A new war broke out between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria, one that did not involve any military confrontation but was instead limited to an “information warfare” over the issue of electricity, which is the main concern for the people inhabiting the region, amid fears of a possible escalation in the conflict to reach military confrontation between both of them.
The last few days have witnessed an exchange of accusations among Ahrar al-Sham’s Service Management Authority and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Civil Administration Services. Each one of the two considers itself responsible for electricity cut offs and for supplying people with electricity and determining ampere prices.
Despite the fact that the issue of electricity directly affects the lives of citizens because of its importance and the fact that the two parties are seeking a key solution that would bring the conflict to an end and hand over the case to a non-military civil institution, the problem seems to be too complex to be unraveled at present.
Electricity supplied after an Agreement with the Regime has been Reached
In the past two years, the residents of Idlib and its countryside have suffered power cuts as a result of the Syrian regime’s bombings which put some stations off service. They have been thus forced to resort to independent central generators to supply them with electricity, in return for a subscription fee paid to the owner of the generator.
Enab Baladi’s investigation team had previously dealt with the issue of energy in northern Syria in an investigation entitled “Ampere Cities … Electricity grids collapse before the Eyes of Syrians.”
However, some sources reported to Enab Baladi that parties affiliated to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have already reached an agreement with the Syrian regime during the first days of last March to fix the electrical distribution line coming from the city of Hama and moving through its eastern countryside and Idlib’s southern countryside to reach Az-Zarbah Station, considered to be the key electricity supply station in northern Syria, in return for supplying the areas under the control of the regime with electricity in the city of Aleppo.
After the electrical current reached Az-Zarbah Station, one of its distribution lines has been entirely devoted to Idlib to exclusively supply hospitals, bakeries and public facilities with electricity for free and was accordingly called a “humanitarian distribution line.”
An Electricity Company that Rises out of the Ashes of Conflicts
After electricity has been supplied, a meeting was held to form a public electricity company that would equitably distribute energy to the regions and that would enjoy full control over the electrical facilities, installations and distribution lines.
According to a statement issued on March 18, the parties including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, agreed to form an independent general company that would have full control over electrical facilities and installations, that would not be managed according to factionalism, and that would keep what it yields for itself.
However, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has declared the company to belong to it and announced its appropriation without the knowledge of the other parties that signed the convention wherewith it was established, according to Ahrar al-Sham’s Service Management Authority statement on June 12. Ahrar al-Sham accused Hayat Tahrir al-Sham of wrongly appropriating the name of the company which is supposed to be independent for itself.
The deputy director general of the Electricity Company, Omar Mohammad, told Enab Baladi in an interview that “an agreement memorandum was signed to work on the establishment of a general electricity company with the Service Management Authority under the name of The North Electricity Company, but the Service Authority rapidly withdrew from the agreement, and despite their un-decidability the general electricity company continued to work.”
The Beginning of the Conflict and the Information Warfare
Abu Zahra al-Madani, the Services Manager at Ahrar al-Sham’s Service Management Authority, told Enab Baladi that as the current reached the station their Authority proposed to supply drinking water wells, hospitals and public facilities with electricity for free and without taxation.
Al-Madani declared that “the Service Management Authority has been at the service of people and tried to provide them with electricity at the lowest price and to take nominal fees to pay for worker salaries and maintenance costs only. In case of an electricity surplus, it is to be distributed to citizens for amperage that corresponds to 1000 Lira, 600 liras of which is to be paid to the owner of the generator because the generator distribution grid used belongs to him. 100 liras are to be additionally paid to the local council and 300 liras to cover maintenance expenses.”
However, according to al-Madani, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Civil Administration Service raised the price of one amp to 2500 liras, in addition to taxes and fees that it has imposed on drinking water wells and other facilities. Omar Mohammad, on the other hand, has denied al-Madani’s accusation by saying that “hospitals were provided with electricity for free, while Public wells will be charged with insignificant fees, and the exemption will be periodically offered as soon as the 66 kV line arrives.”
Mohamed stressed that the Civil Administration Service pricing took so many factors into consideration, including the high costs of the stations and the high voltage power grids in addition to the money that will be spent to equip the medium voltage power grids and power transmission lines that feed the amps grid.
Concerning Ahrar al-Sham’s pricing (1000 liras per amp) Mohammad considered that “they are selling what they do not possess as Ahrar al-Sham neither worked nor paid for it, nor did they make the least effort to achieve it. Their pricing, with the continual power supply cut offs, will result in crisis, because generators will not work more than an hour per day with this price. The price we (Tahrir Al-Sham) suggested, on the other hand, is the outcome of what the citizen has to pay to the owners of the generators in any case. Even if they are provided with electricity for free, because the power supply is very partial and unstable, in case this amount of money is spent on the generator and on equipping the grids and thereby getting more coverage hours that may reach up to 12 hours a day, with the surplus of what the citizen is paying turning into services for his city, all that will be in favor of the citizen and his own city.”
In addition to accusations that relate to the pricing, another accusation arose as to who is liable to assume the responsibility of electricity supply in northern Syria. The statements made by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham say that it takes itself to be the managing power of the electricity issue since the beginning of the revolution, and that Ahrar al-Sham have neither verbally nor financially participated in it. This is what Mohamed pointed out to when he said that “the Service Management Authority took responsibility of and managed the electricity issue since the beginning of the revolution and the entry of the rebels into Aleppo and this has continued for years without the support of Ahrar al-Sham.”
He also pointed out that “When the Service Management Authority was formed less than two years ago, Ahrar Al-Sham put its nose in the electricity issue, but without being committed to any technical or service-improvement achievement. This resulted in the conflict that has started last year when an electricity tower in Atshan was bombarded to pressure the regime into sharing the silo granaries at Qalaat al-Madiq.”
In a statement issued on 12 June, Ahrar al-Sham’s affiliated Service Management Authority announced that it supervises the most important and the largest power stations in the region, namely, the Hama Countryside Station, , Al-Maara Station, and al-Fath Army Station the management of which is shared with the Idlib administration. It also pointed out that “the agreement with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on the formation of the General Electricity Company is proof enough against their claims that they are the only ones working in the field of electricity, otherwise why did they agree with us on the founding of the company after all?”
Electricity is Cut off as the Army Intervenes
The ‘information warfare’ coincided with the parties cutting off each other’s power supply lines. Al-Madani said that this conflict was triggered after Ahrar al-Sham suggested 1000 lira for the single ampere and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham arrested the director of the executive department at the company and cut off the key supply lines that provide electricity for several contractual cities and towns (Al-Dana, Tramnyn, Ketyan, Saraqeb). Mohammad denied this statement and stated that: “The company has not cut electricity off in any town, except for one that had signed a power supply contract with Ahrar al-Sham that enabled the latter to provide electricity for the town via its own station and distribution lines. Although we knew it couldn’t afford that, we cut off electricity for the sake of making its inhabitants aware that Ahrar al-Sham is selling them something that it doesn’t possess.”
He pointed out that “Ahrar al-Sham is trying to exploit the humanitarian lines installed by the company and to sign agreements with the towns to provide them with power from these lines without taking into account the supply plan, quantities and the distribution strategies.”
As a response to cutting off its lines, the Service Management Authority disabled the main line coming from the city of Hama in Atshan in its north-eastern countryside, while being accused of bombing the entire tower. However, al-Madani denied that and confirmed that what was reported about the bombing of huge towers and photos that spread across social media websites are all incorrect. These towers were in fact formerly destroyed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Al-Madani stressed that the Service Management Authority was forced to invent a failure in a “cable support pillar” to pressure Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to restore electricity to all the areas affected by the power supply cut off, pointing out that the failure is just temporary and could be repaired within an hour or two in case an agreement is reached.
Passing Electricity File to Civil Institution
In addition to the accusations, the statements included invitations from the two parties to stop the media prattle and to give priority to public interest, Abu Zahra al-Madani called for a meeting to make each party’s intentions clear and negotiate in order to provide citizens with the best possible services.
Meanwhile, the deputy of the electricity company, Omar Mohammad, demanded that any military interventionism in the electricity supply issue by Ahrar al-Sham shall seize together with the confusion they created within local councils. He also called on all councils to realize that “the general electricity company in the civil administration of services is the only authorized party that is liable to provide electricity” and called for “commitment to the taxation scheme that ensures the improvement of electrical supply services, the security of the electrical grids, their preservation, and the reduction of theft threats and theft reporting.”
Between the lines of the two parties’ calls, many citizens see that the conflict between them revolves around the economic resources of the province, principally because the conflict between them last month was about wheat and buying it from farmers and today it has moved to the electricity sector.
Many believe that the only solution is that all factions shall withdraw from the electricity issue and that it shall be delivered instead to the Electricity Directorate of the Syrian interim government, which consists of connoisseurs and energy specialists.