x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syrian rebels seek strict form of Sharia

Islamist militants who favour a strict form of Sharia appear to be gaining a formidable sway in the ranks of the anti-regime forces.

TELL RIF'AT, SYRIA // More than 18 months into the uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, Islamist militants who favour a strict form of Sharia appear to be gaining a formidable sway in the ranks of the anti-regime forces.

In dozens of villages and towns across northern Syria, the Assad regime and local functionaries of the ruling Baath party no longer have day-to-day control.

Into the power vacuum have stepped those with guns or money, some whom are urging the establishment to adopt some form of Islamic law in a post-Assad Syria.

Already, some rebels and other opponents of Mr Assad have sought to implement their particularly harsh version of Sharia on a small scale, particularly using corporal punishment against suspected criminals and government supporters.

Rebel interrogators in this town, about 20 kilometres from the Turkish border, said they had beaten the legs of detainees with sticks.

Insurgents in nearby Mare' threatened to amputate the hands of alleged thieves and paraded them through town in an effort to publicly shame them, residents said.

In Aleppo, where fierce fighting between insurgents and government forces has raged for weeks, one rebel leader said he had ordered lashings using rubber hoses and knotted ropes.

Abu Yaqoub, a 26-year-old Muslim cleric in rebel-held Tell Rif'at, believes Sharia would provide the best form of government for Syria in a post-Assad era.

"God willing," Mr Yaqoub replied, when asked if Islamic law should be imposed nationwide.

It is far from certain, of course, that Mr Yacoub and others from Tell Rif'at and the other traditionally conservative, rural villages sprinkled across northern Syria would prevail in their wish for a Sharia-based government in the aftermath of any collapse of the Assad regime.

Syria is an amalgam of religious, political and ethnic groups, and after more than four decades of authoritarian rule - first by Hafez Assad and then by his son, Bashar - it is impossible to know what political arrangements that Syrians will choose once they are free of the Assad yoke.

Still, whenever a political transition occurs through the barrel of a gun, those who lead the fighting typically have a powerful say in what happens afterward.

At the moment, the ranks of the anti-Assad forces appear to boast a significant number of Sunni Islamist militants who support a strict form of Sharia after, they hope, the president is forced from power.

Mr Yacoub is the top cleric of Tell Rif'at's judicial committee, formed about two months ago by the rebels' regional revolutionary council.

The council's leaders command the powerful Tawhid Brigade that invaded Aleppo last month. Its farmers and labourers are considered the most organised of Syria's rebel factions, which operate loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Some Tawhid units are manned entirely by Islamists, and few of its top leaders hold university degrees or have received training in Islamic law.

It was a Tawhid rebel commander who studied with Islamists in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan and now fighting in Aleppo who oversaw the public shaming of a dozen thieves in his home village of Mare' earlier this year, according to town residents.

Another Tawhid leader from Tell Rif'at, Abu Suleiman, who describes himself as an Islamic judicial official from Tell Rif'at, heads an "investigation" committee in Aleppo.

In the kind of improvisation that is now commonplace across lawless parts of northern Syria, Mr Suleiman handles cases ranging from alleged abuses by captured government forces to petty crime.

He has ordered a jailer in flip-flops and a sleeveless vest to whip transgressors with hoses and ropes, he said.

"We judge under the law of the Quran," he said at rebel outpost in Aleppo, which included a detention facility.

In Tell Rif'at, Mare' and other nearby communities, the embrace of Sharia stems in part from the collapse of local authority. Judges and prosecutors employed by the central government remain at home, still receiving their salaries from Damascus because they have not joined the opposition.

The seeds of support for some form of Islamic law were planted before the upheaval began last year.

In part, it is a backlash against the regime's suppression of organised Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

It also is a response to the legal system administered by Damascus - a mix of Ottoman-era, French and Islamic law that is widely seen as corrupt and inefficient.

Some Syrians believe it is time for an alternative.

"We are Muslims, and it's time we are governed by Islam," said Mohammed Khaer, 32, a painter from the village of Sheikh Issa.

Hussein Al Hajj, a lawyer in Mare', believes a more expansive system of Sharia would be a better deterrent to crime.

"If someone stole something in, say, Aleppo, and his hands were cut off as punishment, believe me, there would be no more theft," he said.

Not all opponents of the Assad government favour more Sharia.

Abu Tayyib, 39, an official in Mare', wants to restrict Sharia law to mediating marital and family disputes.

He expressed fear that its imposition could upset the country's fragile religious diversity, which includes Christians and Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"We want a Syria where the law respects the rights of religions and backgrounds in Syria, to build a Syria based on equality," he said.

But Abu Yaqoub, the Tell Rif'at cleric who champions a rigorous, nationwide system of Sharia, already has a head start.

"We punish with prison time, fines and 'gentle' slaps," he said. He added that physical punishment had been ordered in a "few" of the 150 cases of theft, rape and other crimes he has prosecuted.

"Slapping is permitted under Islamic law," he said, describing "gentle" as not raising the hand too high when striking a criminal.

"We don't believe in torture. It's only to make him return to behaving appropriately," Mr Yaqoub said.

His colleagues in Tell Rif'at's judicial committee apply firmer methods during interrogation sessions of suspected criminals and regime loyalists.

"We hit their legs," said Abu Ali, 36, who heads the 38-member committee. Such methods were necessary in a war zone, he insisted.

"It's easy to criticise our treatment of the suspects on TV or in newspapers, but we're fighting a war in which the other side is still committing atrocities against us," he said. "What do you expect us to do?"

hnaylor@thenational.ae