New military merger increases factionalism and puts a foothold for HTS in Aleppo

Commander of the Shamiya Front, Azzam Gharib (Abu al-Ezz Saraqib) (R), Commander of the Mutassim Division, Mutassim Abbas (C), and Commander of the Shahba Gathering, Hussein Assaf (Abu Tawfiq) (L) - November 5, 2023 (Unified Force)

Commander of the Shamiya Front, Azzam Gharib (Abu al-Ezz Saraqib) (R), Commander of the Mutassim Division, Mutassim Abbas (C), and Commander of the Shahba Gathering, Hussein Assaf (Abu Tawfiq) (L) - November 5, 2023 (Unified Force)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Three military factions in northern Syria announced the creation of a new formation under the name of Unified Force within the ranks of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), one of which is the Shahba Gathering, which is accused of affiliation with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib region.

The formation included the Mutassim Division, the Shamiya Front, and the Shahba Gathering. The merging statement said that it came to support the revolutionary institutions and enhance their effectiveness, raise the military competence of their members, preserve civil peace, and prevent fighting.

The Unified Force is added to the list of alliances, factions, and chambers that fall under the SNA’s mantle and adds to the military names that the region is full of. It contradicts the National Army’s plan a year ago to activate the role of institutions, end the state of factionalism, unify the banners, and expel Tahrir al-Sham from the Aleppo countryside.

Three factions without commanders

The Shamiya Front was considered the nucleus of the Third Legion in the National Army. It was the largest of the three factions in the new formation and was led by Azzam Gharib (Known as Abu al-Ezz Saraqib).

The Shahba Gathering is a newly established military formation that appeared last February. It considered itself to be coordinating military and revolutionary forces. It is not affiliated with any party. It was formed from factions included within the Third Legion and is led by Hussein Assaf (Abu Tawfiq). Earlier, the National Army denied that the group was affiliated with it.

The Mutassim Division is part of the ranks of the SNA’s Second Legion and is led by Mutassim Abbas.

The statement announcing the formation of the Unified Force did not specify a general commander, as was usual in previous military formations, blocs, and chambers, while the formation said, through a separate statement, on November 10, that the Unified Force has a leadership council that will manage its internal affairs until it is completed.

The rest of the steps relate to the factions and formations that can join the United Force, ensuring their participation in establishing and building.

Alliances under the SNA

The National Army controls the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the towns of Ras al-Ain, northwest of al-Hasakah, and Tal Abyad, north of Raqqa city. The Syrian Interim Government is SNA’s political umbrella.

The SNA consists of three legions, and there is no fixed number of its members, as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) said that their number was 80,000 fighters in 2019, while a report by the Middle East Institute, in October, 2022 stated that the formation brings together 50,000 to 70,000 fighters.

The opposition’s army is witnessing mergers and splits of many military formations from it, and a state of factionalism prevails, forming under multiple names despite their affiliation to the SNA.

After their merger, these formations adopt flags bearing the new name of the military body, which they raise in their headquarters and at their checkpoints and vehicles, and then remove them in case of defection.

The state of factionalism among the components of the National Army is reflected in the many disputes and fighting, which each time create new alliances between each other or even with the HTS operating in Idlib, which is linked by a state of disagreement with the SNA.

“Organizational plan” falters in the face of reality

Abdurrahman Mustafa, head of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), made a number of promises on October 27, 2022, describing them as a “new government plan” after factional fighting took place in the Aleppo countryside.

Mustafa stated at the time that the time had come to realize what he described as “the aspirations of the people” and to move from a state of chaos to a state of reform at the military and civil levels by activating the “Interim Government” with all its institutions so that it would be a central authority and an actual reference for everyone.

The head of the Interim Government promised that the next stage would be the stage of activating the work of military and civilian institutions, according to a central plan that includes administrative reform, supporting all sectors, and providing better conditions, calling for the need for everyone to stand up to their responsibilities and commit to implementing government plans.

On January 25, the National Army announced the start of implementing the plan to hand over all security checkpoints to the Military Police administration in areas under its control.

The official spokesman for the Ministry of Defense in the Interim Government, Brig. Gen Ayman Sharara said 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.

Mustafa’s promises and the words of the official spokesman did not change the reality of the clashes in the region, and various areas of the Aleppo countryside witnessed, last September, clashes between the Shahba Gathering and factions of the Second Legion at the internal al-Hamran crossing.

Factional chaos

Enab Baladi contacted the SNA’s official spokesman, Brig. Gen Ayman Sharara, to find out the position of the National Army and his comment on the emergence of the new formation, the “Unified Force,” and its subordination to it, but it did not receive a response until the moment this report was published.

Military analyst Brig. Gen Abdullah al-Asaad considered that announcing the formation of a body within the National Army is a strange gesture and that this is not permissible from a military perspective because the National Army is an organizational structure, and this structure consists of a pyramid represented by a Ministry of Defense, a Chief of Staff, departments, legions, divisions, and brigades.

Al-Asaad told Enab Baladi that there should be no blocs within the National Army, describing the presence of new formations as “tweeting out of the flock.”

The Brig. Gen, who defected from the regime forces, stated that the presence of the Shahba Gathering, which is loyal to Tahrir al-Sham, reflects negatively on the National Army and that its presence is not praiseworthy and has undesirable consequences because it bears loyalty to the HTS, whose projects differ from the SNA, and a state of hostility, disagreement, and incompatibility prevails between them.

Wael Alwan, a fellow researcher at the Jusoor Studies Center, considered that the announcement of the formation of the “Unified Force,” outside the official leadership of the National Army, confirms the instability and organizational chaos that govern the opposition factions and expresses a factional state that rejects the hierarchy of the three legions and the Ministry of Defense affiliated with the Interim Government.

Alwan added via the social media platform X  that the new formation confirms that the factions’ alliances “are built on their security interests and economic resources.” It also indicates the end of the Third Legion and its disintegration and the presence of the influence of HTS and proves that SNA’s formations are no more than “ink on paper.”

The researcher ruled out the continuity of the new formation for a long period, suggesting that there will be other movements from the factions due to common interests and common challenges.

HTS and SNA

The HTS controls Idlib, the western countryside of Aleppo, the northern countryside of Latakia, and the northern countryside of Hama and is led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. The faction has intentions of controlling and expanding into areas under the SNA control.

Relations between the factions of the National Army have witnessed a state of incompatibility with Tahrir al-Sham since the regions of northern Syria were divided between them militarily and service-wise in 2017.

The state of hostility began in 2014 with a dispute between Tahrir al-Sham (then al-Nusra Front) and several other factions when Tahrir al-Sham worked to extend its influence over the region to be the only controlling and influential military body, and Idlib governorate witnessed many disputes between the HTS and other factions affiliated with the Syrian opposition and the former Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Convoys belonging to Tahrir al-Sham entered the Aleppo countryside twice during 2022 and clashed with factions in the SNA, and HTS used the excuse of “returning oppression and preventing bloodshed” in both attacks.

However, the HTS incursion resulted in clashes that left dozens dead and created a state of panic and terror among civilians.

 

 

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