People's Committees in Syria: Patrolling Local Borders

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up position to fire a rocket-propelled grenade in the Seif El Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo 2 September 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Youssef Boudlal)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Damascus - They are everywhere. Some are out of sight and conceal their weapons, because their main task is to protect the people of their neighborhoods, while others brandish them crudely in front of the curious faces of bystanders. They are the members of the People's Committees deployed in the majority of the peaceful neighborhoods in Syria.

The car stops for some time at the Syrian army checkpoint in Mazzeh 86, a region where it is rare to find a resident who is originally from Damascus. Many threats have been made by people from the rebel areas against Mazzeh 86 and its residents who support the regime, most of whom are from the Syrian coastal regions.

Faced with these threats, the youths of Mazzeh and other pro-regime regions did not sit idly by. Now they stay up at night in specific points, taking shifts to guard their neighborhoods, not having faith in the army checkpoints which often stop passers-by and search them.

The reputation of these committees is not necessarily a good one. With the beginning of the unrest in Latakia, for example, there were many complaints regarding the mayhem caused by the ordinary citizens in these committees abusing the functions of security services and the army, particularly when they often stop people, ask them for identification papers and inquire about their destinations.

Mohammad is a young man from Hama who lives in Latakia, where he studies at university. He spoke about the harassment he has been subjected to by the People’s Committees, as “a 14-year old adolescent might stop me to ask: Which house in the neighborhood are you going to?” To Mohammad, this is a permanent problem given the fact that he is not originally from the area and automatically arouses suspicion.

Mohammad goes on to say, “I believe that the work of these committees, particularly at the beginning of the crisis, reflects nothing more than the young men’s ambitions of becoming security officers who have the authority to control others.”

Maher, a volunteer in the Syrian Popular Army, a reserve arm of the Syrian Army, explains the need for the popular committees in neighborhoods. He says, “It has been established that the army and the security forces cannot impose security without the assistance of the people themselves, which is something that is at the heart of the function of the People's Committees.”

According to Maher, the regular security forces and the army cannot identify strangers in the regions they are deployed in as well as the residents can. For this reason, “The committees have made great efforts to protect people. Some objected to their presence simply because they are doing their job to the fullest, keeping the security of their neighborhoods in check.”

Maher distinguishes between the Popular Army, which consists of Baathists from all religious communities accompanying the regular army in some of its operations and assisting soldiers, and the Popular Committees consisting of local residents in neighborhoods. The latter are volunteers seeking to protect their neighborhoods, worried that they may turn into battlegrounds and safe havens for the militants fighting the army.

For Salim, a pro-opposition resident of Dummar, the committees “are a euphemism for Shabbiha (pro-regime militia), armed and funded by groups affiliated with a prominent businessman.” Salim adds that they all “belong to a single religious community, and are mostly present in regions where minorities are concentrated.”

Salim does not deny that youths from various denominations may indeed be present in the same People’s Committee, but to him, this is nothing more than a very timid attempt to give cover to the sectarianism of these committees, which engage in combat just like the army and security forces in the event of clashes in their areas.

Salim then accuses them of killing innocent people, despite acknowledging that he personally had only witnessed them checking the names of people entering their neighborhoods, people whom they will either allow in or deny entry according to circulars they receive from the army and the security services.

With regards to the arms in the possession of the People’s Committees, Ammar, a member of a committee in Latakia, stresses that the residents of the neighborhoods are only armed with melee weapons such as sticks and knives, and a few licensed firearms, and that in some instances, security forces had intervened to disband committees and confiscate their weapons.

Ammar is surprised by fears about the arms held by these youths, who are concerned for their country and their neighborhoods. These committees, he says, have resurfaced in a more organized fashion, at a time when the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is wreaking havoc in Syria, armed with deadly weapons.

Ammar adduces the situation in Aleppo to argue for the need to arm the residents. He says, “In Aleppo, people carried on with their normal lives and businesses, until the FSA came and occupied their neighborhoods. The civilians had no choice there but to evacuate the city, because they were unable to defend their neighborhoods, and had to leave them vulnerable to clashes between the Syrian army and the FSA, which often end with the whole neighborhoods being razed to the ground.”

Recently there have been calls by Syrian activists against the presence of arms in the hands of civilian individuals. For them, this complicates matters further.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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