This week in Northern Syria (XIX)
A rundown of key events from Turkish/SNA & SDF-controlled territories
Last month’s invasion of Afrin by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham continues to reverberate throughout opposition-controlled Syria. This past week these waves have resulted in shake-ups within military structures - one internal to Ahrar al-Sham, the other orchestrated by Turkey over its SNA proxies.
Ahrar al-Sham took an active role in October’s intra-rebel hostilities, with Idlib, Afrin, and al-Bab based components all working collaboratively with Tahrir al-Sham against the SNA’s Third Legion. While historically Ahrar al-Sham has had an antagonistic relationship with Tahrir al-Sham a coup carried out by the group’s military leadership in mid 2020 brought relatively pro-HTS Hassan Soufan to power behind the scenes. This combined with HTS’s complete post-2018 dominance of Idlib has led to Ahrar al-Sham taking a subservient role to the former al-Qa’idah affiliate. [for more on these developments see the ‘articles’ section of this newsletter, and here]
This orientation appears to be increasing in question. On November 8th five component groups of Ahrar al-Sham published a statement denouncing the ‘coup leadership’ and its support of HTS against over rebel factions, while announcing the replacement of Soufan ally Amir al-Sheikh with Yousef al-Hamawi, one of the group’s founders. The five subfactions which signed the letter are Liwa’ al-Iman (from Hama), Liwa’ al-Khattab (from the Ghab plain), Quwwat al-Nukhbah fi Liwa’ al-’Adiyat (from the Ghab plain), Liwa’ al-Sham (from Damascus), and Katibat al-Hamzah (from Idlib). A number of key figures involved in the faction have come out in favor of this initiative, including pre-coup leader Jaber ‘Ali Pasha.
Despite this momentum Amir al-Sheikh has not conceded his leadership position. Instead Ahrar al-Sham has effectively been split in two, which different component groups declaring allegiances to their preferred commander. According to a SyriaTV article from November 9th 60% of the group’s fighters had sided with al-Hamawi by that time, while al-Hamawi had secured the allegiances of approximately 80% of Ahrar al-Sham’s elite fighters as well.
For the time being there are effectively two Ahrar al-Sham’s. The two factions have separate social media accounts and have begun to use two separate logos. Those affiliated with Yousef al-Hamawi have been using the Ahrar al-Sham logo from when it was part of the Islamic Front coalition, while Amir al-Sheikh’s faction have kept the original logo.
So far this rift has yet to break out into full scale conflict, however tensions remain quite high. At dawn of November 11th, HTS besieged an Ahrar al-Sham base controlled by al-Hamawi supporters in the town of Turandah (see tweet below), just to the southeast of Afrin city. According to reporting from Al-Monitor, this attack was only stopped by the intervention of the Turkish army who entered the area to deescalate the situation. Similarly HTS has reportedly attempted to coerce pro-al-Hamawi factions in Idlib into withdrawing their support for the newly declared leader.
Meanwhile the Syrian National Army restructuring as implemented by Turkey in response to the events of October has been unveiled and it doesn’t look a whole lot different than before. The primary change has been the return to the three legion system which was largely eschewed over the course of 2021 in favor of intra-SNA alliances (‘Azm and Tha’iroun). The First and Third Legions remain largely unchanged while the Second Legion has absorbed/reabsorbed factions that had joined the Tha’iroun alliance as well as last month’s troublemakers Furqat al-Hamzah and Furqat al-Sultan Suleiman Shah. At their core the legions can be understood as such: the Second Legion is made up of groups closest to Turkey, the Third Legion is al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah and its allies, and the First Legion represents a somewhat neutral third way with Easterners now heavily represented.
Several internal reforms have been reported as well, including delegating a larger centralized role to the SIG’s Ministry of Defense, a complete handover of security functions to the Military and Civil Police, a vacating of military bases located in cities and towns, the turning over of control of crossings to the SIG, and a raise in fighters’ salaries. Whether or not these reforms actually materialize remains to be seen (as is always the case with the SNA).
Thanks for reading Alexander McKeever! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
11/09/22: The Syrian Democratic Council, the legislative body of the AANES, published a statement condemning the new Swedish government’s intention to distance itself from the SDF. For more on these policy changes, related to Turkey’s ongoing obstruction of Sweden’s NATO bid, check out this recent podcast put out by Amberin Zaman and Al-Monitor.
11/09/22: The bodies of thirteen refugees from Kobanî who drowned earlier this month when the boat smuggling them from Algeria to Spain sunk were received by their families. A recent report from STJ covered this tragic case in detail.Îro termên 12 qurbaniyên Deryayê li Cizairê dighin Sûriyê û Kobanî اليوم تصل جثامين ١٢ شخصاً من ضحايا البحر في الجزائر إلى أهاليهم في سوريا و كوباني، الإدارة الذاتية تكفلت بإجراءات و مصاريف نقل الجثامين من الجزائر إلى لبنان و من ثمّ إلى سوريا و كوباني. https://t.co/xlFo6xM8Yc
11/10/22: Sheikh Humaydi Daham al-Jarba, the leader of the (Arab) Shammar tribe, died in an Erbil hospital at the age of 86. Sheikh Humaydi played a key role in facilitating the alliance between the YPG and the Shammar’s Quwwat al-Sanadid militia in 2013, a partnership which eventually evolved into the SDF. He later served a joint governor of the AANES’s Jazirah canton.
The Shammar tribal confederation once ruled over a vast territory stretching from the Jazirah region of modern day Syria and Iraq well into what is now northern Saudi Arabia. Relatedly I came across this Sheikh Humaydi anecdote from a 2015 article by (aggressively anti-YPG journalist) Roy Gutman:
But he also wants to carry on a 2-century-old struggle against conservative Wahabi Islam, which he said destroyed the last Shammar emirate, and he favors the breakup of Saudi Arabia, where the puritanical sect dominates. ‘We are already working on that,’ he said.
11/11/22: A demonstration was held in Afrin protesting Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s presence in the region and other grievances. These included the unification of SNA factions, the removal of SNA bases from cities, the closing of SNA faction prisons, the turning over of security functions to civilian authorities, among other demands (see flier below). At least some of the protestors travelled that day to Afrin from A’zaz. Some outlets identified them as being individuals affiliated with the Third Legion, however most the demands listed above appear to be civilian rather than SNA partisan grievances.
11/13/22: Turkish Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu visited the town of al-Ra’i for the opening of a school built by Turkish nationalist charity Kurt-Ar and named for a Turkish soldier killed in 2018’s invasion of Afrin. Soylu also visited al-Ra’i’s recently opened industrial city, construction of which was funded by Turkey.
11/14/22: The SDF put out a statement denying responsibility for the November 13th terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Istiklal street, following accusations against the organization from Turkish officials. Turkey has yet to put forth evidence tying the SDF (or the PKK for that matter) to the attack.
11/14/22: The SNA Military Police reportedly carried out raids against smuggling networks in Afrin’s northern Bulbul subdistrict, with local outlets alleging that the those targeted were responsible for smuggling the arrested Istiklal suspect into Turkey. However, little information on this has come out since.
11/14/22: An elderly man from al-Bab died in the hospital after being held captive for a week. Subhi al-Kahat, his son, and his wife were kidnapped from their home on November 4th and held for ransom. Subhi al-Kahat was tortured before later being released several days before his death. According to an ongoing investigation being carried out by the Third Legion al-Kahat’s in-laws were behind the kidnapping, however they have been unable to fully id them as al-Kahat’s wife is now in Idlib.
11/14/22: A man named Salam Hussin al-’Arif was reportedly run over and killed by an American military vehicle in the eastern Deir ez-Zour town of Jadid Baggara.
11/14/22: The Kurdish National Council held its ‘fourth conference’ at the KDP-S party headquarters in al-Qamishli. Initially the conference of 160 people was to be held at a nearby hall, however the Asayish reportedly prevented the event from occurring, citing the lack of proper permits.
Thanks for reading Alexander McKeever! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Images from a 1938 National Geographic article on the arrival of Assyrian refugees to northeastern Syria. The majority of the region’s Assyrian population either arrived in Syria from the north soon after the “Seyfo,” or the Assyian Genocide (committed concurrently with the Armenian Genocide by the Ottomans), or two decades later from Iraq as the once refugee’d Assyrian community came under increasing persecution from Baghdad in the mid-1930s. More on the Assyrians of the Khabour can be read here. These photographs seem to have been taken by a John D. Whiting and have been archived by the Library of Congress along with others he took that year around the Levant.
Video published by Hay’at Tha’iroun lil-Tahrir showing a training grounds located at what was once a YPG cemetery on the outskirts of Ras al-’Ain/Serê Kaniyê (located here). The graves are located in the northeastern corner of the facility and can briefly be seen at 2:33, however it’s unclear what condition they are in. Similar YPG cemeteries in Afrin have been vandalized and destroyed.