Enab Baladi – Exclusive
The people of Aleppo expressed relative relief that Turkey will take responsibility for protecting their areas from air and ground attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies as well as for expelling the “Islamic State” from cities and municipalities scattered throughout the north. Turkey has also curbed the ambitions of Kurdish factions by taking complete control of northern Syria, from al-Jazeera to northern Aleppo. However, this has not been sufficient to put an end to the killing in the area.
Analysts call the current phase in Syria and the Middle East in general “the era of car bombs”. Turkish attempts to make the area between Jarabulus and Azaz, a stretch of 25 kilometers, secure enough to ensure the resettlement of displaced populations or refugees have still not succeeded in light of a security vacuum that has allowed dozens of car bombs to cross into the area recently.
Despite the widespread security weaknesses and increase of smuggling operations from areas held by ISIS or the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” to the Syrian regime areas and vice versa, Enab Baladi focuses in this report on how car and truck bombs are entering Aleppo’s northern countryside and who is responsible for this phenomenon. Our investigation also tries to rebut the phenomenon of car bombs by talking to military and security officials in Aleppo’s northern countryside, some of whom declined to comment since, according to them, the issue is “sensitive.” Others explained their reticence to speak out based on a number of reasons that are “obvious to all” but are not openly discussed.
“Technical flaws” at the checkpoints
Enab Baladi spoke to Muadh Jijou, one of the leaders in Operation Euphrates Shield, who is familiar with the work of military checkpoints in Aleppo’s northern countryside, about how car bombs enter areas in Aleppo’s northern countryside. In the past few days, these cars have become a major source of fear for residents in the area.
Jijou told us, “It is normal that car bombs enter from the areas under ISIS control and those under the control of Kurdish forces into the liberated areas. There are no security inspections at the checkpoints in the region.”
“At the largest checkpoint in the region, they receive the equivalent of 200 US dollars in return for giving access to the largest truck (heavy haulers) regardless of the size of the load transported without any inspection or regulation.” The military leader added, “Concerning other checkpoints belonging to the factions, the majority of cars crossing through the area are overlooked in exchange for money.”
The recent bombings have prompted new accusations and questions. Despite the Islamic State’s skillfulness in using car bombs and in getting them into specific areas, there must be a “security gap” that is to blame for these operations.
Enab Baladi contacted the director of Jarabulus prison’s director, Abu Uqba, about the “security failures” at military checkpoints under the control of Free Army factions in the northern countryside. He explained that “car bombs enter the areas of Aleppo’s northern countryside via two ways – the first being via ISIS-held areas and the other being from the territories held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.”
Abu Uqba, who is one of the security officials in the area, pointed out that “the checkpoints located throughout the area belonging to the factions suffer from technical and professional weaknesses. There is a lack of skilled professionals on the main checkpoints in the area to enable them to carry out their job properly.”
The professional and technical weaknesses referred to by Jarabulus’ prison director were confirmed by a leader in the Euphrates Shield Operation, Abu Bakr Islam, who stated, “One of the major causes of the security breaches is the absence of proper methods and expertise in carrying out inspections at the checkpoints.”
Even if such methods were established, he continued, “The situation cannot be controlled 100% because car bombs are used intermittently in northern areas.”
He added, “It’s very difficult to search a car without the advanced equipment needed to detect such explosives. Two thousand cars enter from the areas under ISIS control to the liberated areas every day. So regulating and inspecting them all very closely is not possible in these circumstances.”
Sleeper cells within the “liberated areas”
The military leaders and security officials Enab Baladi spoke to put forward a number of theories and explanations for the entry of car bombs into populated areas. Among these are two theories in particular – ISIS “sleeper cells” and Kurdish fighters.
They defined the term “sleeper cells” as “groups, which may be small in number and may support a particular side, that train until it is the right time to cross the border and assist their side from within.”
In Aleppo’s northern countryside, “sleeper cells” are groups or individuals whose work focuses on facilitating the entry of car bombs into safe areas. They also play a key role in setting the explosives in car bombs and parking them on sites that had already been identified.
Muadh Jijou told us that a large proportion of taxis are prepared inside the “liberated” areas from shops selling weapons and explosive materials, which are widespread in Aleppo’s northern countryside, especially in the city of Azaz. “It is normal to have these explosive materials and primary materials being sold to strangers. The primary goal for the owners of these stores is to sell, regardless of the buyer’s affiliation. What matters most is turnover.”
Car bombs have been detected as they were being brought in from areas under the control of the People’s Protection Units. Jijou explained, “These car bombs are remotely controlled by transmitters. However, in most cases, car bombs that enter from the areas under ISIS control are often accompanied by a suicide bomber.”
He added, “We arrested a cell belonging to the Kurds in the last few days. They are now being interrogated. Their work focused on carrying out car bomb attacks in the liberated areas using wireless transmitters.”
Enab Baladi asked Abu Uqba whether it was possible that sleeper cells were behind explosions in the areas of Aleppo’s northern countryside. He said, “I am certain that the car bombs are set up by local agents who provide the primary materials used for the process and help to bring them into areas of Aleppo’s countryside.”
He went on, “The existence of sleeper cells in the villages of Aleppo’s northern countryside is undeniable. Their work is based on setting up car bombs to be set off inside the liberated areas. It also involves middlemen who trade in people’s lives by promoting these materials and selling them in large quantities in the cities of northern countryside to anyone who asks. They also have a role in bringing in the materials with supplies and food that the region needs on a daily basis.”
Meanwhile, the military leader Abu Bakr Islam says, “We cannot say that there are no sleeper cells in the liberated areas but the majority of car bombs come from the areas that are under ISIS control. They are prepared there with explosive materials, detonators and explosive devices.”
In the months preceding the attacks, the Euphrates Shield factions detained taxis containing explosive devices ready to be set off. According to Islam, they were prepared in the city of Azaz. He added, “The driver of the car bomb who enters the liberated areas knows all the side roads and exits in the region.”
Diesel fuel loaded with explosives
In the days that followed ISIS’ exit from the region, the areas in Aleppo’s northern countryside turned into a passageway for cars and tankers carrying oil from ISIS territories to the city of Idlib via Azaz and Afrin, which are under the control of the “Kurdish Units.”
The diesel fuel is transported on trucks that cross from areas under ISIS control in Aleppo’s countryside and in Raqqa. They cross towns in Aleppo’s northern countryside that are under the control of Syrian opposition factions and carry on via the city of Azaz towards the regions controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Afrin until they eventually reach Darat Azza in Aleppo’s western countryside then Idib.
The military leader Abu Bakr Islam sees the route taken by the diesel fuel tankers linking ISIS areas and “liberated” areas as the main way through which the car bombs enter. “The car bombs enter using this route. ISIS fighters fill only half of the barrels and tankers so that they can fill the other half with explosive materials and C-4 and bring it into civilian areas and security centers controlled by the factions.”
He added, “Thousands of tankers enter the liberated areas and pass through it so it is hard to detect the cars given such a large number.”
On 16 January, the security bureau of the military council of the city of Maari in the northern countryside apprehended a convoy of tankers carrying crude oil heading from ISIS-held areas to the Homs refinery in the regime-held area via areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In a video recording released by the security bureau in Maari, one of the drivers confessed that the trucks were heading to the Homs refinery based on an agreement with the trader, Husam al-Qatarji, who acts as a mediator between the regime, ISIS and Kurdish militias. He buys shipments of high-quality oil each day and sells them in regime-held areas.
Fighters trained to confront car bombs
At the end of our conversation with military chief, Muadh Jijou about car bomb attacks in areas of Aleppo’s northern countryside, he asserted, “The factions in the northern countryside have sent their members to Turkey to attend special training on how to manage military, security and police checkpoints” in an effort to get rid of the numerous checkpoints spread throughout the region and to eliminate the problem of checkpoints that rob civilians and confiscate residents’ cars.
The military leader explained that by next week, they will be fully relying on the trained members in the city of Jarabulus, and that they would later be deployed across the whole of Aleppo’s countryside with Turkish supervision. He added, “This way, we will get rid of car bombs that enter by paying a sum of money at the existing checkpoints.”
Yasser Basha, a judge in the Azaz court, clarified that there are a number of other steps to be taken to equip security points outside Azaz, led by the security center of al-Jabha al-Shamiyya (Levant Front). In a conversation with Enab Baladi, he urged the Turkish government to supply the Euphrates Shield factions with modern technical equipment to detect explosives, especially those hidden in water and fuel tankers.
The strategic area of Northern Aleppo
The territories under the control of the Euphrates Shield factions and Turkey’s supervision have expanded throughout Aleppo’s northern and northeastern countryside, reaching an area of around 2000 square kilometers, (approximately the equivalent of the size of the Comoros Islands). This expansion has accelerated after the launch of military operations starting in Jarabulus in August 2016, which are still underway today.
This area, euphemistically called “northern Aleppo”, comprises a number of cities, towns and villages, all of which are under the control of factions of the Free Army that are part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Among the most prominent are the cities of Jarabulus, Azaz, Maari and the following villages and towns – al-Raai, al-Ghandoura, Akhtarin, Dabiq, Soran, Ahtamilat, Dodian, Kaljibrin and Baragida, among others.
Turkey is seeking to incorporate the city of al-Bab and surrounding villages to the region of “northern Aleppo” after having expelled ISIS from the area. It does not hide its intention to advance towards Manbij, which is currently under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), thus almost completely dominating Aleppo’s northern countryside and securing a large part of its border with Syria.
This area is bordered by areas under ISIS control and regime control to the south, while to the west are cities and towns held the SDF, which are controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. To the east are areas also under the control of the SDF, most prominent among them the cities of Manbij and Ayn al-Arab (Kobani). To the north are Turkish territories.
The main factions in Operation Euphrates Shield
Three bombings in one month
Aleppo’s northern countryside witnessed nearly 30 car bomb attacks in 2016. Below are details of three explosions that shook the area in the space of less than a month.
On 29 December, a car bomb exploded in the main market near a medical center in the town of Soran in Aleppo’s northern countryside. The attack left 14 dead, including eight members of the same family.
On 7 January, a truck bomb exploded in the city of Azaz in Aleppo’s northern countryside in front of the central court of the city. Fifty people, mostly civilians, were killed.
Jab al-Barazi bombing
On 16 January, a car bomb exploded in the village of Jab al-Barazi near the city of Aleppo in Aleppo’s northern countryside. The attack led to 20 deaths including women and children.
Al-Jabha al-Shamiyya (Levant Front)
Al-Jabha al-Shamiyya was founded in early 2014 as a fusion of a number of factions operating in the province of Aleppo, the most well known being Liwaa al-Tawhid, Jabhat al-Assala, Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Tajammo Fastaqim Kama Umirt. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Tajammo Fastaqim Kama Umirt later left the alliance while a new faction, Thuwwar al-Sham, joined early last year.
Al-Jabha al-Shamiyya is considered one of the largest factions in Aleppo. It has an estimated 3000 fighters, according to previous statements by its leaders. It runs the Bab al-Salama crossing on the border with Turkey near the city of Azaz.
Faylaq al-Sham (Al-Sham Legion)
Faylaq al-Sham was established in the city of Aleppo as a union of a group of Syrian opposition factions. It includes 19 brigades present throughout the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama, as well as the rural outskirts of Damascus.
The most prominent brigades operating under the flag of Faylaq al-Sham are Alwiyat al-Hamza, Liwaa Ibadul Rahman, Liwaa al-Furqan, Kataaib al-Amjaad, Liwaa Sihem al-Haqq, Liwaa al-Fatiheen, Liwaa Maghaweer al Jabal, Liwaa al-Iman and Liwaa Ansaar Idlib.
The division was established when the factions of al-Sultan Mohammed al-Fateh in Aleppo’s countryside, al-Shaheed Zaki Turkmani and Ashbaal al-Aqeeda declared their merger with the al-Sultan Murad forces, which comprise Liwaa Shuhadaa Turkmen, Liwaa al-Awwal Mushaat, Liwaa al-Thani Mushaat, Liwaa al-Mahamm al-Khassa (Special Operations’ Division) and Liwaa al-Yarmouk within a unified military structure called the al-Sultan Murad Division.
The division is dominated by Turkmen centered in Aleppo’s northern countryside. It is focused on the fronts with ISIS and al-Assad’s forces and is considered the most prominent of the factions participating in Euphrates Shield.
Nour al-Din al-Zinki
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki was founded in late 2011 at the beginning of armed confrontation between opposition forces, al-Assad’s forces and the militias supporting him in Syria.
The movement’s operations are centered on the province of Aleppo in particular. It is largely based in the western countryside of the province and has a significant presence within the operations room of Operation Euphrates Shield in the northern countryside.
Firqat al-Hamza (al-Hamza Division) was founded on 24 April 2016 out of a merger of five armed factions in Aleppo’s northern countryside.
The division consists of of Liwaa al-Hamza, Liwaa Dhi Qar, Liwaa Raad al-Shamaal, Liwaa Maari al-Sumood and Liwaa al-Mahamm al-Khassa (Special Operations Brigade). Together, they formed Firqat al-Hamza – Mahamm Khassa (al-Hamza Division – Special Operations) according to a joint official statement. The division is led by Colonel Saber Safar.
Liwaa al-Mu’tasim Billah was established in early 2014. It is one of the factions that received American-Turkish training and participated in fighting against ISIS in Aleppo’s northern countryside. Its military leader is Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Khalil while its political bureau is headed by Mustafa Saijari.
The following factions in the division participate in the operations room of Operation Euphrates Shield – al-Liwaa 51, al-Fawj al-Awwal, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Tahreer and Tajammo Fastaqim Kama Umirt.
Judge Yasser Basha, who was injured in the latest explosion in Azaz, justified the security breaches in northern Aleppo, pointing to the fact that ISIS had infiltrated a number of Western and Arab countries, waging attacks that caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians last year, especially in Turkey, which has recently been the scene of many deadly bombings. He believes that “it is natural that ISIS would manage to infiltrate the liberated areas and establish sleeper cells inside them.”