Why Jaish al-Thuwar was bombarded by Turkey

After controversy was raised over Jaish al-Thuwar, its mission and role, and following conflicting accusations of supporting the Syrian regime and IS, Jaish al-Thuwar was bombarded by Turkey, thus losing the immunity it enjoyed since its inception.

al-monitor Rebel fighters of Jaish al-Thuwar, who are fighting alongside the Democratic Forces of Syria, gather near al-Hawl area in the southeastern city of Hasaka, Syria, Nov. 10, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Rodi Said.

Topics covered

washington, turkish-syrian border, syrian democratic forces, homs, fsa, ankara, aleppo, ahrar al-sham

Feb 18, 2016

Jaish al-Thuwar (Arabic for the Army of Revolutionaries) has been the focus of attention in the recent battles in northern Aleppo's countryside, especially after being bombed by Turkish artillery and receiving support from the United States under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Jaish al-Thuwar is a part of.

Moreover, conflicting accusations were hurled at Jaish al-Thuwar of either collaborating with the Syrian regime or fighting with the party that pays the most. One can say that the intricate structure of Jaish al-Thuwar and the nature of its missions reflect the complex situation in the Aleppo countryside and the confusion prevailing among warring factions. Most importantly, this situation clearly reflects the glaring contradiction between the US and Turkish policies and the conflict of interests and agendas.

Jaish al-Thuwar was founded in early May 2015 as a result of a coalition of a number of brigades and battalions. Although it declared that it is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and set two goals — namely fighting the Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian regime — it remained relatively isolated from the other armed factions, and it has been always accused of collaborating with the Syrian regime.

Jaish al-Thuwar includes several battalions: the Homs Revolutionaries Grouping, led by Lt. Col. Abdul Ilah Al-Ahmad; the Northern Sun Battalion, led by Raisan Abu Mahmoud; the Special Operations Brigade, led by Ali Barad (who is the official leader of Jaish al-Thuwar); the Kurds Front, led by Salah Jabu; Regiment 777, led by Abu Arab; the 99th Infantry Brigade, led by Ahmed Mahmoud Sultan; and the Sultan Selim Brigade, led by Abdul Aziz Mirza.

Jaish al-Thuwar includes Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens in its ranks — namely the same components the SDF tried to highlight — to prove that it represents the different constituents of the Syrian society, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliations.

Since its inception, Jaish al-Thuwar has provoked controversy, given its contradictory behavior and orientation. It had joined the Aleppo Conquest Operations Room, contributing with about 200 militants from the Martyrs of Atareb Brigade. Soon after, it fought against the majority of factions within this operations room, mainly the Levant Front. It had also clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which served as the two wings of the rival operations room known as the Ansar al-Sharia room.

By joining the Aleppo operations room, Jaish al-Thuwar was trying to gain the “revolutionary legitimacy” and popular support. However, the leaders of the operations room approved its joining in an attempt to contain it and prevent it from engaging in other counter-alliances.

This containment policy had continued, despite the group's rushing to join the SDF. Many truce agreements were held between the SDF, the Aleppo room and Jaish al-Thuwar to solve problems and differences and to implement cease-fires. However, all these agreements ended in failure. Things have escalated to the point of no return with the Syrian army’s latest campaign on the northern Aleppo countryside. This was when Jaish al-Thuwar rushed to exploit this military campaign in one way or another to achieve progress on the group, imposing its control over some villages between Azaz and Afrin.

Although Jaish al-Thuwar denied more than once having any connection with the MOC operations center, which is run by foreign intelligence agencies, led by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, receiving support from US intelligence services is no longer a controversy. This is true particularly since it joined the Syrian Democratic forces, which Washington announced supplying them with 50 tons of weapons a few days after their formation.

This US cover has given Jaish al-Thuwar a sort of immunity, which is mainly attributed to Jabhat al-Nusra refraining from eliminating it, as it did before with Division 30. Jabhat al-Nusra most probably refrained from doing so, because the other factions’ leaders interfered and convinced it to contain and attract it.

The helping factor is that Jaish al-Thuwar was engaged in violent battles against IS in a number of villages north of the Aleppo countryside. This is why it was in everyone's interest to preserve the group and increase pressure on IS. Indeed, the last truce agreement explicitly allowed Jaish al-Thuwar to move from Afrin to Azaz to fight IS.

Yet the escalated tension between Ankara and Washington regarding the stance toward Kurdish terrorism, Ankara’s warning against “a sea of bloodshed in case the US policy remains unchanged,” the change in the balance of power on the ground — after the Syrian army’s advancement and success in lifting the siege on Nubl and al-Zahra and cutting supply routes to all factions in Aleppo — and the military coordination between the Syrian Democratic forces and Russian aircrafts in a number of battles have seemingly caused Turkey to run out of patience, abort any containment and break the links with Jaish al-Thuwar.

There is no doubt that the Turkish shelling on Jaish al-Thuwar’s stations in the vicinity of Azaz and Afrin is mainly a message delivered to the United States that its allies have no immunity on the ground and Ankara would not keep pace with Washington's strategy from now on, as long as the latter continues to reject all Turkish and Saudi proposals on the safe zones or ground intervention.

Yet this shelling is also a command to factions under Turkish guidance that Jaish al-Thuwar should be targeted and eliminated. This is why fatwas were issued by Ahrar al-Sham accusing Jaish al-Thuwar of apostasy. There were also attempts to manipulate and divide Jaish al-Thuwar, through Mohammed Alloush, head of Jaish al-Islam’s political bureau and senior member of the delegation in Riyadh, who called on Jaish al-Thuwar’s members to defect from the group, abstain from obeying the commanders’ orders and join the revolution. The Homs Liberation Movement, led by Fateh Hassoun, issued a statement warning all formations in Homs against any link to Jaish al-Thuwar. Ironically, Jaish al-Thuwar considered that the Turkish shelling serves the regime in Syria and al-Qaeda.

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