When Youssef al-Tanari’s motorcycle warehouse was burgled in April 2015, he filed a report with the Free Police in Maarat al-Numan.
Officers at the police station took his statement and launched an investigation which led to the capture of the culprits and the recovery of his stolen goods, worth 3 million Syrian pounds.
Set up in 2014, Maarat al-Numan’s Free Police Command consists of an investigations unit, a patrol forces and a prison. The police station operates 24-hours a day, handling complaints from residents of the city and the surrounding villages.
The police chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Abu Mahmud, believes the Maarat al-Numan command is a success story showing how the security vacuum can be filled after towns are liberated from Syrian government control.
“Before our station was established, police work was handled by a number of individual initiatives, but lack of funding forced them to stop operating,” the 42-year-old commander said.
“This resulted in a security vacuum that lasted until 2014, when the Free Police of Idleb were created under the leadership of Brigadier Fuad Suweid, followed by the Maarat al-Numan police station”.
Lt-Col Abu Mahmud says he has a staff of 75 from rank-and-file policemen to non-commissioned and senior officers.
“All our men are experienced in security work, as they defected from the government police, state and military security agencies, or the armed forces,” he said. “The crimes we’ve dealt with include murder, theft, forgery, rape and kidnapping”.
When Abu Salim, a 50-year-old from the village of al-Dana, discovered the 4,000 US dollars he was paid for a car he sold were counterfeit, he filed a report at the Maarat al-Numan police station.
“The police launched an investigation and arrested a gang involved in distributing counterfeit money,” he said.
The criminals were brought to justice, the forged banknotes were confiscated and destroyed, and Abu Salim’s car was returned to him.
Manaf Haj Ahmad, head of the Maarat al-Numan command’s media unit, said members of the force had a common commitment to their work.
“Our policemen regulate traffic, ensure the safety of civilians, resolve conflicts and recover stolen goods,” the 27-year-old officer told Damascus Bureau. “They share the belief that each citizen must play a different role in our fight for freedom, and they do everything in their power to fulfil their duties”.
Family disputes are transferred to a specialized arbitration center where an amicable resolution is sought. If this fails, the case goes before the civil law section of the local Sharia court.
Like other police commands operating in liberated areas, Maarat al-Numan’s Free Police Command receives financial aid from Friends of Syria.
As Captain Mohammad Abdulsalam, head of the investigations unit, explains, “Friends of Syria… operates under the supervision of the foreign ministries of the UK, the United States and Denmark.”
According to Abdulsalam, 35 rank-and-file police are paid a monthly allowance of 100 US dollars, non-commissioned officers get 150 dollars, and commissioned officers 300 dollars.
“Most policemen who work at the station have received training in criminal investigation, crime scene investigation, and evidence preservation in Turkey,” he said. “The Maarat al-Numan station has also received five modern police cars, criminal investigation equipment such as fingerprint kits, a computer with a satellite internet connection, two cameras, and a generator”.
Abdulsalam said the force had not been supplied with weapons, so policemen used their own personal firearms.
“If we need back-up, we rely on the support of armed rebel groups that operate in the city,” he added.
On the Beat
Lieutenant Ayman al-Dayub, 40, is head of the patrol unit at the station. He recalls incidents his team has dealt with.
“We were on a night patrol on November 18, 2014, and saw two masked men on a motorbike. They seemed suspicious so we asked them to stop, but they fled, so we chased and caught them. It transpired their motorbike was stolen, so we arrested them and returned the bike to its legal owner.”
Patrolmen also play a part in preserving local heritage.
“On May 9, 2015, we received information about a group that was excavating and looting artefacts at the site of the Kingdom of Ebla in Tal Mardikh. We sent a patrol unit who caught the vandals and confiscated their equipment,” Dayub said.
However, Dayub notes that the Free Police face many challenges.
“Many local citizens are armed,” he said, “and our station is subject to constant shelling. In addition, we are always in need of more men to join our ranks and guard checkpoints. This would free our fighters from these duties and allow them to focus on the front lines”.
Maarat al-Numan Free Police strives to apply the law to all citizens. No one exercises any type of authority over them, and no one is exempt – not even opposition fighters or members of the free police forces.
According to Lt-Col Abu Mahmud, despite the many challenges and burdens facing the Free Police, they do everything in their power to fight injustice and restore the rights of the weak and oppressed.
“We do not differentiate between rich and poor. All citizens are equal and we seek justice for them all.”
Sonia al-Ali is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor from Idleb countryside, Syria.
Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.