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The Struggle for Justice In Aleppo, a 'Feral City'

Divisions among Syrian opposition groups have made life even more unbearable for Aleppo’s residents.
al-Ansari al-Sarqi - Aleppo - Syria - People among the ruins (2013)

ALEPPO, Syria — The sun goes down in Aleppo and the city falls into darkness. It is Ramadan; the streets become deserted and only a few lights are visible on the horizon. Most of the buildings lack generators, and electricity comes to houses in dribs and drabs. The sound of sniper shots, mortar explosions and fighter planes flying the sky are now less common than last summer. The fluctuating price of food and challenge of finding gallons of water and clean petrol now represent some of the concerns of the citizens of Aleppo. 

Having consolidated their position in more than half of the city — mainly in the poorest areas — opposition groups seek to provide the people with basic services such as organizing small-scale local government, collecting garbage and offering public transportation. But the ideological differences and the lack of coordination between different factions of the opposition have favored the emergence of smaller groups claiming self-autonomy. 

“The main problem to govern Aleppo is — besides violence — the many groups that control different neighborhoods,” explains Yosef, a former fighter of the Free Syrian Army. There is no umbrella group that coordinates the opposition policies in the industrial capital of Syria. As Middle East analyst Nathaniel L. Rosenblatt has pointed out, the metropolis is fast becoming a “feral city.” With more than two millions inhabitants, Aleppo is now a city “within a state where the government cannot enforce rule of law within the city’s boundaries.” An example of this are the many checkpoints set up by the different factions along the access roads that cross the city. 

A child digs through a dumpster for something to eat or metal to sell on the black market in Aleppo's al-Ansari al-Sarqi neighborhood, March 20, 2013. (photo by Giacomo Cuscunà)

To alleviate the problem, certain influential opposition groups including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Tawhid Brigade established a unified council for resolving daily problems at the beginning of 2013. However, ideological differences over the administration of Sharia courts have provoked the departure of Salafist groups. "There is only one God and therefore only one law, the Sharia," says Abdulkader Saleh, a member of the council. Traditional law books, the legal code of the Arab League, common sense and also Sharia are the source of legality. 

One of the main tasks of the Sharia council is to earn the trust of the people. 

“We are seeing a lot of robberies in neighborhoods and factories, and unfortunately our civilian brethren are not reporting these crimes to the legitimate authorities,” says Abu Ahmed, a member of the public relations department of the Sharia council. “People remain at a loss in the face of theft and kidnapping, often turning to armed factions for help.”

The Sharia council is not seen as “legitimate” by many citizens, who disregard the new institution as reproducing attitudes associated with the Bashar al-Assad regime. “They are very bureaucratic: They can make you come back many times to fill out papers, and then you receive a 'no' as an answer,” complains Yosef. 

Most of the workers lack experience in the administrative domain. They have to acclimatize quickly to deal with new responsibilities such as settling stolen property complaints, improving the situation of factories and business owners, providing marriage contracts and formalizing purchase and sales contracts. 

But it is not only the larger groups that exercise influence in the city. 

In a primary school in al-Fardous, a neighborhood next to the front line, a Sharia court has been set up by a former member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. Two former law students who never practiced are now its judges. One of them admits that — despite his lack of expertise — he “can finally bring a decent salary to his family.” They are free to apply any sentence, but in cases involving the death penalty, the accused can ask for a referral to a higher Sharia council. 

However, popular discontent toward these courts and their decisions have also intermittently been voiced. 

Even if the Islamic institutions set up by military groups have a wider presence, there are civil institutions that try to brake their hegemony. The Local Council of Aleppo (LCA) was set up last March by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). Located in two buildings and divided into eight departments, the LCA seeks to re-establish basic citizen services, but often struggles to do so. 

“We don't have any military power while the Sharia council is directly supported by armed groups,” says Ahmad Azzouz, president of the LCA, “and they focus their work in two neighborhoods, Hanano and al-Ansari, while the LCA has to cover the whole city.” 

“Everything is important, from garbage collection and restoring electricity to health care and giving children the opportunity to return to school.” 

A lack of waste management is one of the most visible problems in the city. While groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra collect the garbage from the streets, drive it to the big roundabouts and burn it there — creating toxic fumes — the LCA tries to drive the garbage to the industrial city of Sheikh Najjar, on the outskirts of Aleppo. But their resources are limited and the trucks cannot reach every corner of the opposition-held areas. 

Financial resources are tight. 

Azzouz complains that they have not received their allocated monthly budget from the SNC since the umbrella organization was founded in March 2013. 

“We need $300,000 every month to meet our commitments,” says Azzouz, elected as president of the local council by SNC members. 

“In five months, we have only received from the SNC the money equivalent to one month. We are trying to organize the start of classes in houses and mosques because the schools are badly damaged,” continues Azzouz, pointing out that there are more than 70 school buildings requiring at least $2 million investment to make them operable. 

The LCA also tries to organize public transportation, but the buses that go around the city are under control of the armed groups. Ahrar al-Sham have the upper hand. 

“Look, whilst I do not share the same ideology and politics as these groups, I admit they are doing good work,” says Mohammad, a shopkeeper in the market of Bustan al-Qasr, where the prices have doubled or tripled in one year. “I have my own opinions about the revolution, what is going on and what should happen after,” says Mohammad, “but what we want now is enough bread to feed our families.” 

Aleppo is facing the war and its consequences at the same time. The dispute between opposition groups for control of Aleppo shows the plethora of ideological positions within the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, the citizens of Aleppo are trying to have a normal life despite the war.

Nicolas Lupo is a freelance journalist in Lebanon. On Twitter: @niluso

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