To an observer of Syrian affairs, the city of Jarablos in the governorate of Aleppo, seems to be among the most calm and stable “liberated” areas of Syria.
But Jarablos, which did not undergo much change immediately following the withdrawal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, when the city council was running its affairs, found itself several weeks ago at the centre of an identity crisis when it was suddenly declared an “emirate” in what was dubbed the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”
The announcement followed the merging in April of some elements of the Nusra Front with a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq known as the “Islamic State of Iraq” under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite the fact that this merger was opposed by both Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leader of the Nusra Front Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the Nusra Front in Jarablos supported it.
The new “Emirate of Jarablos” has already started building its institutions. The former governmental cultural centre has been turned into a school for the Association for Sunnis. The black flag of the Islamist state flies above many old government buildings.
Most of the fighters in this new Islamic state are Syrian, but there are a number of foreign Arabs in their ranks.
The Damascus Bureau visited the city in June to attend a Friday prayer where the “deputy Emir” of the city, Sheikh Omar, welcomed three fighters from the city of Marrakech in Morocco.
“They acknowledged [the legitimacy of] the Islamic State and came from Marrakech to defend Muslims and God’s Sharia law,” Sheikh Omar told the congregation. “Do not think that these men are immigrants. Those [foreign fighters] who have come to Syria in the thousands will not leave the country when Bashar is overthrown…they will only leave on one condition: That God’s religion reigns according to how the Prophet saw it, not according to coalitions and conferences.”
The enforcers of the new order are currently carrying out a campaign of arrests against suspected “Shabiha.” According to a local source involved in local governmnet, this campaign has targeted anyone with contacts in the regime or Baath party members who previously received weapons from the regime’s security headquarters.
“Those people are known to everyone,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He went on to say that the Islamic State is also targeting “anyone stealing in the name of the Free Syrian Army. They are many, and made a fortune on behalf of the revolution.”
The Islamic State recently released the media activist Mustafa Ahmadi, nicknamed“Abu Jaafar al-Halabi” after previously arresting him on suspicion of “communicating with a wanted person” accused of killing a Nusra Front fighter, the source added.
Jarablos was also the site of violent clashes between the “Islamic State” and one of the battalions of the local Jader clan. According to sources familiar with the incident, three members of the Martyr Yousef al-Jader Battalion and two Islamist fighters were killed in the fighting.
It was just one year ago in July 2012 that this border city fell at the hands of the Free Syrian Army. The regime, in turn, did not resist enough to hold on to it. At the time, the people of Jarablos did not experience a severe decline in the stability of their city, nor did the FSA interfere in the affairs of the city or the private lives of its residents. Meanwhile, the regime continued to pay the salaries of government workers while the local council was formed with 11 subcommittee offices.
According to local sources, the heads of these offices were appointed by certain leaders in the city. Ahmed al-Jader, the council chairman, said that the council “elected” the “most revolutionary” and capable individuals.
When asked who determines the “most revolutionary” individuals, Jader said the names are “generally agreed upon,” pointing out that there is a “revolutionary” follow-up committee while declining to name the committee members. He acknowledged the problematic nature of this system, but preferred not to dwell on the details.
These “elected” council members do not receive any salary. The regime continues to pay its employees’ wages through local accountants in Aleppo. It should be noted, however, that the government stopped paying some of its employees, who were believed to have dealings with the Free Syrian Army.
According to Jader, the local council depends upon funding from the opposition-led Aleppo Governorate Council, as well as some income from the border crossing and revenue from the automatic bakery that was run by the government.
As for the services provided by the council, Jader said it provides drinking water and trash collection in coordination with the Municipal Council of the regime government.
The Damascus Bureau sought out Mayor Khaled Mawas, who confirmed that the members of the municipality still receive their salaries from the government but declined to speak further on the subject.
“We provide fuel for the mechanisms of the municipality, as well as maintenance, since the government does not provide support to cities beyond their control,” said Jader.
The offices in the council include: the Finance Office, the Relief Office, and the Office for Refugees and the Wounded (the Council provides assistance to the families of those civilians and opposition fighters killed fighting the regime, and pays for their funerals, as well as providing them with relief). The judiciary, however, falls under the Shariah Council and has “nothing to do with the [local] council.”
Between the municipality, the local council and the Islamic State, the number of active institutions on the ground continue to multiply. Last April, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (known by its Kurdish PYD) founded a local chapter of its “People’s House” association in Jarablos. According to the head of the fledgling institution, Ali Hajjo, the People’s House function “like any other institution in areas where there are Kurds.”
“We have the idea of self-management,” he said. “We established People’s House to conduct our affairs as a result of the chaos that emerged after the fall of the regime’s institutions.”
“We try to play a positive role in the city and contribute to its stability through the formation of municipal committees focused on the subject of relief, as well as peace committees to mediate disputes and resolve outstanding problems between people, regardless of their affiliations, whether they are Kurds or Arabs or Turkmen,” Hajjo continued.
Several other members of the People’s House who spoke to The Damascus Bureau emphasized the importance of the “strong bond” linking the residents of the city, adding that even when clashes erupted in Ras Al-Ain (Sari Kanye) between the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), this did not affect the relationship on the ground among the people of Jarablos.
Hajjo also said they had not had any problems with the armed battalions, adding: “They are our brothers.”
In fact, the head of People’s House recently announced the formation of a local battalion of the Kurdish Front, which is close to the YPG and fights the regime under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, in the city of Aleppo and the surrounding area.
Despite the calm facade in Jarablos, local residents express fear for the future of their city, which is no longer “safe and stable,” according to Ahmad, 28, a native of the area.
Ahmed said people fear clashes could break out “at any moment.”
“The city is under the control of several parties with clearly very different ideologies,” he said, adding that the future of Jarablos is inextricably linked to that of Syria as a whole and especially the north and northeast of the country.