The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than Northern Front” by Marika Sosnowski
Posted by Joshua on Thursday, July 9th, 2015
The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than the Northern”
For Syria Comment – 9 July 2015
by Marika Sosnowski – @mikisosnowski
The coalition of several dozen local insurgent groups, known as ‘the Southern Front’, is consolidating its control in and around Daraa and the Houran Plain in Syria. While the Southern Front is not a cohesive organization but instead an alliance of units that are each individually linked to and funded by the Western- and Arab-backed Military Operations Center (MOC) in Amman, the coalition has in recent months shown itself to be adept in understanding the importance of establishing and maintaining a legitimate and authoritative justice provider. This is because a strong judiciary shows Syrians, and the world, that the Syrian opposition can effectively govern areas under its control. A strong judiciary also makes the Southern Front one of the few viable alternatives to the Assad regime that has emerged from this crisis.
Around November 2014, financial and military setbacks forced Jabhat al-Nusra, which also has a strong presence in the south, into an alliance with the Southern Front and other Islamists. The alliance consolidated the various Hay’at Al Sharia, or Islamic Justice Committees, that had been operating in the Southern Front’s area of control, into one Dar al-‘Adl known as the Dar al-‘Adl fi al-Hawran, or the Houran Courthouse, which is located in Gharz, southern Syria. Before that, the Islamic Justice Committees of the Southern Front had used a mix of tribal, Islamic, and customary law to maintain order, with some success.
While in many ways the union is borne out of strategic necessity the real difference with the formation of the Dar al-‘Adl is that nearly all the factions seem to back it, whereas the courts in the north are more fragmented and affiliated with smaller sets of armed groups. As such, the northern courts do not command the same authority or legitimacy with Syrians that the southern court seems to be garnering. Additionally, the relative strength of the Southern Front, gained in part through the consistent coordination and backing of the MOC, have enabled the creation of a unified court that includes groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The formation of the court draws on lessons learned from the north in seeking to prevent the Islamists from creating their own systems of governance.
In a display of both military power and good faith, the groups negotiated to appoint sixteen judges to the court. Half were chosen by the Southern Front with al-Nusra appointing four and the remainder selected by other Islamist groups that are part of the alliance, Harakat al-Muthana and Ahrar al-Sham. It is not clear whether the judges are independent or simply members of their respective factions. However, the Courthouse is not wholly religious or civil, following the original Justice Committees by using tribal, Islamic, and customary law to deal with cases common in rebel-held Syria. These include military, criminal, and administrative matters, as well as reconciling disputes involving civilians and armed factions. For example, once the court was established detainees being held by the various factions were handed over to the court for sentencing and detention. The Court also seems to be playing an active mediation role between armed factions, such as the Shohadaa al-Yarmouk Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra. In the aftermath of a military operation in April to secure the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, the Court was also charged with establishing a judicial committee to record the claims of people affected during the operation.
While each faction would certainly prefer sole-control, the establishment of the Houran Court reflects a necessary practicality. With all sides unable to decisively establish dominance over the others on the battlefield, they have been compelled into compromise. Additionally, the establishment of one main justice provider is part of a pragmatic effort by the Southern Front to win civilian hearts and minds. External backers of the revolution may also see the Court as a relative success story for pragmatism showing that the Syrian opposition can create, ‘a “third way” of local governance that threatens Bashar al-Assad’s depiction of the Syrian opposition movement as extremists and terrorists.’
The effectiveness of the Courthouse in Houran in upholding and enforcing the law is in stark contrast to the situation in the north of Syria. In rebel-held Idlib and Aleppo, many courts have been essentially white-anted by the armed groups or other power brokers in town making it impossible for them to enforce the law. While some courts operating in rebel-held areas, such as those established in the image of armed groups like the Islamic Front’s Aleppo Sharia Court, have the ways and means to enforce their rulings, other courts, such as the Unified Judicial Council that operated until February 2014 in Aleppo and northern Idlib, have little to no ability to implement the law without the support of an armed group.
Additionally, because a cohesive legal structure is essential to effective governance, local communities need to establish and develop one main justice provider (and an associated legal hierarchy) as well as decide on one consistent body of law to deal with legal issues. In Kafr Nobel and Saraqib in northern Idlib province, for example, there are as many as five justice providers including a Sharia Court, the local police force and a Security Committee. Additionally, there is as yet no opposition agreement on whether pre-Ba’athist Syrian Law, the Unified Arab Code or Sharia law should be used to arbitrate disputes. Particularly regarding civil matters, the opinion of local tribal leaders also remains authoritative.
The obstacles that plague the establishment of the rule of law in northern Syria don’t seem to be happening with the Dar al-Adl in the south. Groups have so far honoured the courts decisions including cases of criminal allegations against their own members. The Court also seems to be using a consistent body of law that builds on the work of the Southern Front’s original Justice Committees. However, at this stage, the Court remains firmly wedded to its armed backers.
In wartime, fortunes are won and lost on the battlefield. As the most recent battle for control of Daraa unfolds, it will be interesting to see how military results affect the Southern Front’s relationship with its Islamist partners. If the Southern Front gains militarily, its professed nationalist and democratic agenda could offer new hope for a Syrian opposition that, until relatively recently, was considered by many as either extremist or fratricidal.
*Marika Sosnowski is a Middle East researcher. She has taught the history and politics of the region at a number of universities and is a regular guest on Melbourne radio station Triple R.
Idlib Falling Victim to Systematic Looting
Weeks after the city fell in the hands of rebel groups, Idlib is reportedly witnessing the systematic looting of public and private properties.
In the last few days, a number of activists from the city have been reporting the rising number of incidents involving the theft of state institutions and private assets alike.
In an interview on an opposition-affiliated radio, Ghazwan Qronfol, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Assembly, said, for instance, that members of the armed opposition groups had stolen hundreds of passenger cars and looted the private homes of many residents of the city, in particular those considered wealthy.
Other activists have also reported that public assets stolen have included the warehouse of the agricultural directorate of the city as well as the equipment of the Olive Bureau, the body in charge of monitoring the country’s olive sector and that is affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Also, machinery and equipment at the Idlib Spinning Plant, a large factory employing thousands of people, are reported to have been stolen.
Other parts of northern Syria that were taken over by opposition groups in the last three years have already been largely victim of chaos, theft and looting. Aleppo’s city, for instance, has seen the looting of hundreds of its plants.
However, many had hoped that Idlib would not face the same fate because of warnings by civil society groups and statements by rebel leaders that the same mistakes would not be repeated.
The chaos engulfing the city, however, raises again the case of the incapacity of the opposition to administer areas that fall outside the control of the regime.
The Syrian regime lost Idlib at the end of March after only a few days after the beginning of an offensive led by the Nusra Front and other radical Islamist groups.
At the time, the issue of how the city would be administered was raised and the National Coalition, the main non-military grouping of the opposition had asked rebel groups to protect private and public properties, to preserve the state’s institutions and ensure that they continued operating normally “to prove to the world that Syrians are capable of managing their country properly.”
While activists are making their anger increasingly heard on social media, there haven’t been yet reports of an opposition on the ground to the behaviour of the armed groups.
In addition to the prevailing lawlessness, the city faced a systematic bombing from the Syrian air force as soon as it fell outside the hands of the regime.
In a scenario that is reminiscent of many similar events in the last few years, the actions of the regime and of armed rebel groups have combined to make life unsustainable in the so-called “liberated” areas.