The Free Syrian Police assesses a traffic accident in Atareb in December. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Free Police Leadership.
AMMAN: The Free Syrian Police, an opposition-affiliated law enforcement apparatus operating in areas of Syria’s rebel-held northwest, will “dissolve” in the wake of a military takeover by hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, sources inside the organization told Syria Direct Thursday.
Members of the Free Syrian Police in both Idlib and Aleppo provinces were notified over electronic messaging services late January 9 that the organization would “dissolve definitively,” one Free Syrian Police officer in the western Aleppo countryside told Syria Direct on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
According to the source, the Free Syrian Police’s deputy president, Hamidi Mater, also announced his resignation in the message.
“It is expected that the entire leadership will resign within the coming hours and days,” the anonymous source added.
The Free Syrian Police’s Idlib branch also issued an official statement Thursday calling for the “suspension” of work in all its departments “until further notice.”
The statement urged that all equipment in Free Syrian Police branches across Idlib should be returned to affiliated local councils, and offices handed back to landlords.
A network of community police officers covering rebel-held areas of Idlib and western Aleppo countryside, the Free Syrian Police has operated under the authority of local councils affiliated with the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government (SIG) since 2012.
Based in the southeastern Turkey city of Gaziantep, the SIG was established by the opposition in 2013 as an alternative to the Syrian government.
In a series of sweeping advances over the past week, HTS seized at least a dozen towns and villages formerly held by the National Liberation Front (NLF)—a Turkish-backed rebel formation in Syria’s northwest.
Advances have led to the collapse of NLF factions Harakat Nour a-Din al-Zinki in western Aleppo and Ahrar a-Sham in northern Hama province’s Sahel al-Ghab region.
A ceasefire agreement between HTS and the NLF, announced Thursday, will meanwhile reportedly see HTS’ affiliated governance body—the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)—assume administrative, civil and judicial duties over areas recently captured by the hardline group.
Residents in Atareb, in western Aleppo province, say that the work of local institutions and service providers remains unaffected for now.
However, human rights defender Mohammad a-Thaer*—who was displaced from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus last year—told Syria Direct that local residents are “afraid” the situation could change as HTS assumes administrative control over the city.
“We are currently cautious about moving around,” he said, “because the violations don’t usually happen in the first few days.”
Led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, HTS is notorious for imposing strict Islamic rule in areas under its control and has been tied to arrests and disappearances of lawyers, aid workers and activists.
“[HTS] will fight any writing or peaceful movements against them,” a-Thaer says. “People’s [civil society] activities will be different in Atareb, compared with before.”
But regardless of HTS’ policies, a-Thaer fears that civil society and aid organizations linked to opposition-affiliated local councils will simply pack up and leave.
“You can’t be working with the Interim Government and support their councils and then go and support the councils of the Salvation [Government],” he says.
“[It] will damage you in the long run that you’re supporting what is considered a terrorist [organization].”
Negotiations over the transition from SIG to SGG control in the western Aleppo countryside are still ongoing, according to a member of the western Aleppo countryside provincial council who has taken part in the negotiations.
However, it remains unclear how opposition-affiliated local councils and public institutions will figure in the ongoing negotiations, and whether they will be able to continue work in the future.
Atareb residents fixing a hole in the street last week with support from the town’s local council. Photo courtesy of the Local Council of al-Atareb City.
One of the proposals being discussed, the council member said, concerns whether local councils continue their work as usual and “remain connected” to the SIG-affiliated provincial council, but with the SSG assuming a “supervisory role.”
The different parties are likely to reach a final agreement next week, he added.
Representatives from the HTS-affiliated SSG have meanwhile refused outright to “allow the Free Police to remain in its current form,” the anonymous Free Syrian Police officer told Syria Direct Thursday.
Instead, the HTS-affiliated Islamic Police will assume law enforcement duties, while purportedly giving officers from the Free Police the opportunity to join their ranks on condition of a prior “security examination” and training.
For Abu Bayan, a Free Syrian Police officer in the western Aleppo countryside, joining the Islamic Police is an impossible scenario.
“I can’t work with [them],” he said, adding that he fears that the Islamic Police will interfere in people’s personal freedom. “They have ideological agendas.”
Following massive funding cuts by the British government in August last year, the Free Syrian Police has struggled to stay afloat.
Abu Bayan says he and his colleagues have not received their salaries for the past four months. He has been surviving off of borrowed money from friends and relatives, living in the hope that the organization would somehow manage to find new funding sources.
The decision to dissolve the Free Police was a final blow.
Now, he’s considering leaving the country altogether and heading for Turkey.
“It’s better than staying in an area controlled by people who hide behind religious gowns,” he said.
*Syria Direct has withheld the real names of all sources in Syria’s northwest quoted in this report to protect their safety.