Tribal families rule Aleppo along with Syrian regime
Enab Baladi – Aleppo
A number of people took seats in the Berri family guesthouse in al-Furqan neighborhood within the luxurious Aleppo neighborhoods in the presence of Hassan Shaaban Berri, a representative in Syria’s People’s Assembly. The same people would be competing to sit next to the powerful man to greet him and shake hands with him.
The guesthouse is open and receiving of all without exception. Mohammad, 38, a resident of al-Furqan neighborhood, is a frequent visitor to the guesthouse, where the young men of the Berri family would gather and discuss the general situation in Syria and how they were able to reclaim their glory after being attacked by opposition forces during 2012.
Mohammad, a pseudonym for security reasons, said that “Sheikh Hassan Berri is highly esteemed as he is the Sheikh (leader) of the (Jais) clan, a member of the People’s Assembly, and the head of the Berri family. During his presence, people would flock to greet him and sit beside him”.
During the presence of Hassan Berri in the guesthouse, people’s requests for assistance are made non-stop in order to facilitate suspended transactions due to the lack of a signature or a security approval.
At the beginning of this April, an iron merchant came to Hassan Berri and complained about the harassment his truck drivers are subjected to while passing through checkpoints, and the latter helped him solve the problem. According to Mohammad, “Everyone is familiar with the extent of the social influence that Sheikh Hassan possesses.”
This influence was formed by means of a network of relationships that linked Hassan Berri to intelligence services, as explained by the man; “the guesthouse is often visited by officers of the security branches. There is always talk of joining forces with the people, that is, recruiting young men for the benefit of the security branches”.
During his visits to the guesthouse, Mohammad was offered work in this field, and he could not refuse “because I may be harmed, subjected to security harassment, or even killed if I refuse.”
The “Shabiha” attacked with knives a supermarket on the Faculty of Engineering Street in Aleppo because its owner refused to hang the candidate’s picture on the storefront.
At that time, Hassan Berri managed to win a seat at the People’s Assembly for the legislative session of 2016 – 2020, according to the lists of members published on the official website of the Syrian parliament.
Not a single session of the People’s Assembly would pass without the Berri family being a part of it, given that the family’s notables belong to the Baath Party and therefore enter the Assembly via its seats.
The Berri family hails from the Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, and it is known for its alliance with the Syrian regime and its support for Shabiha, who played a role in suppressing the demonstrations at the beginning of the 2011 revolution. This family is also accused of sharing drugs and contraband with regime figures.
Ties with Iran
Inside the Berri family guesthouse in the al-Furqan neighborhood, there are six individuals who are permanently present, taking turns to stay in the said guesthouse to guard it day and night.
These individuals include Jassem and Mahmoud Berri, who are recruiting young men for the benefit of the security branches, as well as the military wing of the Berri family, the Ali Zain al-Abideen Brigade (Liwa Ali Zain al-Abideen). This fighter formation is widespread throughout the city of Aleppo, and some of the support it receives comes from channels connected to Iran. The most prominent form of such support is arms.
The Zain al-Abideen Brigade is a sectarian militia in Syria formed by the Shiite minority in northern Aleppo and areas of Raqqa. It has an estimated number of approximately 5,000 to 8,000 fighters, the most prominent of which are Jund al-Mahdi (al-Mahdi Soldiers), Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (al-Imam al-Mahdi Army), Damascus Branch of Liwa Ruqayya, the Idlib Branch of Faylaq al-Waad al-Sadiq, the Homs Branch of Quwat al-Imam Ridha (al-Imam Ridha Forces), the Deir Ezzor Branch of Brigade 313, Busra al-Sham in Daraa, and Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi in Latakia and Hama governorates.
Mahmoud Berri offers those in the guesthouse to join either the Syrian intelligence or the ranks of the Zain al-Abideen Brigade.
Deployment in Aleppo
As indicated by Masoud, 37, a member of the Zain al-Abideen Brigade, quite a few young people are forced to join the brigade’s ranks as a result of living conditions.
They seek a monthly salary of about 400,000 Syrian pounds for fighters, in addition to the privileges that the fighters receive, which include the monthly distribution of food aid, as well as assistance to the families of the brigade’s members in the event they are arrested by security services.
Masoud, whose real name was withheld by Enab Baladi for security reasons, assured that “about 2,800 members of the Zain al-Abideen Brigade, had been deployed in the al-Nairab neighborhood, the al-Qatana and Bab al-Hadid districts, and a small number within the Marjah and Qadi Askar neighborhoods. There is also a training camp near the Haddadin village in the southeastern countryside of Aleppo.”
There are elements affiliated with the brigade who are only tasked with security intelligence work for the brigade.
Al-Hajj Jassem Berri is the military leader of the brigade. He heads to the guesthouse at undisclosed times and without the public present at the guesthouse’s knowledge.
Masoud also told Enab Baladi that “No one can approach the elements of Zain al-Abideen Brigade because they have immunity that al-Hajj Jassem gave them. Even if one of them is arrested, he would be immediately released after a phone call made by Sheikh Hassan Berri, whom senior officers in the city of Aleppo visit”.
Hassan Berri’s word is heard by the authorities, as described by Masoud, particularly since the Berri family is involved in cigarette smuggling operations and in trading arms that have flooded the city.
“The Berri family’s smuggling activities date back to the reign of Hafez al-Assad. These activities have expanded since the first years of the revolution in collaboration with the regime. Therefore, they enjoy great prestige in the city of Aleppo, so much so that they consider membership of the People’s Assembly as their right”, said Masoud.
Enab Baladi tried to inquire about the Berri family’s wealth in private in-kind real estate in the city of Aleppo and its countryside. Residents of the region reported hundreds of millions of dollars, including real estate and cars, which are the profits of the arms trade and cigarette smuggling, in addition to owning food warehouses in the city of Aleppo.
Tribal rush to please Bashar al-Assad’s regime
There are several guesthouses in the city of Aleppo, and each clan’s guesthouse has its social, commercial, and security importance. In addition to the Berri family’s guesthouse, there is the guesthouse of Hussam al-Katerji within the al-Hamdaniya neighborhood, which represents the al-Naim tribe.
There are also several guesthouses for the powerful al-Baggara tribe, including the al-Shahba guesthouse owned by Sheikh Hamoud al-Eid, who is one of the sheikhs and dignitaries of the clan spread throughout the city of Aleppo and its countryside. In addition, there is the Abdul Haq al-Shamsawy guesthouse, who is considered to be one of the notables of the al-Baggara tribe.
There is also a guesthouse for the al-Asasna clan in the al-Mayser neighborhood, a guesthouse for the al-Hadeedin clan within the al-Shaar district, and the Kakeh family guesthouse near the al-Mayel roundabout.
All of these clans compete to appease the regime and offer their multiple services, including “tashbih” (committing acts of thuggery) and the repression of any political tendency that opposes the regime, such as during 2012 when the Berri and al-Asasna families’ shabiha quieted demonstrators as they left the Amna Mosque in the Saif al-Dawla district.
As competition between these clans intensified, Sheikh Hussam al-Katerji, as his followers like to call him, was able to stand out significantly on military and economic levels by arranging oil deals between the Syrian regime and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), in addition to owning a huge iron factory, and another for cement, within the industrial city. He also constantly sends his militants on military missions to the Syrian Badia.
Abdullah, 29, a pseudonym for a fighter of the al-Katerji forces, told Enab Baladi that “our work is to comb the Badia within the areas of presence of Islamic State (IS) cells. We also escort oil tanks to secure them”.
The young man also told Enab Baladi that “we are always asked to participate in the battles against the “Autonomous Administration,” moving from the al-Katerji camp in the town of Jibrin to battlefields, to the point that the members of the Liwa al-Baqir (al-Baqir Brigade) saw that we are in competition with them in everything down to the times of battle. There is even a rising demand to join the ranks of Sheikh Hussam al-Katerji’s forces”.
In 2016, Syrian businessman Hussam al-Katerji won a seat in the People’s Assembly in the legislative elections for the workers and peasants category in Aleppo.
Al-Katerji also announced the establishment of the Arfada Petroleum company in the capital Damascus with a capital of up to 1 billion Syrian pounds, according to the local al-Iqtisadi website. It is co-owned by Hussam al-Katerji (34%), his brother Mohammad Baraa al-Katerji (33%), and Ahmed Bashir Mohammad Baraa al-Katerji (33%).
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