‘Organized corruption’: Money rules in Turkish-backed Syrian National Army areas of northwestern Syria
PARIS — The military police affiliated with the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) in al-Bab, northern Aleppo briefly released a former Syrian army soldier accused of committing violations against civilians before rearresting him hours later on Wednesday in response to civilian protests.
Muhammad Hassan al-Mustafa was held by the al-Bab Military Police, which initially denied releasing him and issued a statement on Wednesday that the suspect “remains under arrest and will be duly brought before the judiciary to decide his case, after the admissions he made.”
The 30-year-old man arrived in the SNA-controlled areas of the northern Aleppo countryside six months ago, as two of his brothers live in al-Bab city. He was arrested by the military police on May 10, and confessed to committing killings and rapes while fighting with the Syrian army’s 4th Division, led by Maher al-Assad, as well as participating in the storming of several Syrian cities. However, he was released on Wednesday after a bribe was reportedly paid to a military police official.
Al-Mustafa, who is from the Saliheen district of Aleppo city, served in the Syrian army for more than eight years and was discharged in March 2021. At the end of his mandatory service, he received SYP 2 million (approximately $500 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 3,980 to the dollar), according to his written admissions in a military police investigation report dated May 12, a copy of which was obtained by Syria Direct.
He spent the past several months hiding in a plastic factory in al-Bab, where he worked with his brother before he was arrested by military police last week.
Al-Mustafa’s initial release on Wednesday sparked public anger in Turkish-backed SNA areas, and the city of al-Bab saw protests for the second day in a row in front of the city’s military police headquarters on Thursday. Protesters expressed their anger with his release, saying it was “a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs” and that whoever defends “the shabiha [pro-regime thugs] is a shabih like them.”
The circumstances surrounding the former regime soldier’s release this week highlight a broader pattern of corruption in the Turkish-backed opposition territories, including cases of the involvement of SNA commanders and the military police in releasing detainees for bribes or covering for relatives accused of crimes.
Fallout of the incident
There are conflicting narratives about who was involved in receiving money in exchange for al-Mustafa’s release on Wednesday. Local activists have accused the military police commander in al-Bab, Colonel Abdul Latif al-Ahmad, also known as Abu Khaled, of receiving $1,500 in coordination with a commander in the SNA-affiliated Sultan Murad Division, Hamidou al-Juhaishi. Others said al-Juhaishi was the one who received the bribe.
The official narrative, according to al-Bab military police chief al-Ahmad, is that he “refused commander Hamidou al-Juhaishi’s intervention to release the shabih,” Malek Abu Obaida, a journalist in al-Bab, told Syria Direct. As a result, “al-Juhaishi went to Turkish intelligence asking for help, which instructed the military police commander in al-Bab to release al-Mustafa.”
Brigadier General Ahmed al-Kurdi, the leader of the military police in SNA areas of influence in northern Syria, adopted the same narrative in a meeting with notables, representatives of revolutionary activities and SNA leaders in al-Bab on Thursday, a source who attended the meeting told Syria Direct.
“Brigadier General Ahmed al-Kurdi said in the meeting that commander Hamidou al-Juhaishi went to the military police station in al-Bab more than once” to get al-Mustafa released,” the source said. After that failed, “he brought a paper from Turkish intelligence stating that the accused was to be handed over to him to be transferred to the military judiciary, under the pretext that the suspect was tortured in the al-Bab branch.”
For the area’s residents, it is not sufficient that al-Mustafa was rearrested after his release, in response to protests. Nor is it enough to expose those involved in taking bribes, as “these officials could go back to release the same people or other individuals,” Abu Obaida said. “Our demand is not to turn over the shabiha, but also the military police commander in al-Bab, al-Juhaishi and all those involved in the incident.”
In response to the accusations aimed at him, al-Juhaishi, the Sultan Murad commander accused of securing al-Mustafa’s release, said the latter is “mentally unsound” in a voice recording posted on social media in which he denied the truth of the confessions he made.
Al-Juhaishi denied having released al-Mustafa, saying in the recording that he was to be turned over to the military judiciary but was returned to the military police “to stave off any factional infighting in the area.”
The commander of the military police in al-Bab, al-Ahmad, announced his resignation on Wednesday after he was accused of releasing al-Mustafa. In an audio recording circulated by activists via WhatsApp, he said he was unable to continue working “under any circumstances—it’s given me a headache and my health has deteriorated.”
In turn, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) Ministry of Defense, under which the SNA and military police fall, announced the formation of a temporary military investigation committee on Wednesday to look into the decision to release al-Mustafa. The committee consists of the military police head Ahmed al-Kurdi, Brigadier General Abdullah al-Khatabi and Major Bashar al-Hamoud.
The Ministry of Defense gave the committee a 72-hour deadline, which can be extended only once, to submit the results of the investigation to it in order for it to proceed as required by law.
In the latest fallout from the al-Mustafa affair, Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation, a military formation affiliated with the SNA, issued an administrative order on Thursday referring Muhammad Yahya Khudeir, who is known as Hamidou al-Juhaishi, to its internal military committee after his name was mentioned in the matter of al-Mustafa’s release.
It also appears that the wave of public anger against military and security institutions in SNA areas of influence may push them to take steps to contain protestors and reconsider issues of corruption that came to light after the incident.
On Wednesday, military police also rearrested Ahmad Hassan al-Hamidi, 26, a former regime soldier from the al-Bab countryside village of al-Sukkariya al-Saghira who entered SNA-controlled areas eight months ago.
A military police patrol detained al-Hamidi for a number of hours on May 14, and he admitted to serving for one year in regime ranks before fleeing military service, as he was conscripted while returning from Lebanon to Syria, according to a report issued by the al-Bab Military Police’s investigation department that was obtained by Syria Direct. Al-Hamidi was released on the recommendation of Hayat Thaeroon, according to the report. Coinciding with the al-Mustafa incident, al-Hamidi was also rearrested on Wednesday.
Last week, the Afrin Military Police arrested Mahmoud al-Dimashqi, a displaced activist from southern Damascus, after he reported that Jaish al-Islam commander Hussam al-Qaadan, who is part of the SNA’s Third Legion, covered up accusations against his brothers Qassim and Zain al-Qaadan. The commander’s brothers are accused of committing violations against civilians in Daraa while serving in regime ranks.
At the beginning of May, al-Dimashqi revealed the accusations and the commander’s involvement in covering them up, relying on “information and testimonies he obtained from the victims.” One of the victims had told the Jaish al-Islam “about the story two months ago, but they didn’t care,” according to a source close to al-Dimashqi who is familiar with the details of the incident.
Qassim al-Qaadan, 35, one of the brothers, served as deputy commander of the military security detachment in the northern Daraa city of al-Hara before the opposition took control in 2014.
After publishing the details of the case, al-Dimashqi informed the head of the security department of the Azm Unified Command Room—an SNA formation established in mid-2021 that now includes most major Turkish-backed opposition factions—and military police head Ahmed al-Kurdi of the information and documents he had in his possession. Al-Dimashqi was asked to provide the information to the military police’s investigation department so it could follow up on the case, according to the same source, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
Instead of detaining the accused and questioning the Jaish al-Islam commander, the military police in Afrin arrested al-Dimashqi on May 10, charging him with “defaming Jaish al-Islam, defaming commander al-Qaadan and insulting the Islamic religion,” the source said.
After being held for seven days, al-Dimashqi was released on May 16 as “none of these charges have been substantiated,” while the military police arrested Qassim and Zain al-Qaadan. Their fate remains unclear.
But since his release, “Mahmoud has been getting threats from fake Facebook accounts, threatening to kidnap and rape his wife and daughter and burn his son and his house,” the source said.
Contrary to the case of the al-Qaadan family, the military police in the outskirts of the northern Aleppo countryside city of Azaz arrested activist Omar Nezhat six months ago after he facilitated the entry of a former regime detainee into the SNA-controlled areas.
Although the operation to bring in the former detainee was carried out in coordination with an SNA faction, which gave Nezhat a “military mission” document to carry it out, he and his friend were arrested hours after entering SNA territory, he told Syria Direct.
While detained inside military police prisons, Nezhat said he witnessed a number of abuses, including bribes being paid to jailers in exchange for cigarettes, fast food or other items.
Two days after his arrest, Nezhat and his friend were taken to the civil court in Azaz for their case to be considered. They were released in exchange for paying a $200 fine for “benefiting intangibly from human trafficking.”
But the total Nezhat paid was more than $1,000, between the fine and bribes, “or tips, as some personnel call them,” and retrieving his car and personal effects from the military police.
“With the military police, you can get out of prison even if you are a criminal, as long as you pay the bribe,” Nezhat said. On the other hand, “there are people in prison who were arrested on false charges, to force them to pay the money,” he added. “The corruption is organized, not an isolated incident,” he said, not to mention “mistreatment.”
“Without connections, I would have been beaten like the rest of the detainees, and I could have spent two months in prison,” the activist said. “Anyone who doesn’t have connections or the money to pay bribes will stay in prison.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.