In the wake of the Turkish and rebel-affiliated campaign to capture the northern Aleppo countryside from the Islamic State (IS), termed “Euphrates Shield”, Turkey has put significant effort into providing local government resources and humanitarian assistance. The most ambitious of these efforts was the creation of a new police force from scratch, with a goal of creating security and stability for the civilians of north Aleppo.1.“Police deployed in Syria’s Jarablus after liberation” : Yeni Safak The police have been given a difficult task in serving the people of north Aleppo. complicated by local rebel groups contributing to conflict and lawlessness.
This new police force is commonly referred to as the Free Syria Police (FSP), though their official name is “Police and National Security Forces”. The FSP doesn’t have any relations to the police operating in other rebel-controlled territories like Idlib, Daraa, or other parts of the Aleppo countryside, but instead the reports to the local councils operating in northern Aleppo.2.“Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led strategy” : Haid Haid, Chatham House The first group of police was made up of 450 policemen and was deployed to Jarabulus on the 22 January 2017. While based in Jarabulus they were also responsible for some of the towns and villages in the surrounding area. Before being deployed, the new policemen received five weeks of training in the Turkish city of Mersin.3.“Police deployed in Syria’s Jarablus after liberation” : Yeni Safak Most of the recruits were from refugee camps in Turkey, though some were also former rebel fighters. The police recruits received specialty training as well as equipment from Turkish forces and were provided with uniforms, weapons, and police cars. A new police station was built while security cameras were installed throughout Jarabulus, and in some locations, metal detectors were installed as well. Head of Police General Aslan has said that Turkey also provided significant logistical support.4.“Hundreds of police trained by Turkey start work in Syria” : Reuters
Following the FSP’s arrival in Jarabulus, the project was expanded to other rebel-controlled areas of the northern Aleppo countryside. Azaz was the next town police were deployed to, with 1,300 officers being sent there in late February of 2017. Beyond Azaz, this new group was responsible for policing in several nearby locations including, Mare, Suran, Akhtarin, and al-Rai. The final location that police were deployed was al-Bab, as this was the largest town captured during Operation Euphrates Shield with a population of 63,000 before the war.5.Syrian General Census information As such, al-Bab received the largest number of police, with 2,000 being deployed there.6.“Security ensured in areas liberated by Turkey-backed FSA” : Daily Sabah Like in Jarabulus, these police were all trained in Turkey. However, unlike in Jarabulus, most of the police for Azaz and al-Bab were recruited from local populations in north Aleppo, though there were still recruits from refugee camps and rebel fighters.7.“Free Syrian Army getting backup from Turkish-trained police”: al-Monitor These locations became the main operational hubs for the FSP in northern Aleppo. The stated intention was for the police to operate in larger urban areas, while rebel groups would continue to have control in smaller villages and rural locations.8.Stein, Aaron, Abouzahr, Hossam, Komar, Rao : “Post-Conflict Stabilization: Turkey and the end of Operation Euphrates Shield” : Atlantic Council However, in practice this was difficult to implement, with several rebel groups reluctant to give up their authority and control in urban areas.
The work carried out by the FSP to achieve their goals of establishing stability and security in north Aleppo varies greatly, and general tasks include standard policing operations such as searching for missing people, as well as more unique tasks like rehousing lions. The average day-to-day work for a regular police officer includes manning checkpoints, carrying out searches, going on patrol, guarding buildings, and, of course, responding to reported crimes.9.“Hundreds of police trained by Turkey start work in northern Syria” : Reuters Crimes committed in Northern Aleppo vary, and range from opportunist thefts and muggings to more organized crimes such as systematic thefts as well as drug producing and smuggling. According to al-Rai police officer Major Firas Sheikh Muhammad, the police there deal with about 20-25 incidents a day.10.“Security ensured in areas liberated by Turkey-backed FSA” : Daily Sabah However, Al Rai is one of the smallest towns patrolled by the FSP, and places like Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarabulus will experience significantly more criminal activity. To assist in managing the variety of work they are required to do, the police are split into several different sections. This includes dedicated traffic police, a rapid response force, special forces, a drug force, and counter-terrorism police. Officers in many of those sections will receive extra training to ensure they are best suited for their role.
One of the areas in which the FSP have received more specialized training is drug-related crimes. Pre-war Syria was a hub for drug smuggling due to its geographical location; it was and still is a crossroads for drug routes between Africa, Asia, and Europe.11.“War turns Syria into major amphetamines producer” : Reuters However, the increase of armed groups, the reduction of state infrastructure, and weakened borders caused by the conflict has created an even more fertile ground for the production of drugs. In particular, Syria has become a huge producer of captagon and other amphetamines, while cannabis is regularly produced in the northern Aleppo area. As such, the FSP are to be suitably equipped and prepared for combating drug-related crime and drug smuggling. Specialist drug forces have been set up by the FSP, with extra training on drug-related crime. Furthermore, people with previous experience in drug crimes (including defectors from the government) were specifically recruited for these forces.12.“Weed and captagon hotbeds invade northern Aleppo” : Enab Baladi
In the first six months of being deployed, police seized around 3,500 narcotic pills, 500 grams of cannabis, 50 grams of heroin, and 10 grams of cocaine. Since then police have continued to seize large amounts of narcotic pills, while multiple cannabis farms have been seized. Recreational use of medical drugs such as tramadol is also common, and police are working closely with pharmacies to try and prevent this. The FSP have arrested a number of people for drug-related crimes including production, smuggling, and use. At least 50 people were arrested in the first months of the police’s deployment in Azaz alone.13.https://www.facebook.com/syrianpoliceforces/posts/480069522341257:0 As well as combating drug crimes with force, the FSP have also attempted to reduce them through the use of community and proactive policing. They have run an awareness campaign to try and prevent people using drugs or becoming involved with them. This includes the use of posters and public messages to try and inform people about the danger of drugs. Various high ranking members of the police have given interviews and talked about the dangers posed by drugs, and officers have also visited schools to warn of the dangers posed by drugs.14.https://www.facebook.com/syrianpoliceforces/posts/480069522341257:0 The searches and checkpoints employed by the FSP are supposed to help prevent drug smuggling. However, their efforts are hampered by not having complete control in urban areas due to the rebels. As mentioned previously, rebel factions are still present in urban areas where they operate their own checkpoints, the effectiveness of which have been questioned, with allegations of rebel groups participating in the drug trade in northern Syria.15.“Weed and captagon hotbeds invade northern Aleppo” : Enab Baladi
Due to the ongoing conflict, the FSP also have to deal with more unique problems that police forces in areas without conflict wouldn’t normally encounter, such as the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left behind by IS. A member of the Syrian Mine Action Centre (SMAC) working in al-Bab says the group claims around 15,000 IEDs have been placed around the city, while numerous people have been killed or wounded by IEDs all across rebel controlled northern Aleppo. In the six months following the capture of al-Bab, 77 civilians were killed and over 100 were wounded by IEDs.16.“How to stay safe and avoid mines in Northern Aleppo” : Enab Baladi Multiple groups are working to remove them, including humanitarian groups such as SMAC, rebel groups, the Turkish Armed Forces, UN elements, and the FSP. Within five months of being deployed to Jarabulus, the FSP specialist de-mining team had removed 9 tons of explosives left behind by IS.17.https://www.facebook.com/Jarablospolis/photos/pcb.1448124555239894/1448121348573548/?type=3 As well as removing IEDs, the police also carry out awareness campaigns about undetonated explosives, and give advice to civilians on how to stay safe from IEDs and what to do if they find one.18.“How to stay safe and avoid mines in Northern Aleppo” : Enab Baladi
IEDs are not the only problem IS left behind in north Aleppo that the FSP have to deal with, as sleeper cells and IS fighters moving through northern Aleppo are a particular concern. Police have worked tirelessly to try and stop sleeper cells and prevent them carrying out attacks on civilian and military targets. Several caches of weapons and explosives left behind by IS have been seized by groups in northern Aleppo that could have ended up being used in attacks.19.https://twitter.com/NorthernStork/status/839897043095146497 Multiple suspected IS fighters and supporters have also been arrested, many while attempting to flee to Turkey, but others could very well be part of IS cells in the northern Aleppo area.20.Giglio, Mike, al-Awad, Munzer: “How ISIS Members Fled the Caliphate” : Buzzfeed Despite these efforts, cells still operate in north Aleppo, and civilians in Jarabulus have reported that extremist groups like IS attempted to recruit fighters within the town.21.“Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led strategy” : Haid Haid, Chatham House Even more concerning is when IS successfully carries out an attack, with devastating effect. Multiple terror attacks occurred in 2017, including a deadly attack at Azaz in January that killed 43 people, while another 51 people were killed in February near al-Bab.22.“Car bomb kills 51 near al-Bab after IS defeat” : BBC23.“Bomb kills dozens in Azaz on Turkish border” : BBC The head of Azaz police Ahmed Zidan has reported that in an attempt to stop such attacks they have tried to find sleeper cells, issued curfews, closed all but essential roads leading into the Azaz, and set up more checkpoints. However, he personally blames rebels groups for his police officers being unable to stop attacks in Azaz, stating that the lack of unified entry controls and checkpoints leading into the Azaz are causing gaps in security which are exploited by the attackers.24.Jisr TV Despite these problems there appears to be progress. For example, the police in Azaz have successfully found and dismantled a car bomb in the first week of 2018.25.https://twitter.com/SciOfDiscontent/status/950381633986875394
Despite the difficulty of their tasks, it is undeniable that progress has been made by the FSP. Simply having a professional police force with training on how to deal with these situations is a significant improvement over the previous security situation of multiple rebel groups and IS’s particular brand of ‘justice’. An argument can be made that part of the problem with ongoing crime in northern Aleppo is that the police are still new, and have not settled into their role. The Azaz police chief expressed this same sentiment, while a local resident in Jarabulus stated, “It will take some time but the police can improve the security situation.”26.“Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led strategy” : Haid Haid, Chatham House Their work has undeniably brought increased stability and security to north Aleppo, but moving forward there are significant challenges they must still overcome.
This is the first part of a two-part article on the Free Syria Police in rebel-controlled northern Syria. The second part can be read here.