Military Factions in the North of Syria, the Role and Future

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Importance of the geographical position and role in the Syrian Revolution
  • Classification of the main fighting military factions in the opposition-held areas.
    • Jihadi factions:
      • Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusrah
      • Hurras Al Deen Organization
      • Islamic Turkistan Party, known as Uyghurs
    • Moderate factions:
      • Factions that are working in Euphrates Shield area
      • National Liberation Front
      • Al Ezzeh Army
    • Displaced military factions:
      • Islam Army
      • Al Rahman Corps
      • Martyrs of Daraya Brigade
      • Homeland Liberation Movement
  • Potentialities of military factions in opposition-held Syria
  • Future of military factions in Syria 

Introduction

Policy of Assad’s Regime represented by oppressive crackdown of peaceful demonstrations and killing demonstrators in a systematic manner, and targeting villages, towns and cities with all weapons has caused the change of conflict in Syria into an armed one. Simultaneously with defections of soldiers and security staff, armed groups started to appear. Both defectors and civilians, who took arms, formed these groups and undertook protection of peaceful demonstrations. They wanted to turn down military attacks launched by Assad’s armed forces. The more people were killed, the more military groups were formed. Syrians were drawn to military actions.   

The current situation on the ground shows that Syria is divided into three main divisions. One controlled by Assad’s Regime which includes Damascus, the capital with its rural surroundings extending to the border with Lebanon and coastal areas with middle of the country. This is 61.88% of the country.  The second part is controlled by opposition military factions in Idlib Province, western and northern countryside of Aleppo and parts of Hama countryside. This constitutes 10,30% of the country. The third part is to the north and east of Euphrates where Syrian Democratic Forces controls 27.88% of the country. Some other small pockets are still dominated by Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS.  

This study sheds light on the status quo and future of opposition military factions in the north of Syria

Importance of the geographical position and role in the Syrian Revolution

Military factions are spread in the north and western north of Syria. These factions have got frontlines with three parties. The first one is Assad’s Regime, which is the target of these factions. Along 325 kilometers, these factions are neighboring Assad’s forces. The second party is under control of Syrian Democratic Forces along 191 kilometers in Menbej and Euphrates Shield forces. The third party is Turkey which is the main supporter of these factions. 416 kilometers stretches a triangle extending from Aleppo to Idlib and then to Latakia. Assad’s Regime failed in taking over this area. It is very important from a military perspective as it cuts off supply chain between Aleppo and Latakia, and it overlooks eastern countryside of Latakia. That is why Russia, Iran and Turkey have been insisting on opening this vital road which is referred to as M5. This area provides an open area for supplies and evacuation for local community as the area has always been targeted with barrel bombs and chlorine gas by Assad’s Forces.   

The importance of rebels’ control of this area stems from the fact that they deprive Assad’s Regime from access to border crossings with Turkey which means more economic pressure on Assad’s Regime as these border crossings are the only land routes to connect Europe with Gulf State and Asia.

Classification of the main fighting military factions in the opposition-held areas.

Clustering all fighters in the area in question is a double-blade weapons. One of the merits is that these factions, with all their experience military specialties can constitute a nucleus for the formation of a national army for the Syrian Revolution. But these factions haven’t succeeded in organizing themselves and institutionalizing their work yet. This clustering has got some demerits as the Syrian problem has become in the hands of regional and international players. So, these factions will have to agree on all that is agreed by influential external players. They will be under custody of Turkey as a guarantor. It is not a coincidence that all rebels who were deported from different areas of Syria were sent to Idlib, Al Bab and Jarablus in the north i.e. areas under the control of Turkey. Yet rebel factions can be classified as follows:

  • Jihadi factions:
  • Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusrah

Jabhat Al Nusrah was first formed beginning of 2012 under the leadership of Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani. It is a Salafi Jihadist organization. Later it declared it affiliation with Al Qaeda as an arm of Al Qaeda in Syria. It gets its funds from taxes imposed on people living in the area of its domination and the benefits of Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

It spreads in Idlib Province and parts of Aleppo countryside. it has got thousands of fighters. On 28th July 2016, it changed its name and became Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. it split from Al Qaeda because it was classified as a terrorist organization for its affiliation with Al Qaeda. Beginning of 2017, Al Nusra, Nour Al Deen Al Zenki Movement and Al Haq Brigade declared merger into one entity “Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham” under leadership of Abu Jaber Hashem Al Sheikh, former leader of Ahrrar Al Sham.

Despite its illusive policy and desperate attempts to strengthen ties with local communities, Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham couldn’t avoid local and international reactions especially after it captured Idlib city and established civil administration for it. However, these maneuvers were not up to the persistent challenges. These tactics weakened the Syrian Revolution on political and military levels. Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham has lost all chances that had been given to it.

  • Hurras Al Deen Organization

Hurras Al Deen, as an organization, was established in February 2018 when different groups like Al Malahem Army, Army of the Coast and Army of the Badiah defected from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and joined the new entity after Al Nusra alienated from Al Qaeda. The total number of fighters of Hurras Al Deen is about 800. They lack heavy weapons. They are located in few areas around Jesre Al Shughour, west of Idlib, some areas of Hama countryside and in Turkman Mountain near Latakia. The latter is a sensitive area for all parties involved in the conflict, mainly Russia and Turkey. As all factions agreed on Astana Accords except Hurras Al Deen, they have been responsible for any attacks launched in these areas. Hurras Al Deen considers other factions as rivals in the north of Syria as these factions negatively affect the expansion and jihadi project of Hurras Al Deen which can benefit them in economically and politically, and make them an active player in any political solution in the north of the country.

  • Islamic Turkistan Party, known as Uyghurs

It is named Islamic Turkistan Party in support of people in Levant. All fighters are from Turkistan. They are known for their bravery and fierce fight. They are good at suicidal attacks. It is worth mentioning that they entered Syria in huge masses with their families. Five hundred families entered the country and they are living in residential compounds in Al Ghasaniah, a Christian village in the countryside of Latakia. This organization was enlisted on terrorist groups by the United Nations in 2009. According to reports of Pakistani Intelligence, this organization is supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia as well as Al Qaeda which is the main supporter of this organization.

  • Moderate factions:

Despite the efforts that have been made to establish a professional unified army by the Syrian Interim Government, which emanated from the Coalition of Syrian Opposition, disconnected military factions remained dominant as a social phenomenon. These factions caused social insecurity and badly affected the interests of the public. In spite of the international recognition, the absence of political reference for the Syrian Revolution is one of the main reasons for chaos in the military scene. Countries allying with the Syrian Revolution are responsible for the persistence of this phenomenon in the opposition-held areas.

  • Factions that are working in Euphrates Shield area

The structure of these factions crystalized just after the end of Euphrates Shield military operations under the auspices of Turkey on 24 August 2016 when the northern countryside of Aleppo was liberated from Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS and Syrian Democratic Forces. This cluster of factions can be classified into four main categories as shown in the table below:

1234
Al Shamia Front block Failak block Sultan Murad block National Army block

National Army is the main block. It consists of three corps with 20000 militants. It is commanded by Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government which is based in Turkey. Theses forces participated in military operations of Olive Branch military operations which ended with capturing Efreen city and its villages and towns in March 2018. These forces are trained in Turkish military bases in the area.

Political involvement of these factions in regional alliances has weakened them in areas of their domination. 

The area has witnessed repeated conflicts between these factions like the fight between Al Shamia Front and Sultan Murad Groups, between Ahrrar Al Sham and Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. These conflicts cost many lives of militants of these opposition factions and social anger. Civilians asked militants to abandon residential areas and alter any military presence in these areas. They also demanded a real and stronger role for Local Councils.

These demands were agreed in a meeting at the headquarter of Turkish Special Forces. The meeting was attended by Mayor of Killis, Mayor of Gazi Entep, Turkish Intelligence, members of the Syrian Interim Government, Deputy Head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and leaders of military factions working in Euphrates Shield area. It was supposed to move to next step i.e. dismantling factions and activating National Army. Yet, nothing was done in this regard.  

  • National Liberation Front

It is a part of the Free Syrian Army that aims at unifying the military efforts and respond to the threats that hover over the area. It was established after Sochi talks in May 2018. It was intended to be the biggest military entity that fight against Assad with 100000 militants in Idlib Province and countryside of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. National Liberation Front can be considered as the nucleus of an army affiliated with the Syrian Revolution as it was stated in the merger statement. Faliak Al Sham, Idlib Free Army, Daraya Martyrs Brigade, Costal Division I and II and Ahrrar Al Sham Movement.

National Liberation Front coordinates with Turkish Military Observation bases. This cooperation was best represented in NLF willingness to cooperate with Turkey for the implementation of Sochi Accords. At the same time, NLF expressed its distrust in the Russian side.

  • Al Ezzeh Army

Al Ezzeh Army was established by major Jameel Al Saleh who defected from Assad’s army. He started with establishing Latamenah Martyrs Brigade which was later changed into Jaish Al Ezzeh in 2015. Some other factions merged in this army. This faction was the first to target Russian warplanes end of 2016.

Al Ezzeh Army is deployed in northern countryside of Ham and northern countryside of Latakia. It is one of the strongest military entity in the north of the country. Most of its 3500 militants are defectors from Assad’s army. These militants are known for their skills in firing TAW Anti-tank missiles. This faction is supported by the United States of America. Both leaders and militants have got a good reputation and public support for their independence and their deviation from any internal conflicts that devastated the north of Syria.

Displaced Military Factions

More than three million locals and IDPs are living in the area including displaced militants. This population constitutes a human resource for the Syrian armed opposition. The following military factions are the most important ones which maintained their role whether independently or within other entities. They are considered as moderate factions and they have been involved in negotiations and conferences related to the Syrian Revolution.    

  • Islam Army

Jaish Al Islam, or Islam Army was founded on 29th September 2013 as a merger of many Brigades and regiments. All these entities pledged allegiance to Muhammed Zahran Aloush as a general commander of Islam Army. But he was killed on 25th October 2015 in a Russian airstrike. Issam Bwaidhani took over as a leader of Islam Army. Islam Army left Al Ghutta in virtue of an agreement with the Russians on 9th April 2018. After moving to the north, Islam Army joined the National Army within the Second Corps.

Soon after arrival, Islam Army established a number of training camps and bought some heavy weaponry and immunities. It benefited from an integrated human structure as all militants are from Al Ghutta of Damascus. Three main enemies have been identified, Islamic State ISIS, Kurdish Militias, and Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. Leaders of Islam Army met with leaders of the Free Syrian Army for coordination. It has no regional or international connection or support. It depends on self-support as Bwaidhani stated.  

  • Al Rahman Corps

Failak Al Rahman, Al Rahman Corps, was established end of September 2013 by First Lieutenant Abdul Naser Shumair, a defector officer of Assad’s Army. Before its withdrawal, it was deployed in Jubar, Irbeen and Hamouriah, Eastern Ghutta of Damascus. Just like Islam Army, Failak Al Rahman has been blamed for conflict between the two main factions in the area in 2016. It is part of the Free Syrian Army, and it strongly believes in the goals of the Syrian Revolution. Soon after its arrival in the north, it restored the former military base in Sharra, northeast of Ifreen. Former militants of Failak Al Rahman and other displaced young men were called to join one-month training sessions before enrolment. Militants of Failak Al Rahman get 200$ per month as a salary.

  • Martyrs of Darayah Brigade

Martyrs of Daraya Brigade was established on 5th March by Engineer first Lieutenant Saeed Nakrash, known as Abu Jamal, and his deputy Mua’yad Abu Wael. Most of its 1000 militants are defectors from Assad’s Army.

On 24th August 2016, Martyrs of Daraya Brigade signed an agreement with Assad’s Regime in virtue of which, it left Daraya. Leader of Martyrs of Daraya Brigade reemphasized commitment to the flag of Free Syrian Army and that they will remain independent. When they arrived in the north, they re-structured themselves and Abu Wael was the new leader of the brigade, Saeed Nakrash became head of the political office and coordinator of external relations. Now Martyrs of Daraya Brigade is part of National Liberation Front.

  • Liberating Homeland Movement

This is a Syrian movement with a military and political vision that is integrated with the goals of the Syrian Revolution. It seeks to restore the looted rights of the Syrians and maintain the identity of society and its civilization values through political and military enterprise. It is harmonious with other Syrian national movements in making national critical decisions.

Its 2000 militants are deployed in Latakia countryside, Ifreen and northern countryside of Aleppo under the leadership of Brigadier Fateh Hasoun. It gets support from local entities and Syrian businessmen especially those from Homs Province.

Beginning of November 2017, it declared its new structure which has two wings, one military and the other is political and civil. Civil Office contains most components of the Syrian society like Kurds, Turkmans, Women Empowerment office. It declared its alliance with Independent Syrian Kurds Association. It is expected to play a great political role in the upcoming stage.

Potentialities of military factions in opposition-held Syria

The absence of legal and executive authorities that implement the acts of that legal system has led to the growth of local sub-civil focal persons to settle disputes for military factions. This has made the Revolution more of a chaotic phenomenon and public dispute. This chaos has deprived the Revolution from its essential values that emanate from demands of the suppressed social classes. These classes are politically, economically and socially oppressed. Yet, the military map of the area has got its social reflections with the increasing number of displaced militants’ families as they have got their private residential areas. They have got prominent influence that enables them to affect the whole scene for their military experience as defector officers from Assad’s Army. These officers have got military and technical skills. Therefore, they gained much training and experience throughout eight years of conflict. High rank officers have taken over due to their accumulated reputation and expertise. On the contrary, leaders of local factions are not convincing to their militants due to their social, military and political incompetence. They seem not to be able to govern the country after the fall of Assad’s Regime. Because of social dissatisfaction, national abhorrence and negative ideological practices of local factions, the displaced factions have gained much public satisfaction as people are in need for organization and law prevalence that can lead to victory and attaining security.   

The assembly of all leaders of military factions and leaders of civil societies will hopefully lead to integration of ideas of those leaders so that they can provide something positive to their social incubator and restore their social and political status in the course of the Revolution.

The north of Syria is divided into two main parts. Idlib which is under the supervision of Turkey as a guarantor of fourth de-escalation zone according to Astana Accords. The second part is the area of military actions like Olive Branch military operation and Euphrates Shield military operation. in the latter, there are military factions that can be reliable from a national perspective. These factions are heterogeneous in thought and ideology after the changes that have been made to their structure and military doctrine. They all have the same objective i.e. the toppling Assad’s Regime and fighting terrorism according to the Turkish vision. These factions are investing these two objectives for their relation with Turkey in relation to its national security and the integrity of Syrian homeland. They have got considerable military capabilities and good training whether in military bases inside Turkey or observation military bases located in Syria. Fortifications have been constructed along all frontlines with Assad’s forces and other opponents.

Future of military factions in Syria 

When talking about the future of military factions in the north of Syria, many things need to be taken into consideration. This refers to the continuity of the conflict until factors of political settlement crystalize and become a reality. Another issue is that regional and international players are trying to establish new military factions in order to impose their political vision of the settlement in Syria. Al Hamza Corps, for example, is supported by Turkey. This corps might be fused in the National Liberation Front. Merger cases reflect the interests of key regional and international players. The same applies to other areas of Syria. Russia is also trying to restructure military factions in the regime’s areas.

The war in Syria can be classified as a parallel war. It is characterized with unbalanced powers. It is a war between a well-equipped state army and a weaker rival. This doesn’t mean that the stronger party will win the war. There are many examples of previous wars where two unequal powers in terms of weapons and capabilities like the American war in Vietnam. 

According to dominance maps related to regional and international actors, this area comes under the Turkish dominance. Turkey seeks to push for a Gaz Strip-like scenario in Idlib. Turkey has not only been keen on building military capabilities of military factions, but also building public trust in its role and in the role of military factions. To do so, Turkey has been reconstructing roads, restoring public service facilities and building hospitals and health centers. It is working on two tracks:

  1. Concerning Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, Turkey has undertaken to dismantle terrorist organizations. Therefore, Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham has been trying to impose itself as an active player in the area through a general conference for the Syrian Revolution in the area. This conference was called for by Salvation Government with the aim of unifying the north under civil and political administration that represents Syrians in the north in international forums. It claimed that all rebels from all parts of Syria attended the conference.   
  2. As for moderate factions, which are involved in the political process, Turkey has been working hard to unify these factions, but it hasn’t succeeded yet. Turkey wants to have many options so that it can have proxies according to the changes of situation versus its interests and concerns.

On the other side, Turkey might work in its areas of dominance according to regional and international memos of understanding with the aim of building an organized military entity to benefit from its human resources until a political solution is ready.

Conclusion

Ever since the Russian intervention, Military Factions in the north have had many relapses as a result of involvement in political process. Russian Foreign Minister labored to distort these factions through classifying them as moderate ones and terrorist ones. He alludes to factions of the Free Syrian Army which were the victims of the United States as these factions hoped that the United States of America would prevent massacres and chemical attacks in Syria, terminate the crimes of sectarian militias and topple Assad. These factions were victimized by the media which focusses only on fanatic Islamic factions that are classified as terrorist organizations.


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