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‘Smuggled death’: How booby-trapped cars and assassins infiltrate the Syrian National Army areas of north Aleppo

Between the beginning of 2020 and April 2021, 173 civilians were killed by bombings or gunfire by unidentified armed men in the two areas controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in northern and western Aleppo province.

28 June 2021

AMMAN — On October 6, 2020, Abdullah al-Ahmad headed to the market in the city center of al-Bab in northeast Aleppo province. As he rounded the Corniche roundabout on his motorcycle, a truck close to him exploded, throwing him several meters into the air and leaving him severely injured.

The bombing, which killed 21 civilians and injured dozens more, damaged al-Ahmad’s lower limbs and, consequently, caused him to lose his job as an auto mechanic. 

“I stood up and saw my legs were seriously injured and bleeding badly, while shrapnel had lodged in my right hand,” he told Syria Direct. “The air around me was yellow with thick dust. I just stood there, not knowing where to go.” 

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), between the beginning of 2020 and April 2021, 173 civilians were killed by bombings or gunfire by unidentified armed men in the two areas controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in northern and western Aleppo province, known as the ‘Euphrates Shield’ and ‘Olive Branch’ (Afrin) regions, respectively, after the two military operations by Turkey and the SNA. 

‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ was launched on August 24, 2016, to expel ISIS, while ‘Operation Olive Branch’ was launched on January 20, 2018, against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – in Afrin.

Between the SDF and ISIS

Three senior security officials with the SNA linked the intensification of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings in SNA-controlled areas to increased security operations against ISIS cells as well as against regions of the SDF-affiliated Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES). Consequently, the SNA-held territories have become an “insecure zone,” the three sources concurred. 

“The arrest of ISIS commanders and emirs in areas we control,” explained Seif Abu Qasem (a pseudonym), a senior SNA security official, “creates a state of frenzy among ISIS sleeper cells and elements in the area.” 

“When we detain a commander or emir, we arrest at least 20 or 30 members associated with him after we’ve uncovered the cell. For that reason, as soon as the heads of these cells are arrested, the tempo of the bombings and insecurity increases.”

A White Helmets volunteer removes remnants of a car bombing on the northern highway of the city of al-Bab city, north of Aleppo, 7/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

However, “ISIS is more active in carrying out direct assassinations, while the SDF is more active in IED explosions and car and motorcycle bombs,” Abu Muhammad Abduljabbar (a pseudonym), a high-ranking SNA security official who spoke to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity, said. He added that “currently, there is no security action by the [Assad] regime in our areas because it does not have much popularity for that action inside [these areas]. Aside from that, it is financially collapsed and unable to finance security work.” 

Abu Qasem agreed with that assessment. The difference between ISIS and the SDF, he added, is that the former “relies upon the direct assassination of a particular person, while the SDF relies on quantity: putting a car in the street and blowing it up, killing as many civilians as possible.” 

“ISIS members’ motivations are ideological and out of loyalty to the emir, while SDF agents’ motivations are either that they work officially with [the SDF] or in exchange for payment,” according to Abu Qasem. In contrast, the regime’s approach is to create “confusion [through chaos and rumors] and economic warfare against us,” and it is unlikely that the regime would be “behind the bombings and assassinations happening” in the latest period.

According to the third SNA security official, Abdulhaq al-Shami (a pseudonym), “ISIS is carrying out a long-term operation called Blazing Crawl.” Speaking to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, he said, “Today, ISIS is stronger than before. They are building cells to carry out operations against Free Syrian Army areas because they see them as corrupt and unjust.” 

“The SDF has a different agenda in its operations against us,” al-Shami added. Its first goal is “chaos before killing, to show Turkey’s failure to spread security in areas of its influence, and consequently push it out [of those areas].” However, “the ISIS agenda is more frightening than the SDF’s. It is more organized and bloody, [based on] stronger intelligence and is more daring in bloodshed.” 

Accordingly, reluctance to carry out security work against ISIS cells appears among many commanders of the opposition formations and forces in the area, according to Abduljabbar. 

“In general, when it comes to anti-ISIS security operations, most commanders are cowards, fearing that ISIS will target them. Once ISIS finds out the leaders of the security campaign, they target them,” Abduljabbar added, citing the assassination of commander Musa al-Marie in the town of Jarablus in northeast Aleppo province after his security work against ISIS in the area. 

Al-Marie was a commander in the Third Legion of the SNA until he was shot dead in March by masked men riding a motorcycle in the Jarablus market. 

Al-Shami stressed that the SNA has “many documents stamped with the seal of ISIS that confirm they target commanders and members of the media, but we cannot reveal them.”

An ISIS internal message with the group’s heading and stamp, which Syria Direct has seen, discusses the payment of a specific monetary reward to a particular individual after he planted an explosive device targeting an SNA commander. The document specifies the name and location of the targeted individual and the person who executed the operation. 

Additionally, “an ISIS element is more trained than one with the SDF,” according to al-Shami. “The SDF kills and commits crimes by the hand of others; booby-trapping the car, sending it, directing it and detonating it remotely,” he said. “For that reason, 99 percent of the people arrested in operations the SDF is responsible for are innocent, but officials here try to justify their failure by saying so-and-so has been caught.”

Security men stand close to a small bus destroyed by an explosive device planted underneath it in the city of al-Bab, north of Aleppo province, 21/2/2021 (Syria Direct)

In this context, al-Shami cited the case of two individuals arrested in a small bus (van) explosion in the city of al-Bab two years ago. “They were acquitted a short time ago because they didn’t know that the van was rigged to explode. They were only held accountable for the smuggling offense.” 

“The SDF is good at working remotely, through car bombs and explosions, because they have the money and technology, while ISIS works in direct assassinations,” according to al-Shami. “So over the past four-and-a-half years, the SDF has only carried out four or five assassinations, while during the first week of the month of Ramadan [ِApril], ISIS carried out six assassinations in al-Bab alone.”

But the director of the media office of the SNA’s Third Legion, Sirajuddin al-Omar, said that the bombing groups that have been caught—leading to a very significant reduction in violence in areas of Turkish influence—are mostly affiliated with the SDF, followed by ISIS and then the regime. 

Syria Direct reached out for comment from the official spokesperson of the SDF but did not receive a response.

A member of the Syrian Interim Government’s police and security forces walks through a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city of al-Bab, north of Aleppo province (Syria Direct)

Still, increased lawlessness in response to security operations against the SDF and ISIS is also linked to “betrayal by some faction members and civilians” who “carry out operations in the liberated [opposition-held] areas for money,” according to Abduljabbar. 

Factions accused

In 2020, media activist Samer al-Ali (a pseudonym) faced three assassination and kidnapping attempts by unknown persons at his home in the northern Aleppo countryside. He also received several death threat letters. 

While al-Ali accused ISIS of direct responsibility for the attempts, he also blamed the SNA and the Free Police (affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government) for failing to protect the areas under their control. Al-Ali filed two police reports after the attempts on his life, he told Syria Direct, but “to no avail.”

According to al-Shami, “the SNA and the security establishment’s work against SDF cells does not amount to one percent, and against ISIS 20 percent,” of what is required. “Everyone justifies their failures by blaming Tarhin,” a camp northeast of the city of al-Bab that hosts displaced families from eastern Syria accused of allegiance to ISIS. “It’s become a scapegoat.” 

In the same context, Abduljabbar pointed out that four car bombs recently entered SNA areas through the al-Jatal crossing controlled by the Sultan Murad Division. “The Turks detected two of the cars in the Tal al-Hawa area,” he said. Seven car bombs also entered via the al-Hamran crossing controlled by al-Jabha al-Shamiya. “The two factions wouldn’t have been able to detect the cars if not for the Turks’ intervention,” he said. However, “many of the smuggling operations might not be clear [even] to the SNA members and commanders who are involved in them.” The majority of operations involving SNA complicity happen “unknowingly, and the goal is only money.” 

Abduljabbar recounted the details of an operation that occurred months ago, when “a person came into our areas by smuggling from the al-Sukkariyah area, then went out again to get the [explosive] package and plant it in the city of al-Bab. After he came back and detonated it, we arrested him.” He added, “it turned out that the process of smuggling him, done by elements of the SNA, was not betrayal, but rather motivated by money.” 

Abu Qasem asserted that “the main reason for what is happening is that the leadership of the SNA with all its factions is not taking control of the crossings and smuggling points with an iron fist.” But, he added, “I can’t accuse them of betrayal because when I investigated some of these cases, I found that some are revolutionaries from 2011 who have lost relatives to the regime and ISIS; the main reason is that they need the money.” 

On top of the aforementioned is the problem that “the existing cadres are inefficient and incompetent,” in al-Shami’s view. But the most dangerous issue remains that “some military groups within the SNA are involved in smuggling and collaboration operations,” Abduljabbar said, which is “the result of the possibility of contact occurring between forces stationed at the fronts and the enemy.” 

Around a year ago, 14 members of the SNA’s al-Salam Brigade at the Orashli point with the SDF east of Jarablus were arrested, according to Abduljabbar. This, he added, was due to “their communications with the SDF, working in their interest and their involvement in bringing in IEDs and motorcycle bombs into the area through their point in exchange for money.”

However, the commander of al-Salam Brigade, Alaa’ Berrou, denied to Syria Direct that the arrest incident had taken place at all. 

Abduljabbar also accused the brother of the commander of an SNA division of working with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah to smuggle drugs and with Turkish officers to smuggle weapons. Syria Direct is withholding the names of the two persons, although multiple attempts to obtain a response from the commander went unanswered. 

As for ISIS elements and cells among locals to the area, “tribal or factional protection is a way for them to exist in the region,” according to Abduljabbar. Protecting ISIS members is a way to get “money or use them for internal fighting between factions,” as was done during infighting between two SNA factions last year. “One faction released ISIS members from its prisons, promising to release them if they fought against the other faction,” Abduljabbar said.

In response to Syria Direct’s request for comment, SNA spokesperson, Major Youssef al-Hamoud, said, “the matter requires the response of security and military sources,” adding that he is “not familiar with the security, military police and military judiciary issues, nor even the civilian police, so I cannot respond.”

Fragmentation strengthens insecurity

The structure of the SNA and “security agencies not unifying in one office [tracking] a single piece of information play a critical role in security problems in the SNA areas,” according to commander Abu Qasem. “This has led to unqualified people joining the security apparatus, monopolizing the security decision, while most of them are motivated by money.” 

On top of that, “the first-line commanders of the leadership of the SNA legions and the [Interim Government’s] Minister of Defense do not have the final say,” Abu Qasem added. Instead, the decision rests with “the commanders of factions supported by certain currents in the Turkish state. These disagreements between the factions are in the interest of a limited number of commanders who implement certain agendas through these disagreements.” 

Abu Qasem, he said, had been briefed on “some cases in which some security agencies took on accused individuals, then transferred them to an unknown location, requesting a large ransom to release them. Those who were freed with a ransom were given a release document.” This underlines that “it is necessary to unite the security services under a single command and office.” 

In addition to fragmentation, there are the “internal disputes between SNA factions,” according to Abduljabbar, which “have a large impact on the issue of insecurity.” 

“These disputes have caused a state of weakness that the enemy exploits to plant IEDs and sleeper cells,” citing the “overwhelming security chaos” the city of al-Bab is going through. 

“The factions controlling it are scattered, and the administration of the police there is failing, so the enemy focuses its operations there,” leading to “them losing popular support, [as people have] started to search for an alternative to achieve security.” 

“With money and bribery, you can exonerate your father’s killer in court.”

Unfit police

The police in SNA areas suffer from “weakness.” This is more pronounced in the case of the civilian police or the Free Police because its members are “young men looking for a salary to make a living,” according to Abduljabbar. Officials in this body, he added, are also “ruled by factionalism.” For example, a patrol was dispatched by the Criminal Security and Intelligence services in al-Bab in response to an exchange of gunfire between two factions in the city. The patrol senior officer wrote in his report that ‘one of the two factions fired to terrorize people,’” recounted Abduljabbar. “The officer was a member of one of the two parties. He occupies a sensitive position but works in a factional way; politicized by his former faction.” 

The military police, on the other hand, is also “controlled by the factions,” Abu Qasem argued. If “the factions want to hold someone accountable and imprison them, they do that. If they want to release them, they do that.” 

But it is not useful to put too much blame on police officers, in al-Shami’s opinion, since they “lack the means and don’t have the [basic needs] or even enough fuel, aside from the constant delay in salaries.” 

“There are 200 military police officers in the region,” according to al-Shami, “who rely on what the factions give them. Meanwhile, there are around 3,000 civil police officers.” 

In a related example, al-Shami recounted how the al-Bab police investigated one individual several months ago. The man claimed to be from the al-Musalama family in Daraa province and was displaced to northern Syria following the settlement process in southern Syria. Hours later, the station released him after recording his information and taking his picture. Later, it became clear that he was an ISIS media officer when he died during a security operation in the Rajo area of the Afrin countryside after detonating his explosive belt.

“The Turks have three centers of decision-making [regarding areas of influence in Syria]: the army, the gendarmerie and the intelligence service.”

A corrupt judiciary?

Although the factors explaining insecurity in SNA areas in the north and west Aleppo province are intertwined, the main culprit, in commander Abduljabbar’s opinion, is the judiciary as “with money and bribery, you can exonerate your father’s killer in court.”

About six months ago, Abu Saleh al-Jolani from the SNA’s Northern Brigade was killed after the court in the city of Azaz city in northern Aleppo province summoned him to testify against an ISIS member that his faction had arrested. 

“Abu Saleh had evidence incriminating the ISIS member, and he was asked to give secret testimony,” Abduljabbar said. “After he testified at noon, information about him was leaked. Then, when he arrived home at sunset, he was killed. How was the secret testimony leaked when Abu Saleh was the only one who had a video incriminating the ISIS member and was a well-known man in the Jarablus area?”

Abduljabbar leveled accusations at two specific individuals in the military judiciary establishment, judge F.N. and high-ranking official E.H., whose full names Syria Direct is refraining from publishing. He accused them of taking bribes in exchange for releasing charged individuals. “Any wanted person can be released from prison for $10,000, no matter the charges.” 

In an event Abduljabbar claimed he witnessed personally, “an individual implicated in the detonation of two explosive devices in the al-Bab area and Qabaseen was released in exchange for $6,000 received by a military judiciary official.”

Responding to these accusations, judge F.N. said, “Our work as judges prevents us from giving press statements to any party.” The military judiciary official E.H. did not respond to inquiries from Syria Direct

In the same vein, al-Shami believes the judiciary also has weak capabilities. “If we wanted to arrest every person who worked in the interest of ISIS or is suspected of having done so, we would arrest 5,000 people a day,” he said. “We don’t have prisons big enough for that. The largest prison we have has space for 400 prisoners. We also don’t have deterrent laws.”

Syrians gather around the site of a car bombing on the northern highway in the city of al-Bab, north of Aleppo province, 10/7/2020 (Syria Direct)


Turkey’s role

Given the worsening security situation in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch (Afrin) areas and the SNA’s inability to contain it—if not the very involvement of some of its members in the lawlessness—the question arises as to what role Turkey has in controlling the situation, especially since both areas are entirely under Ankara’s influence. 

“The Turks are a people of deep politics,” Abu Qasem said. “They stay away from clashing with the factions and the liberated street [the areas controlled by Syrian opposition factions] for a number of reasons, most of which are political: Not having news get out to the media talking about a clash with such-and-such faction or a demonstration coming out against the Turks for the enemy’s media to exploit.” 

“The role of the Turkish forces deployed [in Syrian territory] is, first of all, their own security, and second, to pursue cells of the SDF and Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], to the extent of preventing the SNA from interfering in this issue,” Abu Qasem said. He added that they “inform us that a car that will enter from such-and-such crossing has an [explosive] device, so we go and find that it really does have one.”

According to Ömer Özkizilcik, a researcher at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), close to the Turkish government, Turkey’s role inside Syria is to “support the SNA and the Free Police through training, logistics and coordination, in addition to checkpoints shared between the Turkish and SNA forces and some military bases to increase security.”

But Abduljabbar believes that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), entrusted with managing the region, “is happy with the ongoing internal disputes [among the SNA factions]. It doesn’t want a factional agreement or strong institutions.” He went on to say that “this apparatus is behind most of the problems of the factions.” 

“The MİT has a relationship with the military police, as well as many of the factions, and controls them as it wants. These factions are the ones that have put themselves fully under the control of the MİT.”

“The day after the car bombing next to al-Bab’s industrial city,” Abduljabbar said, “the Third Legion of the SNA discovered that one of the cars that were damaged next to the bomb was loaded with weapons.” Then, “the al-Izza Brigade of the Second Legion’s Sultan Murad Division tried to bury the incident and cover it up. But the Third Legion refused to keep quiet, and the military police intervened and confiscated all the weapons, without disclosing who the car belonged to or the relationship of the faction to it.” 

“As a result of the investigations,” Abduljabbar added, “I later learned that the al-Izza Brigade was accompanying this car and that the MİT is the one that tried to take the confiscated weapons, bury the case and keep it secret.”

However, the commander of the al-Izza Brigade, Abu al-Walid al-Izzi, described Abduljabbar’s account as “unfair.” Al-Izza Brigade was not accompanying the ammunition vehicle, al-Izzi told Syria Direct, but instead intended to seize it following information about its arrival from Idlib with the intent of smuggling its cargo to SDF areas. 

Apart from allegations of corruption also involving Turkish officers, al-Shami noted that “the Turks have three centers of decision-making [regarding areas of influence in Syria]: the army, the gendarmerie and the intelligence service.”

For weeks, Syria Direct has sought a response from Turkish officials in al-Bab, namely the Turkish military and security advisor responsible for the city, Yarbay Osman, and the Deputy Governor of Gaziantep, the Governor’s representative in the city of al-Bab, Anıl Alkal. This was done through communication with their interpreter, Bayan, who is a Syrian national. Although Syria Direct completed all steps specified by the translator, no response has been received. 

However, Özkizilcik considered “the accusations levied against Turkish security officers and SNA commanders an essential part of the YPG’s strategy.” In addition, he said, “the YPG use the protracted war strategy developed by [Chinese revolutionary leader] Mao [Zedong] to turn people against the government through terrorism and mistrust.” 

He added that widespread propaganda “places blame for terrorist YPG attacks on SNA corruption, which not only helps divert public anger from the YPG to the SNA but also facilitates its propaganda that the Syrian Interim Government is not able to provide security.” 

Özkizilcik also pointed to the “internal migration from other parts of Syria” to SNA areas. “The population has increased by 229 percent in the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Peace Spring regions,” in northeastern Syria. 

Until there is a serious effort to confront insecurity in areas of Turkish influence, especially in northwest Syria, the number of victims will continue to rise. Among them are those who escape death, but not injury and its consequences, as in the case of Abdullah al-Ahmad, who remains unable to walk. 

“After an injury,” he said, “a person doesn’t go back to the way they were before.” 

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

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