13 min read  | Aleppo, Politics, Politics

The case of Abu Amsha: How commanders of Turkish-backed factions in northwestern Syria go unpunished


April 4, 2022

PARIS — The case against a controversial commander—Muhammad al-Jassim, also known as Abu Amsha—in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) accused of human rights violations and abuses appears to have been shelved in recent weeks without him facing accountability. Turkish pressure and rivalries within the SNA appear to be behind the file against Abu Amsha, who leads the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division, being dropped. 

The end or postponement of accountability measures against Abu Amsha follows escalation between his faction and the Azm Unified Command Room, an SNA formation established in mid-2021 that now includes most major Turkish-backed opposition factions. Azm had pledged to hold accountable members of the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division—also known as “al-Amshat” after their commander’s nickname—who were accused of committing violations in northwestern Syria. The apparent end of the case without resolution or accountability reflects the fragility of judicial authority in areas of Turkish influence in the northern Aleppo countryside, and points to a defect in the foundation and structure of the SNA and its military police. 

Beginning of the story

Amid tensions between the Azm Unified Command Room and the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division on December 10, 2021, Azm opened an investigation into alleged violations against civilians by the latter in the Sheikh Hadid area of Afrin countryside in northwestern Aleppo, the stronghold and area of influence of Abu Amsha’s faction. 

Abu Amsha and his division had been accused in recent years of rape, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, and complicity in violations against Kurds in Afrin city, including blackmail, property seizure and extortion. Multiple other SNA factions and commanders have been accused of similar abuses.

A month earlier, Azm announced that it accepted the return of “al-Amshat” to Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation, an SNA formation affiliated with Azm and led by Fahim Issa of the Sultan Murad Division, on the condition that the group cooperate with the opposition judiciary and hand over all those found to be involved in abuses and violations. Abu Amsha’s faction had split with Azm in August 2021 citing unfair representation.

Accordingly, a tripartite committee of three members of the Syrian Islamic Council, an opposition religious institution, began investigating years of outstanding accusations of violations by Abu Amsha and other commanders. The committee’s formation was overseen by the commander of the SNA’s Third Legion, Abu Ahmad Nour, who is also commander of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and Hayat Thaeroon commander Issa, as well as Abu Amsha. 

The committee stipulated that the three parties sign a legal instrument that they would “submit to the committee, act on its decisions, and implement its outputs in full,” Sheikh Ahmad Mustafa Alwan, one of the committee’s members, told Syria Direct. Based on “broad authority and absolute powers, without conditions, we accepted to enter into the work according to the mandate granted to us by the three commanders concerned, who are the decision makers in all the liberated [areas under opposition control]: Azm and Thaeroon.”

After two months of continuous work, “during which the defendant put up many obstacles, trying to stall, circumvent, and infiltrate the committee, not to mention many transgressions,” according to Alwan, the committee issued its first decision on February 16. 

The committee decided to dismiss Abu Amsha, and ruled that he not be given any “revolutionary” post later. It also recommended that a number of Sultan Suleiman Shah leaders be dismissed: Abu Amsha’s brothers Walid and Malik al-Jassim, in addition to three other commanders. 

The day after the decision, Azm issued a statement confirming that it adopted the committee’s rulings and recommendations against al-Amshat, and pledged to implement them. Azm and Harakat Thaeroon were those concerned with implementing the committee’s recommendations. 

On February 22, the committee issued additional rulings against the faction and its commander, most importantly: exiling Abu Amsha and his brothers outside the Olive Branch areas in northern Aleppo for two Hijri years, in addition to other rulings related to the rest of those accused and the faction.

Abu Amsha’s accountability

At the beginning of March, the Azm Unified Command Room announced it had started to implement the committee’s recommendations regarding al-Amshat violations. This included appointing Brigadier General Abdel Moneim al-Naasan as commander of the Sheikh Hadid area and dissolving “the previous security [force] in Sheikh Hadid.” A military police detachment was activated in Sheikh Hadid, and recently established roadblocks were removed. Azm made no reference in the statement to the fate of Abu Amsha, who was the source of the case.

Then, one week after the Azm statement, Abu Amsha appeared with a group of SNA military commanders in a meeting with the opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG) on March 8. His appearance sparked widespread criticism on social media, amid silence from the SIG and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

Notably absent from the meeting was Abu Ahmad Nour, the commander of Azm, which had pledged to implement the committee’s recommendations against Abu Amsha. The meeting was attended by SIG President Abdurrahman Mustafa, Minister of Defense Brigadier General Hassan Hamadeh, Hayat Thaeroon commander Fahim Issa, Issa’s deputy Saif Boulad, and Chief of Staff Mutasim Abbas, as well as other officers and commanders. 

The circumstances of the meeting point to the weak role of the SIG, its Ministry of Defense, and the SNA Chief of Staff in playing the roles assigned to them on the ground. It indicates that their policies inside Syria do not correspond to the reality of the factions and institutions that are affiliated with them. 

Abu Amsha’s appearance with the SNA commanders at the SIG meeting was no fleeting event. He also appeared on the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution in mid-March, when Hayat Thaeroon posted a statement from him on the occasion in his capacity as a member of its leadership council. 

Commenting on that, a media source in the SNA questioned the “earnestness of implementing the decisions to hold Abu Amsha accountable.” The source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said there were “significant problems in implementation.” 

Four sources—researchers and journalists—told Syria Direct that Turkey intervened to stop the process of holding Abu Amsha accountable for accused violations. They said that al-Jabha al-Shamiya, which as part of Azm took responsibility for accountability, was subjected to Turkish pressure. This pressure extended to threats to cut off salaries from its forces and restrict its sources of income, including its role in controlling border crossings in the area. 

The director of the SNA Third Legion’s press office, Sirajuddin al-Omar, told Syria Direct that the “appointment of a new person to manage the [Sheikh Hadid] region” was one practical step to implement the recommendations. He said “Hayat Thaeroon, one of Azm’s components, pledged to implement the decision so that there would be no clash.”

But Hayat Thaeroon “still has responsibilities and duties in order to implement the committee’s decisions,” said al-Omar. “Working to hold those involved in corruption accountable is a revolutionary duty, and the committee was part of this duty,” he added, “but it must be followed up on through the military court and judiciary.” 

Syria Direct reached out to Hayat Thaeroon Chief of Staff Mutasim Abbas, his deputy Saif Abu Bakr, the commander of the Azm Unified Command Room and SNA Third Legion Abu Ahmad Nour, SIG President Abdurrahman Mustafa and Minister of Defense Hassan Hamadeh for comment on the content of this story, but received no response by the time of publication.

Under Turkish protection

Syrians, especially in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition factions, reacted supportively to the initial news of Abu Amsha facing accountability. The positive reception to the tripartite committee’s rulings coincided with “will on the part of some factions in the area to hold Abu Amsha accountable and put a stop to his violations,” according to an Istanbul-based expert on opposition factions who asked not to be named for security reasons. 

But Abu Amsha’s foreign ties, namely his relationship with Ankara, constituted a kind of “immunity, and protection from attempts to forcibly hold him accountable by any faction,” the expert told Syria Direct. He said this “immunity” is “the result of services he rendered to parties associated with him, meaning he still has cards to play at the moment.” 

A Syrian researcher living in Turkey, who also asked not to be named, said “Turkey pressured al-Jabha al-Shamiya to stop the issue of Abu Amsha’s accountability, and threatened to cut off their funding.” He cited as proof that “the Turks closed the al-Hamran crossing belonging to [al-Jabha] al-Shamiya, and opened an alternative crossing run by Liwa al-Mutasim and [Hayat] Thaeroon, to reduce [al-Jabha] al-Shamiya’s revenues and constrain them.” 

“Abu Amsha and other influential commanders know that Turkey is the only one that can hold them accountable,” the researcher said. “Abu Amsha is one of the figures who has provided the most services to Turkey, and was their proxy in many issues, including sending fighters to Libya.”

Commanders like Abu Ahmsha exploit talk of Turkish immunity to further their interests. “Abu Amsha and his ilk promote the idea that they are supported by Turkish intelligence in order to terrorize victims and opponents,” said media activist Motaz Nasser, who lives in northern Aleppo. “This is severely damaging for Turkey.” 

“Countries don’t care about ethical issues so much as their own interests,” said Nasser. “Turkey’s attachment to Abu Amsha and others like him is purely based on interest.” He cited “the intervention of some Turkish parties in favor of Abu Amsha after the ruling was issued against him, which can be read through the lens of pragmatism, and the desire to continue control and impose reality.”

On the other hand, a researcher at the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies, Firas Faham, said Turkey had not intervened to protect Abu Amsha. “Turkish officials stressed the importance of supporting any decision issued by the tripartite committee, and there was no Turkish refusal of the committee’s formation or the investigation of violations,” Faham said. However, “the Turkish side has its calculations, and does not want to clash with Syrian components.” 

Faham told Syria Direct that he expected “these violations to be limited, which is very expected, and Turkish officials may exert pressure to stop them.”

Structural defect

The Abu Amsha affair has revealed a foundational and structural defect in the SIG, especially the Ministry of Defense and its affiliated bodies such as the SNA, to which Abu Amsha administratively belongs. These hierarchical authorities have preferred to remain silent and not take initiative to decide the issue.

While “the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff are supposed to be the highest representative authority of any military body by virtue of having the authority and powers to enforce the decision towards the lower chain of command,” the reality for the SNA “is completely different, which is related to the structure of the SNA itself and external factors,” according to the Istanbul-based researcher.

Researcher Faham agreed with this proposition. From his perspective, “the SNA has no clear administrative hierarchy,” not to mention “the existing state of factionalism and the limited impact of the SIG and General Staff in the SNA.” Additionally, “the factions that fall under it are independent and self-sufficient.”

The defect in factions belonging to a military institution goes back to the fact that “a group of factions agreed to form a military body and called it the SNA,” said the factions expert. The common denominator between them is “the general identity only: being opposed to the regime, Russia, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] and the [Islamic State] IS and [Jabhat] al-Nusra extremist organizations.”

More than that, “all the structuring attempts that happened after [the SNA] was established were done on the basis of achieving a certain balance of internal power,” according to the opposition factions expert. The main factions were divided into legions, “each built on the basis of achieving internal balance within the parent organization,” he said, noting that “this state of balance requires that there be no force or authority that can impose its control over the others.” This means that “the authority of the Minister of Defense and General Staff will remain in form only, so long as there is no hierarchy led by military officers rather than revolutionary leaders, against whom decisions cannot be enforced.” 

In addition, “the factions are the ones that recognized the SIG as a kind of political cover, and therefore there is no proper hierarchical structure in administratie terms,” said researcher Faham. As a result, the SIG “does not have the ability to influence and hold [them] accountable.” 

For his part, the factions expert said that “non-institutionalization is a Russian condition in Turkish areas of influence, and is part of the agreements and the Astana track.” He added that “Turkey’s interest and the Astana agreements dictate that the current reality continues, which is what explains Turkey shelving the decision to dismiss Abu Amsha.”

One of the circumstances reinforcing the current reality is that “the factions are completely under the pressure of Turkey’s decision, amid the absence of a political and legal framework regulating the Turkish role in northern Syria, and regulating its relationship with the factions,” said media activist al-Nassar. All that makes opposition institutions “fragile cardboard institutions.” 

Handcuffed military police

In February 2018, the SIG Ministry of Defense formed a military police force in the northern Aleppo countryside tasked with pursuing opposition military figures accused of crimes and abuses. The aim was to limit violations and structure military activity, with the military police belonging administratively to a military court.

The military police are an alternative to the security offices that used to belong to the SNA factions, but in reality “there is no military judiciary, and the military police are either led by influential commanders or subordinate to the hegemony of the factions,” said the Istanbul-based researcher. He cited the family ties between Abu Amsha and the head of the military police in the Sheikh Hadid area, who is “Abu Amsha’s maternal uncle.” The military police in Azaz city, meanwhile, “belong to al-Jabha al-Shamiya.”

Therefore, “there is no independence, at a time when the region needs an independent implementing body,” said the researcher. The SIG “does not have power, and its president is a Turkish citizen,” he added, referring to the fact that Abdurrahman Mustafa holds Turkish citizenship.

According to one military police official who spoke to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity, “when rights are violated by military personnel, the plaintiff submits a complaint to the public prosecutor. Then the judge refers the military individual who is the subject of the complaint to the investigation department, which opens an investigation into the incident, writes the report, and brings the accused if necessary to present him to the military judiciary.” 

The military police cannot take action, the official said, “without a complaint, unless there is public opinion.” But although the Abu Amsha case occupied Syrian public opinion, the military police have not responded. Syria Direct asked why the military police did not act in Abu Amsha’s case, to which the official answered: “It’s a tough question.” 

However, “one of the main reasons we weren’t able to implement the law against some corrupt people is the touchiness of the factions when it comes to their members or commanders, which hinders our work,” he said. Adding to that is “the weakness in investing in defected officers in the leadership of those units, or obliging revolutionary commanders to [undergo] real military trainings or military colleges that would impose more discipline and end abuses.”

The head of one military police unit in the northern Aleppo countryside told Syria Direct that the tripartite committee formed to hold Abu Amsha accountable “is authorized by the SNA, and we are part of the SNA,” but its “decisions will be effective for us if they are ratified by the military court.” In the case of Abu Amsha, “moving to hold him accountable is the military court’s jurisdiction,” he said, and if a ruling were issued to bring him in, “we are able to do that.” In order for Abu Amsha to be held accountable, the committee must “submit the files to the military court, in order to initiate the official legal procedures.”

Alwan, one of the committee’s members, placed responsibility for implementing its decisions with the Azm Unified Command Room. “When the committee was formed, emphasis was placed on non-interference in its work, and acceptance of its outputs. We directed our decisions to the brothers in Azm, and responsibility for implementing the ruling falls on them today.” 

Alwan added, “the file is large and contains sensitive cases and witnesses who testified privately, despite fear, pressure, and pursuit by the Suleiman Shah faction.” He stressed the need to “safeguard the witnesses and their confidentiality, and not give the files to another party, for fear of information being leaked.” 

Responding to those who object to the commission not presenting the files in its possession to the military judiciary and police, Alwan pointed out that “many witnesses and plaintiffs have submitted cases to the military police and judiciary, but nothing has happened. “

What hinders the work of the military police is that it “relies upon the factions as an implementing force. So if it has not coordinated with a faction to hold another faction accountable, it won’t be able to do anything,” said the factions expert. “If the factions do not want to hold someone accountable, the military police cannot do so.”

Abu Amsha’s fate

No sooner had the people of the Sheikh Hadid area felt “liberation” and the end of the nightmare of Abu Amsha, than “the faction returned to rehabilitate itself and commit violations through its remaining security arms in the area, especially since some of the people who took Abu Amsha’s place are affiliated with him,” said Alwan. “Abu Amsha still moves them from under the table.”

As of the preparation of this report, Abu Amsha’s future with the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division remains unknown. There is no information confirming his dismissal and stripping of his duties, and he remains a member of the Hayat Thaeroon leadership council, with which his faction is affiliated. 

Even if Abu Amsha has not been held accountable, he is likely to try to change his policy in the area in order to overcome the current crisis. He could “work to cut away at the influence of his relatives who surround him,” said the Turkey-based researcher, who cited the transfer of Abu Siraj, “Abu Amsha’s brother, to Libya, and him being asked not to return.” 

But even if Abu Amsha escapes accountability in the present, the researcher said, “it won’t be for long, and when the job he is doing is finished, he will be finished.”

 

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

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