These are the symptoms of the pervasive lawlessness in opposition-held Aleppo today. The group that ripped out the copper pipes was allegedly Ghuruba al-Sham, an Islamic extremist group becoming increasingly unpopular in Aleppo for its criminal behavior. Those that prosecuted them for this crime were the Sharia Commission, an extreme judicial authority comprised of several Islamist armed groups that once included the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
These groups contribute to the Sharia Commission’s judicial body, its religious law committee, and an executive police force. It is now the de facto institution providing rule of law in opposition-held Aleppo. Despite the efforts of more inclusive, secular-leaning opposition institutions like the city’s local council and the intentions of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, the Sharia Commission remains the only group that can enforce its remit by force of arms.
Since Syria’s second city turned violent in late July 2012, it has had the most deaths. The destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the recent abduction of two Christian bishops add misery to the city’s bitter loss. Aleppo produces more than 50 percent of Syria’s manufacturing and is the source of 1/3 of the country’s non-oil export wealth, making it a valuable prize for all sides. The ongoing civil war has degraded Syrian infrastructure so much that no central government would in theory be able to extend its remit to Aleppo from Damascus. So instead of a central government, groups like the Sharia Commission will grow stronger and more resilient. The longer the war drags on, the more likely Aleppo will become the world’s next “feral city.”
The idea of “feral” cities is not new – Richard Norton studied the concept in a 2003 paper for the US Naval College. He explains a feral city as one with more than a million people, within a state where the government cannot enforce rule of law within the city’s boundaries. In this kind of city, Norton points out, human security becomes a matter of individual initiative—conflict entrepreneurs and community militias emerge.
With the United States now officially committed to supplying opposition fighters with what is reported to be ammunition and small weapons, the battle for Syria now pits internationally-supported rebel groups, entrenched rebel Islamic extremists and Hezbollah-supported Syrian government troops against each other. Apart from more assistance, this constellation of forces has not changed since the start of the uprising. What has changed in Syria is that armed non-state groups are growing roots in Syria’s cities that will endure regardless of the conflict’s outcome.
This is acute in Aleppo, where groups are turning an ancient trading city into a hub for illicit networks reminiscent of those in Benghazi, Mosul, or Hezbollah strongholds in south Beirut. As the world ponders the purpose and impact of new military assistance flows into Syria, it should prioritize dealing with these illicit networks before they have become fully embedded in the city. Urgent action is necessary. Letting Aleppo – and Syria – burn now may be the costlier option in the long term.
A similar tragedy befell Mogadishu, Somalia, after the Siad Barre government fell in 1991. In fact, Richard Norton cites Mogadishu as the only full-blown example of a “feral city.” Another modern-day candidate is Lagos, where the population of a megacity (15-18 million) lives within the infrastructure of a small town. The city has 68 working traffic lights, according to visiting journalist Josh Eells, who added: “Lagosians have words for traffic the way Eskimos have words for snow: congestion, logjam, lockdown, holdup, gridlock, deadlock, and the wonderfully evocative go-slow.”
David Kilcullen outlines this in more detail in his upcoming book, Out of the Mountains. These “feral” cities are where illicit networks and non-state groups overwhelm the capacity of the state system, and often attempt to replace it. The problem, Dr. Kilcullen suggests, is not collapse. Instead, uncontrolled networks thrive, unleashing toxic byproducts on urban environments such as economic inequality, crime, conflict, social disruption and exclusion, political alienation, social injustice, violence and unrest.
“Feral Aleppo” was inevitable. In 2011, Aleppo’s were chided for not joining their brothers in Dera’a, Baniyas, or Homs during the early days of the uprising. Though mildly active during the protests, this city of industry was dragged into the uprising only after it grew violent. “We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t,” a rebel fighter in the summer of 2012 told a Reuters reporter, “We couldn’t rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them.” Frustrated by Aleppo’s conspicuous absence in July 2012, rebels made plans to “liberate” the city.
Rich Man, Poor Man
The key to understanding Aleppo is not just that it is under siege, but which neighborhoods are being pummeled. Syria’s opposition runs Aleppo’s poorest neighborhoods. These are the hardest hit by regime-ordered shelling and are where the most people have died. Syrian Martyrs, one of the contributors to the effort to document human rights abuses, was cataloguing deaths at the neighborhood level. By December 2012, they estimated that more than half of all deaths in Aleppo city occurred in only fifteen neighborhoods.
These same, poor neighborhoods are being armed and fed a diet of uncompromising religious beliefs. The traditional insularity of these communities, driven by a decade of meager government services and limited economic opportunity, made them vulnerable when the violent uprising started. Armed insurgents – particularly foreign-funded Islamists – are able to buy up whole neighborhoods with services and salaried jobs as fighters.
Uncontested, these groups are building deep roots in Aleppo. The Sharia Commission metes out justice and Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly runs the public bus systems. Allowed to flourish, these groups will become a permanent part of the city’s landscape. In doing so, they will become key interlocutors for whatever future state tries to govern Aleppo.
And the longer these militia groups are allowed to thrive, the more firmly embedded they become in the region’s economic and human flows. In late June, the United Nations estimated there were over 1.7 million Syrian registered refugees outside the country. Successful militias will leverage their control of Aleppo’s neighborhoods into a network of similarly vulnerable refugees in neighboring countries. As Aleppo goes feral, these illicit networks will become more and more difficult to isolate and remove.
Hanna Batatu, a Middle East historian of the last century, wrote that in Syria “the struggle that took place within the cities, between the chief representatives of urban power on the one hand and former peasants on the other” was more important than the urban-rural divide itself. This conflict is once again taking place in Aleppo, but remains unresolved. The former peasants have taken half the city, and what remains of the urban elite hold the other. Should it continue unabated, Aleppo will become a violently divided, feral city.