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The Troubling Triumvirate Ruling Over Aleppo

Almost one year after rebels retreated from Aleppo, the northern Syrian city is now at the mercy of security services, pro-government militias and the Baath party, who are doing little to improve living conditions, writes Syrian journalist Khaled Al-Khateb.

Written by Khaled Al-Khateb Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Syria’s Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister Abdullah al-Gharbi (third from left) cuts the ribbon with Aleppo’s Governor Hussein Diab (fourth from left), as they reopen Aleppo’s historic souk (bazaar), on November 16, 2017. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

On December 22, 2016, when the Syrian regime took over Aleppo as the last rebel fighter left its eastern districts, the city fell into the hands of three authorities: state security agencies, pro-regime militias and the Baath party. All three authorities are working to extort the people of Aleppo while discriminating between residents of the east and west of the city both in terms of services and treatment at the hands of security personnel.

After the takeover, the regime’s security agencies imposed their grip on the city and gave a free hand to loyalist militias, which proceeded to threaten and blackmail residents. The regime also gave the Aleppo branch of the Baath party and its own armed militias wide-ranging powers.

The Security Services

The regime’s security services are now exploiting Aleppo’s residents for military and economic reasons. In the eastern districts particularly, civilians returning to their homes have been subjected to security raids, and the regime has arrested many for failing to report for compulsory military service. Since early 2017, many under the age of 40 have also been detained and made to join the army and allied militias as reservists, before being pushed into battles against ISIS in eastern and southeastern Aleppo as far as the Badia desert region.

In western Aleppo, residents have become a source of income for security agencies. The Military Security, Air Force Intelligence and Political Intelligence branches have used forced recruitment campaigns to extort the rich, who pay intelligence agencies monthly “royalties” to leave their sons alone or to facilitate getting them smuggled out of Syria.

The Militias

The top militias in Aleppo are Liwa’ al-Baqer, which includes members of the pro-regime Bakkara tribe, and Liwa al-Quds Filistini (the “Jerusalem is Palestinian” Brigade), which includes Palestinian fighters from the al-Nayrab and Handarat refugee camps near Aleppo, along with Syrian fighters from the city. There are also non-Syrian Shia militias such as the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba and Ansar Allah groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has kept its military bases on the city’s eastern edge and close to the Artillery College, the Assad district and Hay al-Hamdaniyah.

Members of these militias have killed people and spread fear among the population in Aleppo, which has seen repeated murders and hit-and-run killings. One of the most tragic was the killing of a child, Ahmad Jawish, on June 11, by a militiaman.

Militias have also been responsible for a rising wave of kidnappings of civilians in order to extort vast ransoms to cover their own financial needs. They are strengthening themselves financially by setting up gangs specializing in theft and hired killings, managing brothels and selling drugs.

The interests of the militias intersect with those of the security agencies, allowing the former to seize control of most of the city’s vital productive infrastructure and means of generating wealth. There is increasing harassment of industrialists and traders by both sides, and taxes on transportation are imposed by militias that control military checkpoints on various roads in the city and its surroundings. Many attempts by manufacturers to reopen their factories have been obstructed by the three forces that control the city, i.e. the militias, security forces and the local branch of the Baath party. This has forced some to pay monetary royalties and bribes to get their businesses running again.

The Baath Party

The third arm of the triumvirate running Aleppo is the Arab Baath Socialist Party. The regime had dissolved the Aleppo branch of the party shortly after it took control of the eastern districts. The party has a new manifestation now headed by a judge, Amin al-Najjar. As soon as he took office, he brought new members into “party branches” in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, and provided the party’s armed wing, the Baath Battalions, with new headquarters in the city and the eastern Aleppo countryside.

Najjar was keen to revive the party’s branches and reshape the spying and monitoring networks made up of Baath party staffers, sending them into various parts of the city and surrounding countryside. He held regular party celebrations and activities in the city, and oversaw several conferences and party events aimed at increasing the party’s dominance and the influence of its members in the city.

Divide and Rule

The regime’s three authorities have, since early 2017, imposed a policy of discrimination between east and west Aleppo. The eastern districts, where the regime has been in charge for 11 months, still have no public services despite pleas by its poor inhabitants. These neighborhoods suffer from almost continuous power and water main cuts, along with a breakdown of much of the sewerage system due to years of bombing when rebel forces controlled the area. The residents live under the constant shadow of accusations that they had previously embraced rebel forces, and threats that they will pay the price for this. Many who returned to the eastern districts have been arrested, tortured and deprived of their rights.

Over half of the eastern neighborhoods are destroyed; despite regime promises in the media to reconstruct and repair the damage done by its bombing of the eastern districts, there is no sign of this. At the same time, it provides public services to residents of the city’s west as compensation for their loyalty.

This article was originally published by Chatham House and is reprinted here with permission.

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