Crime Wave Engulfs Syria as Its Cities Reel From War
By an EMPLOYEE of THE NEW YORK TIMES in SYRIA and DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times, August 9, 2012
ALEPPO, Syria — The consequences of the war here have become familiar: neighborhoods shelled, civilians killed and refugees departed. But in the background, many Syrians describe something else that has them cowering with fear: a wave of lawlessness not unlike the crime wave Iraq experienced during the conflict there.
From Dara’a, near the Jordanian border, to Homs, Damascus and here in Syria’s commercial capital — the fighting has essentially collapsed much of the civilian state. Even in neighborhoods where skirmishes are rare, residents say thieves prey on the weak, and police stations no longer function because the officers have fled.
Kidnapping, rare before, is now rampant, as a man named Hur discovered here last month. He simply wanted to drive home. The man shoving a pistol into his back had other plans. “Keep walking,” the gunman told Hur, 40, a successful businessman, as they approached his car. “Get in.”
Hur said he initially thought he was being arrested by government agents. But then, after blindfolding him, his three captors made a phone call that revealed baser motives.
“They asked my family to ransom me with 15 million Syrian pounds,” Hur said of the abductors’ demand for about $200,000. “They were criminals, not a political group. They told me they knew me and they knew my family could pay.”
Rebel leaders have been trying to fill the void. “We are running patrols to protect our areas from thieves and criminals,” said Abu Mohammad, 30, a rebel fighter in eastern Aleppo.
But as bloody ground battles rage throughout the city, rebel control is limited. Syrians in Aleppo and elsewhere now say they bury their jewelry and other valuables inside their furniture. Some people no longer keep money in their pockets when they venture outside; residents and business owners across the country are padlocking their property to protect against armed opportunists mingling with combatants.
“No one wants to leave their houses, because you never know who is going to stop you or attack you,” said Yasmin, 50, a resident of Aleppo who was too afraid to give her last name. “Chaos, lawlessness, fear, it is just so chaotic, and with all the thugs in the streets, you never know who might kidnap you and ask for a ransom.”
Aleppo’s slide toward something resembling anarchy began months ago. Factory owners here in the country’s industrial capital said the roads outside the city went first, as armed bandits seized whatever they wanted from passing vehicles. One of Syria’s main automobile exporters recently told a Lebanese friend that he had to start sending vehicles to Iraq by boat from Lebanon because of the insecurity.
Then more reports of kidnappings started surfacing. By the end of March, as the government claimed to have retaken control of nearby cities, ransom demands were a daily occurrence in Aleppo, said Amal Hanano, a Syrian writer and analyst living in the United States. Usually, she said, the kidnappers asked for around $75,000 and then dropped their price to a fifth of that after tough negotiations.
Hur, using a nickname out of fear that he could be targeted again, said that his brother talked his kidnappers down to about $30,000 in Syrian pounds. It took a week. He said he spent most of the time tied to a water pipe in the back of a small store somewhere outside Aleppo.
His kidnappers made sure he had enough food and water. They took his cellphone, his watch and a gold ring but they left his car near the city, to establish their credibility. “They told my family where to find the car and the keys to prove that I was with them,” said Hur, indicating that they had probably kidnapped before.
In addition to gaining more expertise as the conflict drags on, criminals are also becoming more brazen. Yasmin said that a few days ago her cousin, a 65-year-old man, was robbed in his garden at 1:30 in the afternoon. His family watched helplessly as the thieves stole all he had, about $70. Now her brother, who lives across the street, makes sure his pockets are empty before he leaves home.
“We’ve all become a lot more careful since that incident,” Yasmin said. “Can you imagine? It’s not even safe to carry $70.”
Many Syrians blame the government of President Bashar al-Assad for allowing the crime to happen, or even encouraging it. Ms. Hanano, along with many activists, say the crime waves afflicting Syrian cities began over the past year when the unrest led to a guerrilla war. The battles themselves led to mass flight and empty streets, making it easier to crack open a store like a piñata.
It was Iraq, circa 2003, in miniature: in areas where decades of suppressive government have suddenly been lifted, looting, violence and sectarianism have begun to thrive.
But the lawlessness may be more systemic. For years, the Assad government relied for control on private militias called shabiha that were paid by the government or by its wealthy supporters. With the government stretched financially and many businessmen fleeing or switching sides, those payments appear to have stopped, Ms. Hanano and others said, leading many militia members to pay themselves however they can, often with violence as a byproduct.
One human rights group, Women Under Siege, said it had documented nearly 100 cases of rape in Syria since the conflict started, with many of them involving several men believed to be members of pro-government militias.
The shabiha’s behavior, some activists said, contributes to the kind of rage that led rebels to summarily execute several people suspected of being shabiha members in a video from Aleppo that emerged last week.
But the shabiha are hardly the only problem. Rebel commanders have said that there are “daylight robberies” in the bread lines of the bakeries that they control, with thieves grabbing more than their allotted loaves to sell for a premium on the black market.
Rebel fighters have also been seen stealing cars and destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers have sometimes eaten. Some residents of Aleppo who say they care about peace and distrust both sides in the conflict said that both rebels and government militias — or their sympathizers — were targeting anyone they thought supported the other side.
The penalty for that hastily determined loyalty is usually exacted by a group of men carrying guns. “The city of Aleppo has become like the wild,” said Hur, sitting in his parents’ fancy home in an upscale Aleppo neighborhood. “The big fish eat the small ones.”
Does this not sound like a very warm petrie dish for AlQaeda operatives to seize upon, and to exacerbate, for their own purposes? "Super bugs" able to wreak their havoc on the innocents once again.
And who is going to stop them, and how would that happen?
And only today, we learn that Pakistan, attending a conference hosted by and held in Iran, publicly declares support for the Assad regime.
Let me think: Is it not Pakistan that has nuclear weapons? And was it not a Pakistani operative, Dr. Khan, currently serving a sentence in house arrest for having "sold" nuclear secrets to foreign powers, following Pakistan's acquisition of those details?
Hmmm....Are we now witnessing a growing, escalating conflict to which world powers are attaching their names, and within which are stored chemical and biological weapons, and added to the mix of internal chaos, we find the name of an unstable nuclear power joining the fight on the government side?
Sometimes, even our most aggressive imagination cannot envision such a perfect "storm"....nor the apparent incapacity of the world to effectively reduce the tensions, and limit the destruction and the loss of life, not to mention the need to begin assertively to design, negotiate and build a coalition to prevent the country from falling off the cliff into more chaos once Assad has either departed or been killed or forced from power.
Offering millions in medical aid, as Great Britain has just announced, within the last hour, "foreign policy with a conscience" as their Foreign Secretary,William Hague, articulated his move, seems like a drop in a very large bucket, but at least those who actually get medical help will appreciate the gesture.