As Western media and observers obsessed over the rebel “cannibal” last week, Syrians seemed to be taken by issues like continued state violence, Hezbollah’s invasion of Qusayr in Homs and the alarming practices of extremist Islamists in rebel-controlled areas.
In Saraqib, a town on the main highway between Aleppo and Damascus in Idlib province, a Sharia court decided that a local man defied Islamic doctrine by allowing his daughter to marry prior to completing the mandatory cooling-off period following her divorce. The sentence for both the father and groom was death, but that was reduced to 50 and 40 lashes, respectively.
A group of armed men surrounded the accused, according to a widely circulated Youtube video, and one rebel read out the sentence. The two men were lashed, squirming in pain, but it didn’t seem that the punishment drew blood.
Prominent opposition activists were quick to condemn this act, including Hazem Dakel, a citizen journalist from Idlib. He mocked the Islamists who criticized the Free Syrian Army’s corruption and then meted out crude punishments. The Local Coordination Committee in Saraqib said the men behind the makeshift Sharia court weren’t acting with the consent of residents.
Pro-Assad pages capitalized on this video, as well as recent clips of executions of Syrian soldiers at the hands of Al Qaeda-linked extremist group Jabhat Al Nusra in the country’s eastern provinces. For regime loyalists, the lashings were clear signs that opponents of the Syrian government are influenced by the Salafi and Wahabi brands of Sunni Islam, and that the rebels will enforce these austere interpretations of Sharia as in the Taliban’s Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
One response to Saraqib’s lashings (above), from Loubna Mrie, an Alawite opposition activist, ignored the long- term implications of rising Islamism in the north and placed it in the context of the broader war raging in Syria. A video that went viral this week (below), captured part of that context with footage of bombs descending on Yabrud, a town north of Damascus.
Despite Saraqib’s flawed attempt to impose order, other Sharia courts and their police forces in Syria are trying to stamp out the lawlessness that plagues rebel-controlled territories. The Sharia court in Aleppo moved on Ghoraba Al Sham, a large rebel brigade, last week, to recover looted goods and arrest many of the group’s leaders.
Reactions to this effort, which is still ongoing, were positive based on Facebook and YouTube interactions. After many months of rumors about the scale of the theft in Aleppo, evidence of these crimes are emerging from recent arrests, but the lack of transparency from the Sharia court, and the various armed groups that support it, makes it difficult to gauge how effective the dragnets will be.
Most of the focus of this column, and coverage of Syria, tends to focus on rebel-controlled parts of the country. This is because the Assad regime restricts independent journalists access to its territory, and most people living there are afraid to film or blog about the living conditions due to the heavy presence of Syrian intelligence agencies. News from the besieged, pro-Assad towns in northern Syria, such as Nubl and Zahra in Aleppo, and Fou’a and Kafraya in Idlib, has been extremely rare in recent months.
But last week, pro-Assad Facebook pages shared an update on Nubl and Zahra, two Shiite towns that have been surrounded by rebels for months. The report said that food prices have skyrocketed, and cooking gas is up to $70 a canister. People are showing signs of malnutrition and are disappointed in the military leadership that hasn’t been able to rescue the towns.