As the Syrian opposition gains control of large swaths of territory in the country's north, local councils are emerging as the first alternative authority after 21 months of revolt.
It is still unclear if the civilian councils can impose order in war-torn areas where rebels have the power of arms. And at least parts of major cities remain in the hands of President Bashar Assad's forces.
However, as humanitarian aid trickles in, these activists hope the balance of power will shift to an elected civilian authority and fulfill the dreams of the revolt, which include democracy in Syria.
"We have established a number of offices, financial relief, medical and refugees," says a lawyer from the city of Idlib, in the northwest. He's taking a break from a lively council meeting in a barely furnished office in southern Turkey.
He's part of an 18-member council, elected in early December when 250 activists held a vote. The council members cross the Turkey-Syria border for meetings because it's safe. Like most local governments, this council has come together to discuss the budget.
"We are going to find ways for people in need," says Yasser, a lawyer, who can't be fully named for his security.
He pulls a bank book from his pocket to show that there is something to discuss. The government of Qatar donated $8 million to Syria's provincial governments in a meeting in Istanbul this month. Idlib's share is $800,000. But the gift won't go far, he says.
"Flour, food and some for the displaced people," he says. "We will make a vote in a democratic way."
Local Councils Are Strongest In The North
These formal local councils are strongest in Idlib and Aleppo province where the regime's hold, even over the central cities, is weakening.
The local councils, which now exist in all 14 Syrian provinces, are linked to the newly formed Syrian National Coalition, now recognized by the U.S. and more than 100 governments as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The new structure, an opposition group outside the country, with direct ties to the leadership in the provinces, is intended as a building block for a new government.
"Money will create social legitimacy, " says Gokhan Bacik, an assistant professor of international relations at Fatih University in Gaziantep, Turkey, and a specialist on Syria. "If it's used correctly, the opposition groups can create local authority."
But the humanitarian crisis is driving budget decisions.
The crucial problem is bread, a staple of the Syrian diet. There isn't enough to go around, and prices are soaring, in some places up 200 percent. The Syrian air force has targeted bakeries, the fuel has run out, and the basic commerce has broken down.
For the Idlib council, bread is the most important issue: how to get it into the province and how to pay for the flour. The projects for a salaried civil police department will have to wait.
Growing Food Shortages
The food crisis is especially dire in Aleppo province, where the main city, Aleppo, has been without water and electricity for weeks.
"There is hardly any bread," says Syrian journalist Samir Kanjo, who lives in southern Turkey but still has family in Aleppo. People who still have money can buy bread at 20 times the price, but 70 percent of the people in the city can't afford bread at any price, he says.
The civilian authority in Aleppo, called the Transitional Revolutionary Council, is a group of well-known activists headed by Dr. Jalal Edeen Kangi, a civil engineer and a professor from Aleppo University.
"Aleppo is led by people who are educated professionals; many of us were educated abroad," he says. "It's not a group of conservative, religious people."
Aleppo received $1 million from the Qatari donation, which immediately went to purchase wheat. Other needs were put on hold — like paying the salaries for 400 police officers and collecting a mountain of garbage festering on the city's outskirts.
"We have 6 million people in the province. We need 1,200 tons of bread a day," says a former city official who has been advising the council. He asked not to be identified by name for his security. "What is happening is crisis management. We are only thinking of the crisis."
The crisis is the first test of the governing skills of the Transitional Revolutionary Council. The legitimacy of this local leadership will depend on their ability to supply bread for an increasingly desperate population.
But the success of the local council depends on the international community, says Kangi, the head of the Aleppo council.
After recognizing the Syrian National Coalition in Morocco last week, Western and Arab governments pledged more than $200 million to back the new group. For Kangi, the money needs to come soon, because, he says, the councils need to provide more than bread to survive.
"We want to build a new Syria based on the 21st century," he says, but Syria right now is a land of ruins.