It is all too easy to tick off the things the United States and other Western actors might once have been able to do, but no longer can, to help the people of Syria in their nightmarish struggle against the regime in Damascus. They won't establish a no-fly zone, because there has never been any will to do so. They won't seriously arm moderate rebel brigades, because those moderates are swiftly losing out to extremists who would be almost certain to seize advanced weapons. They will, however, speak about -- and perhaps even hold -- a conference to discuss a political transition. But it won't work, both because President Bashar al-Assad won't leave power and because the extremists won't accept a ceasefire.
One thing the West can do, however, is to help Syrians try to govern the liberated cities of the north, now threatened by the regime, by the foreign jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and by the chaos that comes with the collapse of municipal government. The one place where you really can find moderates is in civil society, which is full of dedicated young activists and trained professionals (as well as parasites, grifters and incompetents, of course). And the best way, or at least the most likely way, to tip the balance between moderates and extremists is to show Syrians that the former can provide better governance than the latter.
This is a threat which foreign jihadists recognize. When an ISIS brigade took control of the city of Raqqa earlier this year, they arrested as many as 3,000 local activists and confiscated their computers and other equipment, much of it provided by the United States. This so incensed local people that even ISIS got the message: the jihadists now tolerate (though they do not help) the local council which provides basic municipal services in the city. And the jihadists are themselves competing to provide basic services: According to a recent account, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist fighitng group with a strong presence in Raqqa, picks up the garbage, supplies water and electricity, bakes bread and distributes food. Local governance, in short, has become a prime site for the battle for Syrian hearts and minds.
The Obama administration now spends $250 million on non-lethal aid to Syrian groups, much of it to train and equip local councils and civil society activists like those in Raqqa. In some ways, the effort seems sadly marginal, since civilians cannot stand up either to regime shelling or to ISIS's terror tactics. But the stark fact is that Syria is locked in a bloody stalemate which could last for years, and the millions of Syrians now left to govern themselves must learn to do so, and get the help they need to do so.
Virtually every liberated Syrian city now has a local council providing rudimentary services, and myriad private groups which receive and distribute food and medicine, document regime atrocities, and sometimes operate radio or even television stations. Part of the Obama administration effort, conducted by the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), is to coordinate that effort so that goods and services flow through the local councils and thus enhance the legitimacy of local government. The CSO and other agencies provide grants of up to several hundred thousand dollars for councils in big cities like Aleppo so that they can open schools or health clinics or build basic infrastructure, as well as lesser sums in small towns.
It is, by necessity, a bottom-up effort. Nagham Ghadri, an activist who runs an organization called Bahr (The Sea) told me that it's all too clear that the Syrian National Coalition, the official political representative of the revolution, is not about to form a government inside Syria. Rather than wait, she's hoping to reform local councils by holding democratic elections. She plans to start in Darkoush, a city in the northwest. Ghadri will send activists from village explaining such unfamiliar ideas as "election" and "citizen." She concedes, however, that she will instruct her canvassers not to use the word "democracy," which the medieval lunatics of ISIS view as Western devilry.