Azaz, Syria — Asem Halaq sits in a war-damaged, colonial-era building in central Azaz and looks at the pile of dossiers stacked atop his desk. Just down the road in Aleppo, war is raging.
Yet here in Syria’s relatively safe rebel-occupied north, a semblance of normality is taking hold and civilian-organised judicial systems are beginning to emerge. In the case of Azaz, such structures are replacing armed rule.
Sitting in an unheated office, Halaq says he and a few other local lawyers established a civil court system in September, working with a civilian police force, and hearing cases, many of which have involved allegations against regime insiders who seized property before the uprising began.
“Every day we have 15 cases like this, worth perhaps 500,000 Syrian Pounds ($7,000) in all,” he says, pointing to the pile of cases sat atop his huge desk. “Some people try to cheat, though, and claim more,” he adds.
Azaz was brutalised in July, as regime forces and three rebel brigades slugged it out for control of the town, important given its proximity to the Turkish frontier and the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing.
Shelled, rocketed and bombed during the regime’s siege, swathes of the town’s infrastructure sits in ruin. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has employed a kind of “scorched earth” policy while attempting to suppress the 21-month revolt. Attack helicopters featured prominently in the assault on Azaz.
The rebel battalions that took control of Azaz after the ousting of government forces are still around but are only responsible for external security. Authority has been vested in a local council, established to provide public services.
Local councils have reportedly mushroomed in all 14 Syrian provinces and are linked to the Syrian National Council, recently formed in Doha. These provide the skeletal rudiments of a state, to be built upon if Bashar al-Assad falls.
Halaq, who serves as the court’s chief judge, says it is experimenting with alternative punishments instead of jail time, such as community service and apologies, and is answerable to the council.
“There was one man who forged a cheque. He will now go to jail for a few days and then we’ll see,” he says.
The court grew out of necessity in an environment of disorder, filling a judicial vacuum, while highlighting people’s desire for accountable institutions.
But problems abound.
The court’s offices have no electricity or water. It is resource poor and the judges are unpaid – a stipend of 100 Syrian Pounds ($1.40) per case covers some costs associated with hearings.
Meanwhile, the fear of government airstrikes is constant and tensions between Azaz and several nearby Kurdish villages persist.
For, Halaq, however, the most acute challenge is to establish precedents breaking with judicial corruption, building a fair justice system.
“Before the revolution, you needed to bribe the court just to get your case heard,” he says. “Now, no-one decides but the court; before the revolution everything was decided by the security services.”
Each case is heard by four judges, all lawyers before the uprising began, who base their decisions upon the Syrian Civil Code. A separate court, handling domestic disputes, relies on Islamic, or Sharia, law.
The town’s residents who spoke to Al Jazeera raised no complaints about the new court or the local council. But winter has set in, and as Syria’s long war grinds on, people are running out of money. Shops are poorly stocked. The town is intermittently shelled and the howl of Assad’s warplanes can occasionally be heard high above. Life is difficult.
“There is no bread, no power – maybe one hour a day – no diesel. A cylinder of cooking gas costs 3,500SYP ($50). There is no work,” says Mohammed Shahud, a local pharmacist.
“My stock is down to 10 percent because supply was cut off. There are no nappies, no baby milk, no medicine for blood pressure. There are refugees here from Aleppo and some of them have nothing, they just sleep on the school’s floor.”
The UN estimates that the Syrian conflict has sent upward of 700,000 refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries, with at least 2.5 million persons displaced within the country’s borders. The World Food Programme recently warned that it would be unable to reach 1 million of those who are internally displaced because of a lack of fuel and the continued fighting raging throughout the country.
The Azaz court works in parallel with a civilian police force. Untrained and dressed in jet-black jackets and jeans, the force’s 50 officers – all volunteers with no salary except a small stipend and some food – seem little more than men with assault rifles, not too dissimilar from the militia they replaced.
Rebel brigades left Azaz for other fronts, including Aleppo, following the battle for the town. One of the rebel groups, the Northern Storm Brigade, is headed by an alleged former smuggler named Ammar al-Dadikhli, also known as Abu Ibrahim.
Illustrating the need for accountable civil institutions, Abu Ibrahim’s brigade was notorious for having kidnapped ten Lebanese Shia pilgrims in the summer, detaining a Lebanese journalist for days, and engaging in bloody combat with a major Kurdish faction that controls Kurd-majority areas near Azaz.
“A few months ago the Free Syrian Army could, and sometimes would, just arrest people on the streets. There were also some show-offs among them and that caused some resentment [among the people] but that is now over,” says Hisham Abu Ahad, the deputy police commander.
The police guard the hospital, bakery, the court and the market, where they collect 25SYP per seller for costs of the new administration. Commanders say there is little crime and most of their work involves traffic accidents.
While rebel brigades have recently taken swathes of land throughout Syria, the conflict – which the UN estimates has killed at least 60,000 people – appears to have no immediate end in sight.
Yet Azaz’s emerging civil structures offer a rare bright spot in Syria’s bleak winter cold.
Halaq, sitting in the court, concluded: “The important thing is for people to see that the justice system is working.”