Syrian town begins a return to civilian life

Civil society is beginning to take over from rebels’ military life in Azaz, as residents re-establish the rule of law – Published on AlJazeera, by Balint Szlanko and Glen Johnson, Feb 2, 2013.

Azaz, Syria – Asem Halaq sits in a war-damaged, colonial-era building in central Azaz and looks at the pile of dossiers stacked atop his desk. Just down the road in Aleppo, war is raging. 

Yet here in Syria’s relatively safe rebel-occupied north, a semblance of normality is taking hold and civilian-organised judicial systems are beginning to emerge. In the case of Azaz, such structures are replacing armed rule.

Sitting in an unheated office, Halaq says he and a few other local lawyers established a civil court system in September, working with a civilian police force, and hearing cases, many of which have involved allegations against regime insiders who seized property before the uprising began.

“Every day we have 15 cases like this, worth perhaps 500,000 Syrian Pounds ($7,000) in all,” he says, pointing to the pile of cases sat atop his huge desk. “Some people try to cheat, though, and claim more,” he adds.

Azaz was brutalised in July, as regime forces and three rebel brigades slugged it out for control of the town, important given its proximity to the Turkish frontier and the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing … //

… Alarming facts:

The UN estimates that the Syrian conflict has sent upward of 700,000 refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries, with at least 2.5 million persons displaced within the country’s borders. The World Food Programme recently warned that it would be unable to reach 1 million of those who are internally displaced because of a lack of fuel and the continued fighting raging throughout the country.

The Azaz court works in parallel with a civilian police force. Untrained and dressed in jet-black jackets and jeans, the force’s 50 officers – all volunteers with no salary except a small stipend and some food – seem little more than men with assault rifles, not too dissimilar from the militia they replaced.

Rebel brigades left Azaz for other fronts, including Aleppo, following the battle for the town. One of the rebel groups, the Northern Storm Brigade, is headed by an alleged former smuggler named Ammar al-Dadikhli, also known as Abu Ibrahim.

Illustrating the need for accountable civil institutions, Abu Ibrahim’s brigade was notorious for having kidnapped ten Lebanese Shia pilgrims in the summer, detaining a Lebanese journalist for days, and engaging in bloody combat with a major Kurdish faction that controls Kurd-majority areas near Azaz.

“A few months ago the Free Syrian Army could, and sometimes would, just arrest people on the streets. There were also some show-offs among them and that caused some resentment [among the people] but that is now over,” says Hisham Abu Ahad, the deputy police commander.

The police guard the hospital, bakery, the court and the market, where they collect 25SYP per seller for costs of the new administration. Commanders say there is little crime and most of their work involves traffic accidents.

While rebel brigades have recently taken swathes of land throughout Syria, the conflict – which the UN estimates has killed at least 60,000 people – appears to have no immediate end in sight.

Yet Azaz’s emerging civil structures offer a rare bright spot in Syria’s bleak winter cold.

Halaq, sitting in the court, concluded: “The important thing is for people to see that the justice system is working.”
(full text).


Al Jazeera English magazine: The Africa Issue, on AlJazeera, Jan. 27, 2013;

Success Story of Shining India, on Dissident Voice, by Kamalakar Duvvuru, February 2, 2013.

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