Gangster paradise: Assad’s control erodes as warlords gain upper hand

Der Spiegel reports: On a cool morning, an elderly man is standing at his espresso machine on a street in eastern Aleppo. It’s shortly after 8 a.m., and this part of the city — destroyed in the war and reconquered by the regime in December — is waking up. Green grocers arrive and set out their boxes of produce on the rubble piled in front of their stores. Others are shoveling debris from the roads.

The name of the man with the espresso machine must go unmentioned, otherwise he would soon be dead. A fire is burning in a metal drum next to his improvised coffee counter, and he is using it to periodically warm his hands. Several weeks ago, just after the neighborhood was retaken, he returned to the small workshop where he had run a motorcycle repair shop — but it was already too late. He immediately saw that someone had shot open the lock.

Inside, he found uniformed fighters from a militia affiliated with the regime. They were in the process, he says, of removing a motorcycle, his German tools and all replacement parts from the garage. Two of the militia members, he says, silently threatened him with their Kalashnikovs, leaving him no choice but to leave as the men loaded his belonging into a pick-up truck.

As he relates his story, other civilians approach the fire and begin nodding. One of them, the owner of a general store, says that regular army soldiers had hardly left before militia members began emptying out his store. Another relates the story of how militia members murdered his brother. The brother had been lying wounded in bed when five fighters forced their way into his apartment. “Bring him out,” the fighters ordered before claiming the apartment as their own. The man protested, saying his brother was unable to walk — whereupon one of the militia members pulled out his gun and shot the brother in the head. Then the fighters looted the apartment.

More and more men from the neighborhood assemble at the coffee machine and tell their own stories of looting, but suddenly, the men at the fire fall silent. A militia fighter can be seen walking down the street with a golden hawk on his uniform, the emblem of the Desert Hawks, one of the two most powerful militias in the territory controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

For months, Assad’s army has been on the advance across Syria. But its military success has only been possible due to the significant assistance the president’s troops have received from Iran and Russia — and from local Syrian militias. Now, these fighters are taking over control in many areas, committing murder, looting and harassing civilians. And nobody can stop them, not even Assad himself. Indeed, the militias are now more powerful than even the country’s leader and have become the real holders of power in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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