The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) affiliated with the hardline Islamist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is working to sideline local councils in the area under its control and implement a new administrative system based on so-called centralised municipalities – a move that comes after it also sidelined the Free Engineers’ Syndicate in Idlib in May.
The SSG’s Ministry of Local Administration and Services is the entity in charge of this measure, justifying it as part of the aftermath of the devastating February 6 earthquake that struck northwestern Syria.
The ministry has held local councils and the Free Engineers’ Syndicate responsible for the spread of dangerous unlicensed construction prior to the quake. Despite opposition from the local councils and the syndicate, the ministry appears determined to fast-track implementation of the new Central Municipalities law, even though the law has yet to be officially issued. Notably, the draft law strips most technical and administrative duties away from the local councils and gives them to the newly formed centralised municipalities.
If passed, the law would see the Idlib governorate divided into eight municipalities, according to Mohammad Saeed Al-Ashqar, an advisor to the SSG’s Minister of Local Administration. These eight municipalities will be specialised technical bodies with a unified regulatory framework. They will issue all types of permits and carry out technical inspections on buildings during their construction, in addition to overseeing licensed facilities. Each municipality will have reception centres spread across its geographical jurisdiction, with a potential total of up to 30 centres. These reception centres will handle various complaints and licensing requests, settle issues with non-compliant properties, and then forward them to their relevant central municipality.
There is also likely to be a new electoral process for the local councils in all administrative units, after which all elected members within each of the eight central municipalities will form an electoral body to appoint the municipal council. Meanwhile, the role of local councils will be limited to social representation, namely, conveying the concerns of the people to the regional administration. This means the local councils will no longer provide technical and administrative services within their jurisdictions.
The law is likely to be issued in early 2024, yet the Ministry of Local Administration appears to be behaving as if it is already in effect. For example, the ministry has already gone ahead with dividing Idlib into the eight planned administrative regions and establishing a centralised municipality in each, directly appointing its members without any electoral process. The municipalities are: Idlib District Municipality, Central District Municipality, Northern District Municipality, Ariha Municipality, Sarmada Municipality, Atma Municipality, Harem Municipality, and Jisr al-Shughour Municipality.
The ministry has also begun issuing directives to these new municipalities, such as Directive No. 14 on June 1, which addresses buildings owned collectively and how they should be treated in their current state, as well as granting licences after preparing a technical subdivision plan that complies with the building code.
According to the ministry, the new centralised municipalities law is necessary due to the lack of technical expertise from local councils, especially during the period before the devastating earthquake. By “technical expertise,” they mean the scientific and engineering experience suitable for Idlib.
The ministry refuses to simply rely on the Damascus government’s pre-existing Local Administration Law No. 107 of 2011, which today is still applied in regime-controlled areas. They also reject circulars and decisions related to municipalities issued by Damascus’ Ministry of Local Administration and Environment.
Prior to the SSG’s new draft law, the lack of a unified engineering and legal reference in Idlib meant technical engineering matters were subject to tensions within the local councils’ technical offices, according to Ashqar. With the new centralised municipalities law, he added, the technical and engineering role will be assumed solely by the centralised municipalities and the Ministry of Local Administration.
With this role, centralised municipalities will deal with all the previous issues that were of concern to local councils: encroachments on public facilities and roads, forging of administrative transaction documents, building without a permit, pouring concrete ceilings without municipal engineering supervision, blocking roads with building materials or debris, supplying construction materials to an unlicensed site, and determining locations for commercial stalls and kiosks on roads and sidewalks.
However, one source from the local councils said they view the ministry’s new measures as monopolising public engineering and technical work, making such matters exclusively the purview of the SSG. The source added that this approach would increase centralisation and reduce flexibility in dealing with people’s day-to-day administrative issues.
While the source highlighted the importance of having a unified reference for municipal policies for engineering and zoning, they stated that the solution should not be to strip local councils, and by extension the Free Engineers’ Syndicate, of their powers. Instead, it would be more appropriate to enhance the authority of these bodies rather than concentrating power within the hands of the SSG alone.
Since the opposition took control of Idlib in 2012, followed by HTS several years later, no municipal elections have been held. The current local councils in Idlib are mostly appointed, with only a small portion selected through local consensus. They do not operate based on the Damascus government’s existing Local Administration Law No. 107 of 2011. Rather, in 2019, the SSG restructured local councils in its territory by establishing a Shura Council in each administrative unit to select local council members.
Previously, the SSG’s Ministry of Local Administration and Service issued Decision No. 307 on May 22, 2023, establishing the Directorate of Engineering Affairs, which is meant to take over most of the Free Engineers’ Syndicate’s former duties. This decision sparked many objections within the syndicate.
Some ministry sources said Decision No. 307 came in response to the catastrophic damage wrought by the February 6 quake, as well as the weak role by the syndicate in building and developing infrastructure and the lack of recent engineering studies to avoid such damage. However, the syndicate has denied responsibility for shoddy construction work before the earthquake and stressed that it does not have the executive authority to enforce building regulations.