bodies—will have to be tediously negotiated among a divisive group of armed actors, a process that hinders even like-minded jihadis in their efforts to build institutions. Usama Shannaq, an employee of an Aleppo countryside-area opposition court supported by two RCC factions, summed up these difficulties in his reaction to efforts to coax his court, which is backed by two RCC factions, to join another court network backed by other RCC factions:

“This [proposal] is lacking and it is impossible to unify the judiciary in this way because it will cancel out some courts and establish alternative ones, and this can only happen after consultations. Whoever wants to sign onto this initiative doesn’t know what his role is and where he will work. What is the judge’s role to which the factions agree? Can the factions even agree on a judge? Why are the factions involved? What makes them qualified? It’s possible that they would agree to a person who is not even a judge, or that there is a judge to whom the factions will not agree. With every plan on the table, its organizers try to shop it around.”

Compounding this problem is the lack of funding that could lure RCC factions and their associated governance bodies to become better integrated. The collective RCC treasury envisioned by al-Sheikh does not seem capable of effectively pooling funds because the free rider problem will likely emerge immediately. Without strong material inducements, the RCC may simply end up like the ill-fated SMC in both its military and its governance dimensions: a potential source of funds and equipment when available, but not an organization that can truly provide incentives for cooperation and punish non-compliance. The RCC could address this problem through securing its own sources of funding, potentially from sources in the Gulf, but details on such a plan were not provided.

Finally, governance gaps in the areas where RCC factions are strong will remain, and the space within which the RCC can even work is shrinking. The participation of a number of Western-backed groups is still in question, Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadi allies have embarked on their own quest to control and govern territory in large parts of Idlib province, and Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, a group that controls a swath of territory and a small network of courts west of Aleppo city, says it is not part of the RCC. Even in areas where RCC factions are strong, the RCC would still have to contend with the presence of jihadis and non-compliant sub-factions of member brigades possibly seeking to undermine its efforts.

As such, governance in opposition-held Syria is like to remain local, relatively uncoordinated, and beset by existing disagreements among RCC factions. However, populations living where RCC factions are strong may see minor improvements, particularly if the organization is successful in rotating qualified jurists among existing opposition judicial bodies.

Comments (25)


1. jo6pac said:

I have to run now will be back to read this in full. Alan your thoughts on this?

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December 13th, 2014, 8:21 pm

 

2. ALAN said:

The United States managed destruction of the Syrian infrastructure and causing great suffering to the Syrians.
After the Russian grabbing the lead for engineering solutions to Syria and going ahead, this article can be described as a hot air
The United States is still continuing getting lost in failure

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December 13th, 2014, 10:31 pm

 

3. Ghufran said:

The sad story of Jobar:

After 20 months of fighting, Jobar is 80% destroyed, almost all civilians left, nusra and jayesh al-Islam have about 800 fighters surrounded from 3 directions. There is virally no chance of Islamist rebels keeping control of that town, rebel sources are already talking about another ” tactical” withdrawal, it seems like Jobar war is finally coming to an end.
On the issue of a shadow government, I see it as a piece of black comedy, the problem with that project is the lack of support among rebels themselves not to mention ordinary Syrians who are more worried about finding food and heating oil than dealing with another government formed by cartoon charters who live abroad and have collected enough bribes, hotel rewards and frequeny flyers miles to ensure them a comfortable retirement.

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December 13th, 2014, 11:44 pm

 

4. Observer said:

This blog is dead. Go watch 60 minutes aired today the 14th of December and then come back and tell me that there is a Syria.

Mjabali you want to talk money; sorry no deal. You do not qualify.

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December 14th, 2014, 9:46 pm

 

5. SANDRO LOEWE said:

Light Crude Oil at 57 USD $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Panic among the Russian Mafia of Putin, the Ayatollah Theocracy of Iran, the Criminal State of Assadistan, and its Little Monster the Islamic State !!!!!!!

Who will pay the salaries to Hezb Zballa Party, the Republican Guard of Iran, The Shabbiha of Assad and the agents in IS ?

God is great !!!

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December 15th, 2014, 11:05 am

 

6. Uzair8 said:

Assad lost the bases around Wadi al Daif.

Is there not a strategic fuel depot in the area? If so it is an even bigger loss for Field Marshal Assad.

It’s high time he proved his credentials.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kb-YXySUz1I

‘Unseen footage of Field Marshal Bashar al-Assad in a light you have never seen before, commanding his troops to victory.’

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December 15th, 2014, 12:45 pm

 

7. Uzair8 said:

I just read on a forum Assad’s largest fuel storage was in Wadi al Daif.

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December 15th, 2014, 1:15 pm

 

8. Uzair8 said:

With Wadi al Daif lost Assad forces in Idlib are in danger.

Has Assad got enough troops to come to the rescue? Will he have to reluctantly call off the attempts to completely encircle Aleppo and instead divert forces to face the endangered Idlib?

Field Marshal Assad and Deputy Field Marshal Nasrallah have a decision to make…

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December 15th, 2014, 3:46 pm

 

9. ALAN said:

5. SANDRO LOEWE
America, france, England Israel, KSA Kelhom Zballa bimtiyaz!
Is this a new innovation of remote controller to change the regime in Russia?
Pathetic!

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December 15th, 2014, 5:13 pm

 

10. ALAN said:

/if for the moment Russia is seriously affected by the NATO economic attack, the situation could be reversed in six months. To maintain its domination over the world, Washington would then be forced to intervene to drive up oil prices. But in the meantime, this war will have sunk the European Union and NATO, while Russia will have reoriented its economy towards its Chinese ally/
http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article40479.htm
http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article40476.htm

So what America believed to be a threat turns out to be a paper tiger. It’s a paper financial tiger, something that has almost zero effect on Russia.
Hahahahaha …….

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December 15th, 2014, 6:36 pm

 

11. mjabali said:

Observaaar:

Hahaaa… You came trying to sell me your property in Syria, and when I told you I am ready, you turned away and changed your mind, what kind of an offer is that?

You seem to be two different people writing Observaaar

Also, I stick to my opinion: Syria Comment is one of the best places online to read about Syria. If they do not write like what you want, that is another story….

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December 15th, 2014, 7:52 pm

 

12. Observer said:

You do not qualify my friend, your money is suspicious. At least my property was not an inheritance or looted from the original inhabitants.

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December 15th, 2014, 9:44 pm

 

13. mjabali said:

Observaaar:

I am not your friend.

ٌYou seem to be confused: once you try to sell me something then when I tell you let us go: you start insulting me and my money. Were you drunk ?

Then please respect yourself before accusing an honest man like me.

All the money your family looted from Syria did not install any أخلاق

لايستطيع المال شراء الأخلاق

تعلم أدب المحادثة ياهمجي

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December 16th, 2014, 12:36 am

 

14. SANDRO LOEWE said:

ALAN,

Low Oil prices will never sunk the US or the EU but will boost their economies. It will solely sunk Russia, Iran, Venezuela and its allies.

Why? For the simple reason that the rise of those countries was simply a consequence of the rise in the oil prices 6-8 years ago.

GAME OVER ? God willing

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December 16th, 2014, 2:36 am

 

15. SANDRO LOEWE said:

RUSSIAN RUBLE INTEREST RISED TO :

17 % !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

SEVENTEEN PER CENT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

THIS IS THE END MY DEAR PUTIN.

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December 16th, 2014, 7:39 am

 

16. SANDRO,LOEWE said:

Light Crude Oil at 54 USD $$$$$$$$$

Hezb Zbala terrorists will get their salaries in stolen syrian properties because Iran is going to run out of money.

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December 16th, 2014, 7:51 am

 

17. SimoHurtta said:

Sandra you are a terrible economist. Do you even understand the basic principles of economy, demand, supply, production and industries? Growth in USA and EU means increased demand of imported oil and gas there. And that means Sandra what? The fairy tales of US wast oil and gas overproduction are pure tales and propaganda. See the US own production, import and export statistics of that topic.

Sandra you might not have heard, that the Norwegian stock exchange has fallen by 15 percent in last weeks and Norwegian Krone has lost almost 30 % of its value against USD during the past 6 months. The Gulf countries exchanges are also in free fall. Today Saudi Arabia -6.3 %, Dubai -7.3 %, Abu Dhabi -6.1 etc. In September the Saudi stock index (TASI) was 11,000 points, now it is 7,400 points. But does the western press speak about that? Anyway Saudi and other Sunni kings can not anymore afford to dump the markets. If there is a regression in their countries it will lead to revolutions and the Sunni kings have to move permanently to Florida.

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December 16th, 2014, 8:19 am

 

18. SANDRO LOEWE said:

SIMONAURTA

Low energy price is good news. The world of economics is happy when non productive industry like oil and gas lowers costs of production.

More exports and lower costs is good news for productive industry.

SIMONA,

Do you know what? Norwegian, Emirates or Saudi indexes may lose a high percentage but Russian, Iranian, or Venezuelan can lose much more as they grew in the past solely due to growing oil prices.

SIMONA,

I know it hurts because probably even you rely on high oil prices. But it looks now it is time to the OIL BUBBLE TO EXPLODE.

Good news for working class, good news for working economies.

Bad news for OIL SUBSIDIE and OIL WAR MONGERS like RUSSIA, IRAN and VENEZUELA.

LAST: US, Emirates or Saudi currencies are not offering 17 % interest rate.
RUSSIAN RUBLE IS.

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December 16th, 2014, 10:53 am

 

19. Alan said:

Sandro
Suggested to Professor recommending you as the best economist of the European continent for crisis management.

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December 16th, 2014, 12:29 pm

 

20. ALAN said:

Sandro: given careful what stated in the comment No. 10
Isn’t Cheap Oil Good for Stocks? Price Plunge Is Fracking the Quants’ Consensus to Pieces
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-16/isn-t-cheap-oil-good-for-stocks-price-plunge-is-fracking-the-quants-consensus-to-pieces.html
Philip Orlando: Is it difficult to envision another global crisis from lower oil and gasoline prices? mmmm
Jonathan Golub: Is The market prefers higher oil? mmm .etc…

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December 16th, 2014, 1:11 pm

 

21. Uzair8 said:

BBC World: Interview with Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi about ISIS 11-12-2014

Published on {Youtube} 15 Dec 2014
BBC World News Impact Interview with Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi on 11th December 2014

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December 16th, 2014, 4:04 pm

 

22. SANDRO LOEWE said:

ALAN,

Do not try to make yourself an expert in economics, I am sorry you cannot be an expert in all fields, I´d better think you are an expert in nothing.

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December 16th, 2014, 5:27 pm

 

23. Observer said:

I must have hit a nerve. You do not qualify in my book. You are still my friend. I have no enmity towards you or anyone else for that matter. I have been arguing that it is time for each group/sect/tribe/region/religion/ to separate and live and let live in at best a federated state or in free economic zone where politics and economics are separate and certainly for religion as well.

I wanted to test your monetary gene to see how sensitive it is to even minimal temptation and you have proven me right once more. It seems that when some smell a killing of a deal they just cannot resist. Now, there is rage that the only thing one can do is to smell and not be able to taste, to look and not be able to touch. That does not prevent you from being my friend. One of my best friends was cheap, the other was incredibly pompous, the third was incredibly jealous. They remained my friends to this day. You too can remain my friend even though you may be greedy.

Wow, what a nerve was hit.

This is still a dead blog.

Read carefully though.

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December 16th, 2014, 7:45 pm

 

24. Ghufran said:

The pain of low oil prices is shared by most but the GCC countries are trying to inflict more damage on Russia and Iran since they , the gcc countries, have less people to feed.
I still think this game will end by next spring/ summer especially after countries outside the GCC / Iran/ Russia are very nervous and have lost tons of money and may have to stop the bleed if Russia refuses to bend forward. A strong dollar is not enough to keep this war going.

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December 16th, 2014, 11:06 pm

 

25. habib said:

Their beards are not enough, so of course they will not rule.

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December 20th, 2014, 2:26 pm

 

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