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In Kobani, Volunteers Cobble a Police Force

This is the first in a two-part series on Syria’s volunteer police brigades. AYN AL-ARAB (KOBANI), ALEPPO PROVINCE – With only a sixth-grade education and prior experience in temporary agricultural jobs, Fayyad Mula Khalil, the effective police chief in Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani in Kurdish, admits that he’s not qualified to be the city’s top cop.

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

“We need someone who is at least a first lieutenant, and I’m nowhere near that,” he said. “But what can I do? Should I hire someone from Sweden or the United States? We are the only ones here doing the job.”

The collective he is referring to are the Asayish, a volunteer security force of roughly 50 men who patrol the streets and maintain checkpoints in Ayn al-Arab, the Kurdish-majority town northeast of Aleppo. Khalil discourages being labeled as the chief, keeping in line with the socialist norms of committees and egalitarian rule in Kurdish areas.

Like it has in other towns that have fallen under de facto control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, <a href=”” target=”_blank”>the Assad regime gave up Kobani without a fight in July.</a> Khalil and other Kurdish activists had long been organizing underground, and were ready to take over the functions of the state when the government left.

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Khalil, a wiry 47-year-old who is fluent in Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish, said he picked up the skills needed to run a police force by having a “social personality,” and by participating in a communal conflict resolution committee for more than two decades.

The Asayish is designed to be apolitical, taking orders from the Kurdish Supreme Committee, an alliance of rival Kurdish parties, but is considered by many to be monopolized by the PYD.

Regardless of political meddling in the organization, the Asayish is unquestionably the law in Kobani, a city of 50,000. Its men direct traffic with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. The force occupies the city’s former police station, and it operates the prison. It’s further supported by a network of 700 neighborhood watch members who patrol Kobani’s streets at night.

This heavy security presence has made Kobani one of the safest counties in rebel-controlled Syria. Complaints on a recent day in April were from a woman who wanted to prevent her husband from taking a second wife (Khalil couldn’t help), and from a man who said his son and nephew were insulted by Asayish officers for speaking Arabic, not Kurdish (Khalil apologized and promised to investigate).

Murder in the county has been rare. The latest case was in January, when a taxi driver from the nearby city of Manbij was killed and his car stolen by three men from Kobani. Khalil said there were few criminals in the city who were capable of such a violent crime, so it was relatively easy to identify the suspects. The three men were arrested. They confessed and are awaiting trial.

Fake doctors have popped up around Syria in recent months, and Khalil has nabbed one in Kobani. A man named Mohammad Sido rolled into town a year ago and set up a pediatric clinic, claiming that he graduated from a university in France.

“I noticed that he never wrote a prescription and instead bought medications himself to give to patients,” Khalil said. “I asked the pharmacist what he was buying, and it was mostly cough syrup and mild pain killers. Something was off.”

Khalil paid a visit to Sido, and quickly decided that he wasn’t a doctor. Sido later confessed to be an imposter, and had previously run the same scheme in Afrin, a Kurdish town northwest of Aleppo. The Afrin scam led to a divorce once his wife found out, and Sido had taken a new wife in Kobani. That marriage is now on the rocks.

“We confiscated his clinic, and some local doctors have volunteered to use the space to provide free services to poor residents,” Khalil said, referring to the social justice that is common in the locally administered Kurdish areas in Syria.

Most of the crimes in Kobani are thefts, which are largely committed out of desperation due to the harsh economic situation here and in much of Syria, Khalil said. “There are no factories here,” he pointed out. “People are hungry.”

There are about 40 prisoners in the jail in Kobani. Some are awaiting trial by a committee of volunteer lawyers from the city, while others are serving sentences for their crimes. Khalil’s goal is to rehabilitate the criminals and eliminate recidivism.

“We don’t exert pressure on anyone, and never use psychological or physical torture,” he said. “Our goal is to convince people on the street that our police force won’t oppress them or extract petty bribes just as the Baathist regime did.”

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