ALEPPO, SYRIA – FOCUS
In the heart of Syria’s rebel territory, away from the blasts and bullets of the frontlines, another struggle is playing out: one for a new justice system that could shape the future face of the nation should the regime fall.
The struggle is between former regime judges and Islamic jihadists, and at stake is whether the courts apply a modified version of existing Syrian law or switch to a stricter version of Shariah law.
Currently, both systems exist in parallel — with radically different treatment for those accused and convicted of crimes.
Abu Ali, a 53-year-old truck driver arrested at a rebel checkpoint for transporting hundreds of bottles of whiskey and other banned alcohol hidden in his cargo of water, is one defendant facing the more rigid interpretation of God’s justice.
Yes, he tells Abu Hamia, the prosecutor questioning him in an office in a newly designated prison in Aleppo’s Masaken Hanano district. Yes, he knew what he transporting.
“We did it because we needed money for our families. It was the first time we’d done such a thing,” Abu Ali says, his face showing shame.
Abu Hamia informs Abu Ali he could face up to three months behind bars for smuggling “a product that is against Islam,” but holds out the prospect of leniency if the local sheik, who will judge the case, so decides.
Two days later, Abu Ali and his two accomplices are each sentenced to 25 lashes and freed.
The form of Shariah underpinning the legal system of President Bashar Assad’s regime was “too easy,” Abu Hamia said afterward, explaining that the previous tolerance for alcohol was no longer permitted.
“God wants to establish Shariah in all of Syria when the regime falls,” he says.
That vision is espoused by one of the most ferocious forces in rebel ranks: Jabhat al-Nusra
The group, made up of bearded fighters with good combat experience, shuns media attention, but makes no secret of its desire to see Syria one day become an Islamic caliphate.
Under the strictest interpretation of Shariah, Islamic courts can dictate death for apostates, murderers and rapists; amputations for thieves and whippings for those guilty of lesser crimes.
Some sheiks have already exacted Shariah sentences on captured regime soldiers who confessed to killing, having them executed.
It is a direction that is sending chills through Western governments hesitating to provide materiel to Syria’s rebels and to many of the other rebel groups who see that form of Shariah as archaic and brutal.
“The Islamist system is obsolete. It comes from the time of the Prophet Muhammad and it has not changed at all since then, yet it should adapt to the times we live in,” says Marwan Kaeid, attorney general of the judicial system that the Free Syria Army has set up in Aleppo.
He says the judges did apply a form of Shariah, but not the same way as in the Jabhat al-Nusra sponsored tribunals. Syria’s existing laws are based on Islamic principles but with processes inspired by French and Ottoman jurisprudence.
Some attempts were made to reconcile the two judicial systems, but it soon became apparent that middle ground did not exist, he says, speaking in his offices in the Saif Al-Dawlah district of Aleppo.
“That’s why we can’t work with Jabhat al-Nusra. They are too severe. Their sentences are death or cutting off a hand in stealing cases,” Kaeid says. “Islam is much simpler than that. It shouldn’t be applied so harshly.”
The unease over Jabhat al-Nusra’s aims and ambitions, however, in no way discredits the jihadist group in the eyes of the rebels, who welcome any proficient combatants to fight the better-armed regime forces.
“Jabhat al-Nusra answered our call to fight in the jihad. But the problem now is that we are unable to stop them,” Kaeid says.
But he warns of a potential power struggle when Syria looks to a future without Assad at the helm.
“Without help from NATO, we will not be able to kick Jabhat al-Nusra out of Syria,” Kaeid says.