A Tale of Two Muharrar's
The bifurcated state of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria
Another essay relating to HTS’s recent incursion into Afrin. The first of such covering the killing of activist Abu Ghannoum can be read here.
Twice this year Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has launched interventions into SNA-controlled Afrin, greatly upsetting the status quo in opposition-controlled Syria. The first such invasion occurred in June and was quickly halted and reversed by Turkish-facilitated negotiations. Facing little to no resistance from SNA groups other than the Third Legion (al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah and Jaysh al-Islam), HTS advanced mere kilometers from Afrin city within just one day. Despite facing greater resistance during this recent incursion, with the assistance of SNA factions Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah and Furqat al-Hamzah HTS was able to quickly seize Afrin city and force the Third Legion out of the entire Afrin region. While much of HTS’s military presence appears to have returned to Idlib, it’s still unclear what this will mean for Afrin’s security and governance institutions and its place within the broader SIG/SNA realm.
Necessary to understanding these developments, relations between HTS and the numerous SNA factions, and Turkey’s role within this affair, is a discussion of the two distinctive and opposing opposition statelets within northern Syria. Prior to these HTS incursions, the affairs of these two zones were largely isolated from one another given the mutual hostility and lack of cooperation between the respective administrations, as well as the different Turkish policies towards each.
The origins of this bifurcation lie in 2016 – the pivotal year in shaping how the war has since played out. While there is much to be said regarding the internal and international developments which led to this turning point the long story short is that the Russian intervention which began in the fall of 2015 greatly bolstered the regime, allowing for it to go on the offensive and forcing opposition backers to recalibrate their policies. In the spring of 2016 simultaneous regime and SDF offensives in northern Aleppo severed the key towns of A’zaz and Mare’ from the rest of opposition-controlled territory, sometimes referred to as Greater Idlib. This refers to the governorate of Idlib, northeastern Latakia, northern Hama, and western Aleppo, which at the time was largely under the control of al-Qa‘idah affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist factions.
As it became increasingly clear that Aleppo city would fall to the regime the main state sponsors of the opposition – the US, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi - gave up on the idea of regime change. While the rest of these countries slowly backed from this part of the conflict entirely Turkey instead pivoted its policy to address two higher priority concerns. Ever since 2016 Turkish policy in Syria has been oriented around (1) preventing another mass refugee flow into Turkey, and (2) preventing the creation of a contiguous Kurdish political entity along its border and destroying Kurdish autonomy as represented by the AANES.
Turkey’s direct intervention into Syria began in August 2016 with Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo. This cross-border incursion ostensibly targeted Islamic State territory along the Turkish border, though it’s clear the primary impetus was to block the SDF from connecting its Afrin canton in the west to the Manbij region and by extension all northeastern Syria. Euphrates Shield involved the usage of local opposition groups present in the recently isolated A’zaz/Mare’ pocket on the border. The most prominent of such was al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah (the ‘Levant Front’), which had developed out of Liwa’ al-Tawhid the preeminent rebel faction from this area in the early years of the war. Additionally present were factions involved in the CIA’s covert arms and training operation as well as the DoD’s Train-and-Equip program, in addition to other groups who ended up in the area due to conflict in Idlib with Jabhat al-Nusra.
It should be noted that the CIA operation in northern Syria was conducted in coordination with other intelligence services, who often enjoyed longer and more intimate relations with the Syrian factions involved. For instance, Turkmen faction Furqat al-Sultan Murad was a participant in the CIA’s TOW program but long before that had received support from MIT. While Americans played a much more hands on role in the DoD program, even there one of the two factions active in 2016, Furqat al-Hamzah, was led by longtime MIT asset Saif ‘Abu Bakr.’ Due to these strong ties, it proved quite easy for Turkey to take over these groups’ files after other countries disengaged and use them for its own purposes.
After the conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield in early 2017 the political order of Turkish-controlled northern Syria began to take shape. On paper, the Syrian Interim Government administers these areas through its ministers and the local councils present in each subdistrict (currently there are approximately twenty). However, this power is obstructed from two different sources. On the ground, the factions present individually hold significant military and economic power and have never been willing to fully part with such. Meanwhile, true sovereignty is possessed by Turkey, represented locally by the military, Ministry of the Interior security forces included the Jandarma and Police Special Forces, state ministries such as the AFAD (‘Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency’) and the Diyanet (‘Directorate of Religious Affairs’), as well as MIT’s nebulous presence. Furthermore, Turkish border provinces have been tied to adjacent Syrian districts, with the governorships maintain a presence in and power over the local administrations.
In late 2017 Turkey orchestrated the creation of the Syrian National Army, seeking to unite and centralize the opposition factions in the area into one institution. However, rather than disband the existing factions and attempt to create a new military body, the factions were organized into a three legion structure resulting in largely cosmetic changes. Nominally the SNA is run by the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defense, though the fighters’ salaries are paid by Turkey and faction commanders maintain significant autonomy due to other streams of revenue and the lack of an independent MoD policing mechanism. The SNA Military Police was created to address this latter issue however its independence is hamstrung by it being staffed by the factions themselves.
This system of governance has since been spread to Afrin and parts of northeastern Syria through two additional Turkish military operations: Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019). As one can see it’s an unstable, polycratic structure that’s only been established and grown through direct Turkish military incursions. Turkey has invested significant military and financial resources into the creation and maintenance of these areas, though clearly has not yet been willing to commit the assets required to curtailing the independence of the factions and their leaders.
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This differs dramatically from what’s transpired in ‘Greater Idlib’ since 2016. While Jabhat al-Nusra was the most powerful opposition group in the region at the time, it still faced competition. Over the course of 2017-2018, the group, now rebranded as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, used a mix of violence and coercion to consolidate total power and relegate all other factions to purely military roles. This included Turkey two primary partners in Idlib, Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham. The former was confronted directly by HTS during this period, causing some subgroups to flee into Turkish-controlled territory or join HTS. What was left of Ahrar al-Sham was a much smaller and weaker faction, now subservient to HTS. Throughout its history Faylaq al-Sham has managed to avoid such bouts of intra-rebel infighting through maintaining good relations with a wide spectrum of groups, and primarily focusing itself on the war with the regime.
Prior to 2017, SIG-affiliated local councils operated throughout Idlib uneasily coexisting with Nusra/HTS. This came to an end with the creation of the HTS-backed ‘Syrian Salvation Government’ in November of 2017, and the forced evacuation of SIG entities from Idlib that followed soon after. The Salvation Government is technocratic theocracy in which the prime minister and the cabinet are selected by the ‘General Shura Council.’ There are elections held but the candidates and franchise are quite limited:
“Although the SSG holds elections for its technocratic ministries and the Shura Council, the list of eligible candidates is pre-selected, and only certain people are allowed to vote. No women are allowed to vote or hold any senior-level positions in the SSG. Consequently, the process is elite and male-driven, and most residents in HTS territory have no role in it or in who decides on the rules of society.” (Zelin, 34)
The Turkish military entered Idlib in October 2017 to set up observation posts along the opposition-regime front lines, as a de-escalatory measure agreed to at the Astana talks with Russia and Iran. For Turkey, this represented an opportunity to freeze the Idlib frontlines, preventing a potential collapse of the pocket and subsequent mass wave of asylum seekers attempting to cross Turkey’s now militarized southern border.
Since entering dozens of these observation posts have been set up, though subsequent regime offensives in Idlib have caused Turkey to vacate many of the initial posts. In the spring of 2020 Turkey became directly involved in the fighting, after a (likely Russian) airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers. Several weeks later a ceasefire agreement was reached between Syria and Russia, freezing front lines to this day. The Turkish presence does partially prevent the complete capture of Idlib by the regime, though the success of such is additionally wrapped up in Putin and Erdoğan’s heavily transaction and compartmentalized relationship.
Other than humanitarian activities carried out by AFAD and state-linked NGOs such as IHH and whatever MIT is up to, Turkey’s presence in Idlib is purely military - a stark contrast to the hands-on approach taken in northern Aleppo.
The other main factor distinguishing the Greater Idlib and Northern Aleppo statelets is HTS’s status as an internationally designated terrorist organization. This classification was originally due to Jabhat al-Nusra status as an al-Qa‘idah affiliate, though has stuck following the groups’ departure from the transnational jihadist organization. The severance of this link occurred during the group’s rebranding between 2015-2017, carried by leader Abu Muhammed al-Jawlani over disagreements regarding strategy (rather than ideology). Since then, HTS has cracked down on several al-Qa‘idah loyalist factions, members of which have often fled, seeking refuge in Northern Aleppo.
With HTS’s recent incursions into Afrin, we’ve seen an unprecedented convergence of these two distinctive opposition statelets. Since their development, these entities have eschewed cooperation with one another due to ideological disagreements, economic interests, and perhaps most importantly simple power politics. Everything down to personal identification cards and issued license plates remain bifurcated.
Currently, HTS has at the least partially withdrawn its military forces from Afrin. Numerous reports allege that some amount of HTS security and military personnel remain in the region, hidden at allied SNA factions’ bases or disguised in other uniforms. This of course is quite difficult to verify though is certainly plausible. With the publicly declared withdrawal and Turkey building new observation posts at the crossing between Afrin and Idlib, it appears that Afrin will not be formally absorbed into Greater Idlib in the immediate future. With that being said, intra-SNA conflict has reached new heights and it is the SNA factions which openly aligned themselves with HTS that have prevailed in Afrin. The end of hostilities last week has only raised more questions regarding the future of Afrin, the SNA, and the two-state system of opposition-controlled Syria.
Note: “Muharrar,” meaning liberated, is a phrase used by many opposition supporters when referring to opposition-controlled territories, though to some it specifically means the areas under SIG/SNA control or SSG/HTS control.
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