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Why Rebels and Islamists Are Pitted Against Each Other in Aleppo Province’s Manbij

OUTSKIRTS OF MANBIJ, ALEPPO PROVINCE – Arresting the suspected leader of an armed criminal gang is dangerous in the best of times. In today’s Syria, it’s probably deadly. A Manbij-based crime syndicate allegedly run by a man known as Abu Hashish has been robbing travelers in northeastern Aleppo province for months, striking as far as Salamiyeh in Hama and Ayn al-Arab near Raqqa from its base in Manbij, said Abu Ahmad, a fighter with Manbij’s Golan battalion.

Written by Mohammed Sergie Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Golan rebels, who are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and aim to establish a democratic state, relayed local complaints about Abu Hashish to jihadist groups in the area such as Ghoraba al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, but their leaders all refused to arrest him, Abu Ahmad said. (It was later revealed that Abu Hashish was actually a member of Ahrar al-Sham.)

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Last July rebels in Manbij county, one of Syria’s largest counties at 500,000 residents, were able to expel Assad regime soldiers. Although the city of Manbij was hit by air strikes, it was able to maintain order and became a model for the new government structures in northern Syria.

Since then, the proliferation of gangs engaged in kidnappings and highway robberies around Manbij and other areas that fell out of government control has fueled a sense of lawlessness. And ties between some of these alleged criminals and rebels have hindered responsible, armed Syrians from enforcing basic laws and capturing suspects – the main demands from concerned citizens.

In an effort to address these requests, the Sharia court in Manbij issued a warrant for the arrest of Abu Hashish. Abu Ahmad said that the Golan battalion carried out the order on April 2.

Fighters with the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham visited Golan’s headquarters that evening and said that they wanted to interrogate Abu Hashish and would punish him if found guilty. “We declined,” Abu Ahmad said. “Why didn’t Ahrar al-Sham arrest him after we filed so many complaints?”

Ahrar al-Sham was able to briefly take custody of Abu Hashish, but it couldn’t leave the area, and a firefight broke out between the groups. Abu Ahmad said that roughly 20 people were killed, including eight civilians. Many more were injured.

Abu Ahmad was there. “There were innocent bystanders who bled out on the street, and we couldn’t reach them,” he said.

The reluctance of jihadist groups to reprimand one of their own has tarnished their reputation among nationalist fighters in Manbij, a dynamic that is hurting Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups in many areas of the country.

Nusra and nationalist rebels clashed in Deir Azzour and Raqqa to the east, and opposition leaders have been forced to distance themselves from Nusra after the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaida.

Many of the same criticisms have been leveled at non-Islamist rebel groups, which have engaged in widespread looting and haven’t focused on punishing criminals within their ranks.

Abu Ammar, the Golan’s leader, was quick to praise Nusra and Aharar al-Sham’s sacrifices on the battlefield, but he added that Manbij was already liberated and the priority now is to reestablish order.

“We don’t want outsiders to come and dictate how we should live, especially when they are protecting criminals,” he said.

One local rebel who mans a checkpoint in Manbij said foreign fighters in the jihadist groups don’t respond to normal security procedures and rarely disclose what their plans are when they travel through a quiet city like this one. It’s frustrating for the nascent policing units who can either let these fighters pass or escalate tensions by apprehending jihadists, the latter often leading to deadly clashes.

Trust between rebels and jihadists in Manbij is also being eroded by a mounting suspicion that some Islamist groups are receiving orders from, or cooperating with intelligence officers in the Assad regime, Abu Ammar said.

He expects that clashes between rebel groups will remain limited in Manbij. He then repeated what has now become a common plea from nationalist rebels in the Syria opposition: “I wish that the West and the Arab countries would help the people inside the country, so we can face all these oppressors. We just need weapons and ammunition, and we will hold them accountable. We don’t need anyone to intervene.”


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