Rebel-held Syrian town struggles to keep the peace

June 25, 2012 - 1:18 PM
Mideast Syria Power Vacuum

In this Monday, June 11, 2012 photo, Syrian Yasser Mamaar, 55, speaks to an Associated Press reporter, not pictured, at his shop in Maaret Misreenin town on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria. As the Syrian government focuses on holding major cities and battling a growing insurgency, many communities have been left to organize their own security and obtain enough food and fuel. Mamaar has coordinated those efforts in Maaret Misreen, this market town of 40,000 people surrounded by a web of poor farming villages in north Syria. Since becoming the head of the town’s eight-member revolutionary council late last year, he has helped distribute fuel, brokered a truce with the army and won the release of dozens of locals kidnapped by armed groups. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

MAARET MISREEN, Syria (AP) — The electrical supply merchant had barely arrived for work when the day's troubles began: Residents were complaining of fuel shortages, rebels had detained teenagers accused of robbing the high school and — most alarmingly — Shiite gunmen from a nearby village had kidnapped five Sunnis.

By mid-morning, a dozen men pensively sipped tea in Yasser Mamaar's shop, hoping the head of their town's revolutionary council would know what to do.

Puffing on a cigarette in a long, brown holder, the short, wrinkled, 55-year-old in a gray robe and matching sport coat made calls on an old green phone to find the missing men.

"There is no police station, there is no state, so who else can they go to?" said Mamaar, who now dispenses advice, mediates disputes and issues orders in addition to selling light bulbs, power cords and circuit breakers. "We have to solve people's problems."

The 15-month-old uprising that has pushed Syria toward civil war and left more than 14,000 people dead has also upended power structures in towns and cities across this country of 23 million. As the Syrian government focuses on holding major cities and battling a growing insurgency, many communities have been left to organize their own security and obtain enough food and fuel.

Mamaar has coordinated those efforts in Maaret Misreen, this market town of 40,000 people surrounded by a web of poor farming villages in northern Syria. Since becoming the head of the eight-member revolutionary council late last year, he has helped distribute fuel, brokered a truce with the army and won the release of dozens of locals kidnapped by armed groups.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Journalist Ben Hubbard was part of a three-member Associated Press team that spent two weeks with rebels in northern Syria, gathering firsthand information on the increasingly bloody rebellion against President Bashar Assad — the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.

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While massacres have raised fears of strife between Syria's religious sects, Mamaar, a Sunni Muslim, also works to calm tensions with his Shiite Muslim neighbors — a task that gets harder every day.

Sectarianism is a rising force in the Syrian conflict, with a predominantly Sunni rebel movement fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's regime, which is largely led by members of his Alawite sect. Other minorities, like Shiites and Christians, have mostly stood by Assad, fearing for their place should he fall.

While dreaming of Assad's ouster, Mamaar's daily work serves a simpler goal: keeping chaos out of his town.

"As soon as there is chaos, the army comes, and as soon as the army comes, who will they kill? Our sons," Mamaar said.

So far, those efforts have brought a level of calm rare in Syria to this town where tractors outnumber cars, the produce market covers several blocks and families collect on their stoops at dusk while children run in the streets.

The revolt in Maaret Misreen started with small anti-regime demonstrations in April 2011. Residents mainly stood up against corruption and meddling by security services in many aspects of town life. Locals often say you needed security clearance to open a falafel stand. They are only partly joking.

"It was a dictatorial system, so they had to keep everything under their control," said activist Muhanad Aon.

Many suspected a local Muslim cleric, Abdel-Ghani Kassab, of being a regime mole planted to spy on residents. Kassab disappeared early in the uprising, only to return in December with a group of pro-regime fighters who then attacked local rebels, residents said. Mamaar's 22-year-old son, Tamer, was killed.

But the cleric and his fighters fled, and all other traces of the national government left soon thereafter. The rebels trashed the cleric's home, which now sits in mounds of rubble near a fountain painted with the revolutionary flag. Nearby graffiti reads: "The regime's house is a dump."

In March, the army shelled the city for two days, killing five people. Afterward, Mamaar helped negotiate a deal in which the rebels removed their checkpoints in exchange for calm. The army hasn't come back since.

"We worked hard to make that happen, and the village hasn't been ruined. So I feel we achieved something," said an opposition writer, Khatib Badli, who served as intermediary between the regime and the town. He also guessed that the army is easier on the town because about 15 percent of its residents are Shiite and it doesn't want to harm them.

Mamaar and his council do much of their work in his shop, its shelves cluttered with electrical outlets, switches, light bulbs and faucets. He has a ring of plastic chairs for the stream of visitors who gossip, tell him their woes, smoke cigarettes and drink the sweet tea he makes on a small gas stove.

Most of the problems one recent morning were relatively small: Rebels had detained some teenagers accused of stealing four computers, a TV, a satellite receiver and a water cooler from the high school; Mamaar was searching for witnesses. A widow complained that she couldn't find cooking gas; Mamaar said he'd replace her empty bottle.

The big issue, however, was the five men kidnapped by gunmen from the highway — the latest in a string of tit-for-tat attacks between rebels and pro-regime gunmen from two Shiite villages east of town.

Such kidnappings have been going on for months, with scores from both sides held from a few hours to a few weeks. Some had disappeared: The Sunnis accused the Shiites of passing them to state security; the Shiites accused the Sunnis of killing them.

After writing down the missing men's names, Mamaar flipped through a book of handwritten numbers to decide whom to call.

But it's been getting harder to keep open those lines of communication. Mamaar used to drive to the Shiite villages to visit his contacts, he said. Now he rarely does.

When a farmer with a broken grain mill stopped to ask if he could take it to a repairman in a Shiite village, Mamaar told him no.

"If you go you now, you go at your own risk," he said.

The uprising has affected Mamaar's own views of Shiites in nearby villages. He regularly calls them "liars" and says the regime is arming them to work as shabiha — pro-government thugs that violently suppress protests.

He also accuses them of being loyal to Iran, suggesting they would choose to go to that Shiite country if Assad falls.

"I think it's better if they don't stay in the area," he said.

Reached by phone, a prominent Shiite from one of those villages had some words of his own for those who oppose Assad.

"Those people aren't revolutionaries. They are troublemakers and traders in blood," said Zein al-Deen Taalib, 48.

He said many in his village of Fua served in the army and that they set up checkpoints for their own protection. He praised the Syrian army for doing its "sacred duty" and called Assad "the one real leader in the Arab world."

Echoing the regime line, he blamed the uprising on armed gangs backed by foreign powers trying to destroy the country.

"If I were a Sunni, I'd stand in the market in Maaret Misreen and kill them," Taalib said, noting that because he's a Shiite, a minority in Syria, he has to be more careful.

Many worry that violence between the communities will spread.

Badli, the opposition writer, said rebels were stepping up attacks on army and Shiite checkpoints.

"I don't think the army will let them get away with it for much longer," he said.

Another Shiite leader from the village of Kifarya who often speaks with Mamaar said all needed to work to maintain good relations. Before the uprising began last year, the two sects coexisted without violence.

"We'll try to keep it quiet so we can live together," said Abu Abdallah Hassaneh, 63. "As long as we are alive."