Free Syria Police: A Difficult Road Ahead

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First deployed to Jarabulus in January 2017, the Free Syria Police (FSP) have since, expanded significantly, adding thousands of officers to multiple locations across north Aleppo. They have worked to create a semblance of order and stability in north Aleppo that has not been seen since the civil war began in 2011. Despite some success thus far, there are many challenges facing this fledgling force, most notably from the rebel groups who freed the region from the Islamic State (IS) in the first place.

Due to several factors, including the plethora of armed groups in the area and the fact that police deployments have been fairly recent, a large number of weapons remain in civilian hands. This proliferation of arms has caused a significant number of unnecessary deaths from people firing guns in celebration, making the job of the police force more difficult and dangerous. In a recent incident in Azaz police trying to stop a thief had to end their pursuit after the criminal threw a grenade, injuring three officers.1. In another incident, a group of gunmen opened fire on a police station in an attempt to release someone who had been arrested.2. These are not isolated occurrences either, with many other cases of police being injured or killed by criminal elements. In an effort to stop the proliferation of weapons police have encouraged people to hand them in, and carrying guns has now been banned in Jarabulus, with the police arresting people who fail to comply.3.“Turkey might seek more than reconstruction in northern Syria” : al-Monitor Police have also implemented an awareness program to try and warn people about the dangers posed by weapons and their misuse. While such efforts have seen improvements, the problems persist due to continued ownership of illicit weapons. Speaking almost eight months after being deployed, the head of Jarabulus police Raed Hamad summarized the difficult situation saying:

There are more and more weapons, the police cannot cope with this.4.

Besides difficulties in the field, internal problems are also hampering efforts by the FSP to bring about stability and security. Corruption in particular, a problem that has plagued all elements in the conflict, has been noted as a major issue. Several police officers have had their salaries reduced on charges of corrupt behavior, and others have been fired for a variety of corruption-related offenses. A local Jarabulus resident expressed mistrust over the newly deployed police force over fears of them being unable to do their duties properly.5.“Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led Strategy” : Haid Haid, Chatham House These allegations of corruption are a problem for the FSP, especially as they have not been deployed for a particularly long time. But the fact that some steps have already been taken to mitigate corruption is a very positive sign, as it suggests that while individual officers are using their positions for ill intent the FSP as an organisation oppose and are committed to minimising the negative effects of corrupt behaviour.

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A more pressing issue for the FSP is the fact that they simply do not have enough officers to effectively police all of the areas they are active in. The head of Jarabulus police expressed frustration with this in particular, stating that they are unable to cope due to the large number of people living in Jarabulus.6. Only 450 personnel were originally deployed to this area, which had a pre-war population of around 30,000 people.7.“Jarablus reborn” : Middle East Eye Since the initial deployment the population has increased dramatically, with at least 50,000 refugees arriving in Jarabulus from Turkey by mid 2017.8.“Life returns to normal in Syria’s war-weary Jarabulus” : Anadolu Agency A large refugee camp has also been set up next to Jarabulus, and has received displaced people from other areas in Syria.9.“2,538 people leave Syria’s al-Waer to Jarabulus” : Anadolu Agency The jurisdiction of the Jarabulus police has also expanded to include external villages such as Ghandourah, which has further overstretched them.10. Azaz and Al Bab have faced similar problems, though to a lesser extent as more police were deployed there originally and fewer refugees have returned to those cities.

To try and mitigate this problem, these police forces are in the process of recruiting more officers to fill out their ranks. While the first group of police were trained in Turkey and included recruits from refuge camps, these new officers come from local areas and are being trained in Syria.11. Not having enough officers will naturally severely hamper the FSP, but since quick action has been taken to resolve the problem it should not persist, provided that enough new officers are recruited and trained. To this end, by the last weeks of 2017 at least 5,600 police officers had been trained.13.“Turkey trains over 5,600 Syrian policemen” : Anadolu Agency

All of the various branches of police in north Aleppo have also recruited large numbers of female police officers, helping to resolve the issues of personnel.14.“Free Police Corps in Jarablus to Recruit Women in Its Ranks” : Syrian National Coalition There are several significant benefits to recruiting female personnel, including allowing the police to deal with issues involving women more effectively. It is also a positive sign of female empowerment in a region that has often struggled with a massive gender dichotomy, and male personnel have recently been attending talks on how to prevent violence against women.15.

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Another problem is the rebel groups who freed these areas from IS in the first place. Some groups have followed the original plan to leave security of urban areas to the police, but others have refused to budge from their positions. This has created a multipolar security situation where rebel factions in some areas act as de facto security forces against the wishes of the police, civilians, and local councils. The problem is far worse than rebel groups simply making the work of the police more difficult: some rebel groups in north Aleppo have been accused of criminal activity, including accusations of drug smuggling and stealing. In Al Bab there was an incident involving rebel fighters breaking into a pharmacy to steal Tramadol for recreational use, and accusations of theft, extortion, and weapons smuggling have been leveled against some groups.16.“أهالي الباب يشتكون اقتحام مسلحين للصيدليات المناوبة” : Enab Baladi

On several occasions civilians in the area have also accused the rebels of using checkpoints to extort money.17.“Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led Strategy” : Haid Haid, Chatham House In one particular case someone visiting Jarabulus was reportedly stopped at a checkpoint controlled by a rebel group, where he was beaten and robbed. Rebel groups in north Aleppo have on multiple occasions even clashed with each other, often causing civilian casualties during the brief bouts of fighting. One incident in al-Bab in particular highlights the dangers of rebel infighting, when a policeman and several civilians were killed in the crossfire.18.“Dozens of casualties after latest row between Turkish-backed rebels” : Syria Direct Such blatant disregard for the rule of law show the severity of the challenges being faced by police.

Such actions are always concerning, but the fact the perpetrators are members of rebel groups exacerbates the problem for the FSP. The various rebel groups are better equipped and have more combat experience than the police, so any confrontation between the two would be very one-sided. This was proven true recently in Jarabulus when a rebel fighter was arrested by police, only to have some of his comrades attack the police station to break him out. The fighting only stopped when the Turkish army intervened to assist the police.19. The monopolisation of violence by rebel groups, preventing police from sufficiently dealing with their actions, has created a situation where rebel groups can often simply ignore the rule of law. However, progress has been made in the form of a recent agreement which seeks to create a unified army in north Aleppo.20.“Syrian rebels back opposition plan for a ‘national army’ : Yahoo News If successful, police would receive sole authority in urban areas, and a centralised military should reduce much of the lawlessness some of the individual rebel groups have caused.

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Most concerning is that it seems the FSP are unable to deal with these deeper issues on their own. The presence of armed factions outside the control of local councils and courts simply increases instability in the region, which only helps to delegitimise the rule of law and create a situation where criminality can flourish. These armed groups are the opposite of order and stability, and so are antithetical to the ideals the police are striving towards. Stronger than the police, the criminality of these groups is protected by their superior strength and force of arms. Even arresting individuals from rebel groups who have committed crimes is difficult, and that does not come close to solving the systematic problem of underlying lawlessness in north Aleppo. This is the crux of the issue. While all the other problems and general criminality facing police are something they can solve, it is impossible for them to solve the issue of armed rebel groups on their own.

Despite these challenges the FSP have made significant progress in policing north Aleppo. The fact that they have been able to identify and attempt to address internal problems such as corruption and a lack of officers is promising. While the significant effort put into pro-active and community policing especially in regards to drug crime and weapon proliferation is exceptionally positive, and should help increase security and stability if such efforts are given enough time to come to fruition. For the people of north Aleppo such progress should be celebrated, however there is still much more that needs to be achieved.

This is the second part of a two part article on the Free Syria Police in rebel controlled northern Syria. The first part can be read here.

Robert Postings

Robert Postings is a writer for the International Review whose research focus is the Islamic State. As well as writing for the International Review he co-authored the 'Spiders of the Caliphate' research paper for the Counter Extremism Project and has published work with the Modern War Institute at West Point and The Defence Post.


3 “Turkey might seek more than reconstruction in northern Syria” : al-Monitor
4, 6
5, 17 “Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led Strategy” : Haid Haid, Chatham House
7 “Jarablus reborn” : Middle East Eye
8 “Life returns to normal in Syria’s war-weary Jarabulus” : Anadolu Agency
9 “2,538 people leave Syria’s al-Waer to Jarabulus” : Anadolu Agency
13 “Turkey trains over 5,600 Syrian policemen” : Anadolu Agency
14 “Free Police Corps in Jarablus to Recruit Women in Its Ranks” : Syrian National Coalition
16 “أهالي الباب يشتكون اقتحام مسلحين للصيدليات المناوبة” : Enab Baladi
18 “Dozens of casualties after latest row between Turkish-backed rebels” : Syria Direct
20 “Syrian rebels back opposition plan for a ‘national army’ : Yahoo News
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