My Lawless Summer

September 18, 2013

On most days, sometimes more than once a day, I get an official statement  from the press office of the Syrian National Coalition—an organization that, strictly speaking, is neither Syrian nor National, since it is based in Istanbul and represents only some of the many rebel groups now fighting in Syria. Nor does it have formal legal power to make policy, since the sovereign authority over Syria remains in Damascus, no matter how hated the regime is. But in the vacuum of civil society created by the war—in fact, Syria is increasingly lawless—the Syrian National Coalition fulfills an important need. It is a way for the various opposition groups and rebels fighting in Syria’s civil war to project a unified front with a single common message, and to act like a government when there is none to whom they can now answer. The statements the coalition sends out are often boring, nothing more than ordinary press releases.

But they always remind me of an unexpected lesson from this summer, which I spent on an extended reporting trip in the Middle East. Here in the US (as in the rest of the developed world), law—and the order that it creates—governs just about all aspects of our lives. It brings a set of rules to everything from the lease on my apartment to where I park my car to my being allowed to say whatever I want in this blog post. All of which is so obvious and so mundane that unless there’s a problem—a bad landlord or a parking ticket, say—it rarely occurs to me that there even are laws governing all them.  What I saw so clearly this summer, though, is what happens in the absence of a legal system—not just in the sense of a criminal justice system, but in a legal framework for a society.

Take, for example, Syrian students. Like students in many other countries, Syrians must take a baccalaureate exam at the end of high school. This comprehensive exam is required to get into the university.  But for those who have ended up as refugees, there’s a problem: they have to take their exams in exile. And although the refugees include plenty of Syrian teachers who are prepared to administer the exams, no official body has recognized the examiners. So nobody is sure whether the exams count.

“The main problem is to get access to the university,” explained a Syrian high school teacher I met in Turkey. “How can you register [at the university] if the exam is not certified?”

Syrian students in Lebanon and Jordan are facing similar questions about whether their exams will be recognized. And since Syria’s provisional government—the one that sends me all those press releases—also hasn’t officially been recognized, it’s not clear that its approval would legitimize the exams either.

But the students’ dilemma is hardly the only complication of a country—if it can even be called that—ruled by a semi-official government.

For the thousands of babies that have been born to Syrians who have left Syria, there’s a question of citizenship. The UNHCR and other aid groups say they are working hard to make sure those refugee babies get birth certificates identifying them as Syrian. Without that acknowledgment, they could end up stateless. But the UN has been over-burdened with the number of refugees it’s trying to help, and in many places there are weeks or months-long waits for appointments. And refugees in many places have little or no access to healthcare. So it’s not a stretch to imagine there are many refugee babies whose births go unacknowledged.

For its part, the Syrian Coalition isn’t a recognized state, so it can’t issue passports. And none of the Syrian refugees I met would dare ask the Syrian regime for official papers—even if it would issue a passport.

The general state of lawlessness in some parts of Syria can even make it difficult to become a refugee. I met a lot of refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, who described having trouble leaving Syria, or having to choose different routes out of the country, depending which rebels controlled which areas, and whose passport stamps were or were not being officially recognized.

Even the humanitarian aid that is going into Syria operates in a kind of legal netherworld. International aid groups unofficially use Turkey as a base to get supplies into Syria. And within Syria, it is often rebel groups who decide what aid goes where.

The Syrian National Coalition may not have full legal recognition yet (and what legal recognition means in international law is not always clear), but the Syrian opposition has clearly caught on to something. The first step toward becoming a country with a functioning legal system is a good media strategy.

Alisa Roth’s reporting this summer was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. She is also an Editor with Life of the Law.