This week in Northern Syria
A run down of key events, (semi-)recent articles, and some random geolocations
With this post I’m testing out a new concept of mine: a weekly (or biweekly) newsletter focused on events occurring in both Turkish/SNA and AANES-controlled northern Syria, additionally highlighting recent articles and other forms of media covering these areas and Syria more broadly. While the topic is relatively niche for an English-language audience, it is essentially the Syria content I’ve put out on Twitter for several years now. If this post and the subsequent ones get decent engagement I will continue developing and publishing this newsletter regularly.
Although local and international developments occurring last month threatened to upset the status quo that has held in northern Syria for several years now, the situation in Aleppo governorate remains relatively unchanged. Turkish officials continue threatening to launch a new cross-border operation targeting the Autonomous Administration (AANES) and the affiliated SDF, in what would be the country’s first since late 2019’s Operation Peace Spring. Whether or not this will actually occur remains unclear. Ankara's recent belligerence was wrapped up in its standoff with the rest of its NATO allies over accepting the membership applications of Finland and Sweden. While Turkey officially lifted its objections to the Nordic applicants on June 28th, Erdogan has maintained his aggressive posture with regards to Syria, repeatedly threatening to further expand Turkey’s so-called “safe zone” which hypothetically at the maximum could run thirty kilometers deep along the entire Syrian-Turkish border east of Idlib.
Establishing this contiguous strip of territory would further serve Turkey’s two key policy objectives in Syria: destroying the viability of Kurdish autonomy in Syria as represented by the AANES, while developing a region capable of sustaining the millions of Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, increasingly encouraged by almost daily lynchings and restrictive state regulations to “voluntarily return” to Syria. Simply put the reasons why Turkey has not achieved this policy goal are the United States, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Even if Turkey had managed to blackmail the US over NATO expansion into green lighting further expansion east of the Euphrates, it would still have to contend with the other two actors, each maintaining complex, transactional relationships with Ankara. However, US commitment to the Autonomous Administration and its Syria portfolio more broadly is weak, focused almost entirely on preventing an Islamic State comeback. Russia is much more firmly rooted in Syria though obviously its attention is primarily focused on its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Turkish investment and will in Syria is arguably stronger than either other major power’s therefore it’s not out of the picture that it can force the issue with force, with the assumption that the US will back down and Russia will trade concessions, either in Syria or elsewhere.
The major local story last month was the intense episode of rebel infighting taking place across Euphrates Shield territory and Afrin between the SNA’s Third Legion (led by al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah and Jaysh al-Islam) and Ahrar al-Sham. Most notably, this led to the unprecedented entrance of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) into the Afrin region with columns of its fighters passing through the region’s second largest city Jindires, advancing mere kilometers from the outskirts of Afrin city itself. This incursion was abetted by the apparent withdrawal of several SNA brigades affiliated with the Third Legion’s main intra-institutional rival, Hay’at Tha‘iroun lil-Tahrir (led by Furqat al-Sultan Murad and Furqat al-Hamza, among others).
HTS’s invasion of southern Afrin was short lived as Turkish facilitated talks resulted in the internationally recognized terrorist organization returning to Idlib and a re-emergence of the status quo. This action on the part of HTS has shattered the illusion held by very few (primarily several Turkish pro-SNA media figures) that the SNA exists in any meaningful capacity. There is a general command affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defense, however it has no power over its alleged constituent divisions and brigades. This is not the nascent military of an interim government, but a collection of rivaling warlords assembled under Turkish auspices with the veneer of institutionality. While infighting between these groups is endemic to Turkish/SNA-controlled Northern Syria, as was seen in June, Turkey eventually steps in if the clashes grow to a scale that threatens the overall security arrangement. However, this rivalry between al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah and Jaysh al-Islam on one side, and Hay’at Tha‘iroun and, to some degree HTS, on the other shows no sign of abating. Arguably, it was at the core of the series of mergers and formation of new intra-SNA entities over the course of last year.
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7/2/22: Fighters affiliated with Furqat al-Hamza shot child ice cream salesmen Humid Hamid al-Khalaf in the Ras al-‘Ain market for charging them 15,000 Syrian Pounds (.60$). Al-Khalaf later died of his injuries will being treated in Urfa, Turkey. The three men were later arrested by the Military Police.
7/3/22: A Turkish drone strike hits a regime headquarters in the town of Tell Rifa‘at. It’s unclear whether this was the intended target.
7/4/22: New contingent of Russian Military Police seen arriving at al-Qamishli airport, increasing Russian presence on the ground in the northeast.
7/5/22: Faylaq al-Rahman commander ‘Abd al-Nasir Shamir replaces Furqat al-Hamza commander Saif Abu Bakr as the Hay’at Tha‘iroun Deputy Commander.
7/6/22: The General Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announces a state of emergency due to the threatened Turkish invasion. All local governmental bodies are to prepare emergency plans. English translation available on Aymenn al-Tamimi’s substack.
1. Announcing the general state of emergency in the areas of the AANES.
2. Recommending all the councils, commissions, committees and foundations in the AANES, and the autonomous and civil administrations to prepare emergency plans to confront the threats and challenges.
3. Putting all capabilities in service of protecting the people from any hostile attack on the areas of the AANES, and the Executive Council in North and East Syria and the executive councils in the autonomous and civil administrations must give priority in their projects to confronting these threats.
7/6/22: A large convoy of Turkish military vehicles enters Syria through the Bab al-Salamah crossing, in the A‘zaz area. Similar videos have been published numerous times recently with the implication that they relate to an upcoming Turkish offensive, but they could just as well be normal rotations.
7/7/22: A car bomb exploded in the city of A‘zaz. According to the Syrian Civil Defense (‘White Helmets’) only two people were injured.
7/8/22: Three brigades - Tajammu‘ al-Qa‘qa‘, Liwa Shuhada’ Badr, and Liwa’ al-Maghawir - suspend their affiliation with Furqat al-Hamza following a bout of infighting in the city of Ras al-‘Ain/Serê Kaniyê. I believe the first two were affiliated with Ahrar al-Sharqiyah at one point, meaning their membership is presumably from Deir ez-Zour or elsewhere in northeastern Syria.
7/9/22: Turkish Minister of Defense visits the tomb of Sultan Suleiman Shah in the village of Ashmah, northeastern Aleppo. The tomb has been moved twice since 1973, most recently by Turkey in 2015 in the face of Islamic State threats. It is now located west of Kobanî on land that is technically inside Syria but now north of the Turkish border wall constructed several years ago.
7/9/22: US Chinooks seen landing in the Gweiran neighborhood of al-Hasakah. Earlier in the week a US delegation included Senator Lindsey Graham visited Gweiran to inspect al-Sina‘a prison, the target of the Islamic State’s large scale attack in January of this year.
“Russia maintains grip on Syria while mired in Ukraine,” Haid Haid, 6/15/22
This piece rightfully pours cold water on the wishful thinking of western and Turkish analysts that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would force it to drastically reduce its military presence and its influence within Syria. It appears to be a common misconception in the media that Russia’s military intervention in Syria included large scale troop deployment. While Russia’s intervention undoubtably changed the course of the war, it has primarily been an air campaign with only small numbers of various specialized ground units involved. This means both that comparisons of Russian military performance in Syria and in Ukraine are incredibly fruitless and that any potential manpower constraints caused by the war in Ukraine will likely have little effect on Syria. Haid highlights recent Russian troop movements conducted in the face of Turkish threats:
In late May, Moscow deployed soldiers, six Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters, and two Su-34 fighter bombers to the Qamishli airport, according to Syrian media. It also deployed military convoys with dozens of vehicles to the cities of Manbij and Tel Rifaat.
More important, Russia has increased its air-force activities over the Syria-Turkey border as well as the front lines in Hassakeh and Aleppo governorates. The aim of these activities is to ensure that a new Turkish offensive cannot take place without a green light from Moscow.
Ultimately, Syria remains one of the key strategic priorities for Russia globally, and for the foreseeable future that means it will support the status quo in Damascus and nationally no matter the costs.
“Interview with Abu Kamil Saleh Hasan of Jabal al-Summaq: An Open Message to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham,” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, 6/22/22
This interview is fascinating and disturbing on several levels. Abu Kamil Saleh Hasan is a local notable from the Jabal al-Summaq region of Idlib, and a member of the area’s small Druze community, collectively forced to convert to Islam in 2015 by Jabhat al-Nusra. In his conversation with al-Tamimi, Abu Kamil outlines his political outlook in relation to the Syrian uprising, highlights grievances faced by his since-converted community under HTS rule, while speaking to changes he’s perceived in the organization’s behavior over the years, looking favorably on its efforts at institutionalization, particularly in terms of law and order, and service provisions. Of course still living in Idlib Abu Kamil does not speak about conversion, but does still refer to his community with common Druze phrases like Tawhidi and Muwahhidun. While the rest of the interview is certainly worth reading, I was struck by Abu Kamil’s strongly Arabist discourse throughout the entire conversation:
For it has transformed the Syria of Arabness from the integral society into a people occupied by oppression, servitude and subjugation. For they turned beloved Syria into Assad’s Syria, and in particular with regards to my province: the province of Idlib. For when the president of the republic known as Hafez al-Assad carried out his coup against the president Amin al-Hafez, he executed the officers who supported the president Amin al-Hafez, and the president Amin al-Hafez was a good man of elevated morals.
This reference to Amin al-Hafez is quite interesting as al-Hafez was the first Ba‘thist president of Syria, coming to power in the 1963 coup against the conservative, pro-western civilian government. It was not actually his government but that of fellow Ba‘thist Salah Jadid that was overthrown by Hafiz al-Asad in 1970, but this mistake isn’t relevant to my overall point. Syrian opposition discourse almost entirely collapses the Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad regimes and the Ba‘th party into one entity. This is understandable given that once in power Hafiz al-Asad simultaneously institutionalized the party into another government branch, massively enlarged its membership by making membership essentially a prerequisite for public sector work, in turn completely diluting any ideological content, all the while creating a system of personalized rule. However, the history of the Ba‘th Party in Syria and its seven years in power prior to al-Asad’s coup is infinitely more complex than what the party is today (a shell of its former self). Abu Kamil’s separating of pre- and post-1970 Ba‘thists while speaking as an opposition figure in some capacity is unique.
On Israeli airstrikes, hitting what are generally perceived to be “regime targets:”
So yesterday the aircraft of the Zionist enemy penetrated the sky of our dear land and destroyed for us the greatest economic facility- namely, Damascus International Airport. This is something that pains us- the Syrian people- because this is an international economic facility that connects us with the world. So oh, Mr. President Bashar al-Assad, if you cannot protect your sky and land, get off the seat, for there are people more entitled than you to this seat, for they are able and worthy of protecting the land of the homeland so its sky should be protected from any penetration and attack.
On the al-Asad regime being a collaborationist regime, and foreign jihadis arriving at the behest of the US, Israel, Russia and Iran in order to prevent a prevent a truly anti-Zionist government from taking power in Damascus:
Back in the Tishreen War [October 1973], it was defeated and sold the Golan to the Zionist entity for $40,000 in exchange for signing agreements with the Zionist entity, stipulating that if a penetration or war should occur with Israel, the Syrian regime would pay the cost of the war, for our regime is a collaborationist one, guarding the borders of the Zionist entity, receiving strikes but not repelling them. When they saw that this people wanted to remove the regime and that this people’s men wanted to rule this land, they said that the Zionist entity would be at risk, especially as we have rights against the Zionist entity: this entity is a filthy usurper and transgressor, occupying part of our land: the Golan…So when this situation arose, they took consideration and advised the regime: there is terrorism in your presence, and it is of your right to defend yourself. So they sought help in the mercenaries who came from outside, for here are true mujahideen, while there are hired mercenaries sent by America, Russia, Iran and the Zionists to thwart this revolution.
Of course it’s unsurprising that a man of Abu Kamil’s age, a farmer from rural Idlib - once a Ba‘thist stronghold, educated and socialized in Syria, would hold these views, but it’s interesting to see paired with contemporary opposition discourse and in measured praise of HTS nonetheless.
The positives Abu Kamil highlights in HTS rule, juxtaposed with the prior situation in Idlib with numerous opposition groups controlling patches of territory:
It has confined weapons in the hands of those to whom the security of the province has been entrusted, and so Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation government are to be thanked as they have worked hard to suppress theft, highwaymen and thieves, drug-dealers, as well as place them in the prisons. They have also built police centres and established patrols, so if you are attacked, or subject to theft or there is an attack on your home, you can go to the police centres and present a complaint and they will give you your right by the permission of God. So with regards to me, I am in the end content with their behaviour, as it does no go beyond the limits.
“How is ‘Abu Amsha’ Making Millions of Dollars Every Year?” STJ, 6/30/22
Disclaimer: despite working part time as a researcher at Syrians for Truth & Justice I was not involved in the writing of this report
Muhammed al-Jasim, or Abu ‘Amsha, the leader of Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah, is arguably the most notorious warlord in the entire Syrian National Army. His faction controls most of Afrin’s Sheikh al-Hadid subdistrict, which is governed as Abu ‘Amsha’s personal fiefdom. Based on numerous interviews conducted with local civilians, officials and members of ‘Suleiman Shah,’ the report states that Abu ‘Amsha collects upwards of thirty million in annual revenue.
On Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah’s early history:
The faction was established in late 2011, several months into the Syrian uprising, under the name Liwa Khatt al-Nar (The Fireline Brigade) in Hama province. The faction partook in several battles against the Syrian government forces. When first founded, the faction consisted mainly of recruits hailing from the tribe of Muhammad al-Jasim Bani Jamil, and it served under the flag of the former Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Later, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front—Qaeda branch in the Levant region) persecuted Abu Amsha and his fighters, forcing them to flee to the northern countryside of Aleppo. Abu Amsha escaped in coordination with the Turkish forces, which subsequently shifted to direct engagement in the Syrian combat, abandoning Aleppo and the Syrian opposition factions operating in its eastern neighborhoods, according to former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
In early 2016, the faction underwent a rebranding, changing its name to Suleiman Shah Brigade after the founding grandfather of the Ottoman Empire, and as a form of rapprochement with Turkish authorities. In the same year, the faction participated, alongside Turkish forces, in Operation Euphrates Shield, which led to Turkey’s occupation of the areas of Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarabulus, among others.
The report goes on to detail Abu ‘Amsha’s five brothers, four of whom are leading members of ‘Suleiman Shah,’ while a fifth lives in Turkey and manages the warlord’s investments.
In addition to involvement in the drug trade and smuggling, the group essentially acts as a parasite onto the local economy of areas it controls:
In Shaykh al-Hadid district, an intricate and manifold pattern of violations against civilians is Abu Amsha’s source of wealth. These violations include the arbitrary arrest of civilians and conditioning their release with lucrative sums of money paid to the faction in ransoms, the confiscation of civilian homes, and then coercing owners to pay the faction money to recover their properties, tax imposition on agricultural crops and trade activities, as well as the seizure of olive mills and gas stations.
Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah was one of the main factions involved in Turkey’s Libyan and Karabakhi mercenary programs. This participation has been another stream of revenue for its leadership as it pockets large chunks of the money Turkey provided for fighters’ salaries.
Al-Amshat faction deployed nearly a thousand of its fighters to partake in the former combat in the Karabakh region, on the side of the Azerbaijani forces. In return, a security company provided Abu Amsha with approximately 3,000,000 USD in exchange for the services of his fighters for a period of 45 days.
The information obtained by STJ indicates that the security company designated each fighter 3000 USD. However, Abu Amsha paid his fighters sums varying between 1000 and 1200 USD only, withholding the remaining portions, and claiming they will be invested in financing the faction and buying it weapons.
Significant portions of this money pocketed by Abu ‘Amsha has gone to opening businesses in Turkey, reportedly including a car dealership, a real estate company, and a restaurant.
In response to the report ‘Suleiman Shah’ published a statement “emphasizing our legal right to pursue and prosecute the parties and personalities” affiliated with the organization.
In April of this year SyriaDirect published an article worth checking out on Abu ‘Amsha and conflict between ‘Suleiman Shah’ and other factions over corruption cases.
(ARABIC) “The Full Story of the Radical Transformations.. a Possible Merger that Changed the Course of ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ in 2020,” SyriaTV, 7/10/22
One thing that might’ve surprised casual observers about the events in northern Aleppo occurring in late June detailed above was the total synchronicity of Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. In the years following the fall of Aleppo, Nusra/HTS was Ahrar al-Sham’s primary antagonist and after several rounds of infighting had largely decimated the once mighty faction. As detailed by SyriaTV, this new orientation is directly related to internal leadership conflict which came to a head with an internal coup in 2020.
Since it’s founding in 2011 Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah has always struggled with internal incoherence. For many years this was an ideological contradiction, with portions of the group such as co-founder Abu Khalid al-Suri being situated firmly within the transnational jihadist camp, while others such as co-founder Hassan Abboud emphasized the national, seemingly emulating a group like Hamas (Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah vs. Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyyah….is it simply a coincidence?). Since coming under direct attack from HTS in 2017 many of the harder-line elements in Ahrar al-Sham defected, but the group has still been unable to achieve in-house unity.
Hassan Soufan was elected leader by Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura council in July 2017 in between bouts of conflict with HTS. Soufan had spent the entirety of the war up until December 2016 in notorious Sednaya prison, where he had been detained since being extradited from Saudi Arabia in 2005. In 2008 during the Sednaya prison riots carried out by Islamist and jihadi prisoners, he was a member of the four member negotiation team helping settle the several day long hostage situation. His release came through a prisoner swap between Ahrar al-Sham and the regime. Soufan’s time in Sednaya meant he had personal relations with numerous Syrian al-Qa‘idah operatives who would go on to lead Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS. Despite this Soufan maintained a relatively hardline position against HTS and its tendency towards predations.
In August of 2018, the Ahrar al-Sham Shura Council replaced Soufan with Jaber ‘Ali Pasha, a shari‘ah court judge who had previously been the group’s deputy commander before being dismissed by Soufan. Two years later in mid 2020, leaders within Ahrar al-Sham’s military wing rebelled against Pasha’s leadership and demanded Soufan return to his former leadership position. In spite of tense relations in the past, HTS supported this Soufan-led initiative against Jaber ‘Ali Pasha. SyriaTV reports that in the months leading up to this ‘coup’ attempt, Ahrar al-Sham leadership had been engaged in merger talks with al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah. As the largest and most influential SNA faction, ‘Shamiyah’ is the strongest opposition group after HTS and would potentially safeguard Ahrar al-Sham from further HTS encroachment. According to SyriaTV, negotiations regarding the merger were at a very advanced stage just a month prior to the Soufan-inspired military wing insubordination.
Eventually in January 2021 compromise was reached between the two parties and a supposedly neutral figure, Amir al-Sheikh, was agreed upon as the new leader. However, Al-Sheikh was another Sednaya graduate who SyriaTV reports Soufan maintains direct influence over. Hundreds of fighters defected from Ahrar al-Sham at this time for ‘Shamiyah,’ including smaller factions Liwa’ al-‘Abbas, Liwa’ Badr, Liwa’ Ibn Taymiyah, and Kutlat Homs. Currently, Ahrar al-Sham apparently only contains three military subdivisions: Liwa’ Halab, Liwa’ al-Jabal (Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib), and Liwa’ al-Sahel (Latakia).
According to SyriaTV, this latest incident in which Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham sent fighters across the Idlib-SNA border is indicative of both the current Ahrar al-Sham’s subservience to HTS and both parties eagerness to challenge al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah.
Thus, the likely almost completed merger in mid-2020 between al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham led by Jaber ‘Ali Pasha at the time, was the spark that provoked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for fear that a factional entity would form in the region competing with the Abu Muhammed al-Jawlani project, because the two factions that were about to merge were the most advanced, experienced, widespread, equipped, and numerous in the SNA and NLF.
Thread detailing the last six months of Turkey’s ongoing drone campaign against military and civilian targets affiliated with the Autonomous Administration and the SDF:
One of the lasting effects of the American War on Terror is that states with armed drones are now able to kill those deemed external security threats (even civilian political targets) with 0 international protestation. The accuracy of these attacks speaks both to how northern Syria’s flat and open terrain is quite unfavorable to the SDF and to the success of Turkish intelligence in identifying and tracking targets.
Thread on the arrest of an Assyrian woman in al-Malikiyah/Dêrîk by the SDF/Asayish:
While the AANES offers the closest thing resembling rule of law in all of Syria, it still has numerous (and continual) shortcomings as exemplified by this case.
Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah has recently constructed a headquarters at the Hawar Kilis military crossing. Hawar Kilis military crossing is the main transit point used by Turkey when deploying Syrian mercenaries abroad. It is home to a large Furqat al-Hamza headquarters, as well as the headquarters of Liwa’ Suqour al-Shamal. There are several other facilities here as well, likely the headquarters of other factions in Hay’at Tha‘iroun such as Furqat al-Sultan Murad. I might be reading too much into it, but it seems like the location of these right on the border indicate that these specific groups enjoy particularly close relations with Turkey.
I’ve noticed that there’s been significant construction occurring just to the west.
In April Syrian Islamic charity Sham al-Khayr published a video showing a mosque it had built in this area. Just to the right of the mosque housing similar to what’s being built in IDP villages can be seen, however all the men in the video appear to be militants. As of right now it’s unclear whether this new construction is civilian or SNA.
Hay’at Tha‘iroun groups including ‘Suleiman Shah’ held a big rally in Dudiyan during the first week of July. In the footage one can see a large new base for an unknown (presumably Tha‘iroun) faction built on the city’s northern edge.
I noticed that this rally was visible on Planet’s three meter imagery:
On June 29th an ATGM strike destroyed a Faylaq al-Sham vehicle in Kabashin, near the Afrin-al-Shahba’ frontlines, killing 9 fighters. While many assumed it was fired by HRE/SDF the group never claimed the attack. Meanwhile Faylaq al-Sham has repeatedly claimed that the missile was launched by regime forces.
Unknown security complex recently built in al-Ra‘i (adjacent to the SIG General Organization for Seed Multiplication facility). It’s unclear to me whether this is a Turkish or SNA facility, and whether it’s simply a fortified compound or some sort of detention center.
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