Daniel Hilton| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Seven months since the last rebel fighter was expelled from its eastern neighborhoods, Aleppo is a city on edge, where lawlessness rules and hunger bites.
Dragged into the Syrian civil war in 2012, residents of the country’s commercial capital might have been forgiven for thinking that some degree of security and normality would return to Aleppo’s streets after regime forces took complete control last December.
Instead Aleppines have found their city overrun by militias, whose violence and criminality has prompted the government to take action – with mixed reports of success.
The militias are a hangover from the regime’s final assault on east Aleppo, where it relied heavily on paramilitary regiments and Iran-backed fighters to win the battle.
“After these groups regained control of all Aleppo they turned into gangs who harass the city’s residents and interfere in all matters of their lives,” one Aleppo resident, who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety, told The Daily Star.
According to the resident, the militias are numerous and diverse, each staking control of parts of the city and setting up checkpoints.
Some are the remnants of the regime’s previous fighting force; others are loyalist groups known as Popular Committees by government supporters, or less kindly as “shabiha” – shady thugs – to others.
Armed to the teeth, these militiamen make a point of deploying in key areas of the city, such as those containing water wells, electricity generators and petrol stations.
For people just concerned with going about their daily business, the threat of violence and even death at the hands of these militias has been only too real.
Last month a 13-year-old boy named Ahmad Jawash leaned into a car full of men in military fatigues in the hope that he would sell some chewing gum and biscuits. Instead one of the passengers pulled out a gun and shot him in the head, before escaping in broad daylight.
Although shocking – the murder prompted Aleppo Gov. Hussein Diyab to assure it “would not pass unnoticed” – the incident in west Aleppo’s upmarket Mogambo district was part of an increasingly worrying trend.
June also saw the death of Talar Vosekain, a Syrian-Armenian dentist, who was struck by an unlicensed car as she strolled down the sidewalk.
And in the same month, players from the Al-Ittihad football club were assaulted out of the blue by thugs wielding pump-action shotguns and knives, just as they were picking up a teammate to go to training.
Theft, too, has become widespread. Militias have set up headquarters between the residential neighborhoods in the city’s east, from which they loot homes and businesses in the former rebel bastion.
According to Baraa al-Agha of the Syrian Network for Human Rights activist group, which documents abuses committed during the war, hundreds of homes have been looted – “especially those affiliated with armed opposition factions or media activists.”In the neighborhoods of Masaken Hanano, Sakhour and Al-Saleheen many houses have been torched by the militias as an act of revenge against their opposition-supporting owners.
“When the militias need money, they come to a house and say it’s terrorists’ and take it,” Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, an activist who was expelled from Aleppo in December and now lives in rebel-held Idlib province, told The Daily Star.
Civilians in the city’s east are also at risk of arrest and detention.
Between the beginning of 2017 and July 6, the SNHR has documented the arrest of no less than 423 civilians – including 21 women and 17 children – who refused to leave east Aleppo for rebel-held areas.
Yet some of the hardships experienced by Aleppo residents are found across the political divide and social strata.
Women have increasingly become targets of the thugs and militias that roam the streets, according to pro-opposition website Enab Baladi, which quoted a resident as saying many women had been subject to kidnapping and rape.
Meanwhile, on local and regime loyalist webpages reports have surfaced about an alleged incident where a girls’ dormitory at a university was stormed by a group of young men, who were warded off by pans of boiling water.
Hamdo said a friend of his wife in east Aleppo never leaves her home because she doesn’t want the militias to know there is a young woman in the house. “She says that when girls from east Aleppo walk in the streets they feel like slaves that might be taken at any time.”
Many Aleppines have stopped traveling around the city at night in order to avoid running into militiamen and shabiha, and the Aleppo resident told The Daily Star that as more women are harassed and more men are detained some families have begun to flee the city.
On top of all this, residents across the city are struggling to feed their families, as prices for basic goods continue to skyrocket.
“There is no problem in Aleppo regarding the availability of products in the markets, the markets are filled with different kinds of product,” the resident said.
“The main problem is the high prices. ... Wages are still the same while prices are at least 10 times higher.”
Clearly life like this cannot persist, and politicians have begun to wake up to the city’s downward spiral and attempted to take control.
On June 19, Aleppo MP Ali al-Sattouf warned Parliament, “We must take into account the possibility of a group or groups of citizens in this area protesting over hunger or a fear of hunger.”
“We only want to feed our children chicken, bread and potatoes.”
As for the militias, a crackdown was announced on June 15, in large part as a response to the uproar over Jawash’s murder.
Cars with tinted windows or lacking license plates and motorcycles without an official task are now subject to confiscation, and their owners face detention. Military convoys, too, have restricted access to the city, while fighters are expected to keep their weapons in a storehouse if staying overnight.
Meanwhile, Air Force Intelligence and State Security have flushed out some militias from west Aleppo neighborhoods such as Azamieh and Saif al-Dawla.
As the government attempts to assert control, some progress has been reported by loyalist and opposition media.
But for many in Aleppo the threat of militias remains, and some are left wondering what will happen when the authorities’ attention wanders or if the regime stages a large-scale assault elsewhere, drawing security forces from the city.
“Checkpoints in Aleppo are still everywhere,” the resident bemoans.
“None of our neighbors believe that tomorrow will be better, especially because the situation has become even worse since the residents of east Aleppo left.”