After displacement to the north, Syrians from East Ghouta navigate fragmented opposition administration

A Turkish government official visits al-Bab Local Council in February. Photo courtesy of al-Bab Local Council.

AMMAN: Displaced from East Ghouta earlier this year, and with a newborn baby in tow, Hazem a-Salim needed to get his family’s identity papers in order with local opposition authorities in his newly adopted home in the northern Aleppo countryside.

Standing in line along with other Syrians recently arrived from East Ghouta, the man in front of a-Salim presented his documents to the clerk behind the counter. “She told him coldly, ‘We don’t recognize this’,” a-Salim recalls the clerk saying. “‘It's no use to you’.” She ripped the papers up, tossing them into the trash.

When his turn finally came, a-Salim made sure to pick a different counter—one staffed by an older employee who appeared to “have more mercy."

“I was afraid that he would destroy the document,” he remembers.

It didn’t do him any good. Despite his best efforts, a-Salim was met with the same response—rejection. “‘This is from Ghouta,’ the clerk said. ‘It’s not recognized by us.’"

While local governance institutions that emerged in rebel-held Syria after the beginning of the uprising and ensuing conflict—whether in northwestern Syria or the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus—operated under the umbrella of the opposition’s interim government, displaced Syrians say that local councils in areas of northern Aleppo are now refusing to recognize marriage contracts, birth certificates and other civil documentation issued in East Ghouta.

That lack of coordination not only exposes an increasingly fragmented opposition as the Syrian government continues to advance on all remaining rebel-held territories around the country, but also leaves thousands of displaced people from East Ghouta caught in messy, cyclical bureaucratic procedures for reaffirming their marriages and births from scratch.

‘They’re supposed to belong to the same authorities'

Muhammad al-Othman, also from East Ghouta, had his own run-in with the local councils after being displaced up north. When al-Othman arrived in the rural Aleppo town of Jarablus on the Syrian government’s evacuation buses earlier this year, his wife was pregnant. The local council in Jarablus informed him that they didn’t have a civil registry office, and so when his son was born two months ago, al-Othman had to travel some 80 kilometers southwest to al-Bab in order to register his newborn son in his family booklet—a small passport-sized ledger containing personal details about each family member, and one of the most important forms of civil documentation in Syria. He was met with the same problem: none of his papers were recognized. 

“[They] said that I had to confirm the marriage contract all over again and get new papers issued from them,” he remembers.

So al-Othman went back the way he came, to Jarablus, and brought his wife and two witnesses to the local courthouse in al-Bab in order to re-register their marriage. Based on this new marriage contract, he then had to get new papers for himself and his two-year-old daughter. Only then could he register his son.

“The local councils [in East Ghouta] are supposed to belong to the same authorities as the local councils in the north,” al-Othman tells Syria Direct.

Since the early years of the Syrian conflict, local councils and parallel systems of governance emerged across rebel-held areas, assuming responsibility for administration, services as well as civil documentation such as marriage, birth and death certificates in the absence of Syrian governmental authorities.

The collapse of those opposition-run institutions, as the Syrian government has reasserted control over the majority of the country, has left behind a mess of civil status and bureaucratic wrangles. Local councils based in formerly rebel-held areas have been displaced along with the populations they once served.

In East Ghouta, which pro-government forces retook earlier this year following months of intense bombardment, all marriage, birth and death certificates issued by opposition-run local councils during the last five years of siege became invalid almost overnight.

The government at the time gave fighters and civilians in East Ghouta the choice between surrender or forced displacement to rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria. Some 66,000 fighters and civilians from East Ghouta chose the latter.

Now, however, it appears that the up to 20,000 East Ghoutans who were evacuated to Turkish-occupied areas of northern Aleppo—an area under the control of opposition administrations similar to the ones they once lived under—find themselves in a similar situation as those who chose to stay and live under the government.

‘Flaws’ in the system

Civil registration is critical for establishing an individual’s legal identity as well as accessing their civil, political, economic or social rights. That can have particular significance in displacement. For those Syrians displaced to northern Syria through a series of sweeping military offensives and reconciliation agreements imposed on former rebel-held areas by the Syrian government, a lack of recognized documentation can mean that they are denied access to much-needed humanitarian aid.

Inconsistencies have not only emerged between councils from disparate areas of the country—but even within areas of rebel-held northern Syria, according to displaced Syrians and local council officials. Iyad Abdul Aziz, former head of the Douma Local Council that presided over East Ghouta’s largest and most significant city, says fellow council officials were “surprised” to discover that authorities in northern Aleppo wouldn’t recognize Ghouta-issued documents.

At the same time, the local council of Arbin, another town in the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta pocket, and which is currently based in rebel-held Idlib, did not encounter any problems with recognition of the documents they have issued, council member Anas al-Jamal says. The Arbin Local Council operates in parallel with the existing local councils in the area and has continued to issue civil documentation from their three centers across Idlib city and the outlying countryside.

While both Idlib and northern Aleppo largely fall under the authority of the Syrian Interim Government, Turkey’s presence in northern Aleppo has played a central role in shaping the region’s local politics, since Turkish-backed forces in early 2017 pushed the Islamic State out of the area in a major military campaign known as Operation Euphrates Shield.

A source from the formerly Ghouta-based Outer Damascus Provincial Council, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggests that Turkey’s presence is partly the reason why local councils in the north do not recognize civil documentation issued in Ghouta. 

“All of the local councils in Euphrates Shield [areas] have formed their own state and made their own law,” the source says.  

“In practice, unfortunately, they receive their guidelines directly from Turkey.”

According to Abdul Aziz, however, Turkish authorities have confirmed that “any document issued by our councils...must be recognized,” and said that they would “address the issue.”

Mohammad Fares, director of al-Bab Local Council’s legal office, also acknowledges “flaws” in the system, adding that “measures” are being taken “related to the documents issued by the agencies of the [Syrian] Interim Government.” He suggested that issues of documentation had arisen because of “some cases of forgery of documents with the purpose of exploiting...humanitarian aid."

While local authorities work to resolve the issue, civilians struggle to navigate the mess left behind. For a-Salim, the lack of recognition not only meant navigating the frustrating bureaucratic rings run around him. It also impacted his family's future.

A-Salim had just been accepted to a university in Turkey, and all the institution required of him was a family statement—a document that, similarly to a family booklet, lists the names and personal details of all members in a family unit—to make sure that the authorities at the Turkish border would let a-Salim and his family cross.

At first, it sounded simple. University administrators asked for the family statement from East Ghouta. “We recognize it,” he was told.

The problem was that his son—who was born after they arrived in northern Aleppo—was not listed in the family statement and, since the council did not recognize the papers anyway, they refused to update the papers with his name. A-Salim would have to begin an entirely new process to apply for a new family statement, register his marriage all over again and then register his son.

“I couldn’t wait around for this,” he says, by then keen to “make it in time for university.”

In the end, a-Salim simply gave up trying. Left behind in al-Bab, al-Salim feels let down by an increasingly fragmented opposition-run administration supposedly there to help him.

“All states recognize [my documents],” a-Salim says, wryly, “but the esteemed state of al-Bab doesn’t.”

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.