Aleppo militias become major test for Assad

آرون لوند

صحافي مستقل ومحلل متخصص في شؤون سوريا، ومساهم منتظم في إيرين

Earlier this month, thirteen-year-old Ahmed Jawish leant into a car to peddle gum and crackers from an Aleppo kerbside and something went terribly awry. The driver, a man wearing military fatigues, pulled out a gun and shot the child in the head.

The murder, which took place in the upscale Mogambo district of western Aleppo, shocked the public, and prompted even Bashar al-Assad’s most loyal supporters to call on the Syrian president to rein in the city’s unaccountable pro-regime militias.

The killing brought back memories of the 2013 torture and execution of 14-year-old Mohammed Qattaa in the then-opposition-controlled eastern part of the city. That murder, by a group of jihadi radicals who thought they’d heard the boy joking about the Prophet Mohammed, was a watershed moment for secular-leaning Syrian opposition supporters who had grown distressed by the hard-line religious militias in rebel ranks. A few months earlier, the so-called Islamic State had raised its flag in rebel Syria, and though it would take another eight months for the opposition to finally declare war on the group, incidents like the Qattaa murder were crucial in making that happen.

This time, however, the killing took place in an Aleppo entirely under the control of al-Assad’s government. After a long and brutal campaign forced the last rebels out of the city in December 2016, the regime has struggled to restore life to bombed-out eastern neighbourhoods. The militia crackdown now underway will be a major test of the Syrian president’s ability to restore governance to areas retaken from insurgents, not just in Aleppo, but across the country.

Life in a broken city

Life is not easy in Aleppo. Opposition supporters are most at risk, with al-Assad’s government persecuting even those who voice criticism peacefully or in a private setting. But the extent of human rights abuses in Aleppo is hard to gauge, given state restrictions on media and visiting journalists, a ban on independent human rights research, and the politicised nature of claims from all sides.

Fadel Abdul-Ghany, chairman of the exile-based, opposition-aligned Syrian Network for Human Rights, told IRIN last week that his group has documented 419 arrests in the city during 2017. Most of these were young men wanted for draft-dodging rather than political offenses, but the list also includes 21 women and 14 children, and Abdul-Ghany said security officers are known to have gone after the families of some rebels and high-profile activists.

Abdul-Ghany also said his contacts in Aleppo have documented widespread looting by pro-regime militias. Homes and shops linked to opposition supporters in neighbourhoods such as Masaken Hanano, Sakhour, Saliheen, and parts of the Old City are said to have been plundered or burnt down.

People in Aleppo are also at risk from sporadic attacks by remnants of the city’s defeated insurgency, despite the government’s stringent security measures. In February and April, two bombings organised by an Islamist faction known as the Abu Amara Battalions rocked Aleppo. However, such reports have remained rare, especially compared to the furious violence elsewhere in Syria.

However, the city was devastated by years of war, and many of the 250,000 people registered as having returned to eastern Aleppo since the end of last year are in need of “immense support”, Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN by email.

Hameed Marouf/UNHCR
Returnees to Aleppo head home after visiting an aid distribution point in the east city

Crime and militia violence

Compounding the difficulty of daily life for residents – no matter whom they support – is crime, which Aleppans seem to view as a major problem. In many cases, it has been linked to pro-government forces.

During the fight over Aleppo, the army sought to compensate for its diminishing manpower by raising large numbers of local militias. Some are organised as private security companies, while others are large paramilitary formations like the Jerusalem Brigade, which has roots in Aleppo’s Palestinian refugee camps.

Some groups, however, are known to the opposition simply by the derogatory term “shabbiha” and to loyalists as “popular committees”. Both words refer to what are in reality the entourages of local strongmen, typically armed and protected by a patron in the intelligence services or by a powerful businessman. During the violence in Aleppo, they performed auxiliary duties and occasionally manned the front lines, but many were also busily engaged in looting and bribe-taking, the incomes of which then filtered upward to their political benefactors.

After the fall of the insurgent enclave in eastern Aleppo, much of the regular army moved out. Some units now man the temporarily calm western frontline against Turkish-backed groups, while others are fighting their way toward the IS strongholds of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east. This seems to have made the security situation deteriorate further, by giving the militias free rein. According to Abdul-Ghany, civilians who have objected to militia groups breaking into homes or looting stores are known to have been summarily arrested and transferred to government security organs.

This month, a number of crimes linked to pro-Assad militants inflamed local opinion. A reporter at a state television channel was threatened and abused by militiamen, thugs opened fire at a football team, and Talar Vosekian, a well-respected female Syrian-Armenian dentist, was killed in a car accident by a speeding driver who bore signs of militia connections: military fatigues, no number plates. Opposition outlets have reported many more offenses.

But it was the killing of Ahmed Jawish that catalysed Aleppan frustrations: the senseless murder of a young child and the alleged involvement of popular committee members was even reported in the pro-government press – a sign that Damascus had decided it was time to slam down the hammer.

The government cracks down

On 15 June, both loyalist and opposition sources reported the start of a major crackdown, as State Security and Air Force Intelligence troops began rounding up popular committee members in the Adhamiya, Akramiya, and Seif al-Dawla neighbourhoods. According to one pro-opposition news site, a militia commander called Mohammed Said refused to hand himself over to authorities, leading to a brief battle in which the government prevailed.

The following day, the governor of Aleppo, Brigadier General Hussein Diab, announced that the man suspected of murdering Ahmed Jawish had been detained.

“So far, the government arrested hundreds of them,” Fares al-Shehabi, a prominent pro-government businessman and parliamentarian from Aleppo, told IRIN in an online interview. “Many more will be arrested.”

According to al-Shehabi, those caught up in the state’s dragnet are mostly from the Aleppo countryside and not all are connected to the security forces but “wear the uniform to scare people off”. Some had certainly fought for the loyalist side, but al-Shehabi insisted that many had previously been expelled from larger units for engaging in petty crime. He castigates them as “thieves, thugs, trash”.

“Yes, a lot of them are in fact from the countryside,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, a research fellow with the Middle East Forum who studies pro-government militias. In comments made to IRIN this week, he listed a number of Aleppan clan militias drawn from the rural hinterland south and east of the city, some of which work under Iranian tutelage while others are attached to the Military Intelligence Directorate or another official security force. “I’m not sure how far the countryside origin is a factor here in the tension,” Tamimi added.

Closing down checkpoint extortion

The crackdown does not come entirely out of the blue. Al-Shehabi himself made the news last month for demanding an end to the practice known as “escorting”, or tarfiq in Arabic.

“Escorting” has been a major problem for Aleppo’s businessmen and for the city more generally. Civilian trucks carrying goods or aid to the city must often bring along security escorts, as much to provide actual protection as to clear them for passage through checkpoints.

Over time, this system has morphed into a massive protection racket, with militias forcing traders to pay exorbitant sums for a pro forma escort from one checkpoint to the next, even when there is clearly no risk of an attack. At some checkpoints, drivers have reportedly had to pay “escort fees” of up to 200,000 Syrian pounds, or close to 400 US dollars, which is a tidy sum in Syria. The costs are in the end transferred to customers, pushing prices of basic goods far upwards at a time when most Syrians struggle to to cover their living expenses.

Al-Shehabi’s campaign reportedly sparked angry counter-reactions from some local militants, but he seems to relish the chance to show off his anti-militia credentials. “I am spearheading this effort and became the number one enemy of these warlords,” he told IRIN.

However, al-Shehabi is not the first or only government supporter to speak out. In February, Prime Minister Emad Khamis’s office released a statement saying “escorts are not compulsory”, adding that “any checkpoint that mandates them must be reported, in order for the competent authorities to take appropriate measures.”

The following month, the Damascus Chamber of Industrialists also called for a ban on the practice, citing it as a major obstacle to Syrian business. In May, the regime’s chief security officer in Aleppo, Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, made a more muscular effort to put an end to checkpoint extortion, decreeing a total ban on the practice for all transports to or from Aleppo. Saleh was acting upon instructions of the National Security Office, which operates directly under the president.

According to al-Shehabi, who had been involved in organising the business community’s lobbying efforts, al-Assad himself had by then intervened twice to get the ball rolling.

This is typical of how the Syrian regime works. Its tangled web of personal relations and overlapping security institutions are both a reason for its extraordinary resilience and a major obstacle to functioning smoothly.

Systemically corrupt and prone to political inertia, the Baathist state is now more than ever embedded in local factions that jealously guard their prerogatives. Municipal and city officials are often unable to act without top-level decision makers at their back, and the various security branches tend to balance each other out. Since so many officials are complicit in militia corruption, moving against any one group of offenders would be seen as intrusion on another commander’s turf.

In practice, therefore, very little tends to happen unless the powers that be in Damascus decide to get involved, typically by sending a direct order or an emissary to take personal charge and corral rival interests into action.

The gaze of Damascus turns to Aleppo

In this case, the presidential palace dispatched Lieutenant General Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, who, as head of State Security, is one of al-Assad’s most powerful intelligence chiefs.

Once Dib Zeitoun arrived in mid-June, Aleppo officialdom erupted in a sudden frenzy of security reform. Apart from the clampdown on criminal gangs and popular committee militants, the local boss of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, Fadel al-Najjar, also issued a decree tightening regulations on the Baath Battalions.

The party militia is especially prominent in Aleppo, having been set up in 2012 by Hilal Hilal, a son of the city who now serves as al-Assad’s deputy in the Baath’s top leadership.

Meanwhile, the Aleppo security chief, Zaid al-Saleh, is said to have withdrawn government IDs issued to militia fighters and banned armed groups from many areas, as part of an effort to restructure and centralise local forces. Provincial police chief Lieutenant General Essam al-Shelli has also called on citizens to report any disturbances, and banned cars without number plates from the city, in the hope of ending one of the most visible challenges to law and order.

Previous arrest waves in Aleppo failed to bring militia criminality under control, but loyalist sources in and from the city told IRIN that the current effort seems much more comprehensive. “Nothing is out of control,” al-Shehabi insisted. “After the recent crackdown, the people of Aleppo are happy and safe again.”

See: Rebuilding Syria's rubble as the cannons roar

Dib Zeitoun’s clampdown does seem to indicate that the Syrian government can impose itself on local groups when it decides to focus its attention somewhere. Yet the underlying problems remain, and the fact that it seems to have taken repeated presidential prodding for the state to assert its full authority in Syria’s second city, half a year after it came under full loyalist control, does not indicate a healthily functioning government.

To a large degree, this is of course a result of the war, which has left al-Assad’s forces overstretched and disorganised. But that isn’t likely to change in the near future. Without sufficient resources to properly police the country or to demobilise the militia appendages sprouting chaotically from his security apparatus, it is possible al-Assad will have to continue to play a game of whack-a-mole to keep unruly loyalist factions from undermining the state’s authority.

And so Aleppo has emerged as the test case. The authorities in Damascus hope to show Syrian citizens, and the international community, that they can resume their role as a national government that controls all or most of Syrian territory. The promise of stability is, after all, one of al-Assad’s major draws and he is keen to move as quickly as possible toward the reconstruction stage. But to do that, his government will have to demonstrate that retaken areas won’t relapse into gangland mayhem as soon as the gaze of Damascus wanders.

(TOP PHOTO: The streets of an Aleppo neighbourhood destroyed by war. Sana Tarabishi/IRIN)

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