Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Ahmad Jamal | Taim al-Haj | Ali Darwish
The term “safest areas” in Syria refers to the places where the risk of death for the inhabitants decreases and the chances of survival and the progress of service sectors become greater. This term has been used during the past two years in Syria for the areas near the Syrian-Turkish border line and the cities of Hasakah Governorate.
However, the “safest areas” are not necessarily safe, which is confirmed by news coming from the areas of north Aleppo, and the cities of northeastern Syria, where the military operations do not pose a threat to civilians, and the danger rather comes from booby traps, often hidden in vehicles, killing the civilians.
Enab Baladi managed to monitor twenty bombings, which killed more than 60 people and injured dozens of others, in areas controlled by the Syrian National Army, in the countryside of Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasakah, and by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in the cities of Hasakah, Qamishli and some of the areas in Hasakah countryside.
The frequency of these explosions has increased since the start of the Turkish military operation (Operation Peace Spring) in the east of the Euphrates since the beginning of October, which pushed civilians in northern Aleppo, and cities in northeastern Syria, to rearrange their lives in anticipation of bombings that may reoccur in similar ways by “unknown” people.
This investigation sheds the light on the increasing number of bombings in northern Syria, especially in the northern countryside of Aleppo and the countrysides of Raqqa and Hasakah, by monitoring these bombings and communicating with local officials so as to find out the adopted procedures in an attempt to reach the expected perpetrators.
Confusing security reality…
Civilians in Aleppo and Hasakah countrysides are potential victims of booby traps
Omar Abdullah says goodbye every Saturday to his family, heading to the city of al-Bab, adjacent to the city of A’zaz, where he lives, as he works in the field of video designing and is completing his studies at the University of Gaziantep. Omar remains safe with his frequent relocation, but his concerns arise every week over his family.
Omar Abdullah, who had been displaced from the city of Duma in Ghouta, Damascus, in April 2018, has never thought that he will feel anxious and afraid again, after he thought that he got rid of these feelings as he left Duma, which was being bombed by the Syrian regime and the Russian forces.
The scene was supposed to be different in the city of A’zaz, which is controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, and which has often witnessed intermittent artillery shell bombings by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), while the booby traps pose a major threat to the city.
Horror is back
Omar has been the breadwinner for his mother and siblings after his father and older brother were killed in a bombing that targeted the city of Duma in 2015, while he is still worried about the rest of his family, he stressed to Enab Baladi. He always advises his siblings and mother not to go out into crowded markets and crowded streets, because he knows for sure that these places have become a direct target of the bombings.
Perhaps what happened on November 16 in the city has increased his concerns, when a car bomb exploded in front of the garage door in the city, killing 14 civilians, injuring dozens, and destroying the detention center and police station.
Omar Abdullah talks to Enab Baladi comparing what he is now experiencing with the state of terror that he had experienced in Duma, where car bombs and improvised explosive devices that kill civilians have become frequent in the areas north of Aleppo.
Fears increase in those areas as they contain a large number of IDPs, with the northwest region containing two million IDPs, 630,000 of whom live in camps, out of four million residents in the region, and 2.7 million people need humanitarian assistance, according to estimates of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The regions of northeastern Syria, which are subject to similar bombings, also include IDPs from various Syrian regions, whose displacement movement has increased following the Turkish military operation, according to a statement by the Autonomous Administration in October, in which it said that they amounted to more than 191,000 IDPs.
Kawthar Ali has been displaced from Deir ez-Zor in the city of Qamishli in Hasakah countryside, for several years. Despite feeling relatively safe, she does not hide taking steps with her family to limit going to the places she expects to be targeted based on experience acquired from repeated incidents, such as checkpoints established by “security forces” of the Autonomous Administration, which are often targeted with car bombs and trapped motorcycles.
Kawthar stressed to Enab Baladi that, since about two months, she has been deprived of visiting and shopping in a vital street called “Munir Habib” or “street of restaurants” in the city of Qamishli. This is because this street was exposed to a car bomb explosion, on October 11, causing a number of civilian casualties.
This explosion made Kawthar avoid the street of “Munir Habib” for the current period. She therefore resorted to ordering food from restaurants in that street instead of going there, for fear of the explosions, as a safety measure that she believes is currently necessary.
In northern Aleppo, Omar Abdullah confirmed to Enab Baladi that most of the people are also taking measures aimed at reducing the chances of exposure to an explosion, such as avoiding any target expected to witness an explosion of a car bomb or an explosive device.
According to Omar, the residents of the area resorted to securing home supplies for a whole week, which reduces movements outside their houses. In addition, they do not take children to remote places, and they only make indoor visits to compensate for going to the public parks that have also become targeted.
Who is controlling security in the areas targeted by the bombings?
The phenomenon of widespread explosions, whether with improvised explosive devices or with booby traps in areas controlled by the Syrian National Army and the Autonomous Administration, is not considered new. Perhaps the security forces on both sides have become accustomed to monitoring or foiling some of these explosions. However, civilians consider that the security forces’ efforts are not sufficient, especially that the bombings have recently coincided with the ongoing military operations between the countryside of Raqqa and Hasakah, by the conflicting local powers with the support of international powers, such as Turkey and Russia.
Enab Baladi searched for answers put forward by a large number of civilians, in the areas controlled by the Syrian National Army and the Autonomous Administration about the role of security forces and their measures to limit the occurrence of these bombings.
Brigadier General Adeeb al-Shallaf, former commander of the Free Police in Aleppo, and Mahmoud Habib, member of the media office of the Northern Democratic Brigade in the governorate of Raqqa affiliated to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), agreed through statements to Enab Baladi that the security forces are not the only responsible party for controlling security, but all institutions must make efforts with civilians to reduce the occurrence of bombings.
Al-Shallaf and Habib indicated that some countries, which do not suffer from crises and wars, often cannot control the bombing operations, as they put it.
According to capabilities
Brigadier General Adeeb al-Shallaf believes that the security forces in north of Aleppo are doing what they can according to the capabilities available to them, pointing out that these forces are “newly formed and operating in a reality full of chaos, wars and crises.”
Nevertheless, al-Shallaf admitted that the security forces should raise the level of their work through continuous training and rehabilitation of their cadres in line with the security reality imposed on them, in addition to providing these forces with equipment for detecting explosives and with experts and specialists.
Al-Shallaf stressed on the necessity of controlling and surveilling the smuggling crossings, pursuing “the dens of terrorist group cells that use residential communities as a safe haven, as a result of the overpopulation of those areas, as well as reporting suspicious manifestations,” as he put it.
No radical solution
For his part, the member of the media office of the Northern Democratic Brigade, Mahmoud Habib, said that there is no radical solution to stop bombing operations targeting civilians in SDF-controlled areas.
Habib considers that these explosions are divided into two parts, the first part includes bombings by “the remnants of terrorist groups”, and the second includes “acts of sabotage by those involved to destabilize peace and security in the region,” as he put it.
On the measures taken by the security forces of the Autonomous Administration, Habib confirmed that they install surveillance cameras in the streets, install checkpoints for cars, and declare a curfew in times of monitoring risks, considering that these measures helped a lot in avoiding several bombings.
Habib threw the remainder of the mission on the civilians, calling on the people to help the security forces if they had information about cars or sticky explosive devices prepared for explosion.
Brigadier General Adeeb al-Shallaf pointed out that there were factors that helped the increase of the frequency of recent bombings in the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, including the Operation Peace Spring that Turkey and the Syrian National Army started on October 9, with the aim of eliminating the YPG from their borders.
Al-Shallaf considered that the state of war helps “terrorist groups and militias” in carrying out attempts to destabilize security and stability in the region “to depict it to the world as an insecure region.”
The “spread of smuggling crossings through which booby traps and detonation materials, including explosive materials and others, are entered,” also enhances the possibility of bombings.
Reciprocal accusations between the parties of the conflict
The Turkish government, which administratively and militarily supports the northern and eastern parts of Aleppo, and the Autonomous Administration, with its military and political sides, are exchanging accusations regarding the bombings targeting the northern and northeastern regions of Syria.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense directed several statements accusing the YPG (the backbone of the SDF) of being involved in the recent bombings in northeastern Syria, the most prominent of which was the bombing of Tell Abyad in the northern countryside of Raqqa, on November 2, which killed 14 civilians and injured more than 20 others, as well as widespread destruction of houses and shops.
The Syrian National Army had taken control of the towns of Tell Abyad and Ayn Issa in the northern countryside of Raqqa, following the recent military operation, after they were under the control of the SDF.
On the other side, the Autonomous Administration, with its political and military sides, directed several accusations against the Turkish side and its allies from the Syrian National Army, of being involved in the bombings in the areas they have recently controlled in the countrysides of Hasakah and Raqqa in eastern Syria, or even in Qamishli, which has recently become under the Syrian regime’s control.
In turn, head of SDF Press Office in northern Syria, Mustafa Bali, tweeted that the car bomb, which exploded in the city of Tell Abyad on that day, “is part of Turkey’s systematic plans to empty cities, force people to flee and bring about demographic change.”
In another tweet on November 23, Bali said: “After expelling the majority of the Kurds, and looting shops and houses in the Kurdish area of Tell Abyad, mercenaries supported by Turkey are now trying to displace the remaining Kurdish population from their homes through random explosions in civilian areas.”
On the other hand, ISIS claimed responsibility for some of the bombings that struck north-eastern Syria during the previous period, including the bombing in Qamishli, which took place on October 11.
The shelling was preceded by a car bombing, which targeted al-Arbawiyah neighborhood in Qamishli, which led to killing and injuring three members of the internal security forces of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) in the area. On the same day, the organization claimed responsibility for the attack.
Safety procedures followed in the areas of the bombings:
Security forces in north and north-eastern Syria took several measures to reduce the risk of explosions against civilians, such as deploying security barriers at the entrances and exits of cities, on public roads leading to residential neighborhoods, conducting patrols during the daylight, and collecting information about anyone with suspicious movements, in addition to surveying individuals, who enter or leave the cities and inspecting vehicles.
|The formation of the Asayish forces was announced in July 2013, and began its courses in 2012 by recruiting and training elements to handle and monitor anti-bomb operations, in addition to developing solutions to reduce the frequency of such operations. The structure and expertise of these forces are derived from the Asayish forces of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.|
The police forces of the Syrian National Army in northern Aleppo is responsible for controlling security in its areas, while the Asayish unit affiliated to the NES is in charge of the security apparatus in the areas controlled by the SDF.
The repeated bombings in the countryside of Aleppo prompted the Syrian National Army, last September, to replace police officials and make new appointments.
Various procedures and projects on hold
The NES prevented several times motorbike roaming in areas under its control, following the execution of terrorist attacks using motorbikes and the death of members of the Asayish forces, and civilian, especially with the widespread use of motorbikes in the region, which facilitates trapping and placing it in the required area.
The “Counter-Terrorism Units – Rapid Intervention Forces” (HTA) and “Core Protection Units” (HPC) are the main security pillar of the Asayish faction to combat the bombing operations, in addition to the explosive and mine-dismantling teams trained by Western organizations years ago, especially after the battles against ISIS.
|The National Army, which was formed in late October 2017 with a Turkish initiative and support, consists of the Free Syrian Army factions in the countryside of Aleppo and belongs to the Ministry of Defense in the Syrian Interim Government. As such, the National Army is composed of three legions, which in turn branch into brigades.
The military police elements are deployed in all areas of the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, and their tasks are focused on controlling security in the region, as well as to dismantling explosive traps, in the event of receiving reports.
As for the areas controlled by the National Army, the police forces implemented, last August, in cooperation with the local councils in the areas of al-Bab, Bzaah and Qabasin in Aleppo countryside, several projects to install surveillance cameras, offered by Turkey, while the local council is responsible for establishing and equipping the internal network. Thus, the project is expected to be completed in three months.
Enab Baladi tried to communicate with the police chief in Al-Bab city, Major Haitham al-Shihabi, to inquire about the security measures in place and the project of installing cameras. However, he apologized for answering.
The installation points for cameras, which will be fix and mobile, at each point, provided that the cameras are of technologically advanced brands in order to identify faces, vehicles and their owners through the license plate number. Thus, all checkpoints will be connected through a ground network linked to the monitoring and follow-up centre, according to a previous statement by the head of the local council, Jamal Othman, to Enab Baladi.
The local council in the city of Afrin in the northern countryside of Aleppo also prevented cars from entering the city without license plates, which must be registered in the transportation department of the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, in Azaz, Jarabulus and al-Bab. Following this procedure vehicles are entitled to enter and move freely in the city, as plates’ numbers are registered and monitored, which facilitates finding the vehicle’s owner in case of any problems.
The owners of cars bearing plates registered in Idlib will receive a temporary registration number, enabling them to enter the city, and upon the expiration of its validity the plate shall be handed to the checkpoint at the entrance to the city.
The role of civil defense forces
In the northern countryside of Aleppo, the Civil Defense forces distribute pamphlets to raise awareness regarding unexploded ordnance, mines, and improvised explosive devices, and car bombs, in case of suspicion of its presence or visibility, under the rule: “Do not come close … Do not touch… Then report to the civil defense forces.”
In the event of seeing or suspecting the presence of an explosive device in any place, or if it was placed in a car or a motorcycle, the Civil Defense places a signal around the suspected area or vehicle with a warning against approaching it, moving or leaving the location. The Civil Defense requests, in the event of finding an explosive object, from civilians not to touch or try to neutralize, and to take a minimum distance of 100 meters away from the suspicious object, until the competent teams arrive.
In its publications, the Civil Defense pointed out to signs, which might indicate the presence of explosive devices, such as ploughed land, abandoned wires without binding, abandoned buildings, animal carcasses, and scattered objects.
The two agencies responsible for security in north and north-eastern Syria have launched several security campaigns, in response to the risk of bombings and in an attempt to reduce the risks caused terrorist explosive attacks.
In the countryside of Aleppo, the National Army launched several security campaigns, the first of which took place on November 18, 2018, and was concentrated in the city of Afrin and its surrounding areas, while the second campaign was implemented on February 20, in Aleppo countryside.
The third security campaign, which was launched on August 26, targeted what the national army called “agents, traitors and corrupt groups”. Spokesman for the National Army, Youssef Hammoud, told Enab Baladi, at the time, that the third campaign was carried out in cooperation with the military police, which supervises all cities and towns in Aleppo countryside.
Asayish faction, affiliated to the NES, also launched security campaigns at a narrower level, in the city of Qamishli. One security campaign was carried out on August 1 in the Ghiran neighborhood, al-Hasakah, in response to the security crisis in the city, which witnessed, along with the city of Qamishli, 18 explosions during the month of July.
Bombings will not change military and political reality
The recurrent bombings in the regions of northern Syria will not alter the balance of power, military control, and the political map of these forces, according to the political researcher and professor of political philosophy at the University of Paris, Rami al-Khalifa, who believed that the bombings in areas of military conflict cannot be invested politically by the party responsible for the attacks.
Al-Khalifa justified his opinion, in an interview with Enab Baladi saying that the lines of contact between the regions controlled by the parties to the conflict have been agreed upon on an international level, i.e. beyond the interference of all the existing factions and all forces on the ground (referring to Turkish-Russian and Turkish-US understandings). He added that “the regime, the opposition, or the Kurdish forces will all comply with these understandings.”
In other words, these explosions come within the framework of “disturbing” the power balance of the warring parties, setting the following example: “If the Kurdish forces are behind the explosions in the areas controlled by the national army, it is in the interest of those forces to disturb the Turkish hegemony in the areas they are controlling in eastern and northern Syria.”
However, the bombings will ultimately not lead to any political change, as a result of the shifts in the lines of contact and the distribution of field control or political agreements in the controlled areas by the different parties, noted al-Khalifa.
The political researcher also indicated that all the parties may be involved in carrying out these bombings, especially with the presence of disputes between the factions affiliated with the Syrian opposition, in the north of Syria, against which previous accusations were made of plotting explosions or facilitating the passage of bomb traps to the targeted locations. Thus, analysing the reality on the ground depends on data and investigations in order to reveal the party responsible for the bombings,” he said.
Meanwhile, the prevailing expectations say that these explosions will continue to take place with the ongoing conflict between the warring parties in the region, and the overlapping interests of several actors, while awaiting radical political changes on the ground alike.
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