Aleppo’s Civil Front Seeks To Prevent Islamic Rule

Aleppo, Syria’s economic hub, is currently torn between Islamist forces working to impose an Islamic state by force, and civil forces struggling to keep the city civil and secular, writes Tareq al-Abed.

al-monitor Syrian security personnel and civilians gather at the site where two explosions rocked the Aleppo University in Syria's second largest city, Jan. 15, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/George Ourfalian.

Topics covered

syrian opposition, syrian conflict, syrian, islamists, demonstrations in aleppo, demonstrations, aleppo

Feb 18, 2013

Electricity is gradually returning to Aleppo’s neighborhoods. Water pumps have started pumping again, and hospitals have started accepting patients, ending another ordeal for the inhabitants of Syria’s economic capital. The city has been condemned to persecution by all parties. No place in Aleppo is safe. Half the city is in the regime’s hands and the other half held by opposition gunmen. The armed opposition claims to control 95% of Aleppo’s countryside, including the area adjacent to Turkey.

In short, a large area is now ruled by the opposition — or rather by a troika of arms, tyranny and chaos. The humanitarian situation has not much improved despite the open borders with Turkey, which anyone, especially members of the political opposition, can cross as they wish. To them, Aleppo has become a tourist destination where they go to get their pictures taken and make some speeches, before returning to where they came from. These areas are administered by dozens of local and civil councils and a weak judicial body, alongside dozens of armed groups — some of which practice robbery and kidnapping, while others don the mantle of Islamic law and, using Sharia committees, issue sentences of imprisonment or flogging, and soon perhaps death.

The reign of the opposition: between Sharia and bullying

The opposition’s reign covers large parts of Aleppo and its countryside, where the opposition is organized into two groups. The first is an Islamist front, which conducts most operations on airports and military bases. That front refuses to call itself the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and instead insists on being called Jabhat al-Nusra. It recently arrested a media activist in Tel Abyad because he failed to mention the name Jabhat al-Nusra when reporting about control of the Aleppo countryside.

The Islamist front comprises Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya and the Salafist group Liwaa al-Tawhid, which is sponsored by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood and is the largest of the four. Although the Islamist front shares the FSA’s objective of bringing down the regime, it also wants to establish an Islamic caliphate and a religious state. According to activists, most of the fighters come from the countrysides of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama, with smaller numbers coming from Damascus and Homs. Syrians living abroad are moving to Syria to fight. Fighters from other Arab countries, Afghanistan and Chechnya have a significant presence among the leadership. They are very experienced in combat and in administering the liberated areas.

Local councils have been established to manage the areas outside state control. But the real authority is wielded by those who carry arms. They alone can impose their will. The judicial and legal body in Aleppo was a key issue. According to an activist in the area, a Sharia committee was established to include a number of religious men alongside a few judges. A few days ago, the committee summoned to its headquarters an activist named Wael Ibrahim from Bustan al-Qasr. They accused him of “rejecting the Islamic caliphate and dealing with the regime.” He was sentenced to flogging on the same day. His denials did not save him, especially after they added another charge against him: throwing an Islamic banner to the ground during a demonstration, which the committee verified by a video on social media. The banner in question had the words “the people want an Islamic caliphate” written on it.

Perhaps that incident was merely a prelude to a series of incidents that have revealed the extent of disagreement that may explode at any moment between secularist forces, which seek to keep Syria from having a specific religious or ethnic identity, and the Islamist forces, which think that they alone own the country and that the rest should simply obey or be punished.

The inhabitants of neighborhoods controlled by the opposition have succeeded in organizing demonstrations telling the fighting groups that they reject the spread of bullies and thieves among the FSA’s ranks. In those demonstrations, students from Aleppo University and the inhabitants of Bustan al-Qasr shouted, “What a shame. What a shame. The Shabiha have become revolutionaries,” and “What a shame. Thieves have become free.” That triggered an intervention by Liwaa al-Tawhid’s commander, who promised to prevent theft and blackmail in the areas that the opposition controls.

Aleppo University and its doctors: this is how we love life

The student movement was like any other form of popular movement in the country. Although other private and public universities also demonstrated, the demonstrations by Aleppo University remained unique. They are nonstop, their slogans and banners do not worry about offending anyone and they adamantly oppose the imposition of an Islamic state. A university activist said that this is nothing new. The university has for years conducted debates on Syrian social matters, with some debates crossing “red lines” at the time.

Perhaps this is what fueled the student demonstrations at the university, which brings students from all over Syria. They have brought the revolution to the university, along with the demonstrations that are going on in their towns and villages. Moreover, Aleppo University did not hesitate to host hundreds of displaced people from various hotspots.

But terror struck the university and its students on the first day of exams. The regime claimed that it was a car bomb while the opposition said it was an air strike. Some students about to graduate were killed. The students returned to university, conducted their exams and went about life as normal at the 50-year-old university.

Despite all the difficulties, the electricity cuts, the transportation risks for doctors and workers and the risk of explosions and bombardment from all sides of the conflict — which do not spare the hospitals — Aleppo’s health sector is still operating. A large number of the city’s healthcare facilities kept their doors open to the sick and wounded in the midst of ongoing clashes. Many activists in Aleppo have greeted the university’s health-care team, which continued to perform its duties after the university massacre and despite risks of kidnapping and assassination.

In essence, there are two different scenes in Aleppo. In the first, some want to impose their will by force of arms and under the banner of Islamic law. In the second, citizens are desperately trying to prevent an area — whose size is about a quarter of the country — from completely collapsing.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Tareq al-Abed