Kidnapping, Spats on Docket of Syria Rebel Boss

Kidnapping, Spats on Docket of Syria Rebel Boss
By CHARLES LEVINSON, August 17, 2012, The Wall Street Journal

QOBTAN JEBEL, Syria—One morning this week, Sheik Tawfeeq Shehab Eddin replaced his AK-47 with a Bic pen and took up his post behind a metal desk.

Mr. Shehab Eddin is one of the four rural commanders of the Tawheed Division, an Islamist-dominated umbrella force that is leading Syrian rebels’ fight around the country’s largest city, Aleppo, against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Their division has driven pro-Assad forces from much of the Aleppan countryside and some of Aleppo. On Friday, division fighters fought regime tanks near the city’s airport.

The regime’s pullout from much of the countryside last month has left the Tawheed Division as the area’s army, government and police. That is why on Wednesday, Mr. Shehab Eddin and his aides spent some 14 hours hashing out questions about their next deployment to the front line in Aleppo, scrambling to defuse a flare-up with a neighboring Kurdish village and mediating petty disputes between villagers.

“We commanders have been forced to take on all the problems confronting our villages,” he said, adding that elected leaders should eventually take that over. “The role I am playing now is bigger than myself.”

Similar makeshift governments are springing up in villages across Aleppo province’s countryside, providing interim courts, keeping basic services running, managing finances and distributing aid shipments.

Many of the rebel courts have taken on an Islamic bent. Tawheed Division commanders forbid the torture of detainees. But that ban doesn’t include whipping the soles of detainees’ feet, Tawheed commander Abdel Aziz Salama told several people, including a Human Rights Watch team.

Another group of Tawheed fighters executed four members of an Aleppan family accused of funding and running a hated pro-Assad militia accused of keeping iron-fisted control over restive areas. The division’s field commander, Abdel Qader Saleh, told The Wall Street Journal that the four men were given a battlefield trial before they were killed.

Here in Qobtan Jebel, a pinprick village of century-old stone walled homes in the hills west of Aleppo, Mr. Shehab Eddin’s word is law, at least for now. Before the uprising, the self-taught sheik—also known by his nom du guerre, Abu Soleiman—preached covertly to a small following in an adjacent village about the Syrian regime’s ills.

The sheik’s morning began when two of his fighters brought in a young man they had stopped at a checkpoint with seven jerry cans of gasoline in his car. The commodity is in short supply. The fighters suspected the man might be a smuggler. A couple quick questions satisfied the sheik, who ordered him freed with his fuel.

The next visitor pleaded for the release of a detainee accused of working as a regime informant in the village. The sheik was unmoved. “We have two witnesses and evidence against him,” he said, drawing X’s, O’s and spiral doodles on a blank sheet of paper as he listened.

Next came a stringy youth who said he had just defected from the Syrian army. He was brusquely questioned by the sheik’s aide, Ali al-Haji, a 28-year-old former tank commander with a degree in Islamic law.

The fidgety defector, 20-year-old Ahmed al-Latouf, said he had served as an army mortar man. “There’s no mobiles phones, no television,” he said. “No one knows anything and they believe what their officers tell them—that we are fighting criminal gangs and terrorists.”

The sheik concurred. “We know our brothers in the army have been lied to and brainwashed,” he said, admitting the youth into the ranks of rebel fighters, who elsewhere could be seen doing calisthenics and training with rocket-propelled grenades.

A fighter rushed in. A resident of Qobtan Jebel, he said, had that morning kidnapped a resident of a nearby Kurdish village and was demanding ransom. In retaliation, the Kurds kidnapped four village men.

Kurdish villages dot the local countryside, and relations have cooled since Syria’s civil war took a sectarian turn. With police gone, crime is a growing concern. Rebel commanders say a flare-up now in Kurd relations would play into regime hands. “We’ll call the Kurdish leaders, set up a meeting and solve the problem,” said Mr. Haji.

Next in line was a man from Aleppo who had raised funds for Mr. Shehab Eddin’s brigade, which fought in Aleppo’s Salaheddin neighborhood for 14 days but withdrew last week after supplies wore thin. The fundraiser demanded an explanation for the withdrawal. “We couldn’t stand it anymore. We weren’t getting enough help,” the aide, Mr. Haji, explained, eager not to alienate a supporter.

A group of villagers stormed in waving handguns and assault rifles. A fighter had commandeered their car to ferry supplies to the front, but sold it instead. They vowed revenge.

“Don’t do a thing until I have a chance to look into this,” Mr. Haji said. “Are you really going to kill someone over a car?”

“We spend a lot of time dealing with petty issues while fighting a war at the same time,” Mr. Haji said after they left. “But if you don’t listen to everyone, we’ll lose the people and then the revolution.”

As the sun set, Mr. Haji retired to his commander’s walled residence where he lives with his three wives and 15 children. They broke the Ramadan fast, silently using flatbread to scoop lentil soup, hummus and tuna fish out of metal bowls.

“We’ll set an ambush for the guy who kidnapped the Kurd, and we’ll turn him over to the Kurds, in exchange for our men back,” he said, reclining on a pillow on the cement floor, scrubbing his teeth with a twig. He dispatched a patrol to find the suspected kidnapper. “The regime wants us to fight among ourselves. We can’t allow this to happen,” he said.

A village elder with a long graying beard and a handgun strapped to his side dropped by to pay his respects. He said he was arrested in 1977 as part of the regime’s crackdown on suspected Muslim Brothers and served 15 years in prison. In Aleppo’s countryside, the rebellion is fueled by memories of that crackdown. Men every village, it seems, can recite the names of men who were killed, or disappeared into regime prisons or were forced into exile during that crackdown.

Before midnight, a messenger arrived to say the kidnapped Kurd had been released. The captor—who said he was on orders from a different rebel leader—panicked when he realized he was being hunted down by both Kurdish and rebel militias. Mr. Haji characterized the other rebel commander as a rogue—”a criminal with a gang posing as a brigade in the name of the Free Army,” he said with a sigh.

“We have enough problems,” the sheik told the messenger. “We don’t need problems with the Kurds. This is not in our interests. This is something that can never happen again.”