ALEPPO, SYRIA – The evidence was incontrovertible, captured on video and posted on YouTube for all the world to see. During a protest against the Syrian regime, Wael Ibrahim, a veteran activist, had tossed aside a banner inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith.
And that, decreed the officers of the newly established Shariah Authority set up to administer rebel-held Aleppo, constitutes a crime under Islamic law, punishable in this instance by 10 strokes of a metal pipe.
The beating administered last month offered a vivid illustration of the extent to which the Syrian revolution has strayed from its roots as a largely spontaneous uprising against four decades of Assad family rule. After mutating last year into a full-scale war, it is moving toward what appears to be an organized effort to institute Islamic law in areas that have fallen under rebel control.
Building on the reputation they have earned in recent months as the rebellion’s most accomplished fighters, Islamist units are seeking to assert their authority over civilian life, imposing Islamic codes and punishments and administering day-to-day matters such as divorce, marriage and vehicle licensing.
Numerous Islamist groups are involved, representing a wide spectrum of views. But, increasingly, the dominant role is falling to Jabhat al-Nusra. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. for suspected ties to al-Qaida but is widely respected by many ordinary Syrians for its battlefield prowess and the assistance it has provided to needy civilians.
Across the northeastern provinces of Deir el-Zour and Raqqah, where the rebels have been making rapid advances in recent weeks, al-Nusra has taken the lead both in the fighting and in setting out to replace toppled administrations. It has assumed control of bakeries and the distribution of flour and fuel, and in some instances it has sparked tensions with local fighters by trying to stop people from smoking in the streets. In the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, more than half of which has been under rebel control since July, al-Nusra is also widely identified as the leading force behind the “Hayaa al-Sharia,” which loosely translates as Sharia Authority and is known simply as the Hayaa.
Based out of the city’s former Eye Hospital, which was damaged during the fighting and then occupied by al-Nusra as its headquarters, the Hayaa is also backed by other rebel brigades, including the Tawhid Brigade, the city’s biggest fighting force, and the Ahrar al-Sham, a homegrown Islamist force that has played a relatively minor role in Aleppo but is powerful in several other provinces.
These days, the bomb-scarred former hospital has taken on the semblance of a wartime city hall, with people milling in and out seeking permits to carry a gun or transport fuel through checkpoints, complaining about neighbors, reporting thefts and informing on people suspected to be regime loyalists.
At the gate, a guard dressed in a black “shalwar kameez,” the tunic-and-pants outfit traditionally worn in Pakistan but alien to Syria, refuses admittance to women unless they are clad in a full-length cloak, or “abaya,” something that is common in conservative Syrian communities but is far from ubiquitous.
Inside, in a sparse, dingy office, a burly man who identified himself as the head of the authority and gave his name as Abu Hafs, received what he said was the first journalist to be admitted to the facility. Seated beside him was a slight, heavily bearded man with a scholarly air who did most of the talking but who refused to give his name because, he said, he was speaking on behalf of Abu Hafs.
The two men refused to identify the group they belong to or who is behind the creation of the Hayaa, except to say that it has the support of the biggest battalions operating in Aleppo, “one of which isn’t comfortable with the media,” according to Abu Hafs, an apparent reference to the media-shy al-Nusra.
Conferring often, the men said the body had been set up at the request of the people of Aleppo after the units involved in creating it had won their trust, through “their honesty on the battlefield and the fact that they are not interested in looting,” the spokesman said.
A wide range of cases are adjudicated, including kidnapping, murder, marriage and divorce, he said, and the authority has a department that administers issues such as property and vehicle ownership. The codes applied are “derived from the Islamic religion,” he said, but the most extreme Islamic punishments, such as cutting the hands of thieves, are not imposed because Islamic law requires that they be suspended during war.
Instead, he said, sentences of five to 40 lashes for offenses such as drug abuse, adultery and theft are regularly handed down, so that wrongdoers can return to their families, which otherwise might be deprived of a wage earner if they were kept in prison. “It is not a big punishment, and we don’t use heavy pipes — they are small pipes — to tell him off,” the spokesman said.
For many Aleppo residents weary of the months of chaos after the takeover of their neighborhoods by unruly rebel fighters who have looted homes and shaken down civilians, the authority is welcomed as an attempt to restore order. The Hayaa has won plaudits for targeting some of the city’s most notorious rebel battalions, and one of its top leaders, an al-Nusra commander known as Abu Omar, was killed in a confrontation this week with one of them.
Inevitably, however, the assertion of Islamic laws is sparking tensions with the more secular opposition activists, who look askance at the creeping Islamization of the revolution that they say they started.
Among those who have fallen foul of the authority is Othman al-Haj Othman, a respected activist and physician renowned for his role in treating those injured in the shelling and airstrikes that persist on a daily basis. He was detained last week by armed men dispatched by the Hayaa after he removed a poster from the wall of his hospital inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith and was held overnight in a cell at the former Eye Hospital.
More than 50 people were held in the same cell, he said on his release the following morning, and he saw at least three other cells containing a similar number of people. Calling Othman’s detention a “mistake,” Abu Hafs’ spokesman said the authority apologized to him — after an outcry by activists in Aleppo.
But Othman didn’t seem mollified. “They think the same way as Bashar. There is no difference,” he said, in reference to President Bashar Assad, as he stepped out of the hospital gates to be greeted by supporters, who had staged a small demonstration to demand his release.
“Those people don’t represent the revolution. They don’t understand the revolution,” he said “They have power, they have guns, but they don’t have support. When there are free elections, you will see.”
But whether there will be free elections anytime soon is in doubt. Al-Nusra has denounced elections as anti-Islamic, and Abu Hafs and his spokesman refused to discuss whether there would be elections.
With Assad showing no sign that he is prepared to give way, the Islamists gaining ground in the areas he no longer controls and Western countries still refusing to arm more-moderate battalions, “Jabhat al-Nusra will grow stronger and stronger,” said Mohammed Najib Banna, an Islamist jurist who belongs to a rival effort to set up a judiciary in Aleppo that has been forcibly eclipsed by the Hayaa. Last month, Hayaa gunmen surrounded the courthouse where the United Judicial Council had installed itself, detained all those inside, including judges, note takers and bodyguards, and imprisoned them at the former Eye Hospital.
They were freed the following day, and negotiations are under way to try to merge the two councils. But they have not borne fruit, in part because of ideological differences, he said.
“Their ideology comes from outside Syria, and, unfortunately, it is the same ideology they tried to apply in Afghanistan and Iraq. They failed there, and now they are trying here,” he said.
In the dingy storefront in one of the Aleppo neighborhoods where activists still organize regular peaceful protests against the regime, Ibrahim, widely known by his nickname, Abu Mariam, dismissed the beating he received as “nothing.”
It didn’t hurt, he said, because the pipe was thin, “like the ones used in a toilet. It was just a reprimand, a way of saying, ‘Don’t do it again.’ “
And it won’t happen again, he said, because he and his fellow activists have since made peace with the Islamist protesters, whose attempts to usurp a demonstration by Ibrahim’s group prompted him to toss aside their flag.
“We as Syrians feel it is more important to focus on toppling the regime,” said Ibrahim, a wiry, 30-year-old truck driver who joined the revolt in its first weeks two years ago. “It is not in our interest to open a second front in our revolution. We have one enemy now; we don’t want to end up with two.”
“I think the real war will start after toppling the regime,” he added, reflecting the fears of many Syrians that their war has only just begun.