AMMAN: The main judicial body in rebel-held southern Syria is now taxing local trade with nearby government territory in an effort to shore up its operations after suffering a string of disabling funding cuts, attacks and threats in recent years.
The Court of Justice in the Houran—a united justice system formed by nearly 100 opposition factions in 2014—serves as one of the core institutions governing the only remaining opposition-held pocket in Syria’s southwest, a region spanning portions of Daraa and Quneitra provinces and the site of a longstanding, United States-backed ceasefire.
At the court’s three branches, residents can file for divorce, register land purchases, settle inheritance disputes and resolve a host of other civil and criminal legal matters. The main court branch just outside the provincial capital, Daraa city, also houses and staffs a major prison.
But despite relative success as a local justice mechanism in its early years, the Court of Justice has since faced a series of assassinations and assassination attempts, a large-scale jailbreak and a steady decline in funding from local factions and other undisclosed donors that came to a complete standstill in mid-2017.
In the absence of monetary support, the court decided to take financial matters into its own hands earlier this year by implementing a plan to introduce taxes on trade vehicles entering and exiting the pocket via crossings into nearby government-held territory, court president Sheikh Osmat al-Absi tells Syria Direct.
Court of Justice president Osmat al-Absi in 2016. Photo courtesy of Qasioun News Agency.
The tariffs range from SP2,000 (approx. $4) to SP6,000 (approx. $12), depending on the weight of each vehicle’s load.
“The goal is to cover a portion of the Court of Justice’s expenses,” al-Absi says. Those expenses—which Absi describes as nearly $60,000 USD per month—include staff salaries and security measures for the courthouses and prison.
Taxes collected at two rebel checkpoints currently enforcing the court’s tax system provide about 30 percent the court’s financial needs, the president says. Two additional checkpoints are scheduled to join the tax system this month.
Steady—if incomplete—funding for the court has allowed it to hire guards, install security cameras, establish a unified judicial archive and pay partial salaries. It has also given it a greater degree of independence, the president says.
“We don’t allow anyone to influence us,” he says, while noting that the judicial body faces pressure from other local actors seeking to “control and politicize” its operations in exchange for funding—offers refused in order to preserve legal neutrality.
Nonetheless, al-Absi acknowledges a central weakness: Although the unified court is meant to serve as a neutral arbiter of disputes, it still depends on local rebel factions to to enforce its rulings. Sufficient funding to employ an independent, effective police force has not yet materialized—the court still has a more than year-long backlog of unpaid salaries to address.
Vehicles pass through a checkpoint near the Daraa town of Dael. Photo courtesy of Dael Free Police.
The relationship between the court and local factions is one link in a codependent “network” of institutions and actors aiming to establish security and stability in rebel-held Daraa, says Marika Sosnowski, a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne whose research focuses on governance in ceasefire areas of Syria.
Within that network, which also includes tribal leaders and local councils, each member “offers the others something they alone cannot provide,” Sosnowski tells Syria Direct. In the court’s case, then, financial independence could allow it to “not be beholden to any other governance providers” for services like security, she adds.
But even in the court’s taxation plan, local factions play a role, manning the checkpoints where taxes are collected and, at some, receiving a portion of the profits, al-Absi says. The court president insists, however, that the fighters’ task is purely to provide security and guard court employees collecting fees. “The financial matter is in our hands,” he says.
‘All we can do is try’
While taxation provided the funds for a range of court improvements in recent months, some locals say it has resulted in an additional financial burden on residents of the rebel-held south who already face the economic impact of widespread, informal taxation at checkpoints leading into government territory.
The opposition court’s taxes are relatively low compared to the levies imposed at government-held checkpoints in Daraa, a member of the local council in the town of Kafr Shams, which sits alongside a crossing between rebel- and government-held territory, tells Syria Direct. Those fees can reach SP100,000 (approx. $200) for some vehicles, he says.
But the residents still “take on the economic burden” from court taxes, which he claims have led to an increase in the prices of some goods and cut profits for local farmers and traders. The council member requested anonymity, fearing repercussions for criticizing local actors.
The Court of Justice in the Daraa town of Gharaz in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Court of Justice in the Houran.
Abu Hussein, an electronics supplier from the Daraa town of Jasim, says the court taxes have already had a noticeable impact on his business.
“Even if the [court] taxes are low, they come out of our profits,” he says. “In turn, we have to raise prices in order to stay afloat.”
And while court president al-Absi says steady income from taxation has finally allowed the court to undertake financial planning, sustainability poses an additional challenge for a system that relies, in its essence, on the fragile flow of goods between rebel- and government-held territory.
That flow itself is threatened by the possibility of a government offensive on rebel-held Daraa, seen by some analysts as the next target for pro-government forces in the wake of a series of rebel defeats in and around Damascus.
Any renewed fighting could bring an end to 11 months of relative calm ushered in by the US-backed ceasefire in Syria’s rebel-held south and result in the closure of trade crossings.
“There are fears that taxes will be cut off,” court head al-Absi admits. “But in the end, all we can do is try.”
With additional reporting by Taha al-Rahhal.