In the heart of Syria’s rebel territory, away from the blasts and bullets of the frontlines, another struggle is playing out: one for a new justice system that could shape the future face of the country should the regime fall.
The struggle is between ex-regime judges and Islamic jihadists, and at stake is whether the courts apply a modified version of existing Syrian law, or switch to strict sharia law.
Currently, both systems exist in parallel — with radically different treatment for those accused and convicted of crimes.
Abu Ali, a 53-year-old truck driver arrested at a rebel checkpoint for transporting hundreds of bottles of whisky and other banned alcohol hidden in his cargo of water, is one defendant facing the sterner interpretation of God’s justice.
Yes, he tells Abu Hamia, the prosecutor questioning him in an office in a newly designated prison in Aleppo’s Masaken Hanano district. Yes, he knew what he transporting.
“We did it because we needed money for our families. It was the first time we’d done such a thing,” Abu Ali says, his face showing shame.
Abu Hamia informs Abu Ali he could face up to three months behind bars for smuggling “a product that is against Islam”, but holds out the prospect of leniency if the local sheikh, who will judge the case, so decides.
Two days later, Abu Ali and his two accomplices are each sentenced to 25 lashes and freed.
The form of sharia underpinning the legal system of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was “too easy,” Abu Hamia tells AFP afterwards, explaining that the previous tolerance for alcohol was no longer permitted.
“God wants to establish sharia in all of Syria when the regime falls,” he says.
“This country needs strong laws so the people return to the righteous path and go back to being good Muslims.”
That vision is espoused by one of the most ferocious forces in rebel ranks: the Al-Nusra Front.
Al-Nusra, made up of bearded fighters with good combat experience, shuns media attention, but makes no secret of its desire to see Syria one day become an Islamic caliphate.
Under the strictest interpretation of sharia, Islamic courts can dictate death for apostates, murderers and rapists; amputations for thieves; and whippings for those guilty of lesser crimes.
Some sheikhs have already exacted sharia sentences on captured regime soldiers who confessed to killing, having them executed.
It is a direction that is sending chills through Western governments hesitating to provide materiel to Syria’s rebels, and to many of the other rebel groups, who see that form of sharia as archaic and brutal.
“The Islamist system is obsolete. It comes from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and it has not changed at all since then, yet it should adapt to the times we live in,” says Marwan Kaeid, attorney general of the judicial system that the mainstream Free Syria Army has set up in Aleppo.
He says the judges did apply a form of sharia, but not the same way as in the Al-Nusra sponsored tribunals. Syria’s existing laws are based on Islamic principles but with processes inspired by French and Ottoman jurisprudence.
Some attempts were made to reconcile the two judicial systems, but it soon became apparent that middle ground did not exist, he says, speaking in his offices in the Saif Al-Dawlah district in the city’s central southwest.
“That’s why we can’t work with the Al-Nusra Front. They are too severe. Their sentences are death or cutting off a hand in stealing cases,” Kaeid says.
“Islam is much simpler than that. It shouldn’t be applied so harshly.”
The judge also said of Al-Nusra, “they are part of Al-Qaeda.”
The unease over Al-Nusra’s aims and ambitions, however, in no way discredits the jihadist group in the eyes of the rebels, who welcome any proficient combatants to fight the better-armed regime forces — especially given the absence of Western-supplied weapons and ammunition.
“Al-Nusra answered our call to fight in the jihad. But the problem now is that we are unable to stop them,” the judge says.
But he warns of a potential power struggle when Syria looks to a future without Assad at the helm.
“Without help from NATO, we will not be able to kick Al-Nusra out of Syria,” Kaeid says.