10 min read  | Aleppo, Politics, Politics

Mergers and tensions within the Syrian National Army: A ‘struggle for existence’


April 19, 2022

PARIS — In the latest merger between factions in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), in mid-April Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation—a months-old formation—announced that the Failaq al-Rahman faction would join its ranks. The move was the latest in a series of mergers within the SNA in recent months reflecting ideological and reconciliatory alignments among its components.

The recent mergers, to some extent, sketch out the shape of the SNA in the near future and the nature of its components’ relationship with Turkey. They also hint at Ankara’s leanings and policies in its areas of influence in northern Syria. 

As factions reshuffle and align themselves, civilians fear that existing contentions could develop into a wide-scale military confrontation between the factions. Others see in it a need for one faction or bloc to “triumph, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib, such that the area is controlled by one faction to handle the overall situation,” as Muhammad al-Hourani (a pseudonym), a Daraa province native currently living in the northern Aleppo countryside city of al-Bab said. 

Currents and alliances form

In July 2021, al-Jabha al-Shamiya, an SNA faction representing the Islamist current, alongside the Sultan Murad Division representing the remaining Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, announced the formation of the Azm Unified Command Room under the umbrella of the SNA in a surprising initiative given the existence of hostility between the two groups. 

The goal of Azm, according to its founding announcement, is to coordinate security against drug traffickers “and the networks and cells that threaten the security and stability of society.”

All expectations at the time pointed to a lack of success and effectiveness for this merger between the two primary forces in the area, which are contradictory in terms of both ideological orientation and the form of the relationship with Ankara. 

The first force represents the moderate Islamist current, led by Abu Ahmad Nour, the commander of al-Jabha al-Shamiya and the Third Legion, in which his faction is the largest force. Turkey does not favor this part of Azm because of its rejection of some of Ankara’s policies, such as the recruitment of Syrians to fight in Libya and Azerbaijan. The second group, which does not have a clear ideology, is led by Fahim Issa, who commands the Sultan Murad Division. He is Turkey’s top man and its military arm in northern Syria. 

After Azm was formed, several factions hastened to join it in order to avoid a clash with the main forces or to reserve a seat at the table in any new change to the scene. The two founding sides were keen to acquire the largest proportion of seats and representation in Azm, with Abu Ahmad Nour retaining the position of general commander with Fahim Issa as his deputy. 

Less than two months later, the defections from Azm began. In late August 2021, the Hamza Division, the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division, and the Suqour al-Shamal Brigade announced they were withdrawing from the room due to disagreements over fair representation within the newly created entity.

Accordingly, al-Jabha al-Shamiya and the Sultan Murad Division mobilized to strike the withdrawing factions, encircling some of their military headquarters and bringing the region to the brink of a wide-scale war between the main forces in the Turkish area of influence in northwestern Syria. 

The risk of the factions that withdrew from Azm being eradicated prompted four of them, alongside the Mutasim Division—which had not joined in the first place—to form a new military body, known as the Syrian Front for Liberation. The body included the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (also known as al-Amshat for their controversial commander, Abu Amsha), the Hamza Division, the Suqour al-Shamal Brigade, and the 20th Division. 

The new formation was distinguished by the homogeneity of the factions falling under it due to their converging ideology and interests. This prompted Fahim Issa, the Sultan Murad commander, to form Harakat Thaeroon, a body inside Azm, in October 2021 by merging several Azm factions. 

But this past January, the area saw the largest recent instance of internal contention and alignment after it was announced that Harakat Thaeroon would merge with the Syrian Front for Liberation into a new military entity called Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation. With that, Fahim Issa became the “link” between the SNA’s Islamist and FSA currents, though the form of the relationship between Hayat Thaeroon and Azm, in which Issa holds the position of general deputy, was not announced.

The recent mergers have opened the door to talk that external factors planned or contributed to the new body’s formation. At the same time, they revealed clearer features of the currents within the SNA: The first current, led by the al-Jabha al-Shamiya within the Third Legion, maintained its ideology and was joined by Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Majd (formerly Jaish al-Islam – Northern Sector). The second current is represented by factions led by Turkmen commanders that enjoy strong relations with Turkey.

A ‘struggle for existence’

Military expert and former Syrian army Brigadier General Ahmad Rahal believes it is unlikely that the current alignments within the SNA are ideological or political, calling them “protective alignments.” Their purpose is “each faction’s desire to protect itself from being singled out and eradicated, so it strengthens itself by banding together with other factions around it.”

That reading is reinforced by the fact that some mergers have taken place between rival factions. “Their antagonism comes second to the threat of eradication,” Rahal told Syria Direct, describing the scene as a “struggle for existence.” While it is true that “the Islamist factions banded together, while the factions closer to secularism lined up together,” ideology was not the only factor. “Ideology is not a tyrant: every faction seeks protection regardless of its orientation,” he said.  

Wael Alwan, a researcher at the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies, agrees with Rahal. “Interests take precedence over ideology in the new groupings and alignments,” he said, adding that some of these groupings, such as Azm, were aimed at creating a mechanism among faction leaders to come to an understanding around economic resources. 

However, this does not negate that one reason for the recent alignments is “the factions’ need for organization, which the [Syrian Interim Government (SIG)] Ministry of Defense could not achieve by incorporating the factions into the three legions within the SNA,” Alwan told Syria Direct. The factions’ integration within the SNA “remained just ink on paper.” 

Since the legions failed “to control the existing chaos,” Alwan said, “clashes, security issues, and disputes over economic resources and [border] crossings and cases of factions threatening others” erupted.

Defected Syrian General Mohammad al-Haj Ali attributes the recent mergers to “the emergence of some factions that appear strong and able to impose their view, threatening stability.” Because of that, the purpose of the mergers is “to form close groupings with a similar vision,” he said. The factions’ sense of threat “makes them reveal their [ideological] essence.”

In contrast to Rahal and Nour, al-Haj Ali believes that the mergers are, in reality, “political and ideological alignments within the SNA” based on “Turkish leanings,” he said. “The Turks want to eliminate opposition institutions, and consider the Azm room to be an alternative to them. They don’t want this alternative to succeed.” 

The HTS scenario

Over recent months, the SNA’s Third Legion, in which al-Jabha al-Shamiya is the largest force, has seen a series of mergers with groups resembling al-Shamiya’s ideological orientation, that is “moderate Islamist thought.” 

As Alwan sees it, Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is trying to bring the rest of the factions together with it, with an ambition “to rule the area and establish a civil, economic, security and military administration, as well as seeking political leadership.”

Al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s project resembles to some extent—with ideological differences—that of HTS, which extended its influence in Idlib province and parts of Aleppo and Latakia provinces after eliminating the FSA factions. It subsequently established the Salvation Government in 2017 as its civilian front. 

According to a Syrian political researcher living in Istanbul, who asked not to be named for security reasons, al-Jabha al-Shamiya is proceeding from the principle of “its military strength, and its sense that it is the owner of the land and revolutionary legitimacy,” unlike other factions that “were expelled by HTS or the Syrian regime due to settlement or de-escalation agreements, and reproduced themselves with Turkish will.” He said Turkish-backed factions were rehabilitated “in order to conduct specific military operations against the Islamic State and Kurdish forces.” 

Perhaps al-Jabha al-Shamiya sees a roadmap in the experience of HTS, since the latter “was able to get Turkish support after it imposed itself as a de facto authority,” the researcher said, adding that there is stronger evidence that al-Jabha al-Shamiya could succeed in this “since it has a moderate approach, so it may see itself as more acceptable to Ankara than HTS.” 

While Rahal agrees with the proposition that “the HTS scenario is currently prevailing,” he sees the current process of strengthening through contentions and alignments as “an attempt [by al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s opponents] to prevent the repetition of the HTS scenario and its swallowing of Idlib factions.”

Even if al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s intention were to repeat the HTS scenario in Turkish areas of influence, that would be difficult “because of the balance of the factions in northern Aleppo countryside, and the different circumstances from what they were in Idlib,” said researcher Alwan. He noted the balance achieved after the formation of Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation makes al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s economic, military and political project being talked about “not possible.” 

Al-Haj Ali went further than that, saying that what is happening is groundwork to “break the isolation of Jabhat al-Nusra [HTS] and preparing it to integrate with the SNA,” especially since what HTS did in Idlib by imposing itself and building its project “has proved its worth more than the SNA’s arrangements in terms of organization, planning, ideology and persuasion.” 

The defected general quoted a commander in the Sultan Murad Division as saying that “the Turks want to find out the real consensus of the two sides [the Third Legion and the Sultan Murad Division,” and made a promise “not to allow al-Jabha al-Shamiya to swallow it [Sultan Murad].” This indicates that the recent contentions “are the work of Turkish intelligence,” he added.

In Turkey’s protection

“Turkey’s proxies in northwestern Syria” are growing in importance, the Syrian political researcher living in Istanbul said, “in confronting the Islamist current.” He predicted that “the battle will continue until the thorn of al-Jabha al-Shamiya,” which represents the Islamist current, “is removed.”

The researcher said that “Fahim Issa, the commander of the Sultan Murad Division and Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation, is Turkey’s primary proxy in the region, followed by Saif Boulad Abu Bakr, commander of the Hamza Division and deputy commander of Hayat Thaeroon, and then Mutasim Abbas, commander of the Mutasim Division and general commander of Hayat Thaeroon.” 

On the other hand, al-Jabha al-Shamiya has not shown “sufficient compliance to Ankara in many files, so the Turks are trying to limit its ambition in the area without sparking a military conflict between the factions,” said the researcher. This is due to several considerations, including “al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s strength and its fighters’ fighting doctrine, which means that the other factions would enter into a losing battle against it,” he said, as well as “Ankara’s desire to preserve the area’s calm at the moment, especially with the surrounding regional changes.”

Therefore, Turkey seeks to “use different tools to put pressure on al-Jabha al-Shamiya, such as tightening the noose around it, financially” as well as “pressuring the factions allied with it to distance from it,” according to the researcher. 

Meanwhile, the current alignments highlight efforts by SNA factions to gain Ankara’s trust, especially amid talk of Turkey’s intention to “reduce the number of factions,” according to Rahal. “Each faction is trying to prove that it is best suited to survive, saying ‘I am the strongest and the first with Turkish support.’”

With all the indications that there is a Turkish role in the factions’ alignments and contentions, researcher Alwan denied that Ankara intervened directly, but rather in the form of “some guidance through discussion and advice.” He pointed to continued Turkish support for the SIG Ministry of Defense and its three legions, including the Third Legion led by al-Jabha al-Shamiya.

Unfinished alignments

While tensions continue between al-Jabha al-Shamiya and FSA factions close to Turkey, it does not appear that HTS—which controls Idlib province—is far from the scene. “HTS tried to enter northern Aleppo during the recent events related to the Abu Amsha case,” as a Syrian political researcher and former media official in one of the military factions told Syria Direct. HTS is “in unannounced competition with the other project [the SNA],” he said. 

That means that “the SNA faces a major challenge: either rebuild itself, taking the military hierarchy and judicial institution’s powers into account, or there will be an alternative model, represented by HTS, which is building a competing military institution to the SNA and the SIG Ministry of Defense,” the researcher said.

In this context, Alwan said that the factional alignments, as they currently stand, are “temporary, and have not taken their final form,” suggesting the “continuation of contentions until the SNA’s three legions are reorganized.” 

The factions’ current preoccupation with one another means “increasing the chaos and insecurity in the area,” according to Muhammad al-Hourani in al-Bab city. He expressed his worry that civilians will pay the price of these tensions, especially since “the clashes between the factions have led to civilian casualties from indiscriminate bullets.” More dangerous than that is “the factions recruiting some low-lives to increase their numbers, and using them in the infighting,” according to al-Hourani. 

“Their role will not be limited to confronting the opposing faction, but also civilians.”

 

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

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