Guns out of control in Syrian north, Who will end the chaos?

Two fighters of the Azm Unified Command Room of the Syrian National Army at a military checkpoint in Azaz city in the northern countryside of Aleppo - 24 October 2021 (Azm)

Guns out of control in Syrian north, Who will end the chaos?

Two fighters of the Azm Unified Command Room of the Syrian National Army at a military checkpoint in Azaz city in the northern countryside of Aleppo - 24 October 2021 (Azm)

Two fighters of the Azm Unified Command Room of the Syrian National Army at a military checkpoint in Azaz city in the northern countryside of Aleppo - 24 October 2021 (Azm)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Clashes and discord between civilians and among armed factions intensified in the areas held by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which include the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, northern Syria.

Most disagreements witnessed the use of arms, which are currently being resorted to in the event of an emergency, resulting in loss of life and damage to properties.

Although the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), a civil governing umbrella of the National Army, and factions affiliated with it have issued several decisions to prohibit the bearing of arms in several areas under its control and to alert its elements to “only carry weapons on enemy lines,” arms are still abundantly widespread.

Unreachable weaponry

Enab Baladi monitored several disputes in the Syrian National Army-held areas, both between civilians and between armed factions, which quickly turned to the direct or indiscriminate use of weapons. Any fight would immediately turn into an armed clash, and shots would be fired in the air to spread panic and fear or aimed at causing injuries.

On 22 March, many schools in al-Bab city, in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, were on strike, rejecting and denouncing the security chaos and the spreading of militarism and unsupervised arms bearing in front of school doors.

The said strike followed a row that broke out between students, one of the students’ parents was affiliated with a military faction, which evolved into attacks on another student and teachers after school hours.

Mohammad Tayyib Youssef Sweid, an owner of a house rental office, was killed on 28 March in al-Bab city following a dispute over a house with a member of the National Army, as explained by a source in the Military Police to Enab Baladi.

The dispute began when the Army member desired to add a new door to the house, which was rejected by the office owner. The disagreement then developed, and fellow elements were called, resulting in the killing of the office’s owner.

The Qawafil al-Khair organization, which operates in several areas of northern Syria, has permanently closed its centers in the city of Jarablus, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, following claims of being subjected to harassment.

In a statement published by the organization on Facebook on 11 April, it stated that the harassment has developed into threats and the brandishing of weapons in the face of the workers while threatening to attack their homes.

On 17 of the same month, the city of al-Bab witnessed clashes between military police forces in the city and the Ahrar al-Sham faction of the National Army, leaving casualties on both sides.

A military police source who spoke on condition of anonymity told Enab Baladi that the clash was a result of police forces barring elements of the Ahrar al-Sham faction from entering the market while armed, which resulted in an argument between the two parties.

Following the argument, Ahrar al-Sham members left the market and returned with other members to open fire on the police inside the market, leaving casualties on both sides, according to the aforementioned source.

On 19 April, the city of Azaz in the northern countryside of Aleppo witnessed armed clashes following a family dispute in the al-Sinaa area, causing civilian casualties.

A correspondent for Enab Baladi in the northern countryside of Aleppo reported clashes in the city of Azaz’s al-Sinaa neighborhood, followed by a deployment of military police forces in the area to end the clashes.

Military analyst Colonel Fayez al-Asmar told Enab Baladi that the phenomenon of “arms chaos” is present during all revolutions and armed conflicts and is therefore not limited to the Syrian case. There is an anarchy of arms in varying degrees in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and other places where there are armed conflicts.

Al-Asmar regretted that this phenomenon is now disastrous for the Syrian people in various regions and cities, as it is widespread throughout Syrian territories; it is present in loyalist ranks in Syrian regime areas as a result of the presence of dozens of militias and National Defense Forces that are affiliated with either the regime, the Iranians, or the Russians. National Defense Forces are also present in large numbers among the opposition.

Uncompelling decisions

The use of weapons in the region was accompanied by the issuance of decisions by the parties operating in and controlling it, whether by the Interim Government, the National Army factions, or local councils. However, these decisions did not limit the use of weapons in any dispute.

The Interim Government’s Ministry of Defense issued a circular on controlling the carrying of weapons within its areas of control in northern Syria, limiting its presence to military camps, front lines with the enemy, and security checkpoints.

It also recommended that the judiciary be called upon to rule on any disagreement, as published by the Ministry’s media office on 12 April.

Factions in National Army-held areas were not unfamiliar with the decision, as the Revolutionary Movement of the National Army, which includes several factions, issued a circular prohibiting the bearing of arms within markets and civilian homes in the area of Peace Spring operations (the cities of Ras al-Ayn north-west of al-Hasakah, and Tal Abyad town north of Raqqa). An element carrying a rifle (Kalashnikov) or a medium machine gun (BKC) in popular markets or populated areas is subject to arrest, weapon confiscation, and a disciplinary sentence of 15 days’ imprisonment.

On 9 January, the Revolutionary Movement called on all officials, including brigade leaders and groups on its payroll, to guide elements to “only bear arms when on enemy lines, and not when hiking and terrorizing children, women, and civilians in general,” as the statement put it. The Movement also prohibited the entry of vehicles carrying heavy machine guns into markets and roads.

Over two years ago, local authorities in the cities of al-Bab and Azaz, and several other areas in the countryside of Aleppo, had issued decisions permanently prohibiting firing shots even at parties and weddings and deploying security patrols and police to market entrances to prevent the entry of weapons. However, these decisions have not prevented the use of weapons.

Call for arms control

The Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG), working in northwestern Syria, condemned the “deliberate” attacks on civilians by creating instability and called on all those in control on the ground to stop repeated attacks and clashes. The said team also emphasized the need to control the weapons proliferation immediately and relocate civilians in the areas of “indiscriminate fighting.”

In its statement of 19 April, the team warned military factions against approaching or expanding clash points to residential centers, camps, and shelters scattered in the area.

It also reminded all parties to focus on shielding civilians in northern Syria from all attacks, particularly now that the region had reached its maximum population capacity with more than four million people, more than half of whom have either fled war zones or have been forcibly displaced.

Who is in charge of arms control?

Colonel al-Asmar attributed the weapons proliferation to a variety of reasons, including the easy uncontrolled access to individual weapons in exchange for money from arms dealers who exist in most areas of northwestern Syria. Al-Asmar suggested that certain merchants are likely to be affiliated with the leaders of the factions and protected by them for material profit in what is known as “suspicious relations.”

He pointed out that it was not in anyone’s interest to confiscate weapons because there were some beneficiaries of its trade.

Al-Asmar added that one of the reasons for the spread of weapons is the absence of a genuine judicial criminalization of those who carry unlicensed weapons or those bearing arms without a capacity that compels them to do so, particularly in inhabited and residential areas.

The arms trade is active in opposition faction control zones, making fighters’ and civilians’ access to weapons much easier, as there is no need for permits in light of the absence of authority monitoring bodies. Moreover, security tensions have led civilians to own weapons for “self-defense.”

It is the spread of patronage and intermediaries, according to Colonel Fayez, that prevents the application of regulations and laws to some, in addition to the competent executive bodies’ lack of a genuinely solid and deterrent will to suppress this phenomenon. “That is, of course, if we assume that such bodies exist in the first place,” he says.

Al-Asmar believes that arms control is the responsibility of the legislative authority and the “real” executive police force in the region, the one that is “never afraid of the reproaches such as finding fault” because it is its responsibility to apply laws to all without any exceptions.

What are the solutions?

The military expert has put forward certain solutions that can control the carrying of weapons and reduce the damage to life and property resulting from this phenomenon, including:

1 – Forming a genuine disciplined police executive force selected from the reputable and the good, giving it all the powers to eliminate this phenomenon.

2 – Establishing a special court for arms violations and applying the most severe penalties for violators.

3 – Setting a deadline and announcing it in the media for holders of unlicensed weapons to hand them over before applying just retribution against violators.

4 – Eliminating the phenomenon of arms and ammunition trafficking, confiscating dealers’ arms, bringing them to court, and issuing the most severe penalties against them.

5 – Setting “temporary” barriers between cities and towns and searching for weapons in vehicles and in people’s possession.

Proposals

In the Colonel’s view, it is possible to propose offers that would tempt people to surrender a weapon, to set a time period for handing over their light weapons, such as “a rifle, a pistol, and an ejector,” and to set a reward for surrendering the weapon.

As stated by al-Asmar, the amount of the reward would not be equal to the actual value of the weapon. Rather, he proposed that the amount of the reward should be encouraged in order to compensate weapon owners and attract them and that the media platforms of the Interim Government should be pushed to cover this trend.

After exceeding the prescribed period of delivery of the weapon, penalties may be imposed given that carrying any weapon outside the framework of the military establishment and without an accurate military description that authorizes its owner to carry a weapon must be dealt with firmly and seriously.

 

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