On Thursday, 13 October 2022 militants of al-Qaeda off-shoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) entered the city of Afrin in Northern Syria and took full control. During Operation Olive Branch in early 2018 Turkish forces and their proxies pushed out the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and took charge of the city. But on 13 October the Turkish-backed Syrian faction ‘Third Legion’ withdrew their forces and made way for HTS to seize all of Afrin.
The ‘Third Legion’ was one of the Syrian National Army (SNA) groups backed by Turkey present in Afrin. But due to its infighting with other SNA factions such as Sultan Murad, Sham Legion, 112 Brigade and others the ‘Third Legion’ was pushed out weakening SNA presence in Afrin and giving HTS the opportunity to take advantage of that weakness and enter the city.
Despite HTS being designated as a terror-group by Turkey some have claimed that Turkey played a part in the recent developments in Afrin. Democratic Union Party (PYD) official Aldar Xelil is among those who say that the HTS take-over was all part of Turkey’s plan. Xelil gives two reasons why Turkey might want to replace SNA with HTS militants in Afrin.
The first reason being the SNA factions have become ‘weak and ineffective,’ and are no longer a useful ally to Turkey. The second reason is the removal of SNA who are fundamentally opposed to Assad could improve relations between Ankara and Damascus.
Journalist Lindsey Snell shared footage on Twitter of civilians in the region of Azaz seen protesting in the days following the takeover. This is likely due to the fact that the people reject the normalization of relations with Damascus.
As always, while Ankara, Damascus and radical Islamist groups make power moves in Syria its the civilians on the ground who are suffering. The Rojava Information Center (RIC) recently tweeted that Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson of the United Nations, reported that upwards of 6 thousand civilians in the region around Afrin have already been displaced due to the fighting between SNA and HTS. The RIC also spoke to a member of Afrin’s Human Rights Organization named Ibrahim Sheikho who was able to better explain the humanitarian situation.
The RIC reported Sheikho as saying the fighting between the groups in Afrin – “”has a negative impact on local and indigenous people, particularly Kurds, as the clashes continue under the eyes of Turkey, which has created a situation of insecurity, instability and chaos. people are worried about their life and cannot move among the villages, which really harms their social, security, and economic situations.”
“Turkey wants to discipline some factions who object to its policies. We see what is happening in the occupied areas, like the protests [against rapprochement], as some factions refuse rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian government..”
He concluded by discussing the potential long term effects of Afrin being occupied by a radical fundamentalist group: “it is important not to forget that the presence of HTS in Afrin will enhance demographic change in the region, with the imposition of [HTS’] hard-core mentality”.
The people of Afrin have been suffering since Turkey’s occupation in 2018, and now they have gone out of the frying pan and into the fire.
There have already been reports of HTS enforcing a dress-code, and a rule that women can not leave the home alone in certain areas. Only time will show what other oppressive rules and rights violations will be implemented by HTS, and what the future holds for the once peaceful city of Afrin.
*Robin Fleming is an American researcher who worked with the Rojava Information Centre, and focuses on North and East Syria.