The Armed Opposition in Northwest Syria Executive Summary

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The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020, opposition held territory shrunk progressively closer to the Turkish border and as erstwhile international. backers of the opposition turned away Turkey has re forged the Syrian opposition into a tool of its. domestic and international agenda This is not to say that Syria s armed opposition is merely a Turkish. tool the two have both common interests and amity but it is Turkish interests that will define the future. of Syria s armed opposition for the foreseeable future. The Turkish Backed Free Syrian Army,Operation Euphrates Shield. Current armed opposition group structures began to take shape in 2016 with Operation Euphrates Shield. OES OES represented the first direct Turkish military intervention in Syria and resulted in the formation. of a loose umbrella network of armed groups supported by Turkey for the duration of the offensive OES s. goals were defined by Turkish interests namely blocking the establishment of a land bridge between the. Kurdish dominated regions of Afrin and Menbij To accomplish this OES fought primarily against ISIS and. the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces SDF during the offensive but notably refrained from engaging. with Syrian government forces, Following the end of the offensive in March 2017 opposition armed groups supporting OES sat largely. idle in northern Aleppo governorate for a full year Physically separated from the ongoing fight between. the government of Syria armed forces and opposition armed groups in Hama and Idleb and barred from. engaging with Syrian government forces to their south opposition armed groups supporting OES began. fighting amongst each other as they sought to establish themselves in their new territory. Operation Olive Branch, The second major development in the establishment of today s armed opposition structures again came. in the form of a Turkish intervention that was once again aimed at Kurdish held territories Operation. Olive Branch OOB which captured the territory of Afrin was the first foray of the newly formed Syrian. National Army SNA The establishment of the Turkish supported SNA brought more structure to. northern Aleppo governorate armed opposition groups at least on paper but did not do away with. infighting In fact the end of OOB in late March early April 2018 brought a temporary increase in. opposition infighting in NW Syria,Page 2 of 10,The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020.
Figure 1 Recorded incidents of infighting between non HTS opposition groups in NW Syria Data from ACLED. The end of Operation Olive Branch also brought groups from the opposition s newly formed Syrian. National Army SNA into contact with opposition territory in Idleb for the first time The opening of a new. land corridor between northern Aleppo governorate and Idleb led to a sharp increase in fighting between. Hai yat Tahrir al Sham HTS and a newly formed union between Ahrar al Sham and Nour al Din al Zinki 1. Persistent HTS aggression combined with the steady influx of fighters expelled from government captured. areas in southern Syria soon led to the formation of another union of opposition armed groups in May. 2018 called the National Front for Liberation NLF and by late summer of 2018 most armed opposition. groups in Idleb had joined the NLF, The NLF like the SNA received support from Turkey which also led the process of vetting and integrating. fighters arriving from southern Syria in Turkish administered territories along the Turkish Syrian border. into the existing ranks of both the NLF and SNA This support combined with the large number of groups. and territorial control of approximately 50 of opposition held territory in Idelb led observers to believe. the NLF to be an effective counterweight to HTS When large scale fighting eventually broke out between. the NLF and HTS in early 2019 however the NLF lasted less than ten days against HTS before surrendering. to HTS and losing much of its territory influence and all control over civil administration in Idleb As has. been the case with nearly all armed group mergers over the course of the Syrian conflict despite the. mergers each member unit maintained a distinct area of operation and command structure and was. either unwilling or unable to assist others in the union when confronted by HTS. Operation Peace Spring, On October 4 2019 Syrian National Army commanders in Turkey announced that the remaining member. groups of the NLF had joined the ranks of the Syrian National Army an announcement that appeared to. See The Carter Center s weekly conflict summary for February 22 28 and March 15 21 2018. Page 3 of 10,The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020. take NLF commanders by surprise 2 When contacted by The Carter Center for comment an SNA. spokesperson clarified that as of the time of writing work is still ongoing to integrate the NLF into the. SNA The SNA has planned for the NLF to join and organize itself into legions 4 7 of the SNA but until such. a restructuring can be fully agreed upon and finalized NLF groups will maintain their current structure as. they work alongside the SNA Once again the Turkey backed merger was announced days before yet. another Turkish led offensive against Kurdish forces in north eastern Syria On October 9 2019 Turkey. began Operation Peace Spring OPS using member groups of the Syrian National Army and National. Liberation Front to advance against Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces SDF positions in NE. Syrian Government Advances, The last major factor in the shaping of current armed opposition formations has been successive advances. by the Syrian government and allied forces The Syrian government initiated two major advances in. northwestern Syria over the past year first in the summer of 2019 and again in late 2019 through early. March 2020 Each offensive brought with it a reduction in opposition infighting and a substantial increase. in Turkish support for opposition groups During the summer 2019 offensive Turkish support. reinvigorated the NLF following its earlier defeat at the hands of HTS New weapons and intelligence. support allowed the NLF to be a significant force in southern Idleb sharing frontlines with HTS and the. independent Jaish al Izza The NLF s total reliance on Turkey during this period became evident later in. the year when Turkey uprooted some of the NLF s units historically based in Idleb and re deployed them. to participate in OPS, The second Syrian government offensive on Idleb beginning in late 2019 was much more extensive With.
Turkish backed opposition armed forces spread thin because of deployment to OPS territory Turkey was. compelled to cooperate closely with HTS in Idleb in addition to its longtime partner the NLF Turkey also. sent significant numbers of its soldiers deep into Idleb to stabilize frontlines and prevent the influx of. refugees into Turkey Turkey s cooperation with HTS during the latest government of Syria offensive was. so close that western diplomats privately complained that any intelligence support to Turkey equated to. intelligence support to the formerly al Qaeda aligned HTS. Current Status of Syria s Turkey backed Armed Opposition. As a result of three direct interventions by Turkey in Syria the non HTS armed opposition in Syria has. come under almost complete Turkish control Since the beginning of OPS and the announcement of the. integration of the NLF into the SNA social media accounts for most armed opposition member groups. have gone silent Those that remain active are those that have played major roles in Turkish backed. operations and often re post announcements that are collectively shared between active member group. accounts Despite the relative silence from other member groups conflict events reported by local news. Soylu Ragip and Harun al Aswad Syrian Rebel Groups Merge as Turkish Offensive Looms Middle East Eye. October 4 2019 https www middleeasteye net,Page 4 of 10. The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020, media and activist networks reveal that many of the component groups of the SNA and NLF still exist as. distinct units and that infighting persists between some member groups. The following organizational chart details the structure of the Turkish backed armed opposition as it. stands in May 2020 The chart is based upon armed groups formation announcements postings from. member groups and conflict events reported by local networks Groups reported to have been involved. in conflict events in 2020 are highlighted in bold. Given the years long trend of increasing Turkish control over armed opposition structures and the current. state of the conflict in Syria it seems unlikely that armed group structures will evolve significantly in the. foreseeable future All indications are that unity within and between the SNA and NLF will increase That. said continued tension with HTS popular opposition to the joint Russian Turkish patrols in Idleb and. persistent infighting among armed opposition factions may lead to yet another realignment of armed. opposition forces In fact an opposition commander spoke to reporters on May 4 2020 about the. potential for a new Turkish backed formation in northern Syria in the near future 3. 40 Al Modon May 4 2020 https www almodon com,Page 5 of 10. The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020, Figure 2 Organizational chart of the Turkish backed Syrian armed opposition Groups highlighted in bold boxes are those that. have been reported as involved in conflict events in 2020 Please note given the lack of official structural diagrams or formation. announcements this list may not be exhaustive All efforts have been made to include significant sub units and to highlight those. known to be active,Page 6 of 10,The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020.
Current Status of Hai yat Tahrir al Sham, Hai yat Tahrir al Sham HTS is the latest iteration of a long series of hardline armed movements that have. formed around Jabhat al Nusra a former al Qaeda affiliate This latest iteration took shape in January. 2017 with a merger between Jabhat Fatah al Sham with Jabhat al Nusra at its core Jaish al Sunna Liwa. al Haqq Jabhat Ansar al Din and the Nour al Din al Zenki Movement Since its formation some member. groups have split or have been restructured but despite all the changes HTS is at its core the latest. iteration of Jabhat al Nusra Since its formation at the outset of the Syrian conflict Jabhat al Nusra has. fought in every governorate of Syria and has increasingly sought to portray itself as a purely Syrian. initiative In 2016 Jabhat al Nusra announced that it had split from al Qaeda began absorbing likeminded. armed factions eliminating rivals and eventually formed the Salvation Government to administer. opposition held territory in NW Syria Long considered the dominant actor in NW Syria HTS now finds. itself contending with a large presence of Turkish and Turkish backed forces With a shaky ceasefire in. place along Idleb s frontlines HTS appears to be having a hard time balancing its hardline revolutionary. ideals with the more practical considerations of its new weakened position. Figure 3 A timeline of developments in the formation of HTS. Syrian Government Offensives, The Syrian government s offensives in the summer and winter of 2019 reduced the size of territory in. northwestern Syria controlled by HTS bolstered the rival NLF and solidified Turkey s presence in the. region While HTS had thanked the Turkish government for its role in supporting the Syrian revolution 4 it. has found itself in a precarious position HTS remains the dominant armed group within Idleb but has. suffered defections and a relative weakening of its position vis vis rivals Regardless HTS still manages. to keep its hegemonic position within Idleb through the civil services its Salvation Government provides. to the population, The ceasefire agreed between Russia and Turkey on March 5 2020 is the latest development that. threatens HTS presence in Idleb The acceptance of Turkey s presence in Syria has sparked debate within. the organization and the perceived acquiescence to joint Turkish Russian patrols has been met with. strong popular disapproval An April 2020 analysis of Arabic language Twitter traffic related to HTS the. Al Tamimi Aymenn Jawad Hay at Tahrir al Sham Statement on Ankara Moscow Agreement Aymenn Jawad Al. Tamimi March 7 2020 http www aymennjawad org 2020 03 hayat tahrir al sham statement on ankara. Page 7 of 10,The State of Syria s Armed Opposition May 2020. SNA and the NLF revealed that the most central topic discussed among Twitter users was that HTS leader. Abu Muhammed al Jolani was a traitor to the revolution While HTS has had little agency with respect to. these developments its desired image as a stalwart supporter of the Syrian revolution has been tarnished. Perhaps as a response to this criticism in mid April HTS announced the formation of three new brigades. led by local commanders to hold frontlines against the Syrian government 5. Figure 4 New sub units announced by HTS on April 15 2020. Internal Strife, Even before the latest Syrian government offensive began in late 2019 HTS had faced criticism from.
within In September 2019 a then prominent HTS commander Abu al Abd Ashedda criticized the. organization on multiple grounds corruption within the group 6 political failings regarding the Turkish. presence and not being prepared to fight the Syrian government 7 HTS relationship with Turkey has also. The Armed Opposition in Northwest Syria May 15 2020 Executive Summary This report details the current status structure and balance of power between Haiyat Tahrir al Sham HTS and Turkish backed armed opposition forces in northwestern Syria The first section outlines the process by which Turkey has come to dominate Syrias non HTS armed opposition through a series of direct interventions

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