Rebels’ court in southern Syria an alliance of convenience against Assad

Moderate and extremist rebels on Syria's southern front have established a court in an attempt to work together - at least for now.

A pro-Assad gunman holds a position at a military airport held by Syrian troops and pro-regime militias in the northeastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor on December 12, five days after they repelled an attack by militants. AFP Photo
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AMMAN // A tacit, frequently hidden and often uneasy relationship between western-backed rebels and Jabhat Al Nusra has been formalised in southern Syria with the establishment of a united judicial system involving both groups.
The recently opened House of Justice in Gharz, near Deraa, brings together judges chosen by moderate rebel factions — those drawing support from the West and Arabian Gulf states — with judges selected by Al Nusra and other Islamist factions such as Harakat Al Muthana.
The court has been hearing cases since last month, covering military, criminal and administrative law as well as reconciliation over disputes involving civilians and armed factions.
The creation of the court in late November comes as part of an intense contest for dominance on the southern front between moderates, sometimes still referred to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Al Nusra that has seen the groups alternating cooperation and conflict.
It also underscores the highly complex nature of conditions in Syria, a proxy war that has killed more than 200,000 people and drawn in regional and world powers into a mosaic of messy, often confused and mutating alliances.
US-led airstrikes in Syria since September have hit Al Nusra targets but, in the form of the new unified court, rebels who have been trained, armed and advised by the western and Arab Gulf-backed Military Operations Command in Amman are openly co-operating with Nusra in the south.
There are, however, indications that the court may already be faltering, with suggestions from some rebel sources that the MOC has been putting pressure on moderate groups to pull out. That information has not been confirmed and there has been no public announcement of withdrawal by rebel groups.
That increased cooperation — it falls far short of a truly unified military command but does involve joint arbitration of disputes — reflects a necessary pragmatism among moderates and Al Nusra alike, according to analysts and those involved in the House of Justice project, with both sides unable to decisively establish dominance over the other and compelled into an alliance of convenience in the fiercely fought war against forces loyal to president Bashar Al Assad on the southern front.
Overall the balance of power in the new court is evenly divided between moderates and extremists. Al Nusra is the second-largest single bloc after the FSA.
Half of the court's 16 judges were chosen by the Western and Gulf backed factions, according to rebels and civilian activists familiar with the new system. Al Nusra appointed four judges, with the remaining four selected by Al Muthana and Ahrar Al Sham, salafist groups positioned somewhere between the moderates and Al Qaeda.
"In Syria those who win victories, gain legitimacy. The FSA has made military gains in the latest battles. Although Nusra took part in these battles, the victories are not restricted to Nusra and therefore the FSA has regained its popularity " said Ahmad Abazid, a Syrian analyst from Deraa who monitors Islamist groups.
"In the end, too, Nusra is a powerful faction and they have had the most powerful court. So if there is going to be a mutual court, Nusra has to be a partner in it," he said
At least one of the Nusra judges is a non-Syrian, activists and rebels said, although exactly who the group's appointees are remains unclear because they use pseudonyms. Some senior Al Nusra figures in southern Syria are Jordanian and Iraqi militants.
"It is an independent legal entity that will provide justice," said Osama Al Bardani, a member of the rebel-operated, broadly moderate Deraa Governorate Council. "The court is accepted by civilians especially after years of injustice under Bashar Al Assad during which people's rights were lost in courts that were like a black market."
Key issues still need to be worked out, however, including the respective authorities of Deraa council, armed groups and the court itself. In a plan unveiled last month, moderates ultimately want to give civilians executive power over rebel factions and authority over a police force that will work with the court.
"We as a council bless the court and seek in the future, through our legal personnel, to regulate measures that would govern ties between the executive power, represented in the police stations that will be set up, and a court."
It also remains to be seen if the rebel groups involved in its creation will actually respect the power of the court. Powerful armed factions often ran roughshod over previous rebel-administered justice systems in southern Syria if they failed to get the ruling they wanted.
Since the House of Justice was created, the factions involved do appear to have largely honoured their commitments to grant it legal powers, including cases of criminal accusations against their own members.
Al Nusra has handed over 72 of its prisoners to the court, rebel commanders said. Moderate rebels also turned their detainees over to the unified court's administration, putting it in charge of sentencing and detention.
But three significant FSA figures, Col Ahmed Nehmeh, Zuhair Dabbo and Sharif Saffouri, detained this year by Al Nusrawere not among those handed over. Moderate rebel commanders said Al Nusra insisted it had transferred all of its living prisoners to the new court, suggesting Col Nehmeh and the other two men have been executed while in Al Nusra's custody.
The unified court's creation coincides with Al Nusra suffering a series of setbacks in the south just as moderate factions made gains against regime troops.
Al Nusra, playing a major role in key rebel victories, had previously been content to run its own, independent courts, in parallel with a court system under moderates' control.
That network of moderate and Al Nusra-run courts, operating for more than two years, was sometimes successful, and widely seen as less corrupt than the regime's legal system. But it was also flawed.
In practice, most of those courts ruled not simply according to a version of Sharia, but a flexible and locally accepted mixture of Islamic law, tribal custom and civil laws. It remains to be seen if the new court will govern according to a similar mix.
Moderate rebel commanders had sought to create a unified legal system with Al Nusra as the Al Qaeda-affiliated group grew in influence throughout 2012 and 2013, viewing it as an important way of preventing it from creating a monopoly over systems of governance in rebel-held areas of the south.