ALEPPO, Syria — The evidence was incontrovertible, captured on video and posted on YouTube for all the world to see. During a demonstration against the Syrian regime, Wael Ibrahim, a veteran activist, had tossed aside a banner inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith.
And that, decreed the officers of the newly established Sharia Authority set up to administer rebel-held Aleppo, constitutes a crime under Islamic law, punishable in this instance by 10 strokes of a metal pipe.
The beating administered last month offered a vivid illustration of the extent to which the Syrian revolution has strayed from its roots as a largely spontaneous uprising against four decades of Assad family rule. After mutating last year into a full-scale war, it is moving toward what appears to be an organized effort to institute Islamic law in areas that have fallen under rebel control.
Building on the reputation they have earned in recent months as the rebellion’s most accomplished fighters, Islamist units are seeking to assert their authority over civilian life, imposing Islamic codes and punishments and administering day-to-day matters such as divorce, marriage and vehicle licensing.
Numerous Islamist groups are involved, representing a wide spectrum of views. But, increasingly, the dominant role is falling to Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States for suspected ties to al-Qaeda but is widely respected by many ordinary Syrians for its battlefield prowess and the assistance it has provided to needy civilians.
Across the northeastern provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqah, where the rebels have been making rapid advances in recent weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken the lead both in the fighting and in setting out to replace toppled administrations. It has assumed control of bakeries and the distribution of flour and fuel, and in some instances it has sparked tensions with local fighters by trying to stop people from smoking in the streets.
Here in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, more than half of which has been under rebel control since July, Jabhat al-Nusra is also widely identified as the leading force behind the Hayaa al-Sharia, which loosely translates as the Sharia Authority and is known simply as the Hayaa.
Based out of the city’s former Eye Hospital, which was damaged during the fighting and then occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra as its headquarters, the Hayaa is also backed by other rebel units, including the Tawhid Brigade, the city’s biggest fighting force, and the Ahrar al-Sham, a homegrown Islamist force that has played a relatively minor role in Aleppo but is powerful in several other provinces.
These days, the bomb-scarred former hospital has taken on the semblance of a wartime city hall, with people milling in and out seeking permits to carry a gun or transport fuel through checkpoints, complaining about neighbors, reporting thefts and informing on people suspected to be regime loyalists.
At the gate, a guard dressed in a black shalwar kameez, the tunic-and-pants outfit traditionally worn in Pakistan but alien to Syria, refuses admittance to women unless they are clad in an abaya, a full-length cloak, something that is common in conservative Syrian communities but is far from ubiquitous.
Inside, in a sparse, dingy office, a burly man who identified himself as the head of the authority and gave his name as Abu Hafs, received what he said was the first journalist to be admitted to the facility. Seated beside him was a slight, heavily bearded man with a scholarly air who did most of the talking but who refused to give his name because, he said, he was speaking on behalf of Abu Hafs.
The two men refused to identify the group they belong to or who was behind the creation of the Hayaa, except to say that it has the support of the biggest battalions operating in Aleppo, “one of which isn’t comfortable with the media,” according to Abu Hafs, an apparent reference to the media-shy Jabhat al-Nusra.
Conferring often, the men said the body had been set up at the request of the people of Aleppo after the units involved in creating it had won their trust, through “their honesty on the battlefield and the fact that they are not interested in looting,” the spokesman said.
A wide range of cases are adjudicated, including kidnapping, murder, marriage and divorce, he said, and the authority has a department that administers issues such as property and vehicle ownership.
The codes applied are “derived from the Islamic religion,” the spokesman said, but the most extreme Islamic punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves, are not imposed because Islamic law requires that they be suspended during war.