DARAT AZZAH, Syria (Reuters) - 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 centers 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 victimized 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 organize towns, they still face the challenge of organizing themselves. A plethora of brigades have emerged, each manned by similarly poor, armed young men.
“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 organized. This will make victory closer,” said Colonel Khaled Qutaimi, who set up a brigade in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff