In the heart of Aleppo’s countryside lies the town of al-Rahi, a stone’s throw from the barbed wire of the border with Turkey. At its edge stands the central prison of Aleppo and its environs, a large complex guarded by teenagers whose authority comes from their shoulder-held weapons and newly sprouting beards.
The deputy prison governor — Abu Jamal II, as they call him — is 25 years old. His position as a supervisor grants him such explicit power that it needs no boasting. His authority also derives from his older brother Abu Jamal I, the security chief of the revolution.
No one ever comes to this highland unless heading toward the prison or the central security office of the revolution nearby. In line with the compulsory procedures followed in all offices, including the headquarters of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, armed personnel must hand over their weapons at the entrance.
On this frosty morning, two women have arrived, one of them very old, and asked for Omar Jlilati, who is accused, along with two of his brothers, of ambushing Mahmoud al-Libi and killing him.
The residents of Aleppo’s countryside circulate the story with much mystery and suspense, making it sound like an Italian mafia movie interwoven with murder, strong convictions and a sense of justice. It is said that the Jlilatis falsely claimed to join the rebels in order to breach opposition lines and spy for the regime. They approached Libi — who ultimately imparted his fighting knowledge to his Syrian “brothers” — only to lure and turn him over in return for money and a luxury house in Latakia. When he resisted, they stabbed him to death.
When the car of the Jlilati brothers drew near a Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint, the guards spotted them and killed two of them in revenge for Libi’s death. The third brother escaped until he was arrested and thrown in jail. The mystery of Libi’s murder has yet to be solved, and it is still not clear how the guards confirmed the treason of the Jlilati brothers. But nobody advocates investigating this matter.
Whether or not the story is true, and despite the lack of coherence in details — such as claims that Libi did not fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, but rather joined the “moderate” al-Fatah Brigade — the incident has had a strong impact on the people. People now know that the price of disloyalty is blood.
The woman who came asking about her son was left sitting and waiting for an answer. Meanwhile, a young woman from Aleppo, accompanied by another lady, arrived to ask about her husband's fate. Their attire and makeup indicated that they were townspeople; their shoes were not muddy. The younger woman talked to the prison guards in a low, confident voice, until Abu Jamal II walked in. She addressed him with a more friendly tone: “My husband might be in here. He went missing six months ago, and I have searched for him in all the smaller jails with no luck. Can you tell me if he is here?” Abu Jamal silently nodded and returned to his office after assigning one of his assistants to the task of searching the electronic files.
The number of families coming to ask for “missing” members is shrinking. Abu Jamal says that families are immediately informed about the arrest of a relative so they “can visit, call or check on him.” However, according to Abu Jamal, the poor coverage of phone and electricity networks has hindered the prisoners from communicating with their families.
This prison was previously an agricultural bank in a town that was not particularly involved in the revolution. Yet it has “provided at later stages the Tawhid Brigade with militants,” as residents say in an attempt to justify their town's engagement in the political turmoil.
The children of al-Rahi speak Turkish while playing, and the adults work mostly in trade and car maintenance. The slogans of unity, socialism and nationalism painted on the walls of official institutions were not fully erased; only words directly related to “Assad” or "the leader” were removed.
When the Tawhid Brigade took over the countryside around Aleppo and a plethora of factions united under its flag, many towns gave in to the new situation because they needed an alternative authority. The first central jail was established in the town of Tal Rifat, only to be destroyed by missiles soon thereafter. It was decided that a jail be established in al-Rahi, the closest town to the border, and the safest location. Nonetheless, missiles eventually found their way there. The rebels subsequently took over the agricultural bank and re-arranged it to serve its new role.
The building comprises offices, a jail, a kitchen and a clinic, each controlled by specialized committees. The sheds once used as warehouses for grains have become prison cells. The area was divided into 15 rooms, each of which can hold up to 30 individuals. Moreover, quarantine rooms were set up for those with contagious diseases, in addition to cells for solitary confinement and a women’s section, although this was not thoroughly described.
The jail currently holds 400 civil and military prisoners from across Aleppo. Some are granted visits on Fridays; others are denied this right because they are deemed dangerous. Solitary-confinement cells are used to isolate dangerous detainees “for two or three days until they have been investigated,” but these cells are not used as a punishment. Sentences, which are issued by a legitimate jurist in the central security office of the revolution or other headquarters, range from around ten days of imprisonment to “incarceration until the toppling of the regime.”
Security of the revolution
The central security office of the revolution is situated nearby the prison and headed by Abu Jamal I, who spearheaded the idea. A prominent leader in the Tawhid Brigade and a former accountant and shop owner before the revolution began, he has noted some “violations from the part of those who belatedly joined the FSA; controlling them was a must.” He continues, “They are not rebels at heart and do not hold the essence of the revolution nor have the will to preserve it.” It was therefore easy for them to deviate from the right path. Since the revolution has lost a significant number of its “peaceful” pioneers — whether they were murdered, arrested or fled — it has been compelled to receive all those who want to join, under the pretext that it was a revolution for all. At the time, weapons were in “safe hands.”
Now that arms are easily accessible and provide unlimited power, mistakes have become rampant, and the main aim is no longer limited to toppling the regime: theft and robbery are also goals. Moreover, individuals are taking it upon themselves to pursue and punish supporters of the regime without referring to their commanders. Some executions took place and were not reported, under the pretext of protecting the revolution, but these ended up serving the enemy.
“The mere belief that we are able to prevent field executions is delusional. When rebels arrest soldiers, they immediately kill them out of revenge. We are constantly trying to explain that sharia law does not tolerate killing the wounded,” declared Abu Jamal.
Accountability was needed in the FSA as it started to lose its popularity. The command took notice of this fact, but lacked the means to coordinate between the civil procedures and the field rules of engagement.
Abu Jamal realizes that “as citizens, we cannot deny that the regime has provided safety and security, despite its disadvantages. If the revolution jeopardizes these two factors, perhaps the people will support Assad.”
Based on this, an initiative was launched and supported by the brigades, despite the fact that many had reservations about the idea of “accountability,” especially the accountability of leaders. It is an era of revolutions, which have the final say. Fear of accountability and punishment is not limited to the people who benefited from the revolution to gain power and profit, but also includes those who fear division and strife within the FSA itself.
Some blame Abu Jamal for behaving as a military policeman at a time when unity, more than anything else, is necessary. Moreover, field leaders have tried hard to withdraw their men from battle sites in order to deploy them in their regions for backup, and have imposed certain conditions on them, as happened in the nearby town of Azaz. Azaz had become a residence for a notorious gang that seized the Turkish border crossing, kidnapped people, imposed restrictions and arrested town members as they pleased — until “forces from the security of the revolution office stormed the town, regained control of the crossing and restored security in the town.”
The revolution’s security services in Aleppo and its suburbs deal with the affairs of military men who are part of the brigades associated with it. They take the necessary measures and refer them to the sharia courts, which examine their cases and issue verdicts. The inhabitants complain sometimes of biased treatment and leniency towards the members of some brigades. But this does not stop Abu Jamal from pursuing his conciliation mission at times, while imposing fines and returning stolen property to their owners at other times. In extreme cases, the culprit is transferred to the nearby building, under the watch of Abu Jamal.