Who is Afraid of Shamiya?
Assad, ISIS, Trouw & Nieuwsuur, SDF and HTS.
Have Dutch officials helped establish a worldwide caliphate?
By Rena Netjes
In September 2018, the Netherlands was shaken by news items brought to the world by the Trouw newspaper and current affairs programme Nieuwsuur that the Dutch government was supposed to have supported a terrorist-jihadist movement, al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) in Syria. Earlier that day, Trouw came up with the headline: the Netherlands gave support to a ‘terrorist movement’ in Syria.1 Numerous other media took over the Trouw and Nieuwsuur reports that the Netherlands had supported a terrorist or jihadist movement without questioning. The issue led to much upheaval in the press, in politics and in parliamentary debates.
Nieuwsuur used footage in which an employee of the Dutch Public Prosecution (Openbaar Ministerie) claims that al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) brigade of the Free Syrian Army “is a movement with a terrorist intent and it wants to establish a caliphate.” Earlier that day Trouw published a piece: “the Netherlands supported a ‘terrorist movement’”. When asked, the Public Prosecution states that the judgement is strictly for the period from mid-2014 up to mid-2015, and strictly limited to a lawsuit, that of Driss M. The Public Prosecution claims to have no judgement about the period before and after that. Nieuwsuur further states that the aid to al-Jabha al-Shamiya was from the end of 2017.
The controversial report by the Dutch newspaper Trouw and the Dutch current affairs TV programme Nieuwsuur appears to be full of errors and incomplete reporting.
Jan Jaap de Ruiter and the author, Rena Netjes claimed from the start that the news was not correct, especially about whether al-Jabha al-Shamiya is actually jihadist. We believe this is not the case and the claim that the Netherlands were to have supported a jihadist movement in Syria is not true. Having extensively interviewed a commander and the Kurdish frontline media manager/fighter of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, a brigade of the Free Syrian Army, in March and August / September 2016 in southern Turkey, I knew the claim was nonsense. Because the image that Trouw and Nieuwsuur had created is persistent, we will go deeper into the ideology.
But that was not the only thing in the news that we thought was mistaken. Therefore, we have made an analysis of the reporting in Trouw and Nieuwsuur of 10 September 2018. We do this because the material is extremely complex and because we want to inform the readers as extensively as possible.
On the site, among other things, we reveal that all five groups mentioned by Trouw / Nieuwsuur, that were supported by the Netherlands, received weapons from MOM, Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi, which was co-financed by the United States, United Kingdom and France, as well as by other countries like Turkey; Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi being Turkish for ‘Joint Operations Centre’. The NLA program in which the Netherlands participated was one of the support programs for the Syrian opposition. There was overlap: this was how the five groups supported by the Netherlands received arms and salaries via the MOM. The aim was mainly to fight against ISIS, and holding ground against Assad. And that is what has happened, until today.
Furthermore, no weapons had been supplied by the Netherlands to FSA groups, even though Christian Democratic (CDA) MP Martijn van Helvert tweeted this initially in 2018. He later corrected his tweet.
In the opposition area in North West Syria, in 2018 more than 1.2 million IDPs were present from other parts of Syria. Currently, in 2022 that number has risen to 2.2 million IDPs. The enormous refugee camps are located in opposition areas, not in regime areas. Syrians are voting with their feet: they flee from regime areas to Turkish/Syrian National Army (SNA) controlled opposition areas and to Idlib in the north, not the other way around (not much to the northeast either).
Now these SNA areas are under threat of HTS, former Nusra, entering from Idlib as well, as we could see in October 2022. And from the southern frontlines, from the mixed SDF and regime controlled areas, with at some places Russian and Iranian presence, like in Tal Rifaat.
The underlying idea behind the Dutch support programs, among other reasons, was to prevent the more than 1 million IDPs in the area from fleeing to Turkey and Europe. And if the opposition area were to fall, that number would increase dramatically. This context is left entirely undiscussed in the controversial report.
Furthermore, we comment on quotations in the Trouw / Nieuwsuur report that were wrong, or suggestive. For more examples of mistaken or lacking reporting in the controversial report, read our complete file at https://www.dossierjihadisten.nl.
The Dutch Public Prosecution calls the Syrian rebel group al-Jabha al-Shamiya, ‘Levant Front’ in English, a jihadist terrorist movement that is pursuing a worldwide caliphate. It stuck that label on the Front for the period mid-2014 – mid–2015.
A first problem, there was no group called al-Jabha al-Shamiya in mid-2014. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya was founded on 25 December 2014.2 The larger al-Jabha al-Shamiya, which a few months later had downsized to only FSA groups, would continue.
The Netherlands provided non-lethal aid (NLA) to al-Jabha al-Shamiya at the end of 2017 as part of the NLA program. So not at the time of the jihadist label, if it were to be correct. This is a second ignored fact. Is the Public Prosecution right in its characterization of the Front? Reporting by Trouw newspaper and current affairs program Nieuwsuur give the impression that it is. And from that moment it seems Dutch people from all walks of life think that taxpayers’ money has been spent on jihadists in Syria and Dutch officials have helped establish a worldwide caliphate. A citizen of Syrian origin in the Netherlands started a court case against former Dutch ambassador Nikolaos van Dam.3
The day after the reporting on September 10, 2018, the Public Prosecution informed the author via an SMS that the characterization was different from what had been reported in Trouw and Nieuwsuur: the label was valid from mid-2014 to mid-2015, and is strictly related to a court case. It concerned the case of Syria-goer Driss M.,4 who was later acquitted of this by the judge, and against which the Public Prosecution appealed. International Syria experts also made mincemeat of that limited labelling by the Public Prosecution.
We think that the reporting by Trouw and Nieuwsuur left essential aspects of this ‘jihadist file’ unexposed, despite debunks from Syria experts, and despite the debunk concerning the time frame at least by the Public Prosecution and thus caused unnecessary unrest among the political and general public. On our website we explain in more detail how we view the matter, Jan Jaap de Ruiter and I published the website in the beginning of 2019.5
At our request to clarify where al-Jabha al-Shamiya stands ideologically, it issued a statement to that effect that has been on Jalta since January 29, 2019 an in which it makes clear that it is striving for a democratic and pluralistic Syria and no jihadist-Salafist ideology to cherish at all.
It is noteworthy that on March 30, 2018 Trouw published a large piece by Melvyn Ingleby in which he interviews a colonel of al-Jabha al-Shamiya who was expelled from his own village by Nusra, he reports in the piece. At the same time, the colonel reported that the Front has fought against ISIS and Nusra; the terms jihadist or Salafist do not appear in the piece.
It is even more remarkable that Nieuwsuur’s own war reporter, Jan Eikelboom, had visited Azaz, the cradle of the FSA Northern Strom Brigade that later became a part of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and was the only brigade of al-Jabha al-Shamiya that received Dutch non-lethal aid. He also visited Marea the cradle of FSA Liwa Tawheed, and later the core of al-Jabha Shamiya.6
One of the two journalists, Ghassan Dahhan wrote ‘Waarom Assad moet winnen’ (‘Why Assad has to win’) 12 January 2014.”7 In it he concludes: “Give the Syrian people peace and give Assad, as immoral as this sounds, a chance.” Another example of his pro Assad views is in ‘De kille logica achter het belegeren’ (‘The cold logic behind besieging’), Dahhan and Marno de Boer write ‘The coalition of jihadists which the military is fighting in Aleppo is a strong solid.’8
German war correspondent Christoph Reuter, who traveled to East Aleppo a few times at the time: “Al-Jabha al-Shamiya was one of two groups we met in Aleppo. They hired men to protect us as we drove through town. Needless to say, things would have turned out differently if we had been with a jihadist group. Nusra was in eastern Aleppo, but they kept calm and kept to themselves. Some underground cells were arrested while we were there, the city was run by regular rebels as described in this piece.”9
Reporting in the Netherlands had real consequences on the ground in Syria
One working day before the news report, Dutch Foreign Affairs10 halted aid to for example the Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets) which was the starting point of much more trouble, and to Local Development and Small Projects (LDSPS), a Syrian NGO based in Gaziantep, working in opposition-held areas, with also a real impact. LDSPS had to pay even a huge amount back. The German NGO Adopt a Revolution was also affected by the Dutch coverage, as the German government halted their funding.
Nieuwsuur and Trouw received several journalistic awards in The Netherlands and in Flanders (Belgium) for this story. The first one was in March 2019, De Loep.11 They also got de Anne Vondeling Prijs 2018.12 And they received the most important Dutch journalist award, De Tegel.13
Despite our repeated appeal for a substantive discussion, Jan Jaap de Ruiter and I were regularly intimidated by both Trouw and Nieuwsuur going to our employers, from September 2018 on till at least 2021, in an attempt to silence us. Other Dutch and Syrians have shared intimidation practices by Trouw and Nieuwsuur with us, too.
Dutch war reporter Hans Jaap Melissen, who works for the public TV and radio (NPO1)14 as well as Minka Nijhuis, who works for Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer have traveled in the area of brigades that on 25 December 2014 formed al-Jabha al-Shamiya; and in Azaz, where the local FSA brigade Northern Storm Brigade is present.
I looked at publications, statements and interviews of al-Jabha al-Shamiya in Arab and western media. And, last but not least, I had my own experiences with the group, during my fieldtrips to the Syrian border area in March and August/September 2016, when I interviewed the military spokesperson of the group and the Kurdish frontline media manager several times. And a few weeks after the Trouw and Nieuwsuur reporting, I had a three-and-a-half hour interview with the military spokesperson Baraa al-Shami, and the political leadership Bahjat Atassi, member of the Syrian National Coalition – its vice presidents are a Kurd and a Christian -, in Istanbul in October 2018, and with another leader Adeeb Al-Sunn, of their office in Kilis, in February 2019 in Istanbul.
And most important, information wise, I made additional fieldtrips to northern Syria and to border areas in March and October 2021 and in September/October 2022 to the areas under control of al-Jabha al-Shamiya inside Syria, Azaz and parts of Afrin (Ma’batli, for instance) and the frontline with SDF/regime in Kafr Khashir, south of Azaz. The man of the house in one of my host families in Azaz turned out to be a member of the Northern Storm, the Azaz local brigade which is part of al-Jabha al-Shamiya.
Trouw and Nieuwsuur, however did not conduct field research in Istanbul or southern Turkey, nor in Syria for their report. They say they weren’t granted visas to go to Turkey. However, they had and still have both a correspondent in Istanbul who could have conducted the interviews. Moreover, the Nieuwsuur producer at the time, and the correspondent of Trouw, was Melvyn Ingleby who had already interviewed a commander of al-Jabha al-Shamiya for Trouw, as mentioned above.
It is also interesting in this regard that Milena Holdert (Nieuwsuur) said in the investigative radio program Argos: I approached people in Syria: “I’m from the Netherlands and I don’t know much about Syria.”15
“Rutte secretly supported jihadists”, then MP Martijn van Helvert for CDA wrote on 7 January 2021 in Dutch NRC.16 The author wrote a de-bunk of Van Helvert’s claims to NRC, which was posted as a letter to the editor only.17 Several Dutch MPs demanded an investigation into the matter.
In May 2021, the Cammaert Commission was launched to investigate the non-lethal aid for Syrian rebels. The Commission is expected to present its final report 9 December 2022. The Commission had started its investigation also in Turkey, in Istanbul. But it had to stop its research because the Turkish authorities didn’t allow the commission to interview Syrian rebel commanders and they had to show all the interviews to the Turks first. So the Commission, like Trouw and Nieuwsuur, has neither visited southern Turkey nor northern Syria for their investigation.18
In between I will outline the situation in the area north of Aleppo and East Aleppo from 2011 until now, with a special focus on Azaz, the base of the Northern Storm brigade, as mentioned above, the only brigade of al-Jabha al-Shamiya to receive Dutch non-lethal aid, and also with a special focus on the situation in the area in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, the years in which the Dutch NLA program ran.
Sixteen reasons why al-Jabha al-Shamiya are not jihadists
1) Recommended by Syrian doctors who traveled to East Aleppo
I got in touch with al-Jabha al-Shamiya in 2016 by total coincidence, through the brother of a Syrian couple I met at a beach close to Amsterdam. The brother was a doctor at the Independent Doctors Association (IDA) in Gaziantep. I meet doctor Salah Safadi in March 2016. We talk about the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, the IDP-camps on the countryside of Aleppo province, “there are tents everywhere”, doctor Safadi says. Indeed, in 2021 I would see it with my own eyes.
At the end of the interview with doctor Salah I had one more question: I would like to speak to a Free Syrian Army brigade or two about the military situation in northern Syria, in Aleppo. Was he able to recommend someone? “I do have a number for you from a good commander”, he says, “of a commander of the al-Jabha al-Shamiya”. ‘They always protect us when we travel from the border to East Aleppo. There is only one road, the Castello Road, and it is dangerous at some points near Aleppo. One of our doctors was kidnapped at a checkpoint by YPG in Afrin, when he took a different route to East Aleppo. He’s been detained for six months, we can’t afford that. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is protecting us on the road to Aleppo now.” I received the telephone number of Mohammad al-Ahmad, from doctor Salah. Mohammad al-Ahmad is a commander and the military spokesman al-Jabha al- Shamiya, and known locally as Abu Firas, ‘the father of Firas’. “And an employee of ours here is in contact with the al-Fauj al-Awwal, another FSA brigade, he says, who can probably also help you with a phone number of one of their leaders.”
2) Meeting with the military spokesperson and Kurdish frontline media manager a few times – I am not sold nor beheaded
I meet in March 2016 leaders and members of both brigades. The commander of al-Jabha al-Shamiya turns out to live in Kilis, the town right on the border with Syria, below the larger city of Gaziantep and about 66 kilometers above the Syrian city of Aleppo. He is a defected air force pilot. The conversation with Al-Ahmad is about their fight against ISIS, and against the Assad regime. About the different FSA brigades in the area, about the battle in Aleppo and about the military Operation Room in Hawar Kilis, just across the border in Syria, for the northern part of the province of Aleppo bordering Turkey. And about the Operation Room in East Aleppo. I ask him which groups and countries they work with, about the other FSA brigades of the Hawar Kilis Operation Room. Also how the coordination with different groups in Aleppo works. “The coordination with groups outside the FSA is only to counter attacks of the Assad regime, it is a matter of life and death, military coordination, but there is no close cooperation with those groups,” al-Ahmad explains. He is relieved that our conversation is in Arabic: “Usually journalists come here who don’t speak Arabic and I don’t speak English. Then it all remains very superficial. At least I can have a substantive conversation with you.” I could not have imagined then that more than two years later, in September 2018, al-Jabha al-Shamiya would become the center of attention in Dutch media.
I ask al-Ahmad about Afghan Shiite mercenaries, Hazaras, who are being caught in Aleppo by the FSA, if he knows anything about them. “Yes we caught a few, I can send you videos where one of us interrogates them, in which they tell us how they got there, in Aleppo. One of our guys can speak Farsi, he learned that at the University of Aleppo, so he interviews the Afghans.” Dari is spoken in much of Afghanistan and is closely related to Farsi. I do receive the videos. These Afghan fighters are mostly Shiites who fled to Iran from the Taliban. They claim they get about $600 a month to fight for Assad and get residency for themselves and their families in Iran. But also criminals such as drug traffickers, who are released in exchange for years in prison or the death penalty, as long as they fight for Assad. The FSA regularly caught Afghans who appear to be deployed on the frontlines. Afghans do not know Arabic, lose their way when their (Syrian) commander is killed, for example, and are then caught. In a video of the al-Jabha al-Shamiya, they interrogate in Farsi an Afghan fighter they have captured near Aleppo. The man says he was imprisoned in Iran for six years because he was a drug dealer, received five days of military training, and came to Aleppo with a group of 600 Shiite fighters. The leader of his group was killed and they lost their way. Jihadis would kill Shiites.
3) Al-Jabha al-Shamiya joined the fight in the Euphrates Shield Operation, which was, except for al-Bab, part of the International Coalition against ISIS
When I arrive in Gaziantep in the end of August 2016, the Euphrates Shield Operation had just started on 24 August 2016.19 The Euphrates Shield Operation began on August 24, 2016 and lasted till March 29, 2017. In this mainly anti ISIS Operation, at least 630 FSA fighters lost their lives and 72 Turkish soldiers, according to Turkish officials.
Videos on our website www.dossierjihadisten, of groups mentioned in Nieuwsuur provide clear proof that these groups were part of the Euphrates Shield Operation, the operation in which the Turks and the Americans provided Syrian rebels with military support to expel ISIS from the border with Turkey. The second reason, as mentioned above for Turkey but also for the FSA brigades was that the YPG moved from Afrin in the west and from the Euphrates in the east to connect both areas, which would mean occupy the majority Arab areas in between, and expel a big part if not the entire population as had happened earlier that year in Tel Rifaat. The US, vice president Joe Biden at the time, said in Turkey that the Kurdish forces should withdraw east of the Euphrates after the capture of the town of Manbij, if they would want to be sure of US support.20
In September 2016, during my second trip to the border area, we drive with the necessary paperwork off to Karkamiş, the Turkish mirror town of Syrian Jarabulus both right on the border. Unfortunately, when we arrive at the border, we are stopped and we’re not allowed in. Major TV stations like CNN and Al-Jazeera are allowed, but only for a very short time, a couple of hours. It would be still too dangerous; mines are everywhere, we will hear later. We drive to a hill where we find many more journalists who have tried just like us. And again, a team from Dutch Nieuwsuur21 had been there a few days earlier, too. So Nieuwsuur witnessed by itself that the local FSA rebels there, among them al-Jabha al-Shamiya, fought against ISIS.
The next day in September 2016 I meet al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s military spokesman, Mohamed al-Ahmad for updates in Kilis again. We talk the current frontlines, the organization and the progress of the Euphrates Shield Operation. Al-Ahmad writes down for me which FSA brigades are involved. There are six: al-Jabha al-Shamiya, Sultan Mourad, Mu’tassim, Tajammu’ Fastaqim, Hamza and Nouredine al-Zinki. In October 2022, I would finally meet commanders and fighters of the Mu’tassim brigade in Marea, about 18 km southeast of Azaz.
Back to September 2016. Al-Ahmad tells me about the preparations together with the Turks in the Operation Room of Hawar Kilis, about the discussions they are having there, just across the border in Syria. And where exactly the ES Operation started; in Al-Ra’y and Jarabulus. A few days before, another rocket from Syria landed in Kilis. I had seen the damage, to a house, with my own eyes and I ask al-Ahmad if he knew where that missile came from in Syria. “From Souran”, al-Ahmad says.22 With al-Ahmad I talk about Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, etcetera. “We also have Kurdish fighters in al-Jabha al-Shamiya,” Al-Ahmad says, “and the director of our media office is a Kurd. Would you like to meet him?” Of course.
I had asked al-Ahmad in September 2016 if I could visit Azaz and the many IDP-camps in the area through the Bab al-Salama border crossing which was under al-Jabha al-Shamiya control at the time. “I can’t even guarantee the safety of my own people in Azaz, there are still sleeper cells from Nusra”, he said back then. “I can’t afford to have something happen to you or any other western journalist. You have to wait until the situation is safer,” al-Ahmad said, in Kilis, the town on the Turkish side of the Bab al-Salama border crossing. These are not words from a jihadist or terrorist who sees a western blond Christian woman as an enemy. So from the moment Trouw and Nieuwsuur broke the news that the Netherlands had secretly supported jihadists in Syria, I had my own experiences with the group, enough to know it wasn’t true. Now, in 2022, I know the group even much better, and I have visited their areas twice in 2021 and once in 2022.
4) Meeting four leaders of al-Shamiya in Istanbul four hours, alone, and still being alive
In Istanbul, in October 2018 the then military spokesman of al-Jabha al-Shamiya explained it to me like this: “Al-Jabha al-Shamiya had two phases. The first phase was a meeting of brigades in northern Syria. The wish of some was to form one military body there. That became al-Jabha al-Shamiya. As of early 2015. The brigades were Liwa Tawheed, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Nur al-Deen Zenki, Ahrar al-Sham, Tamajju Fastaqim (kama umirta). They united.” Also Ahrar al-Sham? “Yes, only Ahrar al-Sham in Aleppo. Operation Room in Aleppo. But this block did not last long. It only took four months. It stopped in May 2015.” Why? “We as a brigade did not agree with the others in terms of thinking. There were extreme rightists, some of the right-wing mindset. The case ended. And what remained of brigades is the Northern Storm (Azaz), remnants of Liwa Tawheed, Thuwar al-Sham.” Who else? “These people stayed. And the name also remained as it was: al-Jabha al-Shamiya. And operation-wise, the brigades that participated. Zinki went away, Ahrar al-Sham left, too. So did Tajammu’ fastaqim and Jaish al-Mujahideen, they all left. What remained is the Northern Storm, the warriors from the region of Liwa Tawheed, from Marea, Tel Rifaat, from Azaz, from those areas. Thuwar al-Sham also participated in 2016.”
5) Al-Jabha al-Shamiya has Kurdish fighters in its ranks
In a hotel lobby in Gaziantep, a few days later, I talk with the head of al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s media office, the above mentioned Kurdish Mas’oud Ibo. Originally from Marea, Ibo lived with his wife and child in Kilis, Turkey, in 2016. He calls himself the frontline media manager and travels regularly to the frontlines inside Syria. He tells me his story. He was held in Aleppo in an ISIS prison, but miraculously managed to escape once during the airing. The rebel groups eventually chased ISIS out of Aleppo. He tells me that Syrian FSA groups asked the Turks, the US and other countries to help them in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS. “We were able to hold the line Azaz – Marea – East Aleppo line against ISIS but we were unable to defeat ISIS,” he says. “We are sometimes able to capture a farm, but then at night ISIS fighters arrive and take it back. A stalemate. The Turkish generals were divided, some wanted to, some didn’t,” according to Ibo. After the failed coup attempt, the ES Operation took off after all. In Jarabulus and near al-Bab, the Americans helped with airstrikes.23
Most part of the ES Operation was part of the International Coalition against ISIS. He shows me the WhatsApp group of media activists still in/or from the area north of Aleppo, and of some FSA al-Jabha al-Shamiya fighters. The fighters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya are just the village or city dwellers with other jobs, I notice. I can watch the posts in the WhatsApp group, of videos of the fight against ISIS that are placed in the group. Ibo tells that his brother lives in Aleppo, in the eastern part. But he cannot escape the bombing and the siege to Afrin with his family, despite being Kurdish. Because he is not allowed to enter Afrin. Would I like to speak to him now, via Skype? We call the brother by Skype. He says he would like to go to his relatives in Afrin, away from regime-besieged East Aleppo, where the situation is becoming increasingly dire. But the YPG won’t allow him and his wife and child to enter Afrin, because he’s from rebel held East Aleppo, so he has to be part of the opposition. (YPG coordinated, and still, with the Assad regime).
He tells me about the latest developments on the frontlines of al-Jabha al-Shamiya. Why did ISIS in Jarabulus fall so fast? “ISIS-fighters fled to al-Bab”, he says.
During my fieldtrips to the Syrian border, fighters and commanders had already told me that they asked for support, not only from Turkey, but also from other countries, for help against ISIS. I had no idea that the Netherlands was already helping, with some non-lethal aid. I only knew that Americans, Turks, the UK, France and some Arab countries were doing that.24
Some more context on the ES operation. Youssef Hammoud, like Mohammad al-Ahmad of al-Jabha al-Shamiya a defected fighter pilot, a former commander of the FSA Hamza brigade, told the author the following about the situation in 2015 in the area above Aleppo, during an interview in March 2021 in Gaziantep. As brigades, you received support from the Turks in 2016 to liberate the area north of Aleppo, where did the request for support come from? From the Turks or from you? Support for the Euphrates Shield Operation. Could you describe what happened? “The start of the entry was a joint operation, the area the Turks entered during the Euphrates Shield Operation was area previously captured by Daesh. The number of men of the FSA brigades began to decline. There were many deaths, the area besieged by Daesh had become very small. Not more than a small strip from the border crossing Bab al-Salama via Azaz to Marea to East Aleppo. What happened is that there was a request to coordinate from the Turkish side, we asked for support. That support came to us through the MOM.’’ The MOM is an acronym of the Turkish Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi, the joint Operation Center for the northern front in Ankara. The MOC acronym stands for the Military Operation Center, for the southern front in Amman. “Until the Euphrates Shield Operation, and during the Euphrates Shield Operation, the MOM and the MOC offered us European and other international support. But technically we had no gadgets; we had no reconnaissance devices, or planes. Nor did we have planes, or heavy artillery. There was a request for an operation, we were ready, you (Turks) must enter Syria.”25
From conversations in Gaziantep and Kilis in 2016 I learned that some of the FSA fighters are young men from refugee camps on the border in Turkey. They come from places in northern Syria and are extremely motivated to liberate their hometowns or villages. Without air support from Turkey and also from the US, the FSA could not defeat ISIS in northern Syria. Just as the YPG needed the air support of the US in Kobani/Ayn al-Arab, where they had been besieged by ISIS and only controlled a small part of the city on the border with Turkey, for example. They fight with light weapons, some of which they make themselves. Their training is also provisional: a little bit training from Turkey and an even smaller bit from the US.
6) Inside the WhatsApp group with local journalists, activists and members of al-Jabha al-Shamiya – no trace of jihadism, on the contrary. It’s an archive.
At the end of a second conversation that week, just before leaving for Amsterdam, Mas’oud Ibo asks if I might want to join the WhatsApp group myself, so I can follow the events on the ground while I am in Amsterdam, with a Turkish sim card that he can arrange, I will just pay him the sim card. “But then you are not allowed to write in it yourself,” he says. That’s obvious, because while typing I would immediately be blown away by my different, partly Egyptian Arabic style and word choices (I just had come from Egypt). The regional differences between the Arabic of the (northern part) of Aleppo province and mine, mainly Egyptian, are too big for that. I really appreciate his confidence in my good intentions. Being able to follow the battle in the north of the province of Aleppo against ISIS mainly via this WhatsApp group with real time information, pictures, videos and discussions among the members is of course extremely interesting for a journalist.
The priceless value of a field trip is that when you are not on site, you have built up a network on the ground and can call and text people from for example Amsterdam. It was extremely useful for me to be added to the Arabic-language WhatsApp group of local journalists, activists and fighters so that I could follow the progress of the Euphrates Shield Operation in great detail in the area north of Aleppo, as if I were in the border area myself. I was added to the group on October 12, 2016.
“Al-Kufra is completely liberated”, is the first message I see in the group. “Free from Daesh.” Daesh is the name people who hate ISIS use for the group. Both posts were posted by Ibo, the Kurdish frontline media manager of al-Jabha al-Shamiya. He posted the following map with it. The groups include journalists working in the area north of Aleppo. Such as from Step Agency, and Zaitoun Agency’s Zin Ali, who I meet coincidently a few years later in Afrin City, in October 2021, and in 2022 again.
“FSA troops have taken control of the village of Dubaiq in rural northern Aleppo after violent clashes between the Daesh organization within the battle of the Euphrates Shield Operation. Daesh is called an organization in Arabic: Tanzeem Daesh, to indicate that it is an organization and not a state, which the acronym stands for. News is exchanged about frontlines, numbers of dead and wounded people among their own troops. Names are passed on by the people who are inside Syria, and statements from FSA brigades are being posted. This way I follow the battle, village after village. And every day I can see exactly the progress made on ISIS, through the reports of the various journalists, the photos and the maps that are posted, in addition to the official statements of the FSA or FSA brigades. All statement of al-Jabha al-Shamiya were posted here, of course.
I had never imagined I would once reveal the public in the Netherlands I was in this group, but because al-Jabha al-Shamiya were (and are) labeled absurdly as jihadists, and the group is not active anymore, I chose to do it. he content of this WhatsApp group alone provides indisputable evidence that al-Jabha al-Shamiya fought fiercely against ISIS, and also suffered from al-Qaeda. Some of its members were kidnapped by al-Qaeda, for example.
I could follow the mutual conversations and discussions, plus of course see all the photos that are posted in it. Voice apps are also posted. Sometimes from residents in places such as the then besieged part of Aleppo, opposition-held East Aleppo, as well as comments from members. In one voice app, the Kurdish Admin Ibo explains what the PYD (Parti Yekiti Demokrati) is exactly, and “while the PYD has democratic in its name, it is far from democratic.” I had regularly noticed that Syrian non-Kurds, and also myself, are much less aware of who the PYD actually are. And also, that the fiercest critics of the PYD are among the Syrian Kurds themselves, because they know this group best and longest and have personal experiences.
On October 15, 2016, one of them posted a photo of Souran. From Souran, missiles were fired by ISIS at Kilis in southern Turkey, al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s military spokesperson al-Ahmad had explained to me the month before, in Kilis. Someone else in the group responds with: “Souran is not yet completely free from ISIS.” Ibo responds: “Not totally yet. A few are still left behind and are trying to flee on motorcycles.” The previous person: “Yes, and the combing is still going on.” A few hours later someone congratulates the young men in Souran with the liberation of the town. Souran is a small town just east of Azaz. On 16 October, Ibo posts a photo from Souran with the text: “Souran is now liberated.” Immediately followed by all kind of enthusiastic cries placed from group members. A while later he posts a video and photos from Dabiq. It is an important symbolic battle against ISIS. ISIS had even named its media channel after Dabiq, where the end of time would take place. Ibo posts an inspired post in the group: “Thank God guys, Dabiq is totally friendly now, totally friendly!” and says they have already been able to let people return to their houses in Dabiq. And so it goes on and, from village to village, from town to town.
I follow it all from Amsterdam. Once I accidentally typed a short question out of curiosity, I’m in several Syria research groups, and for a moment I forgot that I couldn’t do that in this group. I realized it straight away. I used Syrian Arabic words, at least. But before I could delete the message, Ibo, the admin of the group is already on the line. “I told you : Don’t type in the group!” Yes, terribly sorry!, I tell him. This was a mistake, I realise immediately and remove it, promising to never do it again.
One time, around midnight, a cry for help video is posted by a group of men on the frontline east of Azaz: “Ya shabab, (guys), come bring reinforcements, ISIS has encircled us, we have run out of ammunition. Ya shabab, please send ammunition, come quickly, we’re encircled!” The men, a small group, sound desperate and look anxious. The next day I read in the group that they have been killed by ISIS. This video I will never forget.
At the beginning of November 2016, the battle for al-Bab begins, a city that has yet to be liberated from ISIS. While the Euphrates Shield Operation is fully operational, the battle against the regime continues in Aleppo too. Here, al-Jabha al-Shamiya is present as well, although the members of this WhatsApp are mainly from the countryside of northern Aleppo, Reef Halab al-Shamaali in Arabic, some have relatives in Aleppo though. To this day I am still in the WhatsApp group, although it has not been active since 19 October 2019 and most members have left the group. The group currently has nine members, including me. I’m glad it hadn’t been discontinued as the group’s content provides an archive about al-Jabha al-Shamiya.
“Please post and share widely”, Ibo posts. “These honorable officers who defected from the Assad army were kidnapped by the militias of the PYD, Democratic Union Party, the freedom of the officers terrifies them. Since 16/4/2013, eight Syrian Kurdish officers have been kidnapped after announcing their defection from the criminal Assad army and joining the ranks of the Free Syrian Army.”26And: “More than three-and-a-half years have passed since the disappearance of eight Syrian Kurdish officers that had left the Assad criminal army to join the Free Syrian Army.” They are: Brigadier Mohammed Khalil Al-Ali, Colonel Muhammad Haitham Ibrahim, Colonel Hassan Oso, Colonel Muhammed Kelly Khary, Lt.-colonel Shawki Othman, Major Behzad Naaso, Captain Hussein Bakr, First Luitenant Adnan Barazi. “According to eyewitnesses, they were taken to Derik prison, and then transferred to an unknown destination. The disappearance of these officers in an area under the control of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is considered a crime against humanity punishable under international law. So is their silence and cover-up of their fate. The YPG and PYD were participants in kidnapping these officers and their disappearance in this way is also considered a crime against humanity punishable under international law. We have the right to raise our voice for them and hold the humanitarian and human rights organizations responsible for their safety and demand intervention to reveal the fate of these honorable free Kurdish officers and their immediate release to save what is left in the prisons of darkness”, Ibo posts. Other Kurdish group members post similar posts at other times. With the following hashtags in Arabic: #Freedom_for_the_Kurd_detainees_in_the_prisons_of_PYD #Freedom _ for the eight _ free_ Kurdish _ officers #PYD_Party_Another_face_of_terrorism.
Later, on 1 October 2019 and 10 January 2020, I interview the political writer and board member of the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) Mohamed Ismail in Qamishli and outside Syria. The KNC is the major Syrian Kurdish rival party to the PYD. He explains to me that these eight missing officers and the lack of information about them are until present a thorny issue in the discussions between the PYD and the KNC under auspices of the Americans. “They killed them all,” Ismail says. And on 9 June 2022, Ismail tells me that the KNC halted the talks. “Things have gone worse.”27
I had followed the battles of the fighters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya fighters on the front lines, the discussions in a WhatsApp group of local journalists and activists close to al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and members of the group that I had access to, given by the Kurdish frontline media manager, Mas’oud Ibo. This had given me unique and detailed insights into where the group was fighting, and against whom and what the members were thinking. The WhatsApp group still exists, although it has been inactive since 10 October 2019. I still have the content from October 2016 (the moment I was added secretly with a Turkish number by the Admin, Mas’oud Ibo) until October 2019. In Afrin, in October 2021 I met Zin Ali, a local journalist who was also a member of the group. Back then, he worked for Zaitoun Agency. The group consists of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, the ethnic groups present in that part of northern Syria. Kurds in the group for example give background about YPG, the People’s Protection Units, to the non-Kurdish other members, who appear to know much less about them.
Through the WhatsApp group and through the contacts of the field trips to the Syrian border, I follow the battle for al-Bab. This last major stronghold of ISIS in the area north of Aleppo. The battle for al-Bab will begin on November 6, 2016 and will last until February 23, 2017. “ISIS is surrounded in al-Bab, but they still have a lot of car bombs. There are five or six going off per day”, said Ibo, who is present at the outskirts of the town. “I don’t just report, I also fight along,” Ibo says. “Are you not scared?” I ask. “No, I defend my country, and I defend humanity.” Where are you exactly? “In Dawar Tadef, on the west side. We just managed to get another group of civilians out of al-Bab, via the west side. I’m with them now.” How many ISIS-fighters are left in al-Bab, do you estimate? “About a hundred.” Ibo (Kurdish) is fiercely against the Kurdish YPG. “I don’t want Syria divided into federations, and we each fight for our own group: we are all Syrians.”
The day after the first reports of Trouw and Nieuwsuur about al-Jabha al-Shamiya, I told about this WhatsApp group on Dutch Radio 1, in the program Dit is de Dag.28 I offered Trouw and Nieuwsuur on 11 September 2018 to look at the content, but to no avail. If I had been Trouw and Nieuwsuur I would have immediately accepted the offer. Nevertheless, the offer still stands.
7) German journalist Christoph Reuter traveled safely with al-Jabha al-Shamiya to East Aleppo
Christoph Reuter German Christoph Reuter, an award-winning journalist from Der Spiegel.29 He wrote a book on ISIS, titled ‘Der schwarze Macht, Der »Islamische Staat« und die Strategen des Terrors.’ He opposes the qualification of Dutch Prosecution to call al-Jabha al-Shamiya a movement with a ‘terrorist intent’, and ‘which wants to establish a caliphate’: “A terrorist movement? Total nonsense,” says Reuter. “In 2014 and 2015 we traveled with al-Jabha al-Shamiya to East Aleppo. They were anything but jihadist. They fought fiercely against ISIS, accepted the local councils and welcomed us, were among the most trusted of the armed forces, and continued to hope for US support.”
How did you come into contact with the group? “We had a Syrian employee that we paid and went to Marea which is between the Turkish border and Aleppo, and we met Abdel Qader al-Salih of the Liwa Tawheed brigade there. That brigade became too big and cluttered. It fell apart which resulted in al-Jabha al-Shamiya. We followed the group closely to see if it was safe to go with them to East Aleppo. Of course, what we didn’t want to do is run the risk of being held hostage. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya was known for not kidnapping people for ransom. Unlike other groups.”
You do not agree with the labeling in the Netherlands that they are jihadists. Why not? “In addition to my personal knowledge of their conflicts, first of all, of course, because I myself traveled with them and they have always welcomed me and provided me with safety. Jihadists would have taken me hostage.”
8) They tried to return Shiite Afghani fighters and return a female French IS-goer
“We went to Aleppo because I wanted to make the story about Afghans they captured. It concerns Hazaras, poor Shia who are brought to Aleppo to fight for Assad. They worked in construction in Iran and were arrested overnight for allegedly working illegally. They did, but for years. After being imprisoned in Tehran for a day, they were asked: Do you want more burnt cigarettes on your body or go to Syria, man a checkpoint? Some were also offered a residence permit in Iran. Once they arrived in Aleppo, it turned out that they had to fight instead of man a checkpoint. They were given shooting lessons for about six weeks and were told that those they encountered would cut off their heads. So often that when al-Jabha al-Shamiya grabbed them, one of them wondered where the cleaver was. In Aleppo, they fought with about twenty men from a building that was bombarded by the opposition. Two of the Afghans survived and were kept as prisoners of war by al-Jabha al-Shamiya. They were willing to send them back to Afghanistan as long as they didn’t continue fighting in Syria. They made all kind of attempts, but the Afghan government wouldn’t help them – they didn’t care about Afghans. Iran wouldn’t help, the Turks wouldn’t help, and when they asked a Syrian regime commander, he said, ‘Kill them! We have enough.”
“We even managed to trace one of their family in Afghanistan, but he didn’t get the necessary papers to cross the border into Turkey. And al-Jabha al-Shamiya does not have the ability to arrange the international paperwork. It was never their intention to kill these Shia; they had more in captivity. To make a point, jihadists would not have saved any Shiite Afghans, and wouldn’t have kept them for many months and tried to send them back to Afghanistan. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya was one of two groups we met in Aleppo. They hired men to protect us as we drove through town. Needless to say, things would have turned out differently if we had been with a jihadist group. Nusra was in East Aleppo, but they kept calm and kept to themselves. Some underground cells were arrested while we were there, the city was run by regular rebels as described in this piece.”30
“Another story that shows that the Dutch Public Prosecution is wrong with the labeling of jihadism is the following”, says Reuter. “This is Nadia Maffouh, who traveled alone to northern Syria in October or November 2014, Reuter says. ’She said she had no problems crossing the Turkish border into Syria, where she was stopped somewhere in the vicinity of Azaz by men of al-Jabha al-Shamiya. They wondered what a woman traveling alone wanted to do in Syria. Her first answer ‘tourism’ didn’t sound convincing, so they held her. After some conversations, she admitted that she had come to Syria to participate in the jihad. But instead of adding her to their brigades, or showing her the way to ISIS, al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s leadership took lengthy efforts to get her back to France. This is when I stepped in, helping them with contacts to reach out to some European diplomats and have them explain to fellow diplomats from the French embassy in Ankara that this was not a hoax. A female diplomat asked for a certificate of life, this is why the short video was recorded. She was then taken to the border by al-Jabha al-Shamiya and picked up by a French diplomat on the Turkish side. I don’t know if she was arrested by the Turks or if she could leave directly for France,” says Reuter. “But the whole matter took weeks, if you need more witnesses I can provide them. I have never written about this before, because there were hundreds of European jihadists who were in southern Turkey ready to cross the border, and through Syria wanted to reach the ISIS or Nusra front, who were captured by other rebel groups, it was mayhem. I helped them because some from al-Jabha al-Shamiya contacted me as they didn’t know what to do with her and the French embassy wasn’t very responsive at first,” Reuter says.
9) They ran and run deradicalization centers in northern Aleppo (video)
Charles Lister, author of the book The Syrian Jihad and director of the Middle East Institute’s Counterextremism & Counterterrorism Program in Washington, reacts with bewilderment to the prosecution’s assertion, “To suggest that Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is similar to al-Qaida or IS is utterly ridiculous. Anyone who comes up with such a statement does not know the group.”
“Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is a Free Syrian Army-affiliated umbrella organization, formed at the end of 2014 in Aleppo, uniting several FSA groups under a collective leadership. They were an all-Syrian movement driven solely by the national agenda against the Assad regime. They have been part of the FSA since their inception, they have worked directly with the US and other Western allies for years, they are constructively involved in the arena of international diplomacy and negotiations. And perhaps most importantly, they have led the fighting against IS in opposition areas, resisted al-Qaida’s presence in parts of Aleppo where it was still in control, and still run a number of centers against violent extremism in northern Syria.”
Asked whether Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is a terrorist movement, Lister said, “To label Al-Jabha al-Shamiya as a terrorist movement is ridiculous, with all due respect. I base that judgment on solid arguments. Indeed, they have been accused of corruption and criminality, but that in no way makes a group a terrorist. They lack the ideological pursuit of a global caliphate and war against the West. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya fought precisely against the extremists pursuing such goals, such as IS and al-Qaida.31
See this video on this: https://youtu.be/7OEvK9nO94Y
10) Kurdish al-Jabha al-Shamiya leader: Ahmad Misto
In March 2021, during an interview with Mohamed Naser of al-Jabha al-Shamiya at their headquarters just outside Azaz, not far from the Turkish border, I heard the group had not only some Kurdish fighters in its ranks, but also Kurdish leaders.
I met one of them, Ahmad Misto for the first time in October 2021, in Afrin City and in Merkanli, near Ma’batli, in Central Afrin. According to Misto, who is locally better known as Abu Aslan al-Kurdi, there are between 200 – 300 Kurdish fighters within al-Shamiya, as locals call the group. I asked him why he joined al-Jabha al-Shamiya and why not Kurdish YPG for example.
Why you as a Kurd choose al-Jabha al-Shamiya instead of another faction, and why not YPG? “This question to be frank, has many ramifications but I will try to be concise. First of all, before it was called al-Jabha al-Shamiya, it was called Liwa Tawheed, you see. It was named Unification Brigade in order to unite all factions into one group. I joined Liwa Tawheed because my dearest friends. And I joined the revolution from the beginning as a peaceful protestor during the protests against Bashar al-Assad. And all my closest and dearest friends which came out with me during the protests they can be found within the Levant Front. And it was only natural that I support the Levant Front. Since they are the closest to me, closest to my intentions, my thoughts, and my aspirations.” And why not with YPG? “Because to me, personally, the principles of YPG do not reflect my personal principles and values, and – in my opinion – they are public enemy number one of the Kurdish people.” Why?Because of their inhumane acts towards Kurdish people, including kidnapping children, discrimination, such as recruiting young men and women to forcefully participate in their military ranks to fight against the Free Syrian army, to fight against the Syrian people, and the planning of the seeds of ethnic tension within Syria, was all through the YPG. They were the first to incite ethnic tensions in Syria, after the start of the revolution.”
Could you explain to us what your duties are and what your role is in Levant Front? I joined the peaceful revolution and participated in the revolution against the criminal regime. And upon the arrival of the Free (Syrian) Army, the Levant Front into Aleppo, I joined them. I am a martial arts trainer and a Kung Fu trainer, especially Wushu Kung Fu. I worked with the Levant Front to train the members and to raise physical fitness. I worked with them on graduating courses to raise physical fitness until the liberation of Afrin. During the liberation of Afrin, and after the liberation of Afrin, in this period under the direction of the leadership of the Levant Front, they asked me to enter the Kurdish areas and villages controlled by the Levant Front, to come and assist the people, administer civil services, open schools, try as much as we can to re-establish functioning services. We would try to resolve any civilian dispute, these matters. Somebody wants to return from areas of YPG or Aleppo, they want to come here, for example, to their village and to their community, in the area of Levant Front, I assist him to his village, he will take his house and his land, so no problems occur. Since, as you are aware, the YPG succeeded in sowing ethnic strife, between Arabs and Kurds, very unfortunately, through the problem they were causing. The intention of Levant Front was of course, to counter this narrative. To counter this narrative, that I, as a native of the region and as a member of Levant Front, and with the Levant Front, to assist the people of the area. So that there is no racism or discrimination in the area.” And you also said the word “Liberation of Afrin”. Why “Liberation of Afrin”? Indeed. Liberation of Afrin, the word liberation of Afrin, the region when it’s subjected to dictatorship and injustice, and we as revolutionaries, as Syrian rebels, Syrian revolutionaries, the word “revolutionaries” of Syria, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, all (native) groups, we participated in the liberation of Afrin, to free the people from the oppression, that the PYD subjected them to.”
In the Netherlands, you may have seen, in Trouw newspaper and TV programme Nieuwsuur, they have brought the news for about 3 years now (Oct 2021) that you (Levant Front) are terrorists and jihadists, and much of the Netherlands press says this, many people say this, including many members of Parliament. What is your response? Because you are from Levant Front. “Madame, I will speak about this frankly. Deeply regrettably, the European press, generally, due to their initial stance on the Syrian Revolution and failure t0 support the Syrian rebels in obtaining their freedom and independence from the criminal Assad regime and their solidarity with the YPG forces, frankly, the YPG forces are terrorists, and their bias towards the Assad regime, the YPG forces, they detest the Syrian rebels and especially the Levant Front. Since the Levant Front spearheaded the fight in the fight against the criminal Assad regime and the YPG terrorist forces. We can’t be certain? The Levant Front was the one who fought and sacrificed the most against Daesh and who fought against Daesh the most in the northern countryside of Aleppo. The Levant Front also sacrificed scores of fighters to liberate the northern countryside from Daesh. In what year did this start? “From 2014, 2015; the Levant Front were among the first fighters against Daesh. We are Syrian national revolutionaries against any nationalist, religious or terrorist organization.” So you are not jihadists? You can always ask about the treatment of the Levant Front with the Kurdish people. The terrorist label in the Dutch press is miles away from reality, unfortunately. They stand far from the reality, as anyone fighting against the criminal Bashar al-Assad regime, is considered a terrorist. Unfortunately, to this day, Dutch say Bashar al-Assad is the president of Syria. But he is the worst criminal of Syria. And he is Syria’s number one terrorist.”
Misto survived four PKK/YPG assassination attempts. He was even declared dead by some Kurdish media outlets.32 On one occasion, on June 8, 2018, the website Enabaladi and Iraqi-Kurdish Rudaw wrote that Misto had been assassinated. 33,34
Some local context: How Tal Rifaat and Ayn Daqna led to Afrin
During my first trip to SNA area in March 2021, I stayed in Azaz, visited Afrin and Ma’batli, and IDP camps near Azaz. I talked with a lot of locals, giving me pretty much a summary of what caused the Turks and SNA brigades to end the PYD/PKK rule in Afrin.
“In the Western part of northern Syria, the YPG coordinates with Russians, while in the east with the Americans,” Abdallah al-Hafi says. He is the Syrian LACU director (Local Administrative Councils Unit) in Azaz. “There was a before Ayn Daqna, and there was an after Ayn Daqna,” Abdallah explains. The YPG practices that were a point of no return for the (Arab) locals in the areas neighboring Afrin. “There was no intention of the FSA to enter Afrin. There were no problems at all. Not between the Assad opposing Kurds, and the Assad opposing rebels. Firstly, the YPG made a Russian base in Afrin (Kafr Janna) and Russia entered.35 Secondly, when the regime was besieged in Nubl and Zahraa, they let them escape. Thirdly, there was Ayn Daqna. It became a war. A fighter sees his brother’s corpse, or his cousin’s or his friend’s, and the YPG fighters put the corpses on a loader and parade them. After that, it was over. The peace ended. They would try to take Azaz, if they could,” Al-Hafi says.
“The battle for Tel Rifaat was with Russian and regime airplanes bombing Tel Rifaat and on the ground, Kurdish YPG took it,” Please note here that Tel Rifaat was FSA controlled at the beginning of 2016. “There was coordination between Russia, the regime and the Kurdish YPG. The bombing caused the people to flee, there was a total war on the area. They organized it completely.”
Reuters reported on August 24, 2016, that: “The United States has made it clear to Syrian Kurdish forces that they must return to east of the Euphrates river after seizing control of the Syrian town of Manbij to retain US support, Vice president Joe Biden said on Wednesday.”36
But they stayed regardless, despite a roadmap being agreed between Turkey and the United States for them to vacate the area. 37 And there was a roadmap for Tel Rifaat, too, but it was never published, SNA commander Youssef Hammoud tells the author on 18 June, 2022.38
The Kurdish YPG militias had planned to take the Arab majority areas between Afrin and Kobani completely, by taking Tel Rifaat and more than 40 villages in the west. In March 2021, I saw for myself the ‘People of Tel Rifaat IDP camps’ in Sijjo, near the border with Turkey above Azaz.39 “95 percent of the population of Tel Rifaat fled due to the military operation,” Koran Ahmad, the chairman of the Syrian NGO Bahar tells me in Afrin City, during that same trip, “A few families returned. Here in Afrin, we have also some IDPs from Tel Rifaat.” “The 5% that stayed are working with the regime, ‘’Shabiha” Firas Alleto, a representative of the people of Tel Rifaat camp tells me when I visit these camps in October 2022.” In addition to YPG/SDF from the east and west, the Syrian government army was also emerging to come to al-Bab from Aleppo. In early February 2017, the government army attacked positions of the FSA southwest of al-Bab. This frontline is there till today in December 2022. For more on events and the current situation in Tal Rifaat and Manbij, see Arab Syrian IDPs of Tal Rifaat also want to go home.40
11) Staying, traveling in Al-Jabha al-Shamiya area in Syria, visiting their headquarters
On 17 March 2021, I cross the border with a group of Syrians, via the Bab al-Salama border crossing near Kilis, southern Turkey, who want to celebrate the festivities of 10 years Syrian Revolution in Azaz. It seems a safe way for me to enter this part of Syria for the first time. When we arrive at the border and show our passports we are being picked up by a couple of smaller cars. I enter together with another woman and a man in one of the cars. After a while the driver asks “are you the Dutch researcher?” I say yes, how do you know? “Abdallah al-Hafi, of LACU came to us to ask if you could interview us, I am Abu Ammar of al-Jabha al-Shamiya.” Really? That is a coincidence. So the first moments in Syria, I already reached one of my targets, meeting with a Shamiya leader. After a few hundred meters we get another driver, and later I learn that where Abu Ammar went out the car and we got another driver was at the headquarters of Shamiya.
In March 2021 I visit the headquarters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, just outside Azaz, near the Turkish border, I interview Mohamed Naser. At the end of the interview he offers me a car in front of our car and a car behind every time I wish to travel somewhere outside Azaz, “we feel responsible for your safety here.” And this really happened. This is not something jihadists would do. After my trip, I hear from the above mentioned Adeeb Al-Sunn in the office in Kilis, where the group also has an office, “When I asked them to meet with the leadership, they weren’t very enthusiastic and didn’t respond to me. But I heard that when you actually met them in Syria, and they had talked to you, they changed their minds and became enthusiastic.” I later tell to Abdalla Kado, a Syrian Kurdish politician from Afrin, and member of the Kurdish National Council, the rival bloc of the PYD which rules northeast Syria, “I felt like our Prime Minister Mark Rutte”. Kaddo: We don’t know Prime Minister Rutte, but you are very precious to us.” The KNC, by the way, has condemned the Turkish incursion into Afrin.
The Northern Storm
Since the Dutch only supported the Azaz brigade, the Northern Storm, I meet with fighters of the group, and with a military commander Nijm, or Yazan Ibrahim. He is an early member of the Northern Storm Brigade, the local FSA brigade of Azaz which also joined al-Jabha al-Shamiya, because he knew the Dutch Moroccan Driss M. well: he was his military trainer. Dutch prosecution tried to get Driss M. being convicted as a jihadist, but it failed due to lack of evidence.41 Nijm, in his forties, I estimate, is wearing a purple kaffiya around his head.
He explains me how the Northern Storm in Azaz started: first in 2011 to protect demonstrators who were attacked by ‘shabiha’, and how they bought some riffles to protect themselves against the regime, then the battle against the regime which led to the defeat of the regime forces on 19 July, 2012, in what is called the “graveyard of the tanks”, maqbara al-dababat.42 Then how ISIS entered and they had to withdraw from the city, to a camp on the Turkish border and how from there they had ISIS people killed inside Azaz with their tactics. ISIS eventually fled the city after six months. The story of the Lebanese who tried to cross their area from the border to Menagh Airport, and were held, and how they had demanded the release of all female detainees for that and a defected Syrian lieutenant, Hussein Harmoush, who was arrested from a public square in Antakya, in Turkey. And how John McCain had visited them inside Syria.43 Via Nijm I got to the translator of that meeting.
How did you get to know Driss M? “We finished Marea, and we had several points with Souran, this is where Driss, Abu Alaa, started volunteering with us, Driss joined us. He came to the military camp, but we didn’t know anything about him at all. He was a civilian, not a soldier, he knew nothing about Kalashnikovs. He came in here and said: “I want to fight.” We were afraid of him at first, did he come to fight Daesh or to fight us? He said: I came to fight with you.” Because he knew who you are? “Yes, he knew we are the FSA.” Because he knew Arabic, for example? “Yes, he knew Arabic, he knows Arabic well. We put him under surveillance what is he doing and so on because we didn’t know him.” Okay and do you know the approximate date? “Wallah, I don’t know the date. He came through Turkey, the road through Turkey to Syria was difficult. Because so many people were fleeing, because of the planes in Aleppo, for example, the road was not easy, even for foreign journalists. There were even those who came through the not organized border crossing, Turkey wouldn’t let them cross.” They were sometimes filming something and then went back. That’s why they got through, through smuggling or not, everything was open between us and Turkey. The wall wasn’t there yet (the new one that has been built in recent years). So smuggling is not necessary either, you could just go through it? “Yes. It’s easy to pass the border,” Nijm says. “That’s why we said most of all here we need a sniper There were sniper trainers, there were defected officers and defected soldiers in the FSA. There was training from them specialized training in snipers. When we came from Souran, the army came to us from Zeitoun and Aleppo and… Zeitoun and Maris Sheikhan… and those areas, I took my car and Driss, Abu Alaa went with me to transport him from 5 am morning to 5 pm against the army of the Assad regime and against Daesh, this person. He returned, the moment Souran fell, we were in Mazaari’ (farms of) Kafra, this is between Souran and Kafra. Until we also … I want to go, he said. I wanted to stay halfway, some time passed…”
“He was a sniper.” The training was only yours? “Yes, we only trained him on becoming a sniper, because this sniper, for example, Abu Alaa, was a very calm person. He was quiet. We taught him that any time ISIS elements would move, or a car or any activity, he would shoot, and this is what he did. Until ISIS left here.” Where did he go? “I don’t know. Then US troops came in, Turkish troops came in, after the Turks came in, he left. Before the battle of the Euphrates Shield started (August 2016), he left. He fought on the front line with Daesh and with Assad. We know that he came to us, that he stayed with us in the military camp, that he was cooking, and he wanted to smoke and was trained in sniper art.” And you know his name is Driss M? “I know his personal name is correct, and even his was Abu Alaa.” And you also knew that he is from the Netherlands? “Yes, He was of Moroccan descent, but lived in the Netherlands”, Nijm says.
And could you maybe describe to me what the person was like? “He was a good guy, his principles were simple, he had no aspiration. For example, he was from a European country he just took his food and drink and smoked.” Smoking what? “Just smoke, nothing more. He didn’t want money, he didn’t want anything, he came to fight. He came to fight against Daesh, to fight against the regime, ‘I want to stand with you.’ We asked him several times, why did you come? You live in the Netherlands and… He said: I live in the Netherlands and I see the murders and the destruction and what happens on television or on the telephone. This pushed me, this made me come here.”
And do you know how much time Driss M was with you? “About a year or more.” He slept where, in the military camp? “He slept at the front or in the military camp.” Front lines such as? “Front lines like we had Deir Zaitoun, in Deir Zaitoun we stayed for two months or three, we were there on the front line for, for example, five days, ten days, and we only left the military camp to shower and change clothes and then bring back.” Shower and change in Azaz? “Yes, in Azaz.” And another frontline? For example, we stayed at the front lines of Souran, Kafra, Mazaari Kafra for four days and then go to Azaz.” afbeelding kaartje Daesh was in Souran right? “Daesh was in Souran and after Souran fell, it took Kafr, Malkit, Daesh in Kafra. For example, I am here and you (Daesh) are there, I go to you and you return again, I take one and you go, because of the great pressure from Daesh that was on us and many people were afraid to fight Daesh. Daesh, how am I supposed to tell you, they were on the pills and on the drug pills, so the Daeshi would hold on and hold his position.”
On the last day of the trip in March 2012 am I invited to visit the headquarters outside Azaz once more. I meet Abu Ammar again. During my first trip, I had put a scarf loosely over my hair, because I didn’t want everyone to realize immediately that a western woman is in town. The first thing Abu Ammar says: “No one did tell you to wear a scarf, right?” Well, that is not really a question from an Islamist or whatsoever.
At the headquarters an employee tells me: “They say we are jihadists?” He lights a cigarette and says: “Please take a picture of me!” I did and posted it on twitter.
12) US senator John McCain visited the rebels of the Northern Storm
“John McCain got to the border crossing and met the Northern Storm at the border. John McCain visited us,” said Nijm who belonged to the local rebels in Azaz from the beginning. The group later changed its name from Ahrar al-Shamal to Northern Storm after acquiring a military base and weapons. “They are the freedom fighters of the North in Asifat al-Shamal, the Northern Storm. This was at the time Hezbollah entered Homs,” he says.
On April 15, 2021, I spoke to one of the attendees of the meeting with McCain who prefers to remain anonymous via a WhatsApp call about John McCain’s visit. “I lived in Azaz, and was a member of the Northern Storm. Because I could speak English, I was asked to translate.” How far in advance did you know that the late Senator John McCain was coming? “I was picked up an hour in advance with a car from my house in Azaz, I didn’t know exactly what it was about and that McCain was coming.” Where did you meet with McCain? “The Northern Storm held the border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salama. In the first building on the left as you cross the border.” How long did the conversation take? “The conversation lasted about 40 minutes.”
Who attended the conversation?” “Munir Hassan was our organizer, the mastermind of the Northern Storm. Liwa Tawheed, from Marea was also there.” It is to be noted that the Northern Storm from Azaz later merged with Liwa Tawheed from Marea, also north of Aleppo, into al-Jabha al-Shamiya, Levant Front, along with other local brigades from the area between Aleppo and Azaz. Munir Hasso- Abu Rashed Raid is the leader of the Northern Storm.” Why do you think McCain wanted to talk to you, the Northern Storm? “We controlled the Bab al-Salama border crossing, so we were powerful.” What was being discussed? “McCain asked what help was needed. Everyone told what they thought they needed from the Americans. I also told what I thought was necessary.”
13) What do Syrians say about al-Jabha Al-Shamiya? Bakri Zenelden
One of the people who had to leave East Aleppo was Bakri Zenelden, an NGO worker. He now lives in Gaziantep and works with Local Development and Small Projects Support (LDSPS) from Gaziantep in northern Syria.44 Among Syrian NGOs in Istanbul and Gaziantep, the story of the Dutch coverage of al-Jabha al-Shamiya is well-known. LDSPS also suffered the consequences, I meet Bakri Zenelden in a cafe in Gaziantep. The idea of LDSPS came from Razan Zaitouneh.45
“When I first saw the claims about al-Jabha al-Shamiya in the Netherlands, it was somehow funny, we laughed, because you know, at the end of the day this group was fighting ISIS, and they were the ones who started this fight against ISIS, before the international community started to support or push this fight, before YPG did. I was in Syria that time in Aleppo City. I was in the besieged area [East Aleppo], where ISIS besieged the FSA. I was escaping, somehow struggling between the narrow streets. As people and as individual activists, we were very close to these fighters, because we live on the same streets in the same cities. It is a community relationship, you know them because you know your neighbors. You know the people who are living in the same street. So when the bombs fell, you worked together to get people to the hospitals, so somehow I was very close to them, I may not have been one of them, but I was very close, because of all the problems.”
“The MOM and MOC were established to support the US-backed Free Syrian Army. The MOM and the MOC were the same. Before that there was little, but disorganized support from different countries, more political support than money and weapons, more or less in 2014. It was really late. It was brought to public’s attention that there was something which the Free Syrian Army is supported by. The US ambassador came to southern Turkey to meet the groups and some of the British government came, too.”
“The Gulf States were the most fervent supporters: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. They were the ones who supported, they all gathered here, invited the head of these groups to come together to discuss the issues. It was more ideologically support, when Qatar supports, they have their ideology to support; when Saudi Arabia comes, they are supporting the ones who are meeting their ideologies like Jaish al-Islam; and when the Kuwaitis come, they support the Salafis, Nusra and similar groups. At that time they were not yet called Nusra. I remember in 2012, when the FSA fighter groups in the opposition entered Aleppo, they liberated East Aleppo, there were thirteen people, thirteen people gathered together, thirteen is nothing. And they said we are the Islamists, we are the ones who write the jihad, blah blah blah. The others were the people.”
“And there is also something to mention, people from outside Syria who are concerned with the Syrian case, they do not have any idea about the people themselves, we are in Syria a conservative community, of course we have an open community, but at the end of the day we are conservative. It is not something called Islam or Jihad, it is conservative communities. Damascus, Homs and Lattakiya are closer to Beirut, Lebanon so they somehow come from there, meeting people from outside, and you can see there is a copy of Beirut in Damascus. In Aleppo, the copy is coming from Turkey, from Gaziantep, Adana where it is also a conservative community. In Aleppo, no girls moved without a hijab. It is not about Islam, it is more about the community itself.“
“I was sometimes in the countryside in those days, you can see all the girls wearing the hijab and wearing all these long dresses, but at the end of the day they were sitting in front of the doors of their houses together with the men. This is the culture. And this is has been misunderstood, from then until now, by people who came here or to meet Syrians or to visit Syria. If you studied the language, you understand what the people are saying and what people are thinking about, while…let’s say the other side of the Europeans deal with Syrians like they are all jihadists, they are afraid of them. We have these problems, and we have seen these problems, so this is the first point I want to make that is misunderstood.”
“And this brings us to the second point. When this support came to Syria, it actually came too late. Very late. I remember late 2013, in December, there were some more secret meetings between the Free Syrian Army groups of different components, they started to think about ISIS, that they should be finished because of the ideology they follow. It was in different places in the headquarters of these groups, I am talking mainly about the north, because I somehow witnessed these problems. I remember I was somehow close even to these gatherings, I know what they were going to. So in 2014, and that is why the fight against ISIS started in early 2014, I think it started on the 3rd of January 2014, the third, yeah more or less,” Zenelden says.
“In Aleppo, both in the countryside and in the city of Aleppo, the community groups there decided we had to kill them because of the destructive ideology and because they destroy our community”, Zenelden says, “ISIS was not in Europe, it was in our community and this is the idea, no-one should come to my sister or my mother to say wear this or don´t wear that. It is not allowed to anyone. And this is the problem. They started making these problems. So the fight against ISIS was already long before the international community decided to support this fight, and when these groups decided to fight, they did not receive the money or the weapons they should have received.” Why not? “Because… I don’t know if there is an answer,” Zenelden says.
“Yes, this is it. This was very clear, we all know these problems, and I think that was one of the reasons. It is not just this,” says Zenelden. “There is a matter of being afraid of these people. They could eventually fight against Assad, or they could reach Damascus, because everyone knows in Syria we had almost 70% liberated from Assad.“ In 2013? “Yes. It is very sad, I drove my car from Aleppo to Raqqa, it was really great to drive from one city to another in Syria with all these green flags, we have all this free Syrian Army, other people talk about whatever they want, we have this literal freedom we asked for, people survive until now and support the Syrian revolution because we’ve been through these days, we’ve seen these days, I mean the freedom for us wasn’t like a dream, it was there and we’ve seen it before so in the end we’re fighting for something we’ve seen before, we just want it to be all over Syria.”
“So, back to the issue of al-Jabha al-Shamiya,” Zenelden says, “before al-Jabha al-Shamiya there were several fighting groups: Liwa Tawheed, Nouredine Zinki, Fastaqim. Liwa Tawheed is from the northern countryside of Aleppo; Marea, Azaz, al-Bab, Tel Rifaat. They are all in step by step, in the end they are defending the area. And when it comes to supporting jihadists in Syria, they didn’t support jihadists in Syria, they supported community fighters, these are community fighters, Liwa Tawheed, which is the main core of al-Jabha al-Shamiya.”
“I remember al-Jabha al-Shamiya when it first existed, the meetings were, there were two or three, one of them was in the country side of Western Aleppo, and the second meeting was in Bab al-Salama, on the border with Azaz, because the Liwa Tawheed and al-Jabha al-Shamiya headquarters came to Bab al-Salama as they were community fighters. These fighters came from these communities from Azaz, Marea, al-Bab, Tel Rifaat, Anadan, all these areas came together to form Liwa Tawheed, who had the big dream of forming the FSA at that days, when Abdel Qader al-Saleh was still alive, the head of Liwa Tawheed in those days. He had the dream of forming FSA back then, in 2013.”
“They were less than 10,000. And then those fighters met the fighters from the countryside of Western Aleppo, also community fighters. Together they want to liberate Aleppo and continue as it was the dream. On that day, ISIS started to besiege every group in each community as they besieged Azaz, from all the streets, from all the entrances. They besieged every point, they besieged the Free Syrian Army inside Aleppo. And also Azaz. They tried to besiege the villages in the countryside of western Aleppo as they were cutting the roads between Atareb and Azaz. So they tried to cut all the roads between the FSA to finish the small groups, because they are community groups. So when it’s done you say this is the end of this community; they disappeared, like a group of 100 fighters and then 10 of them dead or captured by ISIS. The group itself will go out, so they tried to start this. Then the argument came that those groups should somehow support each other, and this support led to al-Jabha al-Shamiya. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya are 100% moderate fighters, community fighters, community Syrians. In the end they are not fighters, because the fighting is not a joke, they do it because they believe in protecting their families. I mean the one who was fighting with his Kalashnikov stands against ISIS or Assad, they feel they were protecting their families behind them. So their family supports and he is like defending, defending their villages, defending their streets, their narrow streets”, Zenelden explains.
“These groups are community fighters,” says Zenelden, “it’s the Syrians themselves, those who have lived in Syria for decades, I mean those who were 20 or 25 years old, who lived in Syria these days, who defend their homes, his properties, his families, the honor of his family, these little details, so they are defending their families against Assad. And Assad created ISIS. This is what western media won’t believe, but we know full well, the key leaders of ISIS were in Assad’s prison in Sednaya, they were released in 2012 because he knows that the jihadists ideology is to form military groups and also to fight, so ISIS was made by Assad. This is what we’ve been telling since 2014. ISIS was made by Assad, and Nusra was made by Assad, these jihadist groups came from Iraq to Syria and they were all held in Sednayya. We know and the Americans know, too, that most of the jihadists that went to Iraq came from Syria, because Assad had supported this because he opened the border and he opened the airport.”
“Anyway, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Liwa Tawheed and the other small groups of the Syrian communities gathered to form al-Jabha al-Shamiya, which stands under the flag of the Syrian Revolution, the green one, which we believed in. Having the core of the FSA.” Are you talking about 25 December 2014? When the big al-Jabha al-Shamiya was formed or... ’the small one’ a few months later? Because there was the big al-Jabha al-Shamiya and then the small one. “The small one, in April 2015 or something. “All the non Islamist groups…” They are not Islamists, this is the point where I started…”
“Daesh blamed the FSA for getting support from western countries and America to fight against Muslims. So ISIS was able to collect more funds at that time. To fight al-Jabha al-Shamiya. To fight the FSA. ‘They get support from western countries to fight Islam, to destroy Islam.’ But when you saw this support, it was very funny. I saw boots from the MOM. What can I do, how can I fight with these boots. These army boots the army uses, because it’s like for the fight against ISIS, I mean… It was somehow the way to destroy the FSA, they destroyed the concept of these people by this support.” That is interesting, can you say a bit more on that, why it was destroying the FSA? “Because you go to the public and you say we support these fighters who are fighting ISIS and then you don’t support them, you send them… you put some salt on the plate,” Zenelden says. And then the counter attack of the other part will be harder because you… “Exactly. They got these claims that those people are hiding, they are not fighting Assad they are fighting ISIS (only).”
The groups that got the support were mainly fighting ISIS right during the time of the support? “In the beginning they fought against Assad, all FSA. And at some point they decided to fight ISIS but it’s like it’s going to be more dangerous than Assad. Or they support Assad. Because, Assad was trying to advance from this direction and ISIS tried to advance from that direction. So you have to fight two different ones, what we have to do, they attack me from this side, and then you attack me from that side, you are my enemy, you support my enemy.”
It is the fight against ISIS and standing the ground against Assad, and it is still happening in Jebel al-Zawya, for example. “Yes, or the Nusra. You see, Nusra attacks an FSA group, they kill them and then Assad comes and takes the area very easily.” This is what happened? This is completely different what Dutch media reported “Because Assad’s media machine is 100 times better than ours, or they have the power. After all, they have the UN council where Jaafari can say whatever he wants and everyone writes this down. The Germans and the British have moved from supporting Syria, the Americans have withdrawn, too. Everyone has. The Brits also suspended aid after a report of a current affairs TV-program Panorama, ‘The Jihadis You Pay For, Jane Corbin investigates British foreign aid, discovering some of the cash has ended up in the hands of extremists’.46 “Exactly. Actually, all the news. The Assad supporters have better access.”
“Back to Shamiya. Those fighters are the Syrian fighters. Community fighters. They may be conservative, or not, but I know several people myself who were not conservative, they are fighting Assad and ISIS in parallel. And after ISIS, if you go to the Euphrates Shield Operation, 2016 – 2017, the easiest battle the number of dead civilians of the minimum for such combat distance, because it was highly specified, targeted, supported. Look at Raqqa after the liberation from ISIS and look at al-Bab. They cannot be compared.”
“The Turks did not bombard as much in the cities when they liberated Jarabulus and al-Bab; the damage was limited. Let’s compare between Azaz and Al-Bab, and Raqqa. The latter is like more advanced in infrastructure. How come we forget what the Coalition did? After all, Raqqa is one of the major cities, so I belong to Raqqa as much as I do to Aleppo. It’s one country. While in Azaz, you can continue to look the next day. I mean when the FSA came in, they kicked out ISIS and the next day renewed their lives, there’s no such destruction.” When did the FSA come in Azaz. “Very early. In 2012, Azaz became liberated [from the regime, on 19 July 2012]47. There was Ammar Dadikhy (the first leader of the Northern Storm brigade) who was in charge of the border with Turkey; it was all very early.” It was a revolutionary town. “Yes, and then ISIS came and took Azaz from them and then they got support from the Turks to conquer their city. They were besieged because of the border, when ISIS entered and took the checkpoints around Azaz.”
“At that time I was working for an international humanitarian organization. I was delivering aid from Turkey to Aleppo. I crossed with the humanitarian aid, so I remember seeing the ISIS checkpoints and they asked us where we came from and from who this aid is coming?” Have you passed Isis checkpoints ? How many kilometers from Azaz were these checkpoints? “No, they were very close to Azaz. I mean, if we say this is Azaz and from here it is besieged that day from Afrin, Zahraa and Afrin, Nubl and Zahraa, the Shia fighters who support Assad are from here. We have the border with Turkey which is close and then we have ISIS here.”
14) Former leader of the Military Council of Aleppo, Abdel Jabbar al-Akaidi
It turns out that he knew both leaders Abdel Qader al-Salih, the leader of Liwa Tawheed, and Ammar Dadikhi, the leader of the Northern Storm, very well. “We fought together, against the regime and against Daesh”, Akaidi says. “The beginning of the international coalition against the Daesh organization was in October 2014, when Daesh entered Kobani/Ayn al-Arab. I took part in the battle. With a brigade from Aleppo. I led the FSA participating in the struggle to free Ayn al-Arab/Kobani. And with me there were also the Peshmerga from Erbil, Iraq, and they came in through Turkey. We were together, we fought against ISIS in Ayn al-Arab and next to it there was YPG. But the western media focuses only on YPG. So the international coalition against ISIS started from September 2014. It was formed against the Daesh organization. The battle in the north also started in 2014 against Daesh, but started before Kobani. The fight against Daesh was with some FSA brigades, the war with Daesh at the beginning of the year in January 2014, about 8 months earlier, and this is a very important point, before PYD and YPG fought against Daesh. We fought 8 months before that. In January 2014. We started in Aleppo, in the city, and in Atareb, the western countryside and spread to the northern countryside, and a very fierce battle started, we took no more time than two weeks to have Daesh from Aleppo expelled and expelled Daesh from the western countryside; Atareb, Daret Ezza, Ein Jarra, that whole area, in the western countryside [of Aleppo]”, Akaidi says.
“The battle extended to the northern countryside, the battle in Tel Rifaat and Haji Bakr was killed in Tel Rifaat. He was Baghdadi’s assistant.. We fought in Azaz, in Marea, Akhtarin, in Souran, in every area in the northern countryside, in this whole area. This was all before the ES operation, the international coalition joined from the air. Turkey is part of the international coalition against ISIS. But it had no troops on the ground”, Akaidi explains.
“In 2016, in August, the fight against ISIS, the Euphrates Shield (ES) Operation began with the participation of the international coalition from the air and Turkish special forces on the ground. And I was fighting. The battle ended in March 2017. Al-Bab was liberated, and the control started over the whole area of ES, of course with the participation of Turkish troops on the ground, and also among them about 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in al-Bab48. Al-Bab was the headquarter of the Daesh organization in this area. It was almost the capital in the north, the capital of Daesh. There were tunnels and many trenches and they were very powerful until the city of al-Bab was liberated. There were fighters from all countries. Iraqi fighters, Tunisians, Libyans, also from the Arabian Gulf, from Egypt, and there were French, Belgian fighters and British, too. There were many foreign fighters, of course besides Chechens, and the Caucasian areas, and from Turkistan, they expelled all kind of Daesh fighters in Al-Bab, and they went to Raqqa. This battle [ES operation] lasted for about six or seven months, until Daesh was defeated from all over the area, there was no Daesh left. The FSA controlled it, and with it the Turks. They started building infrastructure, clinics, schools and hospitals, and so forth, the area came under the influence of Turkey,” Akaidi explains. “Of course there was a race here, a race on the city of al-Bab, of the regime, and with it the Russians and the Iranians, and SDF and also FSA, the Turkish ally, to control the city of al-Bab City. Al-Bab is an important strategic town, it is located on the M4 Road. But in the end it was controlled by FSA and the Turks, and the area got organized in a reasonable way: local councils, schools and universities were established in the area. The area became organized. But imagine, we started with the establishing… we establish a state with nothing. There is an Interim Government (SIG), but it has no support, there is no international recognition of the SIG,” Akaidi says.
“They fought against Daesh from the beginning of 2014 and also started the fight against Nusra about the year 2017. After the city of Aleppo fell, Aleppo fell in late December 2016, on December 26, 2016, the brigades left for the western and northern countryside. They started a battle with Jabhat al-Nusra, meaning, the Zinki brigade fought against Nusra; Tajammu’ Fastaqim fought against Nusra – all the brigades fought against Jabhat al-Nusra, and finally they came to the north, and left the Idlib areas because they fought with Jabhat al-Nusra. So these brigades are not radical, they are not extremist, not ‘mutashaddide’. But western media try sometimes, and some Arab media too, some Arab media that have disputes with Turkey, to present them as radical. If you take them to the East Euphrates area, Mazloum Abdi and the YPG and PYD organization, these are what they call SDF, they also have many violations, they committed massacres forced migration and discrimination. And now also the forced conscription of children, girls included,” Akaidi says.
“I will speak about al-Jabha al-Shamiya. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is actually Liwa Tawheed in Aleppo. And it has no relation to extremism at all. Liwa Tawheed was an FSA brigade. Abdel Qader al-Salih led it. He was martyred. We went to al-Qusayr and we fought against Hezbollah, in April 2013. And also in 2014, it [Liwa Tawheed] waged a fierce battle against the Daesh organization,” Akaidi says.
“Liwa Tawheed fought in Aleppo, in the city, and it fought all over the northern countryside. It was the head of the war in the fight against the Daesh organization, it and Liwa al-Fateh and Liwa Asifat al-Shamal, these three were the ones who fought most against Daesh. Asifat al-Shamal, the Northern Storm, was the most important in the north. They were the most powerful group in the north, and they are sons of the northern countryside, the majority, and all Syrians. They do not have foreign fighters. [Except for one of course, Dutch Moroccan Driss M.] Al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s leader is Abu Ahmad Nuur.49 Amouri is the leader of Asifat al-Shamal, Northern Storm. Or, Nuur is the leader of the Third Legion. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya has never been an extremist brigade, it fought against Daesh, and it fought against Nusra also in the western countryside. In the end of the battle, it left the western countryside and came to the northern countryside”, Akaidi explains.
For example, in Afrin there are Kurds who were expelled from their homes, some were with YPG but most weren’t. Is there any improvement? How do you see it? Some Kurds returned. “Sure, very important. I believe that there are Kurds who have returned, the situation is improving, the situation is stabilizing, a committee is formed under al-Jabha al-Shamiya, the name is the Response to Rights Committee because of violations, if one is oppressed, someone has violated him or they are bringing back his rights. They are also present in the north.” Ten days later after the interview, in Afrin, I learned that about half of the Afrin Kurds have returned.50
“Robert Ford [former US ambassador] is a friend of mine,” Akaidi says, he wrote a long article about Razan Zaitoune and me four months ago. 51 I took Robert to Syria. He went there with me.” In “Razan Zaitouneh and Colonel Akaidi Understood How the Syrian Revolution Would Go Better Than I Did”, Robert Ford, US Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, describes his meetings with Akeidi and concludes: “The United States had been concerned that small arms provided to Akaidi’s fighters would fall into extremist hands in the heat of battle and had held back substantial aid for that reason. Yet by denying people like Akaidi significant support, we created a self-fulfilling prophecy. By late 2015, such leaders and their fighters had been overshadowed and eventually eliminated by groups spouting sectarian agendas and dismissing political negotiations out of hand, helped along by Turkey, Qatar, and the Syrian regime itself.”
15) As recent as October 2021 they halted the HTS (former Nusra) advance just West of Azaz
In October Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—a Jabhat al-Nusra off-shoot—entered Afrin via the south in al-Basoota, and via the southwest in Deir al-Balout. In a move unimaginable just days before, HTS was able to capture the whole of Afrin, including Afrin city, the only large city in the district. Consequently, HTS was heading towards the border city of Azaz, the largest city in opposition-held northern Syria. The 3rd Corps, which consists mainly of al-Jabha al-Shamiya—the local brigades of Azaz, Marea, and Tal Rifaat concentrated in Kafr Janna a few miles west of Azaz—has thus far managed to thwart the advance of HTS. Negotiations were held in al-Basoota, but Shamiya initially rejected all HTS demands. Clashes were still ongoing on the Kafr Janna front.
The attack began as a result of Syria’s lucrative and pervasive drug trade along with the competing interests of different brigades within the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) that controls the area. Abu Ghanoum—an activist in Al-Bab recently killed along with his pregnant wife—had been investigating the local al-Hamza brigade’s involvement in the drug trade. Al-Jabha al-Shamiya, the 3rd corps of the SNA, subsequently investigated the incident, with Shamiya emptying the headquarters of al-Hamza in al-Bab in response to evidence pointing to a leader of the brigade being culpable.
Syrian analysts observing the al-Hamza group point to this investigation as the spark that compelled the connected criminal Sultan Suleiman Shah Division Brigade—colloquially known as al-Amshat after its notorious leader Abu Amsha, who has also been under Shamiya investigation for numerous crimes—to request the help of HTS warlord Abu Mohammad al-Jolani from Idlib, allowing HTS to enter. The areas are useful targets for HTS, since Shamiya runs profitable border-crossings there.
There have been secret talks going on with international actors to have Jolani’s plan implemented in northwest and northern Syria through Jarabulus. And only now it has become visible”, says a military leader of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, the largest SNA brigade with headquarters just outside Azaz. “We decided to not enter into a war with them, and that is why we retreated from Afrin. We made an agreement with them on military matters, because we are a military organization and we do not have a project for all other aspects of governing like the Salvation Government does. But we will never accept their project for our areas.” More on this in Shifting Lines and IDPs: Azaz, Afrin, and the HTS Incursion.52 A few days later, HTS violated the ceasefire and with that any kind of agreement finished. Turkey interfered and HTS left the area, except for some security men in disguise in the headquarters of the Amshat in Afrin. There is always the risk HTS might try again.
16) Al-Jabha al-Shamiya is part of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)
Al-Jabha al-Shamiya as brigade has a seat in the SNC, their representative is Bahjat Atassi. I met Atassi twice, once in October 2018 in Istanbul and in the summer of 2022 in the headquarters of the SNC, or ‘Etilaf’ in Arabic. He showed me pictures with EU representatives, he travels to Brussels and elsehwere in Europe and wondered if the label in the Netherlands would now have consequence for him: He would not be able to join international meetings on Syria. The Assyrian christian Abdel Ahad Asteipho is one of the two vice presidents of the SNC. The other one is the Kurd Abdel Hakim al-Bashar. It goes without saying that a Jihadi would never work under a christian. The Etilaf itself by the way has several Christian members, several Kurds, and a Yazidi: It is a reflection of the Mosaic that Syria is, and relatively the Kurds and the Christians are strongly represented in it. They meet continuously with international actors, including the Dutch, and several members of the Etilaf had a training at the Clingendael Institute in the Hague. Members of the Etilaf are also part of UN initiatives in Geneva. This summer there have been meetings with al-Jabha al-Shamiya and the US in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, sources with knowledge to those matters told the author, the US is looking for partners to counter the advance of Iran (Iran is advancing in northwest Syria, they raised the Iranian flag in Tal Rifaat this summer).
Consequences of the Trouw and Nieuwsuur reporting
Northwestern Syria was written off years ago by some Western governments. For instance, Dutch Foreign Affairs halted all aid to civil society NGOs, including Local Development and Small Projects (LDSPS)—an NGO that originated from Razan Zaitouneh in Eastern Ghouta—and the rescue workers of the White Helmets. This decision was justified to Parliament with a statement that the return of the Assad regime to the area was imminent, and therefore there was no use in continuing to support NGOs there.
Four years later, the opposition-held areas in the north remain outside of regime control. And despite its challenges, the number of Syrians from around the country who are seeking refuge there is increasing day by day. A conservative estimation of the area’s current IDPs is 4.7 million, but researchers suspect that this number is actually much higher, as new IDPs wait for new identity cards issued by the local councils.
“We come to the issue of stopping the support to the Syrian civil society which came up for the discussion. We got the funds from the Dutch government through the so-called ARC program. We received these funds from this ARC program and suddenly out of nowhere we got the decision that the fund will be cut”, Zenelden explains.
“We work in the northern and western Aleppo countryside, so we continue our vision and our work in these areas. We continue in these areas and I receive my salary. Since the Dutch withdrew from these funds, we continue to work and there is eventually no-one to take these areas. I know the regime has made some progress because everyone supports the regime. We still have some liberated areas where we can continue to make a world of difference. See the difference between the freedom and non-freedom, dictators and non-dictators, where they can implement their vision in the communities. So we keep working, they withdraw and they sent us this incredible text: The fund is be cut because as Dutch government we say no more funds should go inside Syria, because even though the liberated areas they will eventually go to the regime.”
That is what they say? “Yes, exactly. My word. We had a lawyer between us. They called it, eventually it will be taken by the regime. So, when the western governments say that the Syrians received these funds to support better community efforts…” It was this bad? “It was this bad, since now we can’t give incentives in Syria now but in the end of the day, we have this lawyer they somehow offered a small amount as a service fees. Knowing that all the workers will be out of a job, all contracts will be laid off at the same time. You told me that eventually it will get ready, what shall I do, it was a decision an internal discussion in the organization what shall we do? Shall we say the same that this eventually will go to the regime and we withdraw or shall we look for and other supporter and we got another fund since two– two-and-a-half years, for the same areas.”
Indeed, this is what Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok (VVD) and Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag (D66) wrote on Friday 7 September, 2018, the last working day before Trouw and Nieuwsuur came with their ‘news’ that the Netherlands secretly had reported a terror group in Syria.
“The prospects for a lasting peace in Syria are bleak. The fact that the committed efforts have not produced the desired result in the long term is disappointing. The shrinking space for the Syrian opposition and the increasing influence of the extremist groups in the remaining area have made the possibilities of turning the tide in the short term extremely limited.”53
The letter also states: “Of the remaining (small) stabilization programs for the time being, only humanitarian demining will be continued, especially around Raqqa. The other program, Local Development and Small Projects Support (LDPSP), which focused on supporting local councils in and around Eastern Ghouta and rural Western Aleppo, will also be completely halted due to shrinking space for moderate opposition. The programming in Eastern Ghouta has already been completed due to the takeover of the regime and it is expected that the rural areas of Western Aleppo will eventually be taken over by the regime.”
Currently, there are about 4.7 million Syrians in opposition-held areas, and about 9 million in regime areas. Plus another about 3 million in SDF-held areas in northeast Syria. The number of Syrians in opposition-held areas keeps increasing, Syrians flee with their feet: from regime area to opposition-held areas.
“In the end of the day, we did not have to use the fees because we got another fund in other ways so we are able to but it was the same with the Syrian Civil Defense, White Helmets, we were on the same project. The organization where I work did hired a lawyer. A Dutch lawyer, we stated a case against them, because they told us they would cut the funds now and it was not illogical after the association we had with a lawyer between us to get at least some funds to survive or to settle. Because we also have a contract as an organization, we have an obligation to our partners in Syria, the workers with the local councils where we have a contract. The employees in the Netherlands cannot be told that you won’t have a job tomorrow. If you have a contract for at least six months, you must complete this contract at the least. No, we have obligations, we are talking about building Syria. We have contracts of six months, so we have to continue for six months. Even we cut our funds, but these three months should be covered because the local councils hired these people for these projects, they’ve hired staff. The projects are to support the local councils.”
The Netherlands, as mentioned above, has also stopped aid to the rescue workers of the White Helmets. This led to great troubles among the White Helmets. Also German NGOs working on Syria were affected by the news coverage in the Netherlands. “We were also affected”, Adopt An Revolution’s Ferdinand Durr told the author, “the government was afraid, we might also be supporting jihadists.”
The current situation
This area in northwestern Syria is a patchwork of Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen and Yazidi Syrian residents, but ongoing violence and competing authorities have displaced many in each group. The cities of Azaz and Marea are majority Arab, Tal Rifaat was once majority Arab—though next to none remain—and Afrin city was once majority Kurdish—now approximately 40% percent Kurdish, according to a member of the local Kurdish council. All of these cities have huge numbers of IDPs: 80 percent of Azaz’s 260,000 inhabitants are IDPs from throughout Syria, according to the Independent Doctors Association (IDA). Local sources estimate Afrin City is currently about 60 percent IDPs. Half of Marea’s 40,000 inhabitants are likewise IDPs, according to the leadership of the local Mu’tasim brigade.
However, as the HTS attack on Afrin so vividly demonstrates, violence in this region remains a part of life here. The conflict between SNA and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)-linked forces, known as the People’s Defense Units (YPG), also continues to simmer, and the frontlines are blurry. YPG-controlled Tal Rifaat is only three kilometers away from the SNA controlled Marea, and while the latter is located in a valley of sorts, Tal Rifaat is still visible. Locals in Marea reported that shelling on Marea comes from Tal Rifaat regularly, with the city now under what residents see as mixed SDF-regime-Iranian control.
Tal Rifaat triggered Afrin
“In March 2016, Russia bombed Marea for three full days,” Bashir Alito—former head of the council of the liberated Aleppo province from 2012-2016 and current political spokesman of the IDPs of Tal Rifaat—remembers. Local rebels liberated Tal Rifaat from the regime and from ISIS, including the killing of the senior strategist Haji Bakar. Alito lamented, however, “we could not liberate it from the Russians and the PKK.” Like Ankara, Bashir Alito and a number of other IDPs do not believe there is any distinction between the YPG and the PKK, a Turkish and U.S.-designated terrorist group. “We call the YPG and SDF: PKK,” Bashir Alito tells me, “because we know that they get their orders from Qandil.”
“Describing those who fled the city during the initial Russian bombing campaign, he noted “People left without many belongings; we thought we would be back in two weeks or so. But when we wanted to return to our houses, we found out that PKK fighters had entered the town, and forbade us to return.” Now, Alito rents a house with three other families in Kafr Kalbin, a village between Marea and Azaz. He and his family now live just about ten kilometers from Tal Rifaat: “I can see Tal Rifaat from the roof of the house.”
While Alito is able to afford to rent a house, many of the IDPs from Tal Rifaat—along with residents from 42 villages and sixteen smaller settlements also taken at the time—live in makeshift IDP camps near Sijjo and Yazibar near the Turkish border. In Sijjo village, Mahmoud Alito alias al-Zaeem, a military leader from Tal Rifaat whose brigade is now part of the Shamiya, says shop names like “Tal Rifaat pharmacy” show how the village has flourished due to the IDPs now in residence.
The majority of the members of the Alito clan still live in IDP camps. “[The IDPs] decided to set up tents in the Sijjo area, and not go to Afrin,” an expelled businessman from Tal Rifaat who lives in Kilis tells me. “They did not want to settle in the Kurdish Afrin area. When asked who was paying for these grounds, Mahmoud Alito explained that the Shamiya was “coordinating all this.” The makeshift camps are next to the headquarters of Shamiya near the Turkish border, and some IDPs even live within the headquarters itself.
Here, resident Firas Alito tells me that when the Turks announced the military operation on Tal Rifaat, the people in the camps celebrated, believing that the incursion would allow them to return to their homes, lands, and shops. Some even began to disassemble their tents in anticipation. The subsequent realization that the operation was not coming came as a blow. “When people realized they had to stay in their tents another winter in harsh circumstances, we had ten or fifteen people in the camps who died from the shock.”
Bashir Alito reported that some families have in fact returned to Tal Rifaat, but that the city leadership “did not let them return to their own houses [and] gave them a house away from the city.” Alito also pointed to the loss of Tal Rifaat as motivation for the SNA attack on Afrin. “We were neighbors, the PKK and we, and although we knew their practices, we never thought of going to Afrin. Tal Rifaat changed all this.”54
In the West, there has been strong opposition to a newly planned Turkish/Syrian National Army (SNA) military operation in northern Syria. Yet for many displaced Arabs from Tal Rifaat, Manbij, and the surrounding villages, they are welcoming the idea of the liberation of their towns and villages. In fact, they have been asking the Turkish-backed SNA to liberate their area for years.
Outside articles often focus exclusively on the Kurdish residents of northern Syria and emphasize that another military operation will automatically mean displacement of the Kurdish population. Yet the area constitutes a mix of Arab and Kurd-dominated towns, and Arab residents have their own history of displacement. In 2016, the entire Arab population was displaced in Tal Rifaat, a (historically) majority Arab town on the west side of the Euphrates, in a coordinated military operation by Russia, the Syrian regime, and militants from the People’s Defense Units (YPG) from Afrin. The YPG also attempted to connect the majority Kurdish enclaves of Kobani and Afrin through majority Arab areas, triggering a refugee flow of Arabs mainly from the two towns and surrounding villages to the Turkish border.
In March 2016, the author met several Syrians who were refugees from Tal Rifaat and the surrounding area and were crossing the border at the Bab al-Salama border crossing, a few kilometers north of Azaz. Initially assuming that they were fleeing the Russian and regime bombing of eastern Aleppo, it was surprising to learn that they were leaving because “YPG-fighters had taken over their houses.” Later at the border and in Kilis and Gaziantep, other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) shared many similar stories.55 In December 2022, they are hoping that finally, after almost 7 years, they are giving the green light to liberate their towns and villages. It is also in our own interest, that they won’t lose hope and flee to Europe.56
This long read was written as a contribution to the research on Syria in an unpaid capacity. If you appreciate you can donate here: