Middle East

Free Syrian Police go unarmed to help their community

Free Syrian Police officer working alongside the White Helmets civil defence in Syria Image copyright FSP
Image caption The police enforce Syrian law and do not co-operate with extremist groups

The Free Syrian Police force, part-funded by the UK government, was set up five years ago - and demonstrates to Syrians that it is not necessary to carry weapons in order to administer law and order in the country.

Over a cup of tea, in a secure office about an hour's drive from Turkey's border with Syria, I meet General Adeeb al-Shallaf, the founder and head of the Free Syrian Police (FSP) in Aleppo province.

Gen Shallaf is a tall man with considerable presence and a parade-ground bearing.

He once held a senior position within the Syrian government police force but that changed when his superiors ordered him to shoot at demonstrators during the popular uprisings in the country.

"Of course I refused to obey the orders," he tells me. "So I decided to defect."

In 2012 he and fellow officers decided to form the Free Syrian Police.

Gen Shallaf wanted Syrians to have a force they could trust after years of being policed by what was seen as corrupt instruments of the regime.

'Our strength is our weakness'

The force now has 3,300 mostly unarmed officers who provide community policing to the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Idlib and Daraa provinces.

It is difficult and dangerous work. Gen Shallaf tells me he has frequently been the target of shelling.

"They have tried to kill me 20 times," he says, adding that more than 100 officers have died.

At first Gen Shallaf thought his officers should carry weapons, but now he firmly believes that law and order in Syria need not be administered at the point of a gun.

"Our strength will be in our weakness," he says. His officers' authority, he argues, comes from the support of the community. Policing by consent, we might call it in the UK.

Image copyright FSP
Image caption The Free Syrian Police work to earn the trust of the residents of the areas they work in

It's an ambition that is supported by the British government. Our meeting is in a secure annexe maintained by Adam Smith International (ASI) in Gaziantep.

The office is nondescript - better to keep off the radar of so-called Islamic State, who are known to operate in the Turkish city.

Since 2014 ASI has administered about £30m (US$37.5m) worth of assistance each year from a number of western governments on behalf of the Foreign Office.

The UK contributes about 30% of the total bill.

"We've provided vehicles, uniforms, batons and so on," says David Robson, a former senior British Army officer who leads the programme team.

They also provide financial support and training for the organisation.

As well as funding the police, David's team supports an effort to provide Syrians with personal documentation, such as records of births and marriages.

The lawyer in charge tells me it is vital to preserving the identity of the Syrian people.

The police seem to be valued by the communities they serve.

A community representative from an area north of Aleppo told me: "Their work is more than brave. Brave doesn't begin to describe what they do."

She added: "People are tired of seeing weapons and arms everywhere, so people want to see unarmed police."

Crimes have decreased in her community, where there are night patrols. But the ability of the FSP to bring some of the armed actors in Syria to justice, is limited.

"In one example in Western Aleppo a few murders were reported over disputes related to water," a Syrian ASI staff member told me. "The FSP was not able to interfere due to many of those involved being armed."

One family was in control of the water supply and this was leading to conflict.

Instead, the police negotiated improvements to the water supply, forged an agreement about sharing it and as a result, the tension - and murders - ended.

Image caption The UK spends about £9m a year supporting the police programme from offices in Gaziantep in Turkey

But there is no escape from the conflict. The police work closely with the civil defence, known as the White Helmets, to deal with the aftermath of air-raids - fighting fires, providing medical assistance and securing damaged areas.

"We still lose friends and colleagues and at the end of every shift, the policemen still say goodbye to each other because they don't know whether they will meet again," a senior police officer working in countryside in western Aleppo told me.

Still they continue the work. Recently they carried out an operation targeting drug dealing in their area.

The FSP funders do not provide support to the court system. The police predominantly enforce Syrian law, but ASI's David Robson notes that armed groups have brought in various forms of Sharia law.

The FSP does not co-operate with extremist groups but sometimes control will switch to these groups, he says.

In such circumstances international funders are obliged to withdraw their support to the police in those areas.

Image copyright FSP
Image caption The numbers of police are growing and donors believe they demonstrate the value of community policing

In a busy cafe by the Bosphorus in Istanbul, activist Sandra Bitar regrets that this is the case.

"We are punishing the civilians in these communities," she says. In her view it is counter-productive and will force Syrians in these areas to engage with radical groups.

She also wishes donors would fund the court system.

The FSP numbers are growing, and the funders hope it will achieve change that lasts.

When peace finally returns to Syria, David Robson believes that the programme will have demonstrated the value of community policing.

But when that peace will come, regretfully, he could not say.

Chris Vallance reports for BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme.

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