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Syria rebel fighters not ready to give up power after war

JABAL AL-ZAWIYA, Syria — The rebel commander Jamal Maroof was fiddling with his iPhone when a young man brought him news.

People were complaining about the rebel checkpoints that dotted the more than two dozen villages under the control of Maroof's Martyrs of Syria Brigade.

"The people are saying — " the young man began.

"What are they saying?" Maroof demanded. Without waiting for an answer, he told an aide to prepare a statement about the checkpoints to be read during Friday sermons.

"No one is opposed to the checkpoints and no one is allowed to object, because if he objects that means he wants chaos," Maroof said.

Maroof is among the rebel commanders who could threaten efforts to establish a civilian government for post-conflict Syria.

The armed uprising against President Bashar Assad is led mostly by working-class volunteers, many of whom resent the expatriates, the better-educated and others seeking to establish political leadership through local or national opposition councils. Some rebels also view the councils as proxies for the West and other outside interests. Many refuse to recognize the councils' authority.

If the men who now lead armed fighters refuse to give up power after the civil war, Syria could become a failed state and fertile ground for warlords and competing militias.

Idlib, along with other provinces, elected a civilian-led provincial government. Although most of the province is in rebel hands, the council operates from neighboring Turkey, and it appears to have about as much authority as a humanitarian organization. That is the gist of its contribution on the ground, where it has largely confined itself to sending aid and helping secure funds to reestablish services like water and electricity.

Meanwhile, the power of the armed rebel forces has extended well beyond the front lines in many areas to include control over roads, distribution of humanitarian aid as well as commerce and the courts.

A court governed by sharia, or Islamic law, and run by a group of Muslim clerics and lawyers has been established. Along with a newly formed highway patrol, it has helped reduce crime and conflicts among the rebels. But the court draws its power from the rebel militias that both recognize and protect it, making it unclear whether opposition fighters would respect its authority.

Rebels insist that militia control now, in a time of war and rampant insecurity, does not preclude a democratic future for Syria.

Some of the fighters talk longingly of returning to their old lives after the conflict, but others believe they are owed something for their sacrifice.

"I am the one who is here every day fighting and dying, and then they want to bring someone else to put them on the council?" asked Lt. Col. Ahmad Suood, military commander of the Slaves of the Merciful Brigade. The brigade is based in Maarat Numan, a city of 120,000 that has seen most of its residents flee in recent months as shells have rained down from nearby military bases.

As class resentments surface, fighters complain that better-educated civilians feel entitled to positions of power.

"They say, 'How can an illiterate person come and rule me?' " said Muhammad "Abu al-Zaki" Aassi, spokesman for the Suqoor al-Sham Brigade, which, along with the Martyrs of Syria, controls the villages of the Jabal al-Zawiya area.

Suqoor al-Sham oversees a court, a field hospital, a bakery and a commissary that sells at regulated costs, undercutting the local shops that were price gouging, according to Aassi.

"With regards to those who made civilian councils, and I have said it a million times, when did they join the revolution?" asked Aassi, who worked as a merchant in Lebanon before the uprising. "How are you going to defect late and then … try to rule over those who made this whole revolution possible?"

Aassi attended the provincial council elections in Turkey months ago even though he wasn't invited, and said civilian activists aren't coordinating with the rebels.

He spoke in a damp, Roman-era cave underneath his home that has been turned into the brigade's media center, with bags and extra blankets stored in rocky crevices. A TV broadcast news about a conference in Istanbul, Turkey, in which the national civilian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, selected a Kurdish American businessman as its prime minister, a move that alienated many of the rebel fighters.

"It will fall apart," Aassi muttered.

The resentment can cut both ways. Increasingly, civilians are alarmed by militia behavior that they view as high-handed at best and dangerously abusive at worst.

Recently, as rebels were engaged in intense fighting with army soldiers at the Wadi Deif military base, the military commander of the Martyrs of Maarat Brigade asked the field hospital in Maarat Numan to send an ambulance to the front lines to rescue wounded rebels.

Those injured in the fighting were being rushed to the hospital in the backs of cars and trucks.

But a hospital administrator refused the request, citing the risk as well as a lack of ambulances. Hours later, a group of armed rebels from the brigade stormed into the hospital to arrest the administrator.

Others at the hospital, including city elders, intervened and persuaded the rebels to leave.

"We haven't fought to get out from under one military boot in order to be put under another military boot," said Abdulnassir Malas, a lawyer from Maarat Numan and member of the city council.

Malas is trying to get rebel commanders to sign a pledge supporting elections in Syria and agreeing to hand in weapons after the fall of the regime. Malas said all the groups he approached have signed the pledge so far, including the Islamist Al Nusra Front, whose leaders have said it opposes elections.

Malas, who has been detained five times since the beginning of the uprising, said Syrians are fearful of the prospect of militia rule.

The previous week the commander of a rebel militia on the outskirts of Maarat Numan arrested a mechanic because the man was a day late fixing the commander's car. The mechanic was released only after Malas and others intervened.

"I told him, 'Have you become a second Bashar Assad?' " Malas said.

At a highway checkpoint outside the city, cars and tractor trailers were parked on a recent day on both shoulders as rebels poked around inside and searched trunks and trailers.

Several armed rebels watched as another rebel, a tall, slender man in a black ammunition vest and bandanna, scurried from vehicle to vehicle, asking: "Where's the 500? Here, give me the 500." In his hands he held a stack of cash and passes stamped with the seal of the newly formed highway patrol.

The patrol was set up two months ago to quell crime on the roads, mostly robberies and kidnappings, and had been widely praised until it began imposing a toll in March: 500 Syrian pounds (about $7) for cars and 1,000 pounds for tractor-trailers.

There are now almost two dozen checkpoints stationed along the highway from the Turkish border through Aleppo and Idlib provinces, manned by hundreds of rebels.

Much of the crime has been eliminated, said Sheik Sadaam Ahmad, a cleric from the sharia court overseeing the patrols. But the toll, which Ahmad said is for road repairs, has been criticized as a power grab that could set a dangerous precedent.

"People are saying we have formed these groups in order to rob," said Malas. "In the time of Bashar Assad it wasn't even like this."

"It's stealing," said Raed Mandeel, a commander of the Martyrs of Maarat Brigade, "but with a receipt."

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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