Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Law and Order in Rebel-Held Areas of Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Syrian boys, stand in a destroyed street which was damaged by the shelling of the Syrian forces, at Maarat al-Nuaman town, in Idlib province, Syria. (AP)

Syrian boys, stand in a destroyed street which was damaged by the shelling of the Syrian forces, at Maarat al-Nuaman town, in Idlib province, Syria. (AP)

Syrian boys, stand in a destroyed street which was damaged by the shelling of the Syrian forces, at Maarat al-Nuaman town, in Idlib province, Syria. (AP)

Idlib, Asharq Al-Awsat—Spring has come early to Jebel Al-Kurd. Already the cherry trees are coming into blossom, blanketing the hillsides with a soft pastel pink, and the skies shine a pale azure. But a sharp wind still blows across the mountains, whistling through the burnt out tanks and empty villages. To either side of the mountain roads, acres of charred tree stumps mark where government forces scorched the ground in their efforts to flush out the rebel fighters hiding in the forests. And jets howl daily over the cherry trees, scattering bombs on the houses and people below. Those who have stayed pray for cloud cover to shield them from the skyward attacks—no-one welcomes the clear skies of spring.

Jebel Al-Kurd, a patchwork of Muslim, Christian and Kurdish villages sprawling up against the Turkish border from Latakia to Idlib, has taken a double hit in this war. First, thousands of refugees fled here as fighting engulfed the cities. Then these villages became the front line. The carcasses of tanks that litter the roadside point to the hasty retreat of the regime troops who were stationed here.

In the Christian villages around Jisr Al-Shugur the churches bear the rawest wounds of the fighting. The prime real estate that they occupy on the hilltops makes them both treasures and targets for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian government’s forces. Ba’athist and regime flags and sandbags still lie strewn around the ancient courtyard of the Holy Ana, the oldest Armenian Church in Syria. It was used by regime troops as a base and sniper position until their retreat a month ago.

On top of the next peak two kilometers away a pockmarked church with every window blown out sits locked and deserted. Next door, Ilham chops firewood in her garden and describes the battle that inflicted the damage. “We weren’t afraid. We were just waiting to die,” she says. “They (the FSA) fired bullets and rockets at the church and we were in the house when it happened.” She points up to the bullet holes that pepper the gables of her house.

As the fighting intensified an officer from the FSA knocked on Ilham’s door and asked who was inside. Her voice rises and her face hardens as she describes how she was evicted from her home. “I told them that my mother was in there, and that she couldn’t walk. But they said that we had to get out because of the shelling, and they helped her to the next village. She was so afraid and ill. The doctor in that village couldn’t help her, so they sent her to the hospital in Latakia. But she died two weeks ago.”

War has its own set of rules, and the civilians caught up in it must learn them quickly. “This village was the front line,” says Sheikh Sheraf, the leader of the FSA’s Al Ghruaba, the battalion that captured the village. “So while there was fighting here we had to control everything. Some of the civilians here could have been spies for the regime, so we had to make sure that they were not. When we give orders for civilians to leave their houses, we do it to protect them.”

Since the regime retreated the FSA have solidified their hold on this area, and the people have started returning to their shattered homes. Despite the daily shelling and bombing, there seems little chance that the government can retake these villages. The front line has moved and their efforts are now focused elsewhere.

But regimes, even hated ones, leave voids when they fall. “I support the revolution,” Ilham says. “Everyone here wanted it. But no-one wanted this destruction, and there are people who are taking part in the revolution, but not in a good way.”

She describes a Muslim village a few kilometers away. Before the FSA moved in it was a stronghold of support for the regime, but when the fighting started the people there switched their allegiance. “One family there were all Shabiha [government militia],” she says. “But when the government army left they started to support the revolution. Then they began kidnapping to make money. And they robbed my nephew’s house and stole all his gold.”

Behind his desk in the town of Bdama Ahmad describes with a weary resignation how law and order collapsed as the regime retreated from Jebel Al-Kurd. “As the army ran away the police did too,” he says. “Only four of us stayed in this area.”

Ahmad had worked for the government’s police force for twenty years, but soon after the uprising started his salary stopped arriving in his bank account. So when the FSA started advancing on his area he defected, and started working to set up a new opposition police force.

“The FSA’s lieutenant came and spoke to me, and said that they needed my help to protect the civilians here against the robberies and violence,” he says. “So forty of us—FSA soldiers and police officers—set up a civilian police station.”

The project could have worked, says Ahmad, but for one problem—it had no money. No-one received any salary, and so two months later over half of the forty founding members had given up. Now he is running the station with just four other volunteers, all of them regime defectors.

“Before, when I worked for the regime, I just did my duty,” says Ahmad. “But now I work harder, even though I don’t get any salary. I have a duty to protect my people.” But with such limited resources he has to choose where to focus his efforts. There is only one person in the cells at the station—a young man who was caught stealing electric cable to sell for scrap metal. “Our first priority has to be protecting public property,” Ahmad says.

The flight of the regime from Jebel Al-Kurd has created a security vacuum, and guns are being sucked into it. Weapons have become a part of normality here, comfort blankets that their owners cling to as the specter of criminal gangs looms ever larger. “When the kidnapping started in Jisr Al-Shugur around 25 Christian guys got together and bought guns,” says Ilhan. “Once we had weapons we could kick out the family that was causing the problems and defend ourselves.”

Checkpoint at the Kurdish village of Al Najiya. The sign reads 'Please do not bring weapons into the village. The reason is to protect civilians.' (AAA)

Checkpoint at the Kurdish village of Al Najiya. The sign reads ‘Please do not bring weapons into the village. The reason is to protect civilians.’ (AAA)

But the presence of guns in a community creates a new kind of insecurity. In Jebel Al-Kurd boys of fourteen carry Kalashnikovs; northern Syria, like Afghanistan or the Balkans, seems to be turning into a militarized society, with all the accompanying problems.

At a checkpoint outside the Kurdish village of Al–Najiya, a handwritten sign propped against a tractor tire bears an unusual message: ‘Please don’t carry guns inside the village. We want to protect the safety of the civilians.’

“A lot of people are carrying guns now,” explains Nouri Zubeida, the leader of the Afad Al-Rasoul battalion that controls the checkpoint, “but not everyone accepts it. It’s not a normal way to live.”

Al–Najiya is still at the heart of the fighting between the FSA and the regime. For the past month the shelling and bombing has intensified here, and now every night people retreat to the mountains to take shelter in the caves. The population has also been swelled by an influx of two thousand refugees from the surrounding villages. It’s a town strung out on anxiety.

“After the liberation people started to shoot into the air to celebrate,” says Nouri. “It’s a common thing to do, but the people here are traumatized already and it terrified them, especially the children and the women.”

As each car drives past the checkpoint Nouri and his men comb it for weapons. If they find any, they remove them, and give them back to the owner as he leaves the village. “We set this up one week ago,” he says, “and so far no-one has refused. Everyone agrees that it’s a good idea—the women and children have to be our priorities.”

In the immediate aftermath of the FSA’s victory in Jebel Al-Kurd, confusion, militarization, and criminality emerged as the strongest forces. Now, as in Al–Najiya, people are finding their own ways to reset the social order, but the question of how this society will function in the medium or long term is still to be answered. Before the collapse of the regime, order was imposed through fear. “People did what they were told to because they were scared of the mukhabarat [secret police],” says Ahmad in his police station in Bdama.

So what can keep the social order going now that the regime, and all of its feared instruments, is gone? In Jebel Al-Kurd, religion now seems to be stepping into the roles that the state has vacated. In his house in the village of Al–Zahara near the Turkish border, Sharia judge Abdulbaraa is presiding over a theft case. “There are refugees staying in the court at the moment, so I am hearing the cases here,” he explains.

Abdulbaraa returned to his hometown four months ago to take charge of the newest Sharia court in opposition-held Syria. He graduated with a degree in Sharia law from Damascus University five years ago, but under the Assad regime was only allowed to preside over marriages, divorces and child custody cases. “Everything else was judged according to French and British legal systems,” he explains. “There were no Sharia courts for anything else, and it was impossible to set them up illegally.”

Abdulbaraa says he hears around five cases every day, many of them matrimonial but also civilian and military cases. “A lot of the FSA groups in this area are fighting between each other,” he explains. “Sometimes fighters will defect from one group to another, and then they will disagree about which group owns the defected fighters’ guns. So they come here to settle it.”

Today he is hearing a civilian case, but in an indication of their ubiquity this too is about a weapon. One man claims that the other has stolen a rifle from him, sold it, and kept the money. His opponent admits that he sold the gun, but claims that he gave him the money for it. The debate becomes heated, but when Abdulbaraa raises his hand it stops.

“I need to hear another witness, so I won’t make the judgment today,” he explains. “But everyone respects my decisions because they come from the Koran.” He claims that even the Christians in this area are using his court. “Every judgment in the world can be found in Sharia law,” he says. “It works for everyone, not just Muslims.” But back in the Christian village of Jisr Al–Shugur, Ilhan has nothing to say the growing dominance of Islam in this religiously diverse region. “We just want to live in peace, with no fighting and no criminals,” she says.

Now in the FSA-held areas the Sharia courts are multiplying—Abdulbaraa knows of at least 35 in the regions around Aleppo and Idlib. Initially operating as separate organizations, they have now come together to form one body, the United Sharia Court. In the future Syria, this growing network may form the basis of a new, Islamic legal system.

Outside Abdulbaraa’s courtroom the sun is setting over the mountains of Jebel Al-Kurd. The air is clear and filled with birdsong. But this calm belies the reality that this is still a war zone. Latakia—Bashar Al–Assad’s coastal stronghold, which many believe will be the next, and perhaps final, front line—is just down the road. So any impression of normal life here is a thin façade: everyone here knows that this could become the front line once again, and that if that happens all the order that’s been established over the past few months will crumble once again.

“War makes some people powerful,” says Abdulbaraa before he closes the door. “And in any place, the powerful will eat the weak if they can.”