The “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” (Free Troops of the Eastern area) faction’s name is derived from eastern Syria, for its troops are specifically from the Deir ez-Zor governorate. The faction has been lately addressed as one of the military formations that are supposed to lead the battles in the east of the Euphrates against the (Kurdish) “People’s Protection Units,” advanced by Turkey as a futuristic step within its strategy, set up for the areas along its southern borders.
Since its formation in November 2016, the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” faction managed to establish itself in the northern countryside of Aleppo, adjacent to the Turkish borders, through the battles it undertook with a direct support from Turkey and the last of which was operation “Olive Branch” in Afrin. Thus, it became a basic military constituent of the “First Legion” of the “National Army.”
On November 7th, 2018, the flags of the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” were raised in the Turkish city of Urfa during demonstrations, in which Syrian people demanded the “liberation” of the city of Tell Abyad and the areas surrounding it from the grip of the “Units.”
This corresponded to the repeated appearance of the faction’s name on the news addressing east of the Euphrates, since its troops all come from the astern area and are informed of its geography.
Military sources told Enab Baladi that Turkey is seeking to involve the eastern area’s troops, functioning under the “National Army”, in the battle of Tell Abyad to achieve two goals; the first is that they are the people of the area they will be entering, while the second is that the troops are experienced and well-informed of the eastern area and its geography.
Though the Turkish preparations to enter the astern area have not so far been complete, the indicators to their continuity persist, including the readiness of the “National Army’s” factions to take part in any awaited military action, on top of which is the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” faction, which has in the past a few days celebrated the graduation of troops specialized as “special forces” and “infantry.”
From “Ahrar al-Sham” to the “National Army”
2016 witnessed the official declaration of the foundation of the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya Brigade,” which used to function under the “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya,” accompanying it since it started operating in Deir ez-Zor governorate to the time the latter left to Idlib governorate.
The majority of the faction’s troops are from Deir ez-Zor, in addition to personnel from the governorates of Raqqa and al-Hasakah, as well as the areas of Maskanah, Manbij and Dayr Hafir, eastern rural Aleppo.
In 2014, the “Brigade” took part in the military operations of Deir ez-Zor against the “Islamic State” (ISIS), basically at the Markada, administratively part of the Al-Shaddadah town, southern rural al-Hasakah, as it represented the “eastern area’s sector” in “Ahrar al-Sham” back then.
The Brigade’s activities were not limited to working with the “Ahrar al-Sham” as it conducted alliances with the “al-Nusra Front,” which dissolved into the “Tahrir al-sham,” during the battles against the “Islamic State.” However, the media office of the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” denies any former cooperation with “al-Nusra Front,” stressing that its operations were conducted only within “Ahrar al-Sham’s” ranks to the point where it moved to Idlib governorate following “ISIS’” control over wide areas in the eastern region.
After moving to Idlib, the Deir ez-Zor militants kept functioning under “Ahrar al-Sham” and participated in the battles against the Assad’s forces, prominently the battle in which Ariha, al-Mastumah and al-Hamidia camps were controlled, in addition to the Syrian coast’s confrontations.
These personnel remained in the ranks of the “Ahrar al-Sham” to 2016, after which they formed an independent military body, a few months before the operation “Euphrates Shield,” which Turkey launched and through which it took over the areas of the eastern and northern rural Aleppo.
At the start of the operation “Euphrates Shield,” the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” entered a new phase, imposed by Turkey and the support it began providing to the “Free Army” factions, which have all merged in the “National Army,” consisting of three legions.
“From the start to the end,” the faction was present in all the battles of the “Euphrates Shield,” and it is key participation appeared during the battle that aimed at controlling the city of al-Bab, during which it lost more than 500 troops during the confrontations with the “Islamic State,” as the faction’s Media Office has told Enab Baladi.
The faction’s Media Office Official, nicknamed “Alharith Rabah” told Enab Baladi that the number of the dead troops, lost during the “Euphrates Shield” battles has enhanced the faction’s positioning in northern rural Aleppo, as it became “more popular and confident,” pointing out that the loss was not limited to the battles of al-Bab, but it also took place in Mare’, al-Rai and Hawar Kilis.
A year and a few months passed since the operation “Euphrates Shield,” after which the military compass was directed at Afrin, with an operation titled “Olive Branch,” where the factions of the “National Army” played the spearhead on the ground while supported by Turkey.
The “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” was one of the participant factions; it handled the battles on the Rajo front, considered the “most difficult,” undertaking confrontations against the “Units.” It also participated in battles on other fronts, including Jindires and the areas in the northern countryside of Afrin.
Following the complete control over Afrin in March 2018 and during the return of the quasi-stability to the area, the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s” name started to dominate, among other factions that controlled the houses of the area’s original population.
The faction was also accused of controlling agricultural land, and in April 2018, activists posted images onto social media, showing the road leading to Afrin, opened with a sign saying, “Welcome to Deir ez-Zor,” the troops of “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” are said to have fixed it there.
The faction, nonetheless, has started to officially launch campaigns calling for convergence between the Arab and Kurdish original population of the area, including the one organized on May 16th , 2018, as it started a campaign called “We Are Family” to find a joint channel between civilians, militants and the local administration to come up with solutions for their problems whether relating to thefts, detainees or services. In November 2018, it also opened an Office for Complaints, designated for Afrin and the areas surrounding it.
“An Inseparable Relationship” with the Turks
The “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” faction enjoys the trust of the Turkish side, according to the official of the faction’s media office, who explained that this followed “its consistent presence during the military operations of both the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch,” in addition to its commitment to all the military movements in the northern and eastern rural parts of Aleppo.
The faction is lead by “Abu Hatim Shaqra,” originally from the town of Shaqra, western rural Deir ez-Zor, and it is militarily lead by “Abu Jaafer Shaqra” from Deir ez-zor as well, with the deputy leader “Abu Jaafar Jazra.”
In May 2018, “Hatim Abu Shaqra” was one of the leaders who met the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the presidential assembly in the capital Ankara.
Back then, he stated that the meeting was “very positive,” adding that Erdoğan hailed the “courage and the efforts of the Free Army during the Afrin liberation battles.”
“Erdoğan, upon approaching the Syrian military development, addressed us, the sons of the Syrian eastern governorates to assure us that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and its arms will be sent out of all the Syrian territories,” he added.
According to Abu Shaqra, the Turkish president promised to kick out the “terrorist organizations” and their affiliates from Manbij and Raqqa to Deir ez-Zor.
Camps of Two Thousand Troops
The number of the troops functioning under the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” goes beyond two thousand, administrative figures are not included. It has training camps in northern rural Aleppo and Afrin, especially in the town of al-Rai, considered the faction’s headquarters, in addition to the Rajo district and the city of al-Bab, eastern rural Aleppo.
According to the media official, “Alharith Rabah,” the faction, in the past a few days, witnessed the graduation of the troops specialized as “special forces” and “infantry,” in a preparatory step for the start of any military operation east of the Euphrates.
The official said that the faction has a “good” relationship with the rest of the “Free Army” factions in northern rural Aleppo, “despite the disputes that arise every now and then.”
The faction got involved in confrontations with the “Hamza Division” in Afrin, after it was totally controlled. Later, a deal was conducted, providing for ending the confrontations and the release of both parties’ detainees, as well as the handing over of the confiscated vehicles and weapons.
The “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” is not the only faction deriving its name from the eastern area, for there are other factions consisting of troops, originally from the eastern area, calling themselves “Al-Sharqiya Army” and the “The Lions of al-Sharqiya Army,” which functions on the Jindires front, south-western side of Afrin.