Behind Rebel Lines in Aleppo, A Post-Assad Order Takes Shape

Optimism and Islamism take root in the Free Syrian Army-controlled corridor that runs north to the Turkish border

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Men pass by a building damaged during clashes between the Free Syrian Army and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's troops in Azaz, north of Aleppo, Aug. 3, 2012.

His house in Azaz used to be prime real estate, jokes Ahmet Sheko Ajeel. “It was the best part of town,” he says, pointing to the cemetery next door. “You couldn’t find quieter neighbors.” Unfortunately for Ajeel, his prized home was also within spitting distance of the local branch of Syrian military intelligence. For three weeks, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) had pounded the building, as well as surrounding areas, hoping to drive out the Syrian soldiers holed up inside. The rebels eventually succeeded, and took the town, about five miles from the Turkish border, on July 22.

Several days ago, Ajeel returned to Azaz to find much of his house pulverized by the shelling. Few of his possessions remained among the debris. Syrian troops who had requisitioned the house several months ago had plundered it before fleeing, he explains.

Ajeel’s plight is hardly unique, however; few of the buildings on his street are still intact. The rubble of a nearby mosque, the site of a major battle, is strewn over the carcasses of several army tanks. Further west, overturned furniture, sheets of paper, and broken glass litter the floor of the local elementary school. Someone picks up an 11-year-old girl’s report card. On one page, the girl’s grades appear, scribbled in blue ink. On the next page, there are marks for behavior. Cooperative – yes. Dependable – yes. Likes the regime – yes.

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As Ajeel and his teenage sons scavenge for scrap metal inside the burnt out, gutted offices of the military intelligence building, a young fighter limps over, cell phone in hand, to play a video recorded several weeks earlier. It shows a man, lying face down on the ground, a slush of brain tissue oozing from the back of his head. The man in the video was his cousin, the young man explains. He had been a devout man. When Syrian troops entered the nearby mosque without removing their shoes, he chided them, and paid the price.

Two weeks after its capture by the FSA, Azaz, though badly ravaged, appears to be coming back to life. At the town market, most of the shops have reopened. Of those that remain closed, many belong to regime loyalists who’ve skipped town, says one shopkeeper. (They’re not welcome back unless it’s in handcuffs, he adds.) When the army ran things, says Mohammed Ramdo, a butcher, virtually all of the shops were forced to close. Snipers positioned atop the minarets of the now-destroyed mosque, he says, would try to pick off anyone entering the area. Today, says Ramdo, business is fine, though food prices are rising. (Many supplies are being smuggled across the border from Turkey.) Few people have access to gas. Over the past two weeks, says the owner an appliance shop, the price of an electric hot plate has trebled.

At a mosque near the market, a 25-year-old imam, his thin, choppy voice amplified by a loudspeaker, rails against the regime before the noon prayers. “Bashar [al Assad] is the enemy of the people, of Syria, and of humanity,” he proclaims. Syrians should stand united against him, he adds, “even if other Islamic countries have not come to their aid.”

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“I had always wanted to say, ‘This is right, this is wrong,’ and to criticize Bashar,” the imam, Yosef Fateh al Ashawi, told me and another journalist inside a small office outside the mosque. Before the revolution, he complained, “the government would allow alcohol shops to open [across the province], but I wasn’t even allowed to give Koran lessons.”

Finally free to speak his mind, the young imam doesn’t hold back. “Sharia [Islamic religious law] should be the basis for law, because 80 percent of Syrians are Muslims,” he says, responding to a question about Syria’s future. “But we need an Islamic government that will respect all the sects in Syria, whatever they are. We won’t oppose any non-Muslims, and we won’t force them to follow sharia.”

Al-Ashawi, in addition to leading services at mosques around Azaz, has been moonlighting as an FSA fighter. In August of last year, he says, when the town celebrated the death of its first martyr, he did what no imam in Azaz dared to do — he prayed publicly for the fallen man. The same night, after his sermon provoked anti-regime demonstrations, he was arrested by security officials and sent to jail in Aleppo.

It was after being detained for the second time that al-Ashawi decided to join the fighting. “We were a group of seven men, the first from Azaz to take up arms against the regime,” he said. “After we started carrying guns, people began to feel more free in demonstrations, because they felt we were protecting them.”

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As a man of faith, the imam had initially had some misgivings about firing a weapon, he admits. “I asked a senior sheikh, ‘What if I kill an innocent man?’ ” he recalls. “If you kill an innocent man by mistake, it won’t be a sin, because you did not know that he was innocent,” was the elder preacher’s reply. “There are things only God knows.”

The town of Azaz, at least for the time being, sits comfortably inside a corridor of FSA-held territory that stretches all the way from the Turkish border down to northern Aleppo. The Syrian army’s only regional stronghold, the rebels claim, is an air base outside the town. It is from there, they say, that helicopters are sent to shell Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. The day before I arrived, FSA forces had launched a six-hour assault on the base. “We’ll capture it in four to five days,” Ahmed al-Ghazaleh, a local FSA commander, assured me.

Putting his optimism on hold, al-Ghazaleh, who identified himself as the town’s military leader, complained about his men’s lack of weapons. “The only ones we have are those we’ve captured from the Syrian army, or the ones we’ve bought,” he said, seated behind a desk at the local Ba’ath Party building, where some of the fighters had set up shop. (Another FSA commander acknowledged that the rebels had been running a makeshift explosives factory in Azaz, but added that few of the arms produced there were battle worthy.) As a result, al-Ghazaleh said, he was able to dispatch only about 10 fighters per day to reinforce the FSA’s ranks in Aleppo.

Of the weapons that the rebels had purchased, the commander explained, some had come directly from the Syrian military. One time, he said, a recent army defector had informed fellow FSA fighters that a Syrian general from his former base was ready to sell them an assortment of weapons, including assault rifles, RPGs, and Doshka heavy machine-guns. The two sides managed to strike a deal. “We had to pay him double the value, or 22.5 million Syrian pounds ($350,000)” al-Ghazaleh said. “These guys are only interested in making money,” he added. “We have the names of those officers who’ve sold us weapons. And if we arrest them, we will punish them doubly. Because they are traitors to their people and to their army.”

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