| DARAT AZZAH, Syria
DARAT AZZAH, Syria Aug 16 In the Syrian town of
Darat Azzah, a secondary school has turned into a police
station, a courthouse and a temporary town hall run by the
rebels who are seeking to end President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
It is part of a nascent rebel administration that is taking
shape in areas of the country where Assad's authority has
disappeared as his security forces try to secure control of
Syria's main cities: Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and others.
Even as Western powers question just who will replace Assad,
bemoaning divisions in the exiled Syrian opposition, rebels in
towns such Darat Azzah are starting to supply answers in real,
if sometimes improvised ways.
In one of the classrooms, Captain Malek Abdul Hadi questions
a middle-aged man detained at a rebel checkpoint on suspicion of
trading flour on the black market that has flourished in Syria's
civil war economy.
"This is your last warning and if you are found selling any
flour outside the town you will be imprisoned," Abdul Hadi told
the shabbily dressed man, who had been found with a 50 kilogram
sack of flour in his van.
A defector from the Assad administration, Abdul Hadi today
heads a "revolutionary" security force made up of some 40
officers, all of them former policemen in the government that is
now fighting the rebels for control of Syria.
Darat Azzah, a town of some 50,000 people in the Aleppo
countryside, is one of a string of countryside towns in northern
Syria where citizens are managing to maintain semblance of
normalcy despite the erosion of state control.
At times, Abdul Hadi's role seems more akin to that of a
local mayor than a police officer. Among his self-assigned
responsibilities, he monitors local bread supplies, urging
bakeries to adjust production according to need.
In an adjoining room, Ibrahim Helo, a former Aleppo prison
warden, was helping residents fill out forms detailing damage to
their properties - cataloguing their losses in the hope that one
day compensation will be paid.
But for Abdul Hadi, keeping order is the main concern.
During a visit by Reuters to his office, he also took testimony
from a witness about the death of a young man killed as he tried
to steal timber - a valuable commodity as fuel runs short.
"We are working to preserve security as though the state
still exists," said Abdul Hadi, dressed in fatigues and sports
shoes as he sat behind his desk, upon which his pistol was
placed alongside a rebel flag.
Outside, children play in the streets patrolled by rebel
fighters, AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders.
"We only check IDs of people we don't know," said a gunman
named Abu Ahmad, holding a walkie talkie as he waved through a
bus load of families who were fleeing Aleppo.
With funds in short supply, Abdul Hadi is relying on the
good will of the men who are serving in his volunteer force.
Members of the Sunni Muslim majority, they are driven by
revolutionary zeal, describing themselves as empowered after
decades of oppression at the hands of an administration led by
members of Assad's Alawite minority sect.
The hardships and suffering brought about by the conflict
have minimised feuds and personal conflicts, say locals.
Yet bread queues and gasoline shortages inevitably trigger
tension, heightening the need for the rebels to police black
market profiteering and to secure supplies of grain and fuel.
Recent rebel attacks on a government-owned wheat silo and army
gasoline depots have given them access to new supplies.
In Darat Azzah, the rebels are welcomed as liberators,
enjoying wider support than in the wealthier urban centres such
Aleppo and Damascus - cities where more people benefited more
from Assad's rule.
"Former thieves are now in hiding. No one dares to take
advantage of the situation with these rebels around," said Yahya
al-Sakeh, a low-paid factory worker.
The rebel fighters are for the most part drawn from the
rural poor. They air grievances against Assad that are both
economic and political and take on a distinctly sectarian tone
as they portray themselves as a victimised Sunni underclass.
"I was deprived of my rights in everything, in my sleep, in
my food, in my salary, in everything," said Abdullah Adris, a
rebel who was manning a checkpoint near the town of Binish. An
Islamic banner flew from a flag pole attached to a vehicle
parked nearby, indicating Sunni Islamist affiliation.
But even as the rebels seek to organise towns, they still
face the challenge of organising themselves. A plethora of
brigades have emerged, each manned by similarly poor, armed
"The insistence of some small brigades not to unify or join
existing groupings is not treason but it divides ranks of the
rebels. They should join existing brigades that are already
organised. This will make victory closer," said Colonel Khaled
Qutaimi, who set up a brigade in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.