Life goes on in Syria thanks to men like Yasser Mamaar
Across Syria, as the government concentrates its resources on holding on to power in the big cities, towns and villages are becoming self-governing, meaning local leaders must try and maintain the peace, even in religiously mixed areas.
Yasser Mamaar, an electricity supply merchant in the northern town of Maaret Misreen, population 40,000, is one of those striving to keep his people safe from the worst of the now 15-month-old uprising’s excesses.
Since becoming the head of the eight-member revolutionary council late last year, the 55-year-old has helped distribute fuel, brokered a truce with the army and won the release of dozens of locals kidnapped by armed groups.
“There is no police station, there is no state, so who else can they go to?” said Mr Mamaar this week, who now dispenses advice, mediates disputes and issues orders in addition to selling light bulbs and circuit breakers.
While massacres have raised fears of strife between Syria’s religious sects, Mr Mamaar, a Sunni Muslim, also works to calm tensions with his Shiite Muslim neighbours – a task that gets harder every day.
Sectarianism is a rising force in the Syrian conflict, with a predominantly Sunni rebel movement fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is largely led by members of his Alawite sect. Other minorities, such as Shiites and Christians, have mostly stood by Mr Assad, fearing for their place should he fall.
While dreaming of Mr Assad’s fall, Mr Mamaar’s daily work serves a simpler goal: keeping chaos out of his town.
“As soon as there is chaos, the army comes, and as soon as the army comes, who will they kill? Our sons,” Mr Mamaar said.
The revolt in Maaret Misreen started with small anti-regime demonstrations in April 2011. Residents mainly stood up against corruption and meddling by security services in many aspects of town life.
“It was a dictatorial system, so they had to keep everything under their control,” said local activist Muhanad Aon.
Many suspected a local Muslim cleric, Abdel-Ghani Kassab, of being a regime mole planted to spy on residents. He disappeared early in the uprising, only to return in December with a group of pro-regime fighters who then attacked local rebels, residents said. Mr Mamaar’s 22-year-old son, Tamer, was killed.
But the cleric and his fighters fled, and all other traces of the national government left soon thereafter.
In March, the army shelled the city for two days, killing five people. Afterward, Mr Mamaar helped negotiate a deal in which the rebels removed their checkpoints in exchange for calm. The army hasn’t come back since.
“We worked hard to make that happen, and the village hasn’t been ruined. So I feel we achieved something,” said an opposition writer, Khatib Badli, who served as intermediary between the regime and the town.
The uprising has affected Mr Mamaar’s own views of Shiites in nearby villages. He regularly calls them “liars” and says the regime is arming them to work as shabiha – pro-government thugs that violently suppress protests.
He also accuses them of being loyal to Iran, suggesting they would choose to go to that Shiite country if Mr Assad falls.
“I think it’s better if they don’t stay in the area,” he said.
Reached by phone, a prominent Shiite from one of those villages had some words of his own for those who oppose Mr Assad.
“Those people aren’t revolutionaries. They are troublemakers and traders in blood,” said Zein al-Deen Taalib, 48.
He said many in his village of Fua served in the army and that they set up checkpoints.
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