As two years of conflict have spread chaos over Syria’s largest city, bands of armed fighters here in Aleppo have been routinely linked to widespread looting and extortion in the territory under their control. To mute any public complaints, rebel groups routinely detain and beat up those who publicize their crimes.
Wael Ibrahim is a 30-year-old protest organizer in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood. He’s become famous for his confrontations with Jabhat al-Nusra and Free Syrian Army brigades. He goes by the nickname Abu Maryam.
Maryam has been lashed by jihadists and required stiches after rebels struck his head with the butt of a rifle. But though he fights these abusive rebel groups, he still supports the armed rebellion against the Assad regime.
Below are excerpts of an interview between Abu Maryam and Syria Deeply’s senior editor Mohammed Sergie, conducted after a Friday protest in Aleppo.
“I’ve been hauled in for questioning many times since the Free Syrian Army took control of the neighborhood, too many to remember. But my run-ins with Jabhat al-Nusra were memorable.
A few months ago some fans of the group wanted to raise Nusra’s black flag at our protest and chant for the establishment of a Caliphate. They were just 15 guys, and I wasn’t going to let them hijack our protest. So I came up with the chant: ‘All armies are thieves, Assad’s, FSA and Islamic.’
Nusra arrested me on the charge of insulting Islam. They beat me up and detained me for hours, then released me when word of my arrest got out. But they warned me to not repeat the offence, and said I was a heretic who should be punished.
I didn’t listen. When the group tried to call for an Islamic state at another protest, I confronted them and cursed them. I admit that I used language I shouldn’t have, and it was wrong. They tried to arrest me but I was able to slip away.
A few weeks later they returned with the same slogan, this time in a banner, and I threw it aside. By mistake I crumpled up a sign with a holy text on it and threw it as well. I was arrested for that, and for the alleged crime of asking for the Syrian military to enter Bustan al-Qasr.
Nusra locked me up with the shabiha [the dangerous pro-Assad militia] that time, not with other activists, which was terrifying. They lashed me ten times. It was painful.
Two weeks ago, I heard a banging outside of the soup kitchen we run in the neighborhood. I saw rebels trying to break into a shop. They said they were from Fatah Brigade and had orders to confiscate the goods in the store because the owner was a shabih.
After asking around in the neighborhood, it was clear that the shop owner wasn’t a shabih. It was getting dark, and the rebels were preparing to loot the shop, so I stood in their way to prevent them.
I told them to stop; they said to mind my own business. They started pushing me around, and my wallet was lifted during the scuffle. I was hit with the base of a rifle, which drew blood from my head. I threw up and passed out, only to come to at the hospital. I was told that other rebel units came to break up the fight, and they let the Fatah brigade members leave. But the Fatah battalion wasn’t able to loot the shop.
A Shariah court judge visited me at the hospital and said that the battalion from Fatah has been on a crime spree, and other victims have been too scared to report them. So I filed a complaint and they were arrested.
Some rebels in Aleppo come from neighborhoods filled with shabiha. These guys were beating us up when we were peaceful demonstrators and now they are doing the same after the revolutionaries got armed. How did they become FSA, this is the question.
It seems that the FSA is following the Arabic maxim: better the dog that barks with you than at you.
I never hesitated to expose the transgressions of the rebels, but that doesn’t mean I support the Assad regime’s army. The rebels’ mistakes are heaven when compared to the regime. It’s enough that the looters from the FSA, who are actually shabiha, were stopped by a civilian. If regime soldiers came to loot a store and someone stood in their way, what would they do? They wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone who opposes them, and would simply dump the corpse and carry on.
I’m not even bringing up the regime’s shelling, the air strikes. There’s no comparison.
It’s true that rebels are making mistakes, but civilians are able to criticize them. We can speak directly to military commanders from the FSA. The biggest example is that Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi [a prominent rebel commander in Aleppo], faced a crowd taunting him to go to the frontlines at our protest [in Bustan al-Qasr].
Anyone who stands with us under fire deserves respect. al-Okaidi’s presence at the protest showed he doesn’t think he is more important than us.
I was hurt a few weeks ago, but it was worth it because other battalions will think twice before coming to my neighborhood to loot stores and harass civilians. I stood up alone last time, and I’m sure someone else will confront them if I can’t in the future. The Syrian people broke the fear barrier a long time ago.