Syria: Rebel Infighting Worsens After Truce Collapses

Infighting between rebel factions within the Syrian National Army (SNA) and Hya'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda) – reignited on Monday following the collapse of Saturday's Turkish-sponsored ceasefire.

Syria: Rebel Infighting Worsens After Truce Collapses
Image credit: AFP [via Middle East Eye]

Facts

  • Infighting between rebel factions within the Syrian National Army (SNA) and Hya'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda) – reignited on Monday following the collapse of Saturday's Turkish-sponsored ceasefire. More than a dozen have been killed in the latest bout of fighting so far, including one civilian.
  • Clashes first erupted on Thursday, when the SNA's Third Legion accused the Hamza Division, another SNA rebel group active in northern Syria, of assassinating a prominent activist. The Levant Front, the most prominent group within the Third Legion, attacked the Hamza Division in the city of al-Bab, leading to HTS and other Turkish-backed groups siding with Hamza.
  • HTS controls most of the Idlib governorate in northern Syria and has used the recent SNA infighting to advance northwest into the Kurdish majority region of Afrin, which was invaded by Turkey in 2018, occupied, and controlled by Turkish-backed militants ever since.
  • HTS accuses the Third Legion of violating the Turkish-brokered agreement by failing to hand over the village of Kafr Jana. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes killed Turkish-backed militants in Afrin on Sunday and Monday.
  • Protests also broke out in Azaz against HTS and its advance toward the town on Saturday, with protesters blocking the main road between Afrin and Azaz by setting tires on fire and shouting anti-HTS slogans. HTS wouldn't have been permitted to enter Afrin without a greenlight from Turkey, said the UK-based director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
  • HTS (or the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” in English) retains a Salafi-ultraconservative ideology despite its public split from al-Qaeda in 2016, and has been labeled a terrorist organization by the US, Turkey and other nations. The group has close ties with the Turkish government, but it isn't backed by Ankara to the same degree as the SNA, which operates in the Turkish-controlled regions Aleppo, Raqqa and Afrin.

Sources: Reuters, Middle East Eye, Voa, Archive, Npasyria, and Wilson Center.

Narratives

  • Narrative A, as provided by Mei. HTS's attacks on Afrin and Azaz only serve to weaken the Syrian revolution and advance the interests of foreign powers, such as Russia and Iran. It seems likely this is a cynical ploy by HTS to safeguard its leadership's position in the event of a reproachment between Damascus and Ankara. HTS’s invasion of Afrin could have been reversed by Turkey – as a prior foray into Afrin’s countryside was in June – with a single phone call. Why wasn't it?
  • Narrative B, as provided by ANF News. Infighting between SNA militias should be understood as part of Turkey’s divide and rule policy in Syria. Despite the rhetoric of SNA militias being different from HTS, these Turkish-backed factions occupying northern Syria are reactionary militants who aim to create an ultraconservative theocracy. Although originally created in opposition to the Syrian state, since being co-opted by Turkey they've focused attacks on targeting ISIS and the Kurdish-led, secular, left-wing Syrian Democratic Forces.