BLINDFOLDED, shuffling along in his slippers, the
skinny young man is dragged across a rebel base in Aleppo by armed fighters who slap his back, head and face.
One of a handful of men held captive in the former school by rebels who control much of Syria’s largest city, he disappears down a flight of stairs to the basement, from where sounds of beating and screams emerge.
The 20-year-old man is being held because of a complaint of domestic assault, rebels say, alongside petty criminals and suspected members of the shabbiha militia, which supports president Bashar al-Assad.
The fighters say they are trying to impose the rule of law in the areas they control, filling the vacuum left by the local collapse of Assad’s rule.
But Assad’s army has not abandoned Aleppo. Yesterday, his forces pounded the north-eastern city, with a helicopter firing rounds from the air and troops on the ground firing artillery shells in an attempt to break through the rebels’ front-line in the district of Salaheddine.
But the Free Syrian Army rebels, who dominate most of Aleppo and its rural hinterland, divide opinion in the city. Some residents say their vigilante operations are often barely disguised vendettas and they are arrogant and intrusive.
“If they don’t like the actions of a person they tie him up, beat him and arrest him,” said one man.
Abu Zaher, a 40-year-old commander and administrative leader of the fighters at this base, says his men are working to maintain order.
“We are not just a fighting army,” he said. “We are also a group with a vision for reform; we want to bring back morality and civilisation to our country.”
Military commander Abu Ali said the rebels “organise flour to be delivered to the ovens to keep the flow of bread baked for the neighbours, and we deal with domestic issues between couples who come for our protection”.
A stream of people walk through the entrance to the base during the day with a range of requests – for donations for fuel, for help rebuilding a house, for the release of cars confiscated for traffic violations.
Abu Ali said they had also tried to ensure salaries were paid to public workers charged with keeping the streets clean.
“We are trying to control the situation so that when Assad falls completely there is little chaos,” Abu Zaher said. But he warned: “There are those carrying weapons and pretending to be part of the Free Syrian Army, but who are in fact thieves.”
Many of those inside the basement prison are accused of being members of the shabbiha, the pro-Assad militia. Their confiscated weapons sit in a pile in Abu Zaher’s office.
Abu Ali said that many of those they catch are released if they agree to defect to the rebels or can prove they were forced to work against the revolution.
The growing clout of the rebels, and signs of rivalry and infighting among them, has alarmed some residents.
“The Free Syrian Army is causing us headaches now,” said Abu Ahmed, who works with journalists in Azaz. People the rebels don’t like are beaten and arrested, he said. “Personality differences between brigade members are being settled using kidnappings and force. They are self-righteous and we are not happy about it.”
He added that on Friday they had heard of a man from the town who was taken hostage because he was selling vegetables to Kurds near the Turkish border. He said: “Because the Kurds didn’t stand with us in the revolution and the Free Syrian Army doesn’t like them, they decided to arrest him and also asked for a ransom of 25,000 Syrian pounds [£250] to let him go.”
Abu Zayd, a 22-year-old law student, said the rebels were interfering in Azaz.
“They started bossing us around,” he said. “They would try to organise the bread lines but then would let their armed friends cut ahead of the civilians, and they use their connections within the army to give each other preferential treatment.
“That’s why civilians are very focused now to send a message to the Free Syrian Army that we appreciate their work but they need to keep away from our civilian life. If they don’t, we will keep taking to the streets against them.”