This week in Northern Syria (II)
A rundown of key events from Turkish/SNA & SDF-controlled territories
This is the second installment of this work in progress newsletter I’m developing. This week I’m experimenting with the format and have made the articles section a separate entry to be published later in the week. Last week’s newsletter is available here.
Tensions remained high across northern Syria this past week, with Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime reinforcing their presence along the lines of contact. Whether the threatened Turkish operation will occur still remains up in the air, though it’s likely we will have an answer soon. On Tuesday the 19th, Russian President Putin is traveling to Tehran where he will be speaking with both “President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, as well as holding separate meetings with each.” The situation in northern Syria will undoubtedly be on the docket, given Russia and Iran’s opposition to further Turkish expansion. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad is set to arrive in Tehran on Tuesday as well, to discuss the scheduled tripartite meeting with his Iranian counterpart.
Meanwhile, speaking at an MEI event on July 13th, representatives of the US Department of State and Department of Defense voiced opposition to further Turkish operations in northern Syria. Both made essentially the same talking points, directly linked to the raison d’etre for the American military presence in Syria (preventing an Islamic State resurgence), emphasizing the US role in supporting the SDF in maintaining and defending detention facilities holding thousands of imprisoned Islamic State members.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul:
We strongly oppose any Turkish operation into northern Syria and have made clear our objections to Turkey…ISIS is going to take advantage of that campaign…ISIS views the detention facilities where its fighters are housed as the population to reconstitute its army…If there are military operations that would cause the SDF to focus on moving north to protect their communities from an air campaign or a ground campaign, there’s only so many SDF to go around.
Timothy Alan Betts, Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Acting Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Bureau of Counterterrorism, Department of State):
The ISIS prison raid this past January was a reminder of how high the stakes are and how precarious the detention situation is in northeast Syria. An incursion by Turkey into northern Syria, a wavering in our own commitment to this region for whatever reason, and numerous other factors could tilt the balance and potentially enable an ISIS resurgence.
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The other key international development occurring this past week was the eventual passing of a UN Security Council resolution extending UN cross-border aid into Idlib via Turkey for another six months. The resolution was only passed after the initial deadline expired, due to obstruction on the part of Russia. Russia (and China) vetoed the initial draft which would’ve extended this aid for a full year, as they view this cross-border mission to be a violation of Syrian sovereignty and hold the position that all UN aid should be routed through Damascus. While a small portion of such “cross-(front)line” aid eventually reaches Idlib’s destitution population upwards of 4 million, most of the time it does not due to obstruction by Damascus and failures to reach coordination agreements with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Meanwhile, due to the existing cross-border resolution, “more than 4,600 aid trucks, carrying mostly food, have crossed Bab al-Hawa this year, helping some 2.4 million people, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.” Russian pressure at the Security Council in previous years have decidedly shrunk UN cross-border aid, once flowing from several points in Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan into opposition and SDF controlled territories, to the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib alone.
Domestically the main event of last week was a Coalition drone assassination of an Islamic State operative. On July 12th, US Centcom announced a successful drone strike targeting a senior Islamic State commander and a companion in the Jindires subdistrict of Afrin. According to the American government Maher al-‘Aqal (ماهر العقال) was one of the top five ISIS leaders and the leader of ISIS in Syria, additionally “responsible for…the development of ISIS networks outside of Iraq and Syria.”
Images from the ground show that al-‘Aqal and another IS operative had been traveling by motorcycle on a rural road between the villages of Miskê Jorin/مسكه فوقاني and Xeltê/خالطان when they were struck from above by a pair of Hellfire missiles in the early afternoon. According to Syrian Civil Defense (‘The White Helmets’) al-‘Aqal was killed immediately while the second victim succumbed to injuries sustained in the blasts soon after.
This is the second Coalition operation conducted against Islamic State leadership residing in Turkish/SNA-controlled territory occurring in the past month. Obviously this has obviously led to great speculation and accusations as to how and why Islamic State operatives are seemingly able to find sanctuary such these areas. The image of an id card from the Turkish-back Afrin Local Council for a man named Khalid al-Sabayh (السبيح) circulated on social media allegedly belonging to al-‘Aqal or his companion, but the authenticity of such has not been confirmed. Additionally claims by the SDF spokesman and some outlets of varying orientations alleged that al-‘Aqal had been a member of either Ahrar al-Sharqiyah or Jaysh al-Sharqiyah since 2020, causing Harakat al-Tahrir wa’l-Bina’, the coalition both SNA groups belong to, to publish a statement denying any connection (specifically referring to disreputable outlet SOHR). In light of the lack of confirmed evidence I think it’s worth going back to analysis offered by Aymenn al-Tamimi in the context of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi’s killing in HTS-controlled Idlib, a different yet similar environment:
My view of this is as follows: go for the simplest explanations on the basis of the evidence. That is, unless evidence emerges actually showing HTS concealment of Abu Ibrahim or assistance in helping the U.S. to track him down, we should conclude that HTS did not in fact have any knowledge of his presence. Indeed, HTS’ security apparatus has made many claimed arrests of Islamic State cells in its territory, and regardless of the truth of these claims, the fact is that the group does not tolerate a presence for the Islamic State in its territory. Had HTS known of his presence, it would surely have sought to kill or arrest him itself, and no doubt that would have been a huge victory for HTS’s presentation of itself to the international community as an entity not posing any terrorist threat.
One may ask how it was that HTS did not know of his presence, but there are many plausible ways to explain how Abu Ibrahim and other Islamic State figures (including previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in Barisha in northern Idlib, and the previous spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, who was killed in the ‘Euphrates Shield’ zone controlled by Turkish-backed rebel groups of the Syrian National Army) have managed to go undetected by the local forces in northwest Syria. In particular, amid waves of internally displaced people who have come to these regions do not know each other, it is easy to assume a false identity. One should also note that the Islamic State does not speak about in its propaganda about its presence or activities in northwest Syria, no doubt to avoid drawing attention to the presence of its members and leaders.
Put simply, northwest Syria, in the context of the Syria-Iraq environment, is the least bad option of the bad options for Islamic State leaders to hide.
07/10/22: AANES Internal Security Forces/Asayish released Rasha Sha‘moun, a Syriac/Assyrian woman from Dêrik/al-Malikiyah arrested a week prior on at the time unknown charges. Syriac Press reported that the Asayish have since claimed that the arrest occurred due to “a complaint submitted against her…three years ago.”
07/12/22: SDF published a video highlighting a raid conducted in cooperation with the International Coalition against an alleged IS cell in Deir ez-Zour.
07/12/22: The Shura council of the Na‘im tribe now residing in Afrin announced their “complete withdrawal” from the Turkish-backed Syrian Council of Tribes and Clans, due to perceived lack of proper representation in decision making.
07/12/22: Syrian Civil Defense/‘White Helmets’ published two infographics highlighting deaths caused by traffic accidents and drownings over the Eid al-Adha holiday. Both types of incidents have become quite common across NW Syria, with the former an increasingly pressing issue in recent months. In the days following the publishing of these infographics, five individuals including three children drowned in Afrin’s Lake Meydankey reservoir, while two men were killed in traffic accidents occurring in northern Afrin and in A‘zaz.
07/12/22: Turkish authorities deported approximately 100 male refugees back into Syria via the Bab al-Salamah crossing near A‘zaz. This reportedly occurred despite the men possessing Turkish Temporary Protection ID cards (known as a ‘kimlik’) and one apparently being of Iraqi nationality. According to a video published by A‘zaz Media Center, the refugees were forced by Turkish Police to sign “voluntary return” agreements.
07/13/22: Iranian-backed forces from the towns of Nubl and Zahra’ reinforce the frontline village of Ibbin/Bênê, nominally under the control of the AANES/SDF.Iranian flags flying on a communications tower and newly dug berms at the SE entrance of أبين/Bênê (broken pylon seen along road, 150 SW of tower) 36.453842, 37.012318#بالصور إيران ترفع ثلاثة أعلام لها على أبراج وتضع سواتر ترابية في قرية أبين بناحية شيراوا جنوبي #عفرين ريف #حلب الشمالي ـ جميل جعفر ـ #نورث_برس https://t.co/yHBtlRcllsNorth Press Agency - عربية @NPA_Arabic
07/14/22: Two employees of the AANES-affiliated Deir ez-Zour Civil Council were found stabbed to death at an abandoned house in the town of Muhaimidah. The victims, 22 year old member of the Women’s Committee Manal Salih al-Maz‘al and ‘Amir Jassim al-Khalil, were reportedly engaged. The Asayish has since arrested the suspected perpetrator, a local member of the SDF, who seems to have carried out the double murder after a personal dispute with al-Khalil.
07/14/22: SyriaTV publishes the latest local exchange rates between the Syrian pound, Turkish lira, euro, and dollar in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Idlib, respectively. On average the dollar is bought for 4003 SYP, sells for 3967 SYP, the euro is bought for 4019 SYP, sells for 3977 SYP, and the Turkish Lira is bought for 222 SYP, sells for 229 SYP. Meanwhile the Syrian Central Bank dollar/pound exchange rate was set at 2814 SYP in April 2022.
07/15/22: A commander in SNA faction Suqour al-Sham named Hassan al-Juma‘ah was assassinated and later found in his car outside the central Afrin village of ‘Ain al-Hajar. According to a local Telegram channel, another SNA fighter belonging to Furqat al-Sultan Murad has since been arrested for the killing.
07/16/22: Abu Khawlah, commander of the Deir ez-Zour Military Council, told media that the SDF was ready to cooperate with the Asad regime in response to any potential Turkish offensive. This comes in context of numerous reports of dissension within the Council’s ranks regarding a potential deployment northward. The unrest stems from a number of factors, including the presence of regime forces along the front lines, overlapping tribal affiliations between the SDF and SNA membership (those of the al-‘Akidat and al-Baqarah tribes in particular), not viewing the SDF-Turkey conflict as relevant to Deir ez-Zour, general local grievances against the AANES/SDF, among others.
07/16/22: Another SNA commander, this time an “Abu Nimr al-Sharqiyah” of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, was gunned down at an al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah checkpoint near the village of Baruza, northern Aleppo. Four individuals from the group were reportedly handed over to the SNA Military Police soon after.
07/17/22: Numerous Telegram channels local to Turkish & opposition-held northern Syrian claim that Turkish military medical staff have been deployed to the Mare‘ and al-Bab hospitals in anticipation of an upcoming offensive.
Diwan al-‘Asha’ir, Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans HQ in the town of Sajo (A‘zaz subdistrict)
The Martyr General Jamil Ra‘adoun Hospital under construction in Afrin’s Sheikh al-Hadid subdistrict.The hospital is apparently a Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah venture and bares the group’s flags. Jamil Ra‘adoun was a defected SAA Lt. Colonel and prominent opposition commander from al-Ghab plain in NW Hama, assassinated in 2015 via car bomb while in Antakya, Turkey.
Turkish military base (known locally as the ‘Scientific Research center/base’) adjoining an A‘zaz civil police training grounds. See Turkish military and security vehicles in the background as well as dug in artillery pieces visible to the NW in the satellite imagery.
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