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Northwest Territories

In Syria’s northwest, rebel infighting threatens a fragile calm


A Syrian migrant sits in front of her accommodations in Ulus district, the old part of Turkey’s capital Ankara, Turkey, October 23, 2022

Photo: AP

Power struggles between rebel forces have been a recurring theme throughout the Syrian Civil War, with shifting alliances between armed factions leaving a trail of destruction throughout the north of the country.

But the latest round of clashes between Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) – the former al Qaeda branch that controls most of Idlib province – and the Third Legion, a coalition of Turkish-backed factions, may be among the most consequential.

Fighting, which began Oct. 11, has so far allowed HTS to capture Afrin, a strategic town in rural Aleppo that has been held by Turkish-backed forces since it was captured by Syrian Kurdish forces in 2018. HTS, led by militant Syrian commander Abu Mohammed Al Golani, aims to go beyond mere territorial expansion. The group seeks to use this opportunity to, among other things, force the Third Legion to agree to an amalgamation with the Salvation Government, a civilian structure established by HTS to help them manage their territories.

While the creation of a unified civilian administration for all rebel-held areas may not be possible at this time, the ongoing internal fighting will no doubt redefine the power dynamics in north-west Syria.
The new clashes were sparked by the October 7 killing of a prominent Syrian activist and his pregnant wife in Al Bab. The investigation, led by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) Third Legion, found evidence the victims were killed by a hit squad linked to the Hamza Division, another SNA group.

Attempting to capitalize on the public anger caused by the discovery, the Third Legion launched a campaign to disband the Hamza Division, beginning with the group’s headquarters at Al Bab. HTS, seeing the clashes as an opportunity to expand its own influence, allied with the Hamza Division. The Sultan Suleiman Shah Division, a notorious SNA group, also joined this coalition to settle a score with the Third Legion.

While the Third Legion had initial success against the Hamza Division, HTS’s intervention quickly tipped the balance in the division’s favour. Within hours, HTS and its allies took control of Afrin and its environs.

HTS’ quick win comes as no surprise. Because the group is by far the strongest remaining rebel faction in north-west Syria due to its size, discipline, uniform structure and armament. Additionally, HTS has a long history of brokering deals to divide and neutralize its enemies. As soon as fighting began, the group reportedly reached out to factions within both the Third Legion and the SNA to ensure they did not join the fight.

But none of this would have been possible if Turkey had not reacted apathetically to the recent HTS attack. HTS has long sought a broader economic and security role in areas beyond Idlib, but until this month Turkey’s objections had prevented the group from achieving that. This became clear last June when Turkey reportedly asked HTS to withdraw from south-west Afrin soon after gaining a foothold there.

This time, however, Turkey made no similar request. The lack of response has been interpreted by many as a green light for HTS to try to stabilize the region, which has suffered chaos and insecurity.

Still, Ankara doesn’t seem ready to allow HTS to go beyond Afrin. Various sources have reported that on October 14 Turkey used its influence to negotiate a ceasefire between HTS and the Third Legion. Despite a brief lull in fighting, clashes of greater intensity broke out again and HTS quickly advanced towards Kafr Jana in what appeared to be an attempt to capture Azaz northeast of Afrin near the Turkish border.

HTS’s ability to make quick profits has prompted Turkey to intervene again; Ankara has asked HTS to withdraw from Kafr Jana. Unlike Afrin, HTS’ capture of Azaz could spark more community resistance, hamper international relief efforts and drain the administrative capital of the opposition’s interim government.

Whatever comes next, HTS has already made several strategic wins that are difficult to reverse. First, it has gained a foothold outside of Idlib, marking the start of a likely expansion phase. While the next target for the upcoming campaign may be Azaz, there is little doubt about the group’s desire to expand their influence into other rebel-held areas further east.

Second, recent territory gains will likely allow HTS subsidiary Salvation Government to co-opt local government in and around Afrin. This would further advance HTS’ goal of creating a unified administrative structure for all rebel-held areas.

Third, HTS’ expansion into Afrin would likely allow the group to redefine its relationship with Turkey, which is currently the only foreign actor capable of transforming Northwest Syria.

Finally, recent clashes have further polarized and divided HTS’s main competitor, SNA. As a result, the SNA leadership no longer seems able to mediate or resolve the issues between its components, which will facilitate the implementation of HTS’ divide-and-conquer strategy.

Although no one can predict with certainty what the future holds for north-west Syria, the HTS’s tightened grip on the region will have serious repercussions for the people living there. The group’s designation as a terrorist organization by many governments, including the US and Turkey, will likely reduce the number of humanitarian organizations willing to operate in their areas of control. It will also bolster the regime’s counter-terrorism rhetoric, leaving civilians to pay the price for HTS’s ambitions.

In consultation with Syndication Bureau

Haid Haid is a guest author. The views expressed are personal.

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