Events are unfolding fast in Aleppo City. The more information that emerges, the more complex the picture becomes.
On Tuesday, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) executed a member of parliament from Aleppo named Zeino al-Barri.
The activists we are working with say that the FSA are closing in on the headquarters and operations of the “Shabiha in Aleppo”.
Up until now, I believed Shabhia meant loosely affiliated bands of paramilitaries-cum-gangsters who were mostly, but not exclusively Alawites – the same Shia sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These thuggish-looking types with shaved heads, big beards and steroid-loaded biceps, immortalised in self-portraits on Facebook, did – and still do – some of the nastiest work of the regime, including slaughtering and beating opponents.
Shabiha, according to several sources, are the delinquent sons of the Alawite community. Their business is crime: Smuggling and robbery. They deal in cigarettes, stolen cars, drugs and alcohol. When they saw something they wanted, they took it at gunpoint. And they were untouchable. You could not lay charges against them and the other security services would not control them. Since the uprising began, activists say there have been no limits on their brutality.
But the term “Shabiha” has broadened since the uprising started 17 months ago in Syria. Now it covers all the “unlicensed” enforcers doing the dirty work of the regime. They commit crimes that can be officially denied by Damascus. The state then blames Shabiha actions on the work of the “armed gangs”.
Here in Aleppo, activists tell me, the Shabiha are not Alawite – they are Sunni – and they are often members of a tribe called Barri. I can’t verify the following information myself, as I am moving around Aleppo province.
The story I am told goes like this: The Barri family is a big, old Sunni tribe, originally from areas on the outskirts of what is now the South East of the modern city – Bab al-Nayab. This family originally made their money from sheep, then some of them went into the smuggling business, dealing first with pharmaceuticals then moving into the lucrative trade in illegal narcotics.
These days in Aleppo they are seen as the second, shadowy arm of the state. Some of them were jailed for drugs crimes, but so enormous was their turnover that even inside jail they kept their operations going, ending up as influential drug lords – behind bars.
At the beginning of the uprising, the Assad regime allegedly did a deal with some members of the Barri family, offering them amnesty in return for loyalty and putting this drugs mafia at the service of the state. And – I’m told – they were given arms and salaries to stay loyal.
Activists tell me they are responsible for assassinations, robberies, extortion against wealthy Aleppo business people for funds “to suppress the revolution”, hostage -taking and the attacks on students at Aleppo University.
Now – apparently – the FSA are closing in on the family; they have already taken and killed the head of the family Zeino al-Barri and one of his brothers or cousins.
This man is an MP in the Syrian Parliament, assigned a seat in this year’s elections. The parliamentary seat is widely seen as a ‘reward’ for his services to the regime since the uprising.
Assessments here say that his killing will cause great consternation among the security services in Damascus, let alone Aleppo, who counted on this family to do much of their dirty work.