A counterforce facing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s influence in Aleppo

Elements of the Azm Operations Room carrying out a security campaign - 15 July 2021 (Sultan Murad Division)

Elements of the Azm Operations Room carrying out a security campaign - 15 July 2021 (Sultan Murad Division)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Waves of forced displacement of opposition fighters and civilians from different regions by the Syrian regime and its allies have caused the Syrian opposition forces’ influence to recede to the northwestern region.  

In 2017, opposition-held areas were divided on the military and service levels into two regions, Idlib, controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and Aleppo countryside, controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). 

Two internal crossings connect the two regions, the al-Ghazawiyah crossing that links Darat Izza city with the Afrin region in Aleppo’s western countryside and Deir Ballout crossing that bridges Idlib with Aleppo’s northern and western countryside. 

Enab Baladi obtained information from inside sources in HTS who said that front row commanders in HTS had held meetings in Aleppo countryside with other leaders from different military factions to promote rapprochement and coordination with HTS. 

Last July, HTS commander Jihad al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed Zakour) visited Azaz city in Aleppo countryside and met with leaders and dignitaries from the region, confirming the HTS’ sources’ information to Enab Baladi.

The last months’ efforts by HTS and its attempts to extend its influence to Aleppo countryside have raised questions about the fate of opposition-controlled areas, whether things will be heading to convergence between Idlib and Aleppo countryside’s military factions or would they be limited to consolidating the two established military and political projects in the northwestern region.   

A counter project in Aleppo countryside

In mid-July, the al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) and the Sultan Murad Division announced the formation of a new operations room called Azm (determination), and later they were joined by other military factions, all incorporated in the SNA.

Factions that joined Azm Operations Room were seeking further and higher levels of security and military coordination to crack down on networks and cells threatening society’s security.

The official social media accounts of the Levant Front and the Sultan Murad Division mentioned that a security campaign was carried out in Azaz city of northern Aleppo and Afrin region to capture drug dealers and wanted persons.  

The Sultan Murad Division’s shelling operations against regime forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were being published on the Division’s Twitter account under the name of the Azm Operations Room. Meanwhile, other SNA factions were still releasing statements under the name of the SNA and within its operations’ framework.

Spokesperson of the SNA’s 3rd Legion, Siraj al-Din al-Omar, told Enab Baladi that Azm Operations Room operates within the SNA’s general framework and is not a substitute for it. 

Al-Omar added that factions that joined the room are not likely to leave it any time soon; on the contrary, some factions that did not join the room are attempting to join it. 

The Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, al-Sharqiya Army, al-Hamza Division, and the brigades of Malek Shah, the Northern Hawks, and Suleiman Shah have joined the room following the announcement of its formation. 

On 6 August, the Chairman of the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), Sheikh Osama al-Rifai, visited Azaz city, delivered the Friday prayer sermon, and opened the first center affiliated to the SIC in northern Syria, which brought more attention to developments on the ground in Aleppo countryside.

A number of commanders from some of the most prominent factions, including the Levant Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, were photographed standing next to Sheikh al-Rifai, which was interpreted along with al-Rifai’s visit as a new project to establish a moderate Islamic current in Aleppo countryside in an attempt to balance or face the extension of HTS’ influence.  

Analysts’ opinions

Military analyst Colonel Ahmed Hamadi who is well-informed of the SNA’s affairs, said that the Azm project is not that far from the SNA, as the Azm Operations Room includes the Sultan Murad Division and other factions affiliated to the SNA.

Hamadi added that Azm’s activity had been linked so far to pursuing criminals and drug dealers and executing judgment notes; however, the room’s nature of work might change in the future to include special military tasks.   

Researcher Abbas Sharifa, who is also informed in northwestern Syria’s factions’ affairs, told Enab Baladi that the northwestern region is heading to produce two main forces, Idlib under the power of HTS and the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Aleppo countryside areas under the influence of the Azm Operations Room led by the Levant Front.

“The unification of factions under these two forces will greatly contribute to limiting factionalism-related chaos and achieve a more centralized leadership for the region,” Sharifa said.

The Levant Front’s military structure underwent many phases until it reached its current form. The Front includes the al-Tawhid Brigade and other factions, and its leaders are the same ones that used to lead the al-Tawhid Brigade. 

Currently, the Levant Front consists of the old formation of the al-Tawhid Brigade, the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, and other factions in Aleppo’s northern countryside.

Sharifa pointed out to Enab Baladi that the future of the two forces project is linked to several variables, including a ceasefire and establishment of calm and the cessation of Russian military offensives on the northwestern region.

Sharifa also talked about the SNA and said that its organizational structure is still underdeveloped and below the normal standards of any army, aside from the fact that the SNA is flawed by factionalism.  

He added that a more structured and coherent military project with guaranteed success and efficiency factors would bring the factions together to the next phase.   

When asked about the fate of non-Islamic factions, Sharifa said that “the notion of Islamic and non-Islamic factions has become history,” adding that today all factions are supporting the national project.

He also pointed out that all factions in the northwestern region are conservative, meaning that “a partnership between these similar-oriented factions is not an impossible reality, while the premise of ideological differences outburst is out of the question.”

HTS’ undeclared moves

News circulated on social networks that HTS offered proposals of coordination, unity, and collaboration with the Levant Front during the last three months, but the SNA’s 3rd Legion spokesperson al-Omar denied the news, describing them as mere rumors and said “HTS is not considering such proposals.”   

Telegram accounts opposed to HTS reported that members of the Sultan Suleiman Shah Brigade (al-Amshat) have moved to Armanaz village in northwestern Idlib and that HTS allowed them to set a headquarters there in return for HTS elements move to Afrin, the main headquarters of the al-Amshat. 

Enab Baladi emailed the communications director at HTS, Taqi al-Din Omar, about the extended influence of HTS elements in Aleppo countryside and their meetings with military leaders there. It also asked Omar about HTS coordination efforts with SNA and the future of relations between them.

Omar replied that the current and future phases require unity between all forces on the ground, whether military or civil, to face upcoming challenges, with the participation of the Syrian revolution’s elites and prominent figures.”    

Omar added that “all factions must join efforts and come together to face the invaders,” as the Syrian regime used help from Russia, Iran, and dozens of militias to suppress and fight the Syrian people.      

Omar added, “joining forces and preserving the revolution’s principles and bases is a revolutionary duty, and on that belief, the al-Fath al-Mubeen Operations Room was established, bringing together the largest operating factions. Without a doubt, we seek to support and develop this approach to meet the expectations of our people.”

Which of the two projects will gain acceptance?

Sharifa said that there are no advantages whatsoever placing one of the two projects ahead of the other, as both of them are immature. The two forces in Idlib and Aleppo countryside lack institutionalization, stability, and ability to control the security situation, but the one that will improve citizens’ living and security situations will have a successful project in hand. 

According to Sharifa, the relation between the two forces may come to one of these three possibilities; a confrontation and conflict over influence and resources, a collaboration for mutual interests, or a merger and unity under one governing body and administration.  

Would HTS be willing to compromise more on its ideology?

HTS militarily controls large parts of Idlib governorate and part of the western Aleppo countryside, along with the NLF and the Army of Izza (Jaysh al-Izza), within the framework of the al-Fath al-Mubeen Operations Room.

At the security and civilian levels, HTS controls the region through the General Security Service, which HTS denies having links with. In addition, HTS has a publicly affiliated security force, known locally as the “Security Force,” and a political body known as the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) that the HTS denies having control over. 

HTS spread its biggest influence and control over the region after battling with the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, and al-Sham Falcons during 2017 and 2018. It also promoted its influence after establishing the SSG that forced the exit of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) from regions under the control of HTS.

HTS has repeatedly accused other factions of having ties with western countries and subordination to international agreements regarding collaborations with Turkey. However, after the Moscow ceasefire deal, HTS abided by the terms of the agreement and Turkey’s orders, which was one of the most remarkable transformations in its ideology.

According to Sharifa, HTS is currently focusing on perpetuating its control. It does not care whether the project that guarantees this purpose is Islamic or non-Islamic, and the main obstacle to the faction remains its classification on the lists of “terrorism.”

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