After Islamic State defeat in al-Bab, civilians face a city devoid of services, roiled by rebel infighting

Residents of a northern Syrian city held by Turkish-backed rebels say they are facing harassment and abuse from opposition fighters despite several weeks of protests and a recent agreement to clear the city of militants.

Al-Bab city was held by the Islamic State (IS) until late February, when Ankara-backed rebels captured it after months of an intense air and ground campaign.

Now, some of those same rebel factions are locked in a power struggle for control of the city.

A week ago, fighting between Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel factions Firqat al-Hamza and al-Fawj al-Awal in al-Bab left 10 dead, including several civilians and a police officer, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Long-standing rivalries, the struggle to consolidate power and even rumors have led to violent clashes.

As a result, al-Bab's 120,000 residents are dealing with lawlessness and infighting on top of crumbling infrastructure and a lack of basic civil services.

“Weapons are everywhere,” says Abu Muhammad, a 38-year-old al-Bab resident.  

“The law is not enforced on anyone but the poor and the weak.”

 The local council of al-Bab issues a thank you card to rebel faction Firqat al-Hamza after the latter turned their headquarters over to local authorities this week. Photo courtesy of al-Bab local council.

On June 17, the city’s numerous rebel factions and civil institutions signed an agreement mandating all rebel groups evacuate their headquarters inside al-Bab, to stop carrying firearms within city limits and to cease arresting local residents.

The agreement also lays the groundwork for a unified command center for all rebel groups in al-Bab and bans the wearing of masks, according to a draft shared by the local council on Facebook earlier this week.

Friday’s deal was put into effect immediately, and the local council is taking “appropriate measures” to take possession of each faction’s headquarters in al-Bab in the “coming days,” local council president Jamal Uthman tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.

But for al-Bab resident Abu Muhammad, the deal has yet to improve life in his city.

“There is no peace for those who can’t protect themselves.”

Jamal Uthman, the president of the local council in al-Bab.

Q: Which parties are participating in the agreement? Has it gone into effect yet?

Armed factions in al-Bab, the local council, the military council and the police force have all agreed to the deal, in the presence of our Turkish brothers.

The agreement contains seven terms, the foundation of which is a new central operations room to be established in order to immediately resolve current issues and meet the demands of local residents.

In regards to what is actually being implemented, disagreements have been resolved, and the factions’ headquarters have been given back to the city. The local council will take possession of the headquarters and take the appropriate measures in the coming days.

As for the new operations room, it has not fully come into operation, but, God willing, in the next few days you will see the results of the agreement on the ground.

Please, keep following the situation in the city if you have time.

Q: Did these steps come after pressure from local residents?

The agreement was being discussed for some time, but recent events like the infighting between factions that has killed numerous FSA fighters along with crimes against civilians by rebels expedited the process.

It became necessary for us to make this agreement with the help of our Turkish brothers. They played a positive role and attended a number of meetings with us.

 A street in al-Bab on March 29, 2017. Photo courtesy of AFP

Q: Turkey created a military base in Jabal a-Sheikh Aqil and cleared the area of residents. What are the Turks doing on the ground in accordance with the agreement? Is there a plan to clear the Turkish military base as well?

Yes, the Turks have a military base and it remains in place. Previously, there were houses and a hospital there on the mountain, but the hospital is now out of service.

The mountain is a strategic area. Whoever controls it sees what’s happening in [the entire city].

The base won’t be dismantled, but the Turks do not interfere in military affairs anyway.

There is a plan we’re working on for the Turks to compensate those displaced from the mountain.

Q: Where will the factions go after leaving their headquarters?

There is not a huge number of rebel headquarters inside the city. As far where they will head to now, that is up to them.

Q: After leaving, which security apparatus will take the factions’ place?

Of course, there are already security forces and police. We get along very well with them.

Q: Why is there a focus on banning masks? Were there issues caused by masks previously?

This is so no one group can arrest people without revealing their identity, or impersonate the FSA to make arrests, for example. That’s why we’ve banned the wearing of masks.

There are people who try to sow discord and ruin the stability in areas controlled by Euphrates Shield, and to stop the process of returning safety to the institutions of the city.

** 

Abu Muhammad 38, father of two, resident of al-Bab who hopes that this agreement is taken seriously.

Q: What do you think about the new agreement?

Nothing has happened yet on the ground, and as far as I’m concerned, if I haven’t seen any deep-rooted changes I consider the agreement ink on paper.

Q: Did these decisions come as a result of pressure from local residents, especially after the recent infighting?

The factions in al-Bab were discussing [an agreement] and consulting one another in the month leading up to the signing of the agreement. I still haven’t seen any changes, though.

For more than a month we’ve been working on a campaign called “Al-Bab is a friend.” It’s young activists and residents working together to make the rebels move out of their headquarters inside the city and to stop them from carrying arms.

People were very optimistic about the campaign at first, and there was a glimmer of hope that it would stop the attacks that happened against the vulnerable residents of the city. However, it was hopeless. Our voices went unheard.

Q: You mentioned that residents are attacked inside the city. Talk more about that. How does the presence of guns and armed forces in the city affect residents?

Life in al-Bab has become like life in the jungle. The FSA is always causing problems for us.

Yesterday, I saw a dispute happen in front of me. A member of one of the factions came to fix his car at the mechanic, and he was saying to the mechanic that “you’ll fix what’s wrong whether you like it or not.”

Both parties argued, and the mechanic refused. After an hour the fighter came back with a group and they arrested and humiliated him in the street.

People were fed up with these ongoing assaults, and they are already suffering from poor conditions after their homes were destroyed and they lost their sources of income. Now, they are being attacked in terrible ways since they are weak and no one is there to help them.

Weapons are everywhere, between fighters and residents, and the law is not enforced on anyone but the poor and the weak.

Q: What role do the Turks play in securing the peace? Which party, specifically, is keeping the peace?

Up until now, the Turks play a service role in al-Bab, and they don’t interfere in military affairs.

There is a police force, but it is only there to control traffic and it doesn’t interfere or deter the FSA.

There is also a military council and a security committee, but they belong to Firqat al-Hamza. Since they are part of a specific faction, their work is destined for failure—there’s no way for them to be neutral.

There’s no peace for those who can’t protect themselves.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Yazan Torko

Yazan studied interior design at Damascus university. In 2012, Yazan moved to Jordan where he volunteered with Syrian refugees. He is passionate about theater and previously developed YouTube videos for NGOs and small news outlets.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.