In the last month, a tiny slice of Syria north of Aleppo has wrested itself free of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Local towns are still targeted by regular air strikes and artillery fire, but for the moment, those are the only vestiges of the Syrian regime.
In what residents now call “Free Syria,” citizens are creating their own local governments that manage everything from bread lines to murder trials. They even control the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey, where they place their own official stamp on visitors’ passports.
These transitional governments are usually volunteer efforts that rely on donations from wealthy residents when funding is required and, in the absence of official state codes, often resort to Islamic law.
In Akhtrin, a small village about 30 miles northeast of Aleppo, Ahmad Ibrahim, an agricultural worker and Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, now finds himself serving as the town’s de facto mayor.
“In this village, about 70 or 80 percent of the people are uneducated,” says Mr. Ibrahim. “I studied law for about two years so they decided I should be the leader.”
Chronic food shortages in the war-torn region have made managing bread rations a key priority. Ibrahim says that he and his fellow villagers created a ration card system and have even managed to subsidize bread through the donations of several residents who can afford to help.
Occasionally squabbles and fights break out in the bread line or over other issues, but FSA fighters in the village say the problems are easily resolved. For more complicated criminal cases, like theft or murder, many towns in “Free Syria” have created a temporary court system that relies heavily on sharia, or Islamic law.
In Al-Bab, just south of Akhtrin, small cases are arbitrated by a panel of about three judges. Major cases, such as murders, are decided by a panel of 15 judges and two lawyers.
Judges stress that their interpretation of Islamic law is a moderate one, and that they lean on it in the absence of state laws because of Syrians' familiarity with sharia and not because they are interested in creating a new, conservative country.
“We judge by Islam and Islam is the religion of peace. We want only to bring people together,” says Mahmoud Akel, a judge in Al-Bab. “Now we are in a transitional period. After the revolution, the people will decide if we stay.”
Some Syrians say they’re aware that sharia law may connote images of groups like the Taliban, but they stress that most locals are happy with the system. They add that in addition to basing their judgments on Islamic laws, many of their judgments rely on what can only be termed common sense.
“The principle here is justice. No one can take money and not face justice,” says Ali Al-Hassan, who runs a vegetable shop in Akhtrin. “Of course we like them using sharia law. It is our religion.”
The new de facto leaders must also deal with the 1.2 million internally displaced Syrians who have fled ongoing fighting and regular bombings in their towns and villages. Thousands are waiting to enter Turkey, while others have sought safety along the border, hoping government planes won’t attack them there.
With few aid groups working inside Syria, managing the refugee problem has proven particularly challenging. About a month ago, a group of Syrians near the border with Turkey created the Relief Office, an organization that is something between a charity and government social services. Using local and some international donor funding, the organization provides food and medicine to refugees and other Syrians in need.
In Azaz, the main Syrian town just across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis, the Relief Office is run by Ahmad Karkoubi, an FSA fighter who was left without anything to do after he was shot four times on the frontlines of Aleppo. Now he finds himself coordinating aid distribution and helping residents find loved ones who’ve gone missing after bombings.
“It was easier to fight than to work here. When you’re fighting, you’re only responsible for yourself and your men. Here I am responsible for the entire city,” he says.
The group has evolved to meet the demands of the city. When the group realized that some residents were taking more than their share of assistance, Mr. Karkoubi and his colleagues used Google Maps to divide the city into a grid system that allowed them to more systematically distribute aid.
“It’s better to work here now than to sit in my house while I recover,” says Karkoubi. Still he adds, “if I get better I will go back to fight.”