10 min read  | Aleppo, Politics, Politics

Chronic infighting and uncontrolled weapons turn civilian lives into a nightmare in Turkish-backed opposition areas of northern Syria


May 24, 2022

PARIS — One afternoon in late April, Mustafa Muhammad al-Bash finished work at his main job as a police officer with the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated civil police in Afrin city, northwestern Aleppo. He got into his taxi, which he drove as a second job to support his family. 

But late that afternoon, in the center of Afrin, a stray bullet—fired during clashes on April 23 between two military groups, both affiliated with the same Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA)—struck and killed al-Bash. He had lived in northern Syria for just over three years after being displaced from East Ghouta in 2018 as a result of the settlement agreement between the regime and Syrian opposition factions. With his death, his wife and five children, the oldest of whom is 12 years old, as well as his two nephews, the sons of his brother killed years ago in Ghouta, were left without a breadwinner, his brother Hani told Syria Direct.

When al-Bash was killed, a group of men from Liwa al-Islam and another from the 51st Division were clashing in central Afrin due to a dispute over money. Al-Bash’s death, and the injury of another civilian in the same incident, was part of an ongoing phenomenon of infighting and uncontrolled weapons in Turkish areas of influence in northwestern Syria that threatens civilian security and stability and generates a constant state of panic and fear. 

The April 23 incident came just over a week after the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) Ministry of Defense, which is administratively responsible for both groups involved in the clashes that day, issued a circular restricting bearing arms in areas of its control. The notice ordered that weapons be limited to bases, front lines and security points, and that the judiciary be appealed to to settle any dispute. 

From the beginning of 2022 through May 11, internal fighting and clashes between factions and military groups within the SNA have killed 21 people, including six civilians. Some 52 others have been injured, including 38 civilians, according to figures provided to Syria Direct by Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a human rights organization that documents violations in Syria. 

Between January 2022 and May 17, the Hamza Division was involved in the most infighting incidents between its members and other SNA groups, 11 in total. It was followed by al-Jabha al-Shamiya and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, with five incidents each. 

‘Nothing has changed’

The killing of Mustafa al-Bash sparked civilian anger in SNA-controlled areas. Two days after he was killed, displaced people from East Ghouta in Afrin city gave the SNA 24 hours to remove their military headquarters from the city and hand over the fighters who caused al-Bash’s death. 

That deadline has since gone by, and “still nothing has changed,” al-Bash’s brother Hani said. “The checkpoints are still spread in Afrin city.” The family has filed a complaint with the military police, which he said showed a positive attitude. But so far, no arrests have been made for those involved in his brother’s killing. 

Against the backdrop of al-Bash’s killing, the Azm Unified Command Room—an SNA formation established in mid-2021 that includes most major Turkish-backed opposition factions—issued a circular on April 24 banning its members from carrying weapons in city centers and towns unless on official business aimed at protecting the markets and keeping civilians safe. Any fighter or group violating the directive is to be arrested and referred to the disciplinary committees.

The move appears to be an attempt to lead the public scene in the region, especially as the incident in which al-Bash was killed was between two factions that belong to al-Jabha al-Shamiya, the faction that is the core of Azm. The military formation has also been hollowed of its strength and role following a series of tensions and mergers within the SNA. 

For its part, the SIG Ministry of Defense issued a new decision on May 6 putting the settlement of all disputes happening within the military institution in the hands of its Military Justice Department and relevant official institutions. 

Three days after that, the Military Police Department in al-Bab issued a circular prohibiting arbitrary shooting in the city, with violators to be referred to the judiciary and face three months’ imprisonment, as well as a fine ranging from 1,000-3,000 Turkish lira ($63-$189 according to the current exchange rate). 

The military police announced they would patrol the city starting the day of the notice, May 9, alongside civilian police, public security forces and the SNA. 

The day before arbitrary shooting was prohibited, heavy gunfire in al-Bab had terrified the family of Khalil al-Hourani (pseudonym) to the point that they thought about “evacuating the city because of the intensity of the firing,” he told Syria Direct. It later turned out that it was celebratory shooting at a wedding party. 

For three days following the ban, shooting at weddings in al-Bab city stopped, said al-Hourani, who is displaced from Daraa city. “Unlike usual, the city’s weddings went by without gunfire,” due to a military patrol accompanied by an SNA vehicle “to prevent shooting.” 

But on the fourth day, the decisions issued by opposition-affiliated military institutions proved “worthless,” according to Abu Mamoun al-Othman, a civilian in al-Bab. “The phenomenon of wedding gunfire came back.”

Brigadier General Ahmed al-Kurdi, the leader of the SIG-affiliated military police responsible for implementing the decisions and instructions of the SIG, Ministry of Defense, and SNA leadership, said “a timeframe is given after any decision in order to deliver the instructions from the commanders to their personnel, and then implementation and follow-up begins.” He stressed that “these decisions have come into force, and within a short period they will become customary and all SNA members will abide by their implementation.” 

The military police “follow up on violations, and in the event of riots and chaos, those responsible are arrested and the appropriate punishment is applied,” al-Kurdi added. If a person is found carrying weapons without causing chaos, “the individual is detained and signs a pledge not to repeat the violation.” 

‘Spreading terror’

In April, Abu Mamoun went out with his wife and children in al-Bab to buy new clothes for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. While they were in the city’s market, an exchange of gunfire took place between Ahrar al-Sham fighters and a military police patrol after the latter prevented the armed men from entering the market with their weapons. 

The clashes caused “a panic among the people in the market,” said Abu Mamoun. “You don’t know when clashes are going to break out, or when you’ll be killed or injured by low-life gunmen.”

Al-Hourani, also in al-Bab, said he witnessed several shooting incidents in the city market, including the incident this past Ramadan when police officers prevented gunmen from entering with their weapons. With each shooting, “a state of panic and fear prevails among the people,” he said, recalling the scene of “women and children running in panic through the streets in fear of the bullets.” 

Al-Ahmad, of STJ, noted that “cases of temporary internal displacement have been recorded from neighborhoods and cities to other locations” due to infighting, as people leave until clashes stop “and the two factions agree to a reconciliation.” 

Some military confrontations between factions also develop into “arrest campaigns against civilians on charge of loyalty to the opposing faction or providing assistance to it,” al-Ahmad added. He said such charges are “false information, aimed at spreading fear and terror in the hearts of civilians.” 

Amid the infighting SNA areas are witnessing, al-Hourani considers the decisions and circulars issued by the SIG and Ministry of Defense to have little importance, calling them “useless.” He does not believe the factions will act in accordance with them. “Nobody cares about their decisions,” he said, adding the military police “may be able to implement their decision at the level of the markets only.” 

In response, military police chief al-Kurdi said addressing the issue takes time, as “the situation requires us to hold violators accountable gradually and start implementing the penalties against them—from [signing] a pledge to imprisonment.” 

Causes of chaos

On May 5, clashes broke out between the SNA’s Hamza Division and Harakat Thaeroon in the village of Tal Hamou, in the Afrin countryside. A Thaeroon-run exchange office had been robbed, and Hamza members were accused of being behind the crime. The subsequent fighting was one of 24 incidents tracked by Syria Direct since the beginning of the year. 

Infighting in the SNA happens for several reasons. Some incidents result from minor disputes: financial disagreements or individual quarrels that develop into wide-scale military confrontations. Other clashes break out due to disputes over border crossings, power and influence. 

“Factions in the region clash for control over wider geographical areas to ensure economic returns through trade and smuggling,” al-Ahmad, from STJ, said. This motivation explains “infighting over border crossings with SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] areas, such as the al-Tufaha crossing, which saw clashes between factions of the eastern Ras al-Ain region, and the Manbij-Jarablus crossing.”

Another contributing factor is “factional touchiness,” a security source in the military police said, which helps some disputes develop into wide-scale confrontations. “For some fighters, their affiliation with their faction is stronger than their belonging to the revolution,” he said, drawing that conclusion from the “factionalism among fighters whenever any problem occurs.” 

The same security source, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said addressing uncontrolled weapons “has become an urgent need, and all faction commanders need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ministry of Defense.” 

On the other hand, some individual and small-scale problems such as fighters entering markets with their weapons have been reduced, the source said, after Azm and Thaeroon ordered their fighters not to carry weapons unnecessarily under threat of disciplinary action. 

He said such decisions “were applied to a good degree in some areas, while implementation remains weak elsewhere,” adding that “reaching the best level of security in the region requires step-by-step progress, especially in light of factional tensions.”  

Discrepancies in the level of chaos between cities goes back to local security and police personnel, the military police source said. “Some of them have achieved success despite difficult conditions by developing precise security plans with the leaders of the [military] formations.” 

One successful example in his view are military police patrols conducted in tandem with SNA forces, “moving constantly about the city and striking those instigating unrest and trouble with an iron fist.” 

On the whole, even if military and security entities in northwestern Syria are responsible for controlling weapons and limiting infighting, the greatest responsibility “falls on Turkey’s shoulders,” al-Ahmad said, “as it has considerable influence over the factions, be it by pushing them to launch military operations or transporting factions to fight in other countries.” 

But “instead of us seeing a Turkish stance to stop the chaos in the region,” according to al-Ahmad, Ankara has supported “a number of faction commanders, and its relations with them have strengthened outside the SNA framework” in order to facilitate the implementation of its policies. “Commanders compete for more Turkish support.” 

‘The case disappeared’

Six years ago, Muhammad, a 10-year-old boy, was killed by a tank shell launched by one of the military factions that now makes up the core of the SNA. The shell, fired during opposition infighting, fell on a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of al-Bab in late 2016, his father Abu Muhammad said, asking not to be identified for security reasons. 

In late 2016, al-Jabha al-Shamiya came under attack from six military factions: Ahrar al-Sham, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, the al-Safwa Battalions, Jaish al-Shamal, Ahrar Souriya, and the Ahmad Obaid Battalion. The participating factions used heavy weaponry, and several shells fell on residential areas and camps, killing three children and injuring civilians, Abu Muhammad told Syria Direct.

The father filed a complaint with the civil court in Azaz city in January 2017, and assigned a lawyer to follow up the case. But “the case disappeared from the court records,” he said. He has searched for it “in all the court offices in northern Aleppo, but there is constant evasion, and the response is always, ‘We’ll look for it in storage.’”

In a separate incident, in 2021, Khaled al-Ahmad (a pseudonym), was shot in the leg after infighting broke out between two SNA military groups in al-Bab. He filed a complaint against the group that caused his injury. Days later, he received “a verbal threat from members of the faction that ‘next time, the bullet will be in your head,’” he said.

Civilians might get their rights “if the opponent is a civilian or a regular, non-influential fighter. But if it was a leader or influential fighter, it is better to protect your life,” and not file a complaint, he said.

Underscoring that perspective is the recent case of Muhammad al-Jassim, also know as Abu Amsha, the commander of the SNA’s Sultan Suleiman Shah Division. Accountability measures against him were apparently shelved earlier this year despite him being censured for several crimes, including rape and extortion. 

To Abu Muhammad, who lost his son, the SIG—the top of the pyramid of opposition institutions, including the courts in northwestern Syria where he has found no accountability—“is nothing but a name.”

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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