Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, September 18th, 2013
The Question: Is the new Sharia Council of Aleppo that administers the sharia courts run by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliated militia?
Why do we ask?
This is Abu Sulayman, speaking in the name of the Hayaa al shariaa and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) back in April as he announces the good intentions of its founders – بيان الهيئة الشرعية للمجاهدين من أجل الحفاظ على أملاك المواطنين في الحي وحمايتها من اللصوص والمسيئين .
Aleppo’s Hayaa Sharia (Legal Commission) is, as far as I know, the biggest experiment in local governance and rebel rule in northern Syria, although still just one of many mostly local attempts. It is essentially a court system which serves as a rudimentary governance apparatus and mediation tool, set up in collaboration between many groups.
It was started by, I think, three or four armed factions: Jabhat al-Nusra (AQ), Ahrar al-Sham (SIF), Liwa al-Tawhid (which became part of SILF later, also SMC) and maybe Suqour al-Sham (SMC & SILF charter member). All are Islamist to some degree, but Suqour and especially Tawhid seem to be more pragmatic/opportunistic and populist big-tent movements, more focused on the war than on ideology. They include some strict Islamist figures and factions, and deploy a bit of that rhetoric when it suits the audience, but are also basically fine with Western support and say they want elections, etc (unlike Qaida & Ahrar al-Sham).
Later, many other factions have given their backing to the Haya as well, and the composition probably changed. For example, Suqour is now very marginal in Aleppo, as far as I can tell. Ahrar al-Sham has absorbed a big local faction called Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya; and Nusra split with ISIS, and so on. People still say the Hayaa is dominated by al-Qaeda types, and maybe that’s the case. But it might also just be shorthand for saying it is strictly Islamist – which, by itself, is not so surprising for a sharia tribunal. In addition, Tawhid also seems to have been backing the embryonic Civil Court system which is a semi-rival of Hayaa Sharia, but I’m not clear on how or if that works. All of this seems to be evolving constantly.
— Addendum (Thursday Sept. 19, 2013) —
Question: Don’t SILF and al-Qaida have a common platform if both coalitions cooperate on the Hayaa al Shariaa in the hope that it will becoming a cornerstone of a future Islamic state? And doesn’t Nusra fight alongside the SILF on most fronts? if they’re fighting together and establishing the rudiments of a future state together, what exactly separates the al-Qaida aligned groups from the American-back SILF militias that are represented on the Supreme Military Council?
Aron Lund Answers
No, Nusra is definitely not in SILF in any way. SILF is not much of a working alliance anyway, it’s just a collection of big Sunni Islam-minded SMC groups who maintain a website and take some common positions, and probably enjoy some common funding through it. It’s Islamist in a general way, but not at all rigid salafi-jihadi in the way that Nusra is. Nusra could give you a sharia-based position on everything from length of beards to the proper way of executing a murtadd, SILF has a platform made up of like five bullet points designed to please any and all.
I talked to a spokesman for one of the biggest groups in SILF, the Farouq Battalions, and he couldn’t even tell me for sure who the president of SILF was – that’s how little it matters. They all want Gulf and Western funding, unlike Nusra, and one of it’s biggest groups is Farouq, which has had several battles with Nusra/ISIS. But it varies from group to group.
Maybe Nusra and some of the more fundamentalist SILF factions will grow closer and unify down the road, there’s no way of knowing. But now they’re clearly separate forces, some of them cooperate well with the AQs and some don’t. There are other forces (minor jihadis like Katibat al-Muhajerin, salafis like Ahrar al-Sham & the SIF groups) which are much closer to Nusra & ISIS.
Thomas Pierret Joins in
Concerning the groups that back the Hay’a Shar’iyya in Aleppo, in addition to those mentioned by Aron, I’d add Liwa’ Ahrar Suriyya, an FSA-affiliate that can hardly be described as Islamist.Concerning the post-Assad judicial system, the question is not so much “sharia or not sharia”, but 1. which kind of sharia? 2. which kind of judicial authority?. By “which kind of sharia?”, I mean: the idea that sharia is the source of law is found in the constitutions of many Arab states, even before 2011, but what does it mean in practical terms? The Unified Judiciary (Aleppo’s “mainstream” post-Asad judicial authority) implements the Unified Arab Code (a code agreed upon by the Arab ministers of Justice in 1996), which is an example of positive law based on sharia. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to closely analyze the decisions made by the Hay’a Shar’iyya, my impression is that they’re closer to tradition Islamic jurisdiction, that is, religious scholars making decisions on the basis of scriptural sources and classical treaties instead of a modern positive code.The second issue (which kind of judicial authority?) is a matter of independence: the Unified Judiciary has tried to establish itself as an independent judicial authority, but it is relatively weak, since there is no state authority (be it domestic or external) to support it, which makes it impossible to maintain a loyal police force; the Hay’a Shar’iyya is the mere judiciary arm of the armed groups that established it, therefore it is stronger, but it totally lacks independenceSince Western countries refuse to support state-building efforts in Syria’s liberated areas, and since Gulf monarchies are highly incompetent as far as shaping the post-Asad order is concerned, the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future is the reinforcement of the “hay’a shar’iyya” model at the expense of the “Unified Judiciary” one. The purpose of such institutions is fundamentally to re-establish law and order, which only the strongest rebel groups are in a position to do at the moment.
Thomas Pierret, Lecturer in Contemporary Islam,
University of Edinburgh
The Growing Battle between FSA militias and ISIS and Nusra
An important article on inter-rebel competition and how al-Qaida linked militias and the Syrian Islamic Front are gaining the upper hand is