“Shadoud! Bring in Shadoud!” A young man almost two meters [six and a half feet] tall entered. He is cross-eyed and seems somewhat dim-witted. The “regulation” military uniform he wears is too small, hunching his shoulders and revealing swollen legs and feet. Neither Shadoud nor we knew why he had been so hastily summoned. He walked in bewildered, looking at all the faces present in the room, which in turn looked back at him.
We were in the town of Tel Rifaat's religious-enforcement department, headed by Abu Adel and his first adjutant Abu Lattouf, who wanted us to meet the Alawite prisoner they had in custody. The two men wanted us to see how well Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades treat the regime’s captured soldiers — which, in theory, they do. The young man Shadoud (his family name) was injured when his unit fell under attack — a unit he says “includes handicapped people and is administrative and non-combatant in nature.” The FSA treated his wounds and relegated him indefinitely to the department’s jail. But putting him on display like this, interrogating him and mocking his coastal accent served only to increase our sympathy for him, instead of our admiration for them.
Shadoud, who thought we came on his family’s behalf, asked us to deliver greetings to his mother and to inform the Syrian army that “the FSA was not composed of armed gangs or terrorists,” as he had been led to believe, but that they were “God fearing people” who teach him the Quran and allow him to pray alongside them.
In some of Aleppo’s countryside towns, the religious-enforcement department is a de facto police station — for religious overtones supersede everything else here. These bodies were established and renamed to administer civil affairs when a need arose for courts to manage people's affairs and interests and to resolve disputes. For example, Abu Adel, who heads the department in Tel Rifaat, is the former police station commander, and he is completely familiar with the mechanisms of administrative work. One could say that he remained at his post, to which was added a religious character. He let his beard grow a little, and he sometimes exaggerates in quoting Quranic verses. If one were to ask him where he derived his authority from, he would tersely reply: “Here, Sharia law rules; we have no place for earthly laws. We’ve tried them, but realized that God’s laws already exist, so why invent new ones?” His assistant Abu Lattouf, who worked in construction before the revolution, seemed humbler and easier going. Unlike the “boss,” as he calls Abu Adel, Abu Lattouf is a native of the town and knows its dignitaries.
The religious-enforcement department includes an office that receives and documents complaints, which are then sent to a side chamber where a Muslim cleric conducts court and rules on cases with the help of an assistant. The department also includes a jail and an office responsible for administering municipal affairs, such as trash collection, water, power and fuel distribution.
This is the atmosphere in a large number of Aleppo’s towns and villages, where some still benefit, to varying degrees, from the continued work of “civilian” municipalities, such as in Mareh and Manbaj. Tel Rifaat, on the other hand, is almost completely militarized; seven dissident police officers from Tel Rifaat and neighboring villages work for Abu Adel. He also commands 27 civilians who had previously fought with the rebels and later became employees of the department. If a fight or an emergency arose that required added support, a squad of the revolutionary security force, the FSA’s military-police force, is dispatched to help. On most days, the department’s work includes weekly evening meetings with military “officials” and local dignitaries to assess the situation on the ground and to conduct reconciliations between families.
Abu Adel’s department receives all kinds of complaints, from minor infractions to debt resolution, inheritances, divorce and others. Most complaints revolve around debt collection and divorce, especially those that “remained unresolved during the regime’s rule.” For an instant, one might get the impression that the Syrian regime had in fact fallen, until Abu Adel clarifies by saying, “We are living in a state of emergency, and are implementing punitive sanctions and not Sharia law, the implementation of which is predicated on the establishment of an Islamic state.”
The former police officer complains about the lack of administrative skills among those who suddenly find themselves performing the tasks of judges, assistant judges or investigators. His request for a detailed list of the verdicts issued in the last three months was met with objection and admonishment for not “trusting his team.” This prompted him to extoll the virtues of lists, archives and financial receipts, and he put in a great effort to convince his interlocutors of that fact. In addition to his newly acquired social status, he is paid $150 per month for his services to the new authority that entrusted him with running the department — a salary that he might wait for months on end to receive, if he ever does.