Taking advantage of the quake, Tahrir al-Sham paves road towards northern Aleppo
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
The devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey and four Syrian governorates moved the agencies operating in northwestern Syria to respond to the repercussions of what has become called the “disaster of the century,” which resulted in 2,274 deaths and more than 12,400 injuries in northern Syria.
The local humanitarian response was not devoid of internal political messages, especially with the presence of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that militarily controls the Idlib governorate and parts of the Aleppo countryside, and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) that controls the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in northeast Syria.
HTS general commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s repeated appearances a day after the earthquake that occurred on February 6 carried messages with them.
Al-Jolani’s eyes were directed towards the rural areas of Aleppo that are not under his faction’s control, showing in them his “good management,” reinforced by previous intentions and a desire to expand influence.
Eyes on Jindires
The appearance of al-Jolani in the town of Jindires in the northern countryside of Aleppo was remarkable, as the town is not under his control, and he visited it during the sporadic tours he made to the earthquake-damaged areas in Idlib countryside between 7 and 10 February.
Military correspondents and digital accounts affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham circulated a video recording in which al-Jolani and the military leader of the Tahrir al-Sham, Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri (al-Harari), known as Abu Maria al-Qahtani, appear near the ruins of buildings destroyed by the earthquake in Jindires.
Mahmoud Haffar, head of the local council of Jindires, told Enab Baladi that the town belongs administratively to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and that the visit of al-Jolani was only heard of through the media and does not prove anything.
Al-Jolani said during a press conference that the “emergency response” committee to the repercussions of the earthquake, which was formed by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) (the political umbrella for Tahrir al-Sham) in Idlib, sent more than 35 vehicles to Jindires within 12 hours due to the presence of buildings in which no rubble removal or response took place.
He added that Jindires did not have a house left except with vehicles or rescue teams in its vicinity during the conference published by the HTS-run Amjad Media website on February 9.
Presence at service level
With the passage of five days since the earthquake, the Assistant Minister of Economy and Resources in the Salvation Government, Ahmed Abdul Malik, said that the ministry worked to direct the bakeries in the northern region, and the Atmeh region in particular, to operate at full production capacity and not to stop, even on the day off, to meet the needs of Jindires residents and the surrounding areas.
Abdul Malik added that the directive came due to the fact that Jindires was greatly affected by the earthquake, which led to widespread destruction of the infrastructure, and the majority of bakeries stopped working as a result of being out of service, according to what was reported by the Anbaa al-Sham agency affiliated to the Salvation Government.
The HTS news accounts published pictures of excavation and demolition equipment, saying that the General Security Service operating in Idlib is preparing them to be sent to Jindires to help rescue teams and other vehicles loaded with aid to be provided to the people affected by the earthquake in the town.
Under the supervision of the Emergency Response Committee, vehicles belonging to the E-Clean (Clean Environment) company operating in the Idlib region entered Jindires and worked on cleaning some roads and collecting waste.
A member of the Emergency Response Committee said, via a video recording, that the company opened most of the main and secondary roads, cleaned the main street, and rehabilitated it initially.
He added that this was based on an official request submitted by the residents to the committee to remove some buildings that were about to fall and that could pose a danger.
The company operates according to an agreement with the Ministry of Local Administration of the Salvation Government, according to a previous interview by the director of the company’s public relations office, Mohammad Salem, with Enab Baladi.
The Salvation Government’s Local Administration and Services Ministry stated that it had sent a specialized technical committee to conduct a technical inspection of the Maydanki dam in the countryside of Afrin, north of Aleppo, after the earthquake, to ensure its safety, although the Afrin Local Council had sent a committee to inspect it a few days earlier.
The exchange of accusations between HTS and its news accounts, and the Syrian National Army (SNA) appears with every event, crime, violation, or even a state of unification, merger, or split in the region, or even in the earthquake disaster, with both parties striving to prove that it is better in terms of service and administration.
On February 10, al-Jolani, during his announcement of the end of the first phase of the earthquake response, stated that the right building of institutions is what qualifies for the ability to face challenges.
He said that “the modest structure that was established in the liberated areas resulted in great efforts and produced crisis management at the level of a disaster of a large scale,” adding that “the crisis was managed properly without institutional chaos, despite the lack of capabilities.”
One of the HTS military correspondents published a video recording of empty tents and stated that one of the organizations erected them, photographed them, and left them empty without mattresses in the city of al-Bab in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, saying, “When there is no government running the area, this is the result.”
The Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies stated that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham can be added to the international bodies and the regime in the context of the politicization of the disaster.
Al-Jolani is trying to present himself to the world through his many appearances in the affected areas in which his “government” carried out rescue operations, as a man of responsibility, according to the research center.
The state of incompatibility, coordination, and harmony in the relations between the SNA and HTS factions is not new.
It started when the region was divided militarily and for services in 2017 and was preceded by many disputes since 2014 when clashes took place between Tahrir al-Sham (The al-Nusra Front at the time) and several other factions.
These differences were followed by several tensions between the Tahrir al-Sham faction and fighting factions in the north, which had their weight and impact on the battles against the Syrian regime and its allies, most notably the Ahrar al-Sham Movement.
Any appearance of al-Jolani is accompanied by talk about the “revolution” and the “gains” achieved by Tahrir Al-Sham by establishing a civilian environment alongside a military force, and Tahrir al-Sham is ready for battle, but when the time comes.
On January 2, and in statements he made during his meeting with the notables of the displaced in the city of Idlib, al-Jolani indicated that the internal construction is what gives “prestige” abroad, in addition to the revolution using its tools in the best way possible.
Al-Jolani stated that the Political Affairs Department of the Salvation Government, the political umbrella of Tahrir al-Sham, invests what it has in a good way and has not reached the status of announcing it as a foreign ministry.
At the time, the HTS leader described the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition) as “a body that is unable to represent the Syrian revolution in its current form and face its current challenges” and that it is not a legitimate representative of all of Syria.
He said that most of the members of the (National) Coalition are affiliated with many external parties and have nothing inside at the same time, pointing out that the political force relies on its power inside and does not depend on the formation of some people to issue statements.
He stated that when external parties want to establish relations, they establish relations with those who have “heavy feet, who, if he says yes or no, then his word is valid.”
“The world does not buy anything in the air, and feelings do not drive decisions in politics. There are interests that intersect,” he added.
HTS’ desire to control the area became clear after it expelled factions and its forces stormed the countryside of Aleppo on previous occasions and expanded its areas of influence.
This desire was reinforced by a talk by the HTS commanders and Shariah men about the necessity of uniting “the factions and efforts and rejecting division.”
With each security incident, pro-HTS accounts renewed the publication of what they called an audio leak of al-Jolani, in which he talked about the state of “chaos and security, social and political risks” in which the areas of the Syrian National Army (SNA) are flooded, and his meeting with several leaders and factions in areas controlled by the SNA and its calls for unifying ranks.
The HTS Commander-in-Chief expressed his willingness to unite the ranks, achieve full integration, end the state of factionalism, and generalize the model of Tahrir al-Sham control over Idlib in the areas controlled by the National Army, according to the leak.
On October 11, 2022, Tahrir al-Sham mobilized its military convoys near the Deir Ballut and al-Ghazawiya crossings, separating it from the National Army, to enter with these forces in support of the Hamza Division (al-Hamzat), which is supported by the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amshat) against the Third Corps.
In June 2022, military convoys affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham headed towards Aleppo countryside, following clashes between the Ahrar al-Sham-Eastern Sector faction (Division 32) and the Third Corps, as the Third Corps is affiliated to the SNA while the Eastern Sector is linked to Tahrir al-Sham.
Tahrir al-Sham entered from the internal al-Ghazawiya crossing towards the Afrin region, north of Aleppo, to the village of al-Basuta, with more than 400 vehicles, and from the Deir Ballut crossing, with more than 350 vehicles.
In both attacks, Tahrir al-Sham invoked the reasons for “responding to oppression and stopping the bloodshed,” but it caused clashes that resulted in the death of dozens of civilians and created a state of panic and terror.
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