Tahrir al-Sham tests Turkey over a strategic crossing; Ankara halts HTS greed

A fighter from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (R) and a fighter in the Syrian National Army (L) (Edited by Enab Baladi)

A fighter from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (R) and a fighter in the Syrian National Army (L) (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Turkish forces backed by the Syrian National Army (SNA) have halted the incursion of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) towards the Aleppo countryside.

Ankara blocked the HTS advance towards the strategic al-Hamran crossing between the areas under the control of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Jarablus region, northeast of Aleppo.

The HTS, which controls vast swathes of Idlib and parts of Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama countryside, was under two covers. The first was fighters who arrived in the Aleppo countryside a few days ago to open fronts against the SDF to lessen the military operation against the tribesmen of eastern Deir Ezzor region, and the second was to reach factions loyal to the HTS in the area.

These moves are not surprising since the HTS has previous intentions and a desire to reach the Aleppo countryside, expand the areas under its control, and gain access to internal crossings that generate millions of dollars.

The SNA factions control the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, Ras al-Ain, and Tal Abyad.

The Syrian Opposition’s Coalition (SOC) said the number of SNA fighters was 80,000 in 2019, while a report by the Middle East Institute stated that the formation includes 50,000 to 70,000 fighters.

The disharmony, rivalry, and hostility prevail between the formerly al-Nusra Front (currently HTS) and the Turkish-backed SNA, which owns 57 military points in the countryside of Aleppo and has wide influence in the region.

In this report, Enab Baladi reviews the reasons behind Tahrir al-Sham’s entry into the Aleppo countryside, the importance of the disputed al-Hamran crossing, the possibility of Turkey allowing the HTS convoys to enter the Aleppo countryside and control the crossing, and the possibility of a military clash between the two powerful armed groups.

Military alert met with flight

On September 13 and 14, the HTS mobilized military convoys to enter the Aleppo countryside through the al-Gazawiya-Darat Azza crossing near Afrin, separating the areas under its control and the areas under the SNA control. This was met with a military alert from the Turkish forces and the SNA with a Turkish drone flying in the northern airspace.

On the evening of September 14, Turkish forces set up a military checkpoint on the road to the town of Kafr Jannah. It is locally called “the quadrilateral junction.” It connects Afrin, Azaz, the villages of Kafr Jannah, and the Kuwait al-Rahma camp. It consisted of more than 15 members, with cars carrying 14.5-caliber machine guns.

A military source and another media source in the SNA (who were not authorized to make a statement) told Enab Baladi that the Interim Government’s Ministry of Defense (the SNA umbrella) asked the factions to raise their readiness and mobilize their forces to prevent the HTS advance.

The SNA raised military barriers on the Azaz-Kafr Jannah road in preparation for repelling Tahrir al-Sham’s attempt to advance into the region.

After the HTS convoys arrived on the outskirts of Afrin, they did not continue their route and remained in a camp belonging to Ahrar al-Sham-Eastern Sector (HTS affiliate) in the village of Trinda while the military alert taking place in the Aleppo countryside continued.

Military observatories reported that a Turkish drone was active in the sky of the region during the HTS movements. 

Observatory 80, which specializes in monitoring military movements in the region, said that a Turkish helicopter conducted a rotation in the airspace of the northern countryside of Idlib on the morning of September 14.

What is the problem with the crossing?

The HTS wants to enter the Aleppo countryside in order to control the al-Hamran crossing, which is a major financial resource and generates millions of dollars in revenue, as convoys of fuel trucks enter northern Syria through it.

The al-Hamran crossing was controlled by the Ahrar Al-Sham-Eastern Sector, and this faction witnessed a division among its ranks, with one section affiliated with the HTS and another, larger, affiliated with the SNA.

A few days ago, the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham-Eastern Sector dismissed some of its affiliated brigades, known for their loyalty to Tahrir al-Sham, to place the al-Hamran crossing completely under the SNA control, which irritated Tahrir al-Sham, so it mobilized in an effort to control the crossing.

The al-Hamran crossing is currently controlled by the large bloc led by Mohammad Rami (known as Abu Haidar Maskanah), a leader within the ranks of the SNA’s Second Legion.

Disagreement within the “Eastern Sector”

Enab Baladi contacted the SNA official spokesman, Brig. Gen Ayman Sharara, to obtain clarifications regarding the dispute over the al-Hamran crossing and the HTS attempt to enter the Aleppo countryside, but it did not receive a response until this report was published.

An informed source from within the al-Hamran crossing (who spoke on condition of anonymity) told Enab Baladi that the basis of the problem is a dispute within the Eastern-Sector that manages the work of the crossing, and it could be called a coup against the legitimate leadership represented by Abu Haidar Maskanah.

The “coup” was led by the Administrative Deputy in the Eastern-Sector, Hussein al-Taleb, known as “Abu al-Dahdah Manbij,” and the military commander Zakaria al-Sharida, known as “Abu Omar al-Homsi.”

The source stated that the coup failed, and Abu Haidar Maskanah is still the commander of the Eastern-Sector, pointing out that the issue was planned in advance but took time.

He added that the formation that remained with Abu al-Dahdah and Abu Omar al-Homsi was the al-Bab Brigade led by Malik Abu al-Farouq.

As for the battalions that remained under the command of Abu Haidar Maskanah, they are the Jarablus region with its battalions and brigades, the al-Bab/al-Sunouf battalions, the signals brigade, the Inghimasis battalion (well-trained fighters infiltrate enemy positions), the Battalions-2, and the Shariah Office, and the Media Office.

On September 15, a decision was issued by Abu Haidar Maskanah, a copy of which Enab Baladi obtained, stipulating the appointment of Hassan Marei al-Mohammad as military commander of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement-Eastern Sector.

A group of the Third Legion, the key unit in the Turkish-backed SNA, gathers at the western entrance of Azaz city after its withdrawal from Afrin in the Aleppo countryside - October 13, 2022 (Enab Baladi)

A group of the Third Legion, the key unit in the Turkish-backed SNA, gathers at the western entrance of Azaz city after its withdrawal from Afrin in the Aleppo countryside – October 13, 2022 (Enab Baladi)

The region’s artery

The al-Hamran crossing gains its importance as it is the commercial lifeline between the SDF-controlled areas and the opposition-controlled areas, and food, electrical, machinery, and other supplies enter through it.

The crossing is a main line for the passage of oil convoys coming from northeastern Syria towards opposition-controlled areas.

The crossing connects the village of al-Hamran, which is under the SNA control, and the village of Umm Jaloud, the first village in the Kurdish areas under the SDF control.

A satellite image, taken in 2023, shows a gathering of dozens of trucks parked north of the al-Hamran crossing, which generates high financial revenues, which analysts considered a point of conflict and disagreement between the factions.

The Interim Government’s Defense Ministry announced on March 7 that it had taken over the management and operation of the al-Hamran crossing after five months of disputes over it through a committee that included both the Assistant Minister of Defense for Financial Affairs and the director of the military police department and deputy director of the military police department for crossings and checkpoints affairs.

The agreement did not eliminate Tahrir al-Sham’s receipt of revenues, especially with its arms at the crossing.

No party announces the size or estimate of the revenues generated by al-Hamran, but the former leader of Tahrir al-Sham and its defector, Saleh al-Hamwi, whose account is known as “The Exponent of the Conflict in the Levant,” stated that HTS was receiving $100,000 daily from al-Hamran. The one who collects it is Abu Osama Manbij (his loyalty is to Abu al-Dahdah and Abu Omar al-Homsi).

Nader al-Khalil, Fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the HTS is trying to exploit any pretext to enter the region and control the crossing, given the great importance that al-Hamran crossing enjoys, as well as to put everyone under a new reality, with its control of the crossing.

This way, the HTS will dispense with the refining of inferior types of oil, thus control all gasoline imports in northwestern Syria, and achieve significant material gains.

Al-Khalil added that the “failed” coup attempt inside the Eastern Sector and the control of Abu Haidar Maskanah over the management of the crossing means that Tahrir al-Sham lost the crossing, which was under the control of its ally, which is sufficient reason for it to move militarily.

Dozens of trucks stop north of the al-Hamran crossing in the Aleppo countryside - 2023 (Twitter-X/Aron Lund)

Dozens of trucks stop north of the al-Hamran crossing in the Aleppo countryside – 2023 (Twitter-X/Aron Lund)

Under the cover of clans and loyal arms

During the first week of September, reinforcements arrived from Idlib to the fronts of the Manbij countryside, east of Aleppo, to support tribesmen in Deir Ezzor, where armed confrontations were taking place between them against the SDF.

Informed sources (fighters and residents) told Enab Baladi that some members are affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham due to their tribal background.

Enab Baladi confirmed the presence of members affiliated with the HTS in their uniforms, bandages, and vehicles with medium weapons and “inghimasi” fighters near the battle fronts in Manbij.

In the Aleppo countryside, there are brigades and groups that are loyal to Tahrir al-Sham, the most prominent of which is al-Shahba Gathering, which was formed last February and includes Ahrar al-Sham Movement-Eastern Sector and Ahrar al-Tawhid-Division 50.

A military source in the al-Shahba Gathering (who was not authorized to make a statement) denied in a previous interview with Enab Baladi that the Gathering was affiliated with any party and said that it was coordinating military forces against the “enemies of the revolution,” the regime, the Islamic State group, and the separatist parties, as he said.

Following the formation of the al-Shahba Gathering, the SNA said the Gathering is not operating within its ranks.

Turkey and HTS: A coordination marred by disagreements

The HTS controls Idlib, the western countryside of Aleppo, the northern countryside of Latakia, and the southern countryside of Hama, without tangible or declared clashes with Turkey, with Turkish military points distributed in areas under Tahrir al-Sham’s control, numbering 54 sites.

There is an indirect coordination path between the two parties, which is not devoid of disagreements and some thorny issues, including Turkish sanctions on figures in the Tahrir al-Sham and statements by HTS leaders that are not compatible with Ankara’s point of view.

Last January, the Commander of Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, said that the Turks had entered into a path of rapprochement with the Syrian regime and had not reached the point of reconciliation. This is a dangerous negotiating path for the “revolution,” and that part of Turkey’s strategy is not related to the goals of the “revolution.”

Al-Jolani considered that Turkey is still an ally of the revolution to this time, and the path it has entered is “wrong” and contains contradictions within it.

On May 2, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in a joint action with authorities in Turkey, designated two financial facilitators of HTS and Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ), both of which are sanctioned by the US and the UN.

The sanctions targeted the HTS senior commander Omar al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmed Zakour), better known in the region as Jihad Issa al-Sheikh.

Abu Ahmed Zakour expressed his disappointment with the “allied” state, referring to Turkey, and considered that Turkey’s description of him supporting the IS group was strange, adding, “They know that I am the first to stand up to the organization’s project, fighting it with pen and tongue.”

On January 25, an unknown drone targeted Saddam al-Mousa (Abu Uday), senior commander in the Eastern Sector, in front of his house in the village of al-Hadath in al-Bab city in the eastern countryside of Aleppo.

Local activists said the targeting of al-Mousa was due to a dispute over the al-Hamran crossing, especially since the slain leader facilitated the HTS advance towards northern Aleppo in October 2022.

In his turn, Abu Ahmed Zakour accused Turkey of killing Abu Uday and said at the time that adopting what he described as “the approach of treachery and assassination” by some parties in the Turkish intelligence service is dangerous and a bad omen for the entire region.

HTS’ eyes on Aleppo countryside

Between 7 and 10 of February, al-Jolani appeared in the town of Jendires in the northern countryside of Aleppo to inspect it after the earthquake that struck the region, even though it is not located within the areas under the control of the HTS.

The head of the local council in Jendires, Mahmoud Haffar, told Enab Baladi at the time that the town was categorically affiliated administratively with the Syrian Interim Government and that al-Jolani’s visit had only been heard about through the media and did not prove anything.

On October 11, 2022, the HTS mobilized its military convoys near the Deir Ballout and Ghazawiyah crossings, separating it from the National Army, to enter with these forces in support of the Hamza Division (Al-Hamzat Division) and Sultan Suleiman Shah brigade (Al-Amshat) against the Third Legion.

Local and international bodies denounced the HTS intervention in the areas of Aleppo, including the American Embassy in Syria, which said it was concerned about the incursion of Tahrir al-Sham into areas north of Aleppo and demanded the immediate withdrawal of its forces from the region, and stated that it is still a “terrorist” organization.

The fighting stopped at that time with indirect Turkish intervention by sending military reinforcements to the Hayat Thaeroun Lil Tahrir (Revolutionaries for Liberation) faction.

A state of calm prevailed in the region, and Tahrir al-Sham gradually withdrew while maintaining some of its arms.

In June 2022, military convoys affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham headed towards the areas of the Aleppo countryside, following clashes between the Ahrar al-Sham faction-Eastern Sector (32nd Division) and the SNA-unit Third Legion while the Eastern Sector faction is known for its loyalty to Tahrir al-Sham.

The HTS entered from the Ghazawiya crossing towards the Afrin region, north of Aleppo, to the village of al-Basouta, with a number of more than 400 vehicles, and from the Deir Ballout crossing with more than 350 vehicles.

In both attacks, the HTS claimed the reasons for “returning aggression and bloodshed,” but it caused clashes that resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians and created a state of panic and terror.

What is the clash probability?

Despite the repeated HTS incursions into the opposition-held areas in Aleppo countryside, the previous times did not witness a clash or direct confrontation with Turkey, especially after the HTS entry into the Aleppo countryside in October 2022, when its convoys reached Kafr Jannah village, west of Azaz.

Orwa Ajjoub, Syrian analyst, wrote for the Middle East Institute that Turkey had an interest in achieving stability in northern Syria to ward off the potential influx of Syrian refugees into its territory and return those in Turkey, but its desire was often hindered by the continuing deterioration of the security situation.

Ajjoub said that Ankara’s efforts to resolve conflicts permanently and draw clear lines between the SNA factions rarely succeed, suggesting that Turkey was “disciplining” the groups that dared to challenge Ankara’s authority in the Syrian north.

Political writer and analyst Hassan al-Naifi told Enab Baladi that Turkey believes that HTS is included on the global “terrorism” lists, and allowing it to penetrate into the areas of the Aleppo countryside that are under Turkish influence will make Ankara a sponsor of a “terrorist” organization before the international community.

Turkey, on the other hand, wants to keep Tahrir al-Sham under its control to bargain with the Russians, as well as use it as a tool to threaten factions that could rebel against Ankara.

Al-Naifi recalled Tahrir al-Sham’s advance towards the northern countryside of Aleppo in October 2022, when the HTS forces reached Afrin and almost took control of Azaz had it not been for the intervention of the Turkish government, which ordered Tahrir al-Sham to leave and return to its positions, according to al-Naifi.

The analyst believes that what the HTS wants from its advance towards the northern countryside is to control the crossings, especially the al-Hamran crossing, the gateway for oil to enter the region.

Al-Jolani is aware of Ankara’s opposition to his progress, but he is always trying to seize opportunities so that he may be able to impose a fait accompli, and it is unlikely that a military clash will occur for al-Jolani, whether with the National Army or Turkey because he does not want to lose the Turkish umbrella, without which he would become the subject of open targeting.

Hassan al-Naifi – Political writer and analyst

Al-Khalil, of Omran’s think tank, considered that Turkey does not allow Tahrir al-Sham to enter areas such as Afrin or Azaz, and in a previous experience, it forced it to retreat, and it is likely that this will happen now.

The scholar believes that the possibility of a clash remains present, given the specificity of the region that is not governed by a single authority and the presence of many armed parties and other many reasons, and the opinions of security affairs specialists indicate that “currently” we are witnessing a change in the system of control over the land.

It is natural for the active parties to seek to display power and attempt to control, and many believe that the HTS has the greatest opportunity because it has organization, strength, and unified leadership and moves according to priorities that guarantee its continuity, and it works in a way that ensures the continued existence of its structure for future stages of the conflict in Syria, according to al-Khalil.

Al-Khalil said that the field events, including the SNA alert, the setting up of barriers by the Turkish army, and the halt of the Tahrir al-Sham, indicate that Turkey does not want Tahrir al-Sham to control the crossing and will not allow it and that the Tahrir al-Sham will most likely not be able to restore the crossing in the short term.

Al-Khalil suggested that the HTS would resort to its usual policies by working to create divisions within the SNA factions, as before, in the hope of regaining the crossing.

Turkey will not allow the existing reality to be changed if it does not suit its interests, and therefore, it will not allow the HTS to control this region. If we assume that Tahrir al-Sham removes the Eastern-Sector faction from the region and controls the crossing in one way or another, we will not witness a Turkish war on HTS if the matter is related to a Turkish decision, but the changes taking place in the region open the way to many possibilities.

Nader al-Khalil – Research Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies

A plan to control the crossings

On January 25, the SNA announced the start of implementing the plan to hand over all security checkpoints to the Military Police administration in the areas under its control in the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria.

The official spokesman for the Ministry of Defense in the Interim Government, Brig. Gen Ayman Sharara said via a video statement that the purpose of handing over the checkpoints is for them to be affiliated with one administration, which ensures ease of communication between them and contributes to maintaining security.

Sharara added that the plan came to better organize the work of these checkpoints by subjecting them to one central administration and under the supervision of the deputy director of the military police department for checkpoints and crossing services.

These checkpoints will be staffed with qualified and trained security and military personnel, and work is being done to reduce their numbers during the coming period, according to the official spokesman.

 

 

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