ADANA Turkey (Reuters) - In rebel-held areas of Aleppo, lightly armed policemen face thieves equipped with anti-aircraft guns on the ground and Syrian air force bombardment from the sky.
General Adib al-Shallaf, the head of the Western-backed police force, says the Syrian government has tried to kill him several times in air strikes including a barrel bombing in which two of his colleagues died.
“Now we try to keep our bases a secret so they do not get bombed,” said Shallaf, a senior officer in the Syrian state police force until his defection one year into the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011.
Shallaf, 50, has been leading efforts to build the “Free Police” - a security force which aims to deliver a semblance of law and order in rebel-held areas of a country thrown into chaos by the civil war.
In areas outside state control, Shallaf says he heads a force of over a thousand policemen with U.S., British and Danish backing that has paid for salaries, uniforms, vehicles, generators, computers - but not guns.
That is in line with the broader policy of Western states that form part of a “Friends of Syria” alliance which have shied away from arming the opposition to Assad.
“The problem in the policy of the Friends of Syria is that it prevents support in the form of weapons, even simple handguns,” he told Reuters on a visit to Turkey.
Shallaf recounted how some of his men had got into a gunfight with thieves who came armed with anti-aircraft guns to rob a factory in Aleppo, a city that was Syria’s commercial capital before the uprising.
“Some groups sometimes try to say: ‘We are stronger than you. What weapons do you have? You have nothing ... We have Dushkas, rocket-propelled grenades’,” he said. A Dushka is a Russian-made heavy machine gun.
“They always feel they are stronger than the police.”
The force assembled by Shallaf aims to address lawlessness that is a common complaint among Syrians tired of the chaos brought by the war that has killed more than 191,000 people.
Islamic State, a radical militant group that is being bombed in Iraq and Syria by a U.S.-led coalition, has won a degree of support in areas under its control by imposing order, albeit according to its own puritanical brand of Islam.
As Islamic State advanced westwards in recent months, it told members of Shallaf’s force in and around the town of Manbij to join them or stay at home. “The police refused to cooperate,” he said. “They said we do not work with any military faction. We are an independent body.”
“(Islamic State) did not hurt them or hit them, but they asked them not to work as police,” he said.
Shallaf was interviewed by Reuters in Adana, a city in southeastern Turkey where he was attending training organized by ARK, a firm based in the United Arab Emirates that acts as a partner for governments wishing to funnel aid to areas under opposition control.
ARK has helped police forces in the cities of Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia by providing non-lethal support on behalf of international donors.
Shallaf’s work is complicated by a lack of any state infrastructure in the rebel-held areas. The Western-backed National Coalition of opposition forces has established an interim government, but is based in Turkey.
Despite their lack of firepower, Shallaf said his men have been able to operate by winning support from local communities and cooperating with rebel groups that have a good reputation on the ground.
Some such groups have set up their own courts to which the Free Police refer suspects to trial. “In each area, we are dealing with the judiciary that exists,” said Shallaf.
A policeman in the force earns $100 a month - an amount similar to what many rebel groups pay their fighters. An officer earns $300 a month.
With government air strikes forcing the Free Police to keep on the move - 10 to 15 of its stations have been bombed - Shallaf said many citizens contact officers directly to report crime.
“My email address is well-known. So too are those of the officers who are with me,” he said. “When I switch on my phone, I find lots of messages from people I don’t know, explaining their problems.”
“Among the greatest challenges is the continuous bombardment of the regime. As police leaders, we are constantly being targeted, and I am personally targeted.”
(This story has been refiled to correct typographical error in fourth paragraph)
editing by David Stamp