Clashes erupt across Afrin as Turkish-backed rebels move in on faction singled out for ‘corruption’

Smoke rises over Afrin during Sunday’s clashes. Photo courtesy of Afrin Breaking.

AMMAN: A Turkish-backed rebel alliance exchanged heavy gun and artillery fire on Sunday with a previously allied faction long accused of rights violations, in the opening salvos of a campaign that rebel commanders claim is meant to root out lawlessness in a Turkish-held pocket of Syria’s northwest.

Fighters from the Syrian National Army (SNA) launched the offensive on Sunday against at least one affiliated rebel faction accused of insubordination against Turkish-led authorities as well as abuses against local civilians in the rebel-held corner of the northwest.

Heavy bouts of machine-gun fire rocked Afrin throughout Sunday, while local media reported crashes of artillery fire around the city center in the late afternoon.

Hours before the clashes commenced, Turkish authorities imposed a curfew on residents throughout the area.

All roads leading in and out of Afrin were also cut off, according to rebel commanders and local residents speaking to Syria Direct on Sunday.

Although rebel factions have clashed in Afrin before—after seizing the historically Kurdish-majority city from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) earlier this year—this is the first all-out campaign by rebel groups against another faction within the city.

The operation is reportedly being spearheaded by Turkish-led factions including the 3rd Corps, a-Hamzaat Division, a-Shams Corps, and Sultan Murad Division—all members of the SNA umbrella group that comprises some 35,000 troops across rebel-held areas of Aleppo province.

While local factions have not officially specified an intended target of the campaign, several rebel commanders with knowledge of the ongoing operation pointed to the nominally Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated militia Shuhada a-Sharqiya, which has been accused of numerous violations in the Turkish-run enclave.

“The group of [commander] Abu Khawla, affiliated with Shuhada a-Sharqiya, is currently [the one] being pursued,” Rafat Junaid, spokesperson for SNA-affiliated al-Jabha a-Shamiya, told Syria Direct on Sunday. 

“The security operation is not only taking place in Afrin, but in the areas of the Euphrates Shield as well,” he added, referring to a sprawling rural stretch of rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo province.

The area was captured from Islamic State and majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces by Turkish-backed militias in late 2016.

“We in al-Jabha a-Shamiya are also involved in [Sunday’s] campaign,” Junaid said.

Shuhuda a-Sharqiya stands accused of widespread human rights violations across the Turkish-held north including looting, extrajudicial executions and kidnapping civilians for ransom.

In late October, the group reported that it was disbanding voluntarily—a decision that was never actually implemented.

Despite Shuhada a-Sharqiya’s claims to the contrary, observers have speculated that the faction’s long list of alleged crimes and instances of insubordination against Turkish-led authorities led Ankara to demand the group’s dissolution.

Yousef Hamoud, a ranking SNA commander, meanwhile told Syria Direct that the campaign was being waged exclusively by Syrian rebel troops, with the aim of reining in growing lawlessness throughout the Turkish-controlled north.

“Our end goal is to make the region into one unit, with a good security situation for everyone,” Hamoud told Syria Direct.

“The campaign is not against factions themselves, but against specific individuals and groups within military factions among the FSA.”

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group, contradicted rebel commanders Sunday morning, reporting that Turkish special forces were preparing a raid on Shuhada a-Sharqiya’s headquarters in Afrin.

According to the SOHR account, the faction is comprised of about 800 fighters, mostly hailing from eastern Syria’s Deir e-Zor province.

A commander from the Sultan Murad Brigades, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, also echoed Hamoud’s comments.

“The operation is targeting thieves, any military group that rebelled against the [SNA], or any accused of corruption,” the commander said. His faction is one of those actively taking part in the campaign.

Residents remained shuttered in their homes on Sunday, as intense bouts of gunfire echoed throughout central neighborhoods of Afrin.

Ahead of Sunday’s clashes, Turkish-led authorities issued a complete curfew barring residents from leaving their homes until the cessation of military operations. Endless rows of city blocks stood vacated on Sunday, residents told Syria Direct, while highways in and out of the city were empty of traffic due to temporary restrictions on all movement.

Malik Khattab, an Afrin-based journalist who works with the media outlet Aleppo Today, speaking with Syria Direct from the nearby city of al-Bab, said he couldn’t return home from outside of the city on Sunday due to the road cutoff and strict curfew.

“All of the roads are shut down because of the security operation,” he said.

In one interview with a local media activist on Sunday afternoon, the sounds of machine-gun fire and artillery can be heard puncturing a city-wide silence in Afrin.

Some—including Azad Othman, an official in the Turkish-backed Afrin Local Council—praised news of the campaign, casting ongoing clashes as a necessary step in reining in growing lawlessness in the northwestern enclave.

“Truly, this is a blessed campaign,” Othman told Syria Direct on Sunday. “For a long time, we’ve been requesting this...campaign to clean up Afrin.”

“We don't have details [yet], but it appears that Turkey has decided to clamp down on corruption,” Othman added.

Ankara-backed local authorities have frequently struggled to rein in rebel factions who dominate the city and its suburbs. Local rebel factions including the Sultan Murad Division, Firqa 55, al-Jabha a-Shamiya, Failaq a-Sham and Ahrar a-Sharqiya have been accused of carrying out arbitrary arrests and expropriations of property without the consent of the council—let alone local civilians.

A damning report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) from June reported that the Sultan Murad Division, one of the groups joining the offensive on the side of Turkish authorities, had also engaged in theft, harassment, and cruel treatment of civilians—and occasionally extrajudicial killings.

However, some doubt proclamations from Turkish-backed officials and rebel commanders of a law and order-focused operation against a faction accused of corruption and rights violations.

One Syrian media activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is currently based in Turkey, suggested the aim of Sunday’s campaign is in fact to further solidify Ankara’s control over the north.

“The SNA-led campaign is not to eliminate looters,” he told Syria Direct. “It’s aim is to eliminate those who have gone against the orders of Turkey—specifically the Shuhada a-Sharqiya faction, which attacked the regime [last May] without the consent of the Turks.”

Earlier this year, during a separate pro-government offensive on the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta, Shuhada a-Sharqiya fighters retaliated by clashing with pro-government forces stationed in Aleppo province’s northeastern countryside. The incident purportedly drew the ire of Ankara.

The region of Afrin, site of the current campaign, has been largely administered by Turkish authorities since gradually coming under the control of Ankara in a series of military campaigns that began with Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016.

Turkey currently administers a slice of territory that extends approximately 130 kilometers along the Turkish border, reaching from Afrin to the Euphrates River in the East.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.