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In 'Free Syria,' the opposition tries its hand at being the boss

In the small section of northern Syria now beyond government control, the local opposition is filling the power vacuum, ensuring people are fed and that criminals stand trial.

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Members of the Free Syrian Army gather around a map in Aleppo September 3.

Shaam News Network/REUTERS

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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.”

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