ALEPPO, Syria (North Press) – Ahmed Ahmed (a pseudonym), a displaced person from the village of Anjara in the western countryside of Aleppo living Ashrafieh neighborhood of the city, still pays 10,000 Syrian pounds per week to the militants of the Baqir Brigade in exchange for allowing him to sell vegetables in a stall in the neighborhood.
Every Thursday, Ahmed pays this amount to militants of the brigade controlling the neighborhood. In addition, they come daily and take whatever vegetables they want to the headquarters, without paying a penny.
Ahmed, who preferred not to be named out of fear of the brigade’s members, told North Press, “I’m buying my safety in exchange for that.”
There is no clear information about the date and circumstances of the establishment of the Baqir Brigade, which was named after the Shiite imam Muhammad al-Baqir. The unit itself and its supporters claim that it was established in 2012, after the beginning of the battle for Aleppo.
The pro-opposition al-Souria website reported that Baqir Brigade was established as part of the local defense forces in 2015.
At the beginning of the Syrian war, the Baqir Brigade took control of the Ashrafieh neighborhood. The group is made up of hundreds of militants from al-Baqara Tribe, most of whom converted from the Sunni sect of Islam to the Shiite Twelver sect.
In May 2018, the brigade’s gunmen attacked merchants and civilians, gun-butting them in the Bab al-Faraj area in central Aleppo. Four civilians were wounded, to various degrees, in a dispute that turned out to be over parking rights.
According to a security source in the Crime and Security Branch in Aleppo, the Baqir Brigade was able to control Ashrafieh neighborhood because their headquarters, the Local Defense Forces, is located close to them, between the neighborhoods of Jala’a and Eastern Sheikh Meqsoud.
The brigade’s gunmen brought in outlaws, which enabled it to take control of several neighborhoods of Ashrafieh and Bab al-Nayrab in the eastern part of Aleppo, Maysir neighborhood, Dahrat Awad, al-Balura, Tae Shughaib in the southeastern countryside, al-Safirah city, and Tal Hasel, according to the source.
“They control these neighborhoods completely, without any interference by government security forces,” according to the same source.
According to the security source, it is forbidden for the security forces to arrest anyone wanted on criminal charges without coordinating with the military commander in charge of the neighborhood in order to avoid friction with them.
When they want to arrest any person from the neighborhood, they coordinate with a person nicknamed Abu Doshaka, who is one of the leaders who controls the neighborhood, or they have to monitor the wanted person and arrest him while he is leaving the neighborhood, according to the source.
He pointed out that the group members give the wanted person a choice, between granting him protection on condition of joining the group or paying money for a certain period.
A month ago, Muhammad Misto, a displaced person from the village of Akhtarin, north of Aleppo, who owns a butcher’s shop in Ashrafieh, moved his place of residence to another neighborhood.
He will also move his shop during the upcoming period for fear of revenge by the Baqir Brigade’s gunmen if he refuses to give them goods from his shop, Misto said.
Since the brigade’s takeover of Ashrafieh, Misto has lost dozens of kilograms of meat, only to close his shop in the middle of the day because the brigade’s gunmen were touring the neighborhood only in the evening hours.
“But after they found out about this, they threatened me with false accusations, such as helping the Syrian opposition fighters and providing them with coordinates, in case I repeated the matter,” Misto said.
In the beginning of 2019, Ibrahim Saroukh (pseudonym), a displaced person from the western countryside of Aleppo, was forced to leave the Ashrafieh neighborhood due to the increase in violations by the militants of the Baqir Brigade.
Saroukh had come to Ashrafieh in 2013, settled in the neighborhood, and rented a shop there after losing his shop in Sha’ar neighborhood.
He said, “I work to support my family, so if I lose a pair of shoes every month, what is left for me? Not to mention I pay 20,000 SYP per month to the brigade’s gunmen.”