Three Middle East experts from the Ankara-based Middle Eastern Strategic Research Center (ORSAM) traveled to Syria for three days, visiting Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen towns and villages close to the Turkish border. They talked with people and members of the armed opposition. They warn, however, that their observations are limited to the areas they visited and should not be generalized for all of Syria.
After you leave the Turkish border crossing, there is about a one-kilometer-wide buffer zone. This zone contains a Syrian refugee camp that is not administered by the Turkish government, but does recive help from Turkish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The poor conditions of this camp — made up of tents provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — cannot be compared with the camps in Turkey. Camps in Turkey are far more orderly, and enjoy social services, hygienic conditions and security. Syrians in the buffer zone camp also want to enter camps in Turkey, but because of capacity problems not all can be accommodated. We noticed that any Syrian with a passport can freely enter Turkey, except for armed persons. Groups controlling the Syrian side of the border crossing collect weapons from Free Syrian Army (FSA) personnel wanting to cross into Turkey. But this control is extremely superficial. Opposition soldiers in charge of supervising the border collect only visible weapons but don’t check bodies or cars. It is therefore possible for anyone to approach the Turkish border crossing armed, even with explosives. Even if they are checked carefully when entering Turkey, the security flaw on the Syrian side is scary, and poses a security risk for the Turkish border crossing.
Another highly visible feature of the border crossing is the heavy presence of humanitarian assistance trucks and NGO workers from several parts of the world who come with those trucks. Turkish and foreign NGOs deliver their humanitarian supplies to groups they cooperate with in Syria. Syrian groups they trust or have connections with are responsible for the distribution of the aid in Syria. Although it is a system necessitated by security conditions, it is also wide open to abuse. We heard many claims of this abuse from people on the Syrian side. We also noted something interesting with the NGOs: They take turns to pose for photos in front of the same trucks, but by rotating their own banners and posters on them. This enables different NGOs to use the same truck for publicity.
Once you are in Syria, the first settlement is Azaz, just opposite the Turkish town of Kilis. This is truly a ghost town. It is full of destroyed houses, wrecked tanks and other traces of war. The majority of the original population of 50,000-60,000 are gone and it is now down to about 10,000. The regime has no control whatsoever over this town, but airstrikes and artillery fire directed against the sparsely populated area continue. In any area where there is no regime control, especially at night, nobody goes out because there is no security.
Security risks have two aspects. First, the regime can open artillery fire after a certain hour on the areas it has lost control of. Second is the total absence of public authorities, and therefore a sharp increase in common crimes such as abductions, burglary, etc.
The first thing we noticed after crossing into Syria was a vehicle carrying militants of the leading Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham. Groups identify themselves with flags that they display in the front of their vehicles. Sometimes the civilians display the same flags to show which group they support. Based on their presence in the street and from our conversations with people, we understand that in rural Aleppo the most effective groups are Salafist organizations and Jabhat al-Nusra. Sometimes a settlement is controlled not by one, but multiple groups.
There are differing views on the effectiveness of Jabhat al-Nusra. The first view is that this group, mainly made up of fighters coming from outside Syria, is the key element of the struggle against the Syrian regime and that without Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafists the opposition will be crippled. Some people believe the Salafists and Jabhat al-Nusra are sincerely combating other armed groups which are engaged in common crimes. People appreciate this effort. But the tendency of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafists to impose their way of life and order in the towns they control is at times resented by the local people. They meddle with social life, impose their own Islamic restrictions and oppress people, causing anger. Almost everyone we spoke to was afraid of Jabhat al-Nusra and Salafist groups and did not want to talk negatively about them. These groups are the strongest in Aleppo, especially in the Raqqah area.
In Aleppo’s rural environment the regime’s control is confined to some military bases and a few villages where Shiites live. The armed opposition, instead of allocating manpower, money and weapons to these areas where there are no clashes, prefer to direct all their resources to central Aleppo. This is why you won’t see many opposition militants in the towns and villages of the Aleppo province. They have checkpoints between towns and at village entrances manned by a few militants. Buildings that once belonged to the police and intelligence services are now occupied by whatever opposition group controls that location. There are only a few militants in each town, because they say most of their men are in Aleppo. Nevertheless, those few militants provide some resemblance of security for towns and villages and administer them jointly with the civilian administration.
Free Syrian Army units fighting in Aleppo believe that the FSA made a strategic mistake in Homs. They say that in Aleppo the opposition was on the offensive and the regime was on the defensive, but it was the other way around in Homs. The reason they say this is that the opposition in Aleppo first took over rural areas and then moved toward the city center, whereas in Homs the opposition opted to first capture the city center and then spread to rural areas. Aleppo fighters say that by first taking over the rural areas, the city center can be encircled, but it is extremely hard to capture the center first and then spread to the rural areas. They say that in Raqqah — apart from two rural points — the entire province is under opposition control.
It is risky to enter the center of Aleppo, but we learn about the situation there from opposition fighters. They say the opposition controls 60% of the city and the regime 40%. … Hot clashes in the city center have almost ended. The parties continue to stay in parts they control without interfering all that much with the other side. It is therefore possible to talk of an equilibrium in Aleppo’s city center. But it has been said that, should the situation continue as is, it will be difficult for the opposition to control the city in its entirety. Boundaries have been drawn between the parties and both sides don’t tamper with these lines. The regime’s advantage is its capacity to hit behind the lines with artillery and airplanes. That is why the armed opposition thinks that a no-fly zone could alter the balance.
As for Aleppo’s rural areas, in the absence of a regime presence, the conflict is now characterized by a rivalry between opposition groups. Now that their common enemy has withered away, the contest now is for turf domination, for control of revenue sources, and common crimes for money. The best example of this is the village of Cobankoy, where most residents are Turkmen. Arab armed units operating under the name of Revolutionary Security raided the Kocaali Turkmen village after an incident over property rights, killed three from the same family and left with some hostages. In the ensuing clashes, one Arab militant was killed. Such incidents happen frequently amid a total absence of state authority and the refusal of armed opposition groups to recognize any higher authority.
It is not possible to talk of a revolution against the Assad regime in these areas.
Another complaint is that some opposition groups have evolved into criminal gangs which confiscate the humanitarian aid shipments from Turkey and sell them to the people. We were told tons of food stuffs have piled up in warehouses instead of being distributed to the needy. Even more interesting is the allegation that some of the supplies from Turkey are taken back to Turkey and sold at lower than market prices in border towns.
In the areas under the control of the armed opposition, alongside the FSA there are also civilian local councils. Somebody has spray-painted the word “thieves” on the civilian council building in Azaz. When we asked why, people told us the local council was stealing the aid intended for the people.
People in the area and the armed opposition also claimed that there are armed groups pretending to be a part of the FSA structure, but actually are supported by the regime and act on behalf of it. People say “former Shabiha [regime thugs] are now revolutionaries.” This claim is worth investigating in Aleppo and other parts of the country.
Security in areas where Turkmen live is generally provided by Turkmen military units. There are no clashes in these areas. Turkmen soldiers and commanders told us most of their soldiers are fighting in the center of Aleppo, where they control and defend Turkmen districts. With their proper uniforms and weapons these troops look professional. Turkmen think they don’t get enough help from Turkey, but a new border crossing is to be opened soon to the Turkmen town of Cobanbey. Once opened, this crossing will speed up direct delivery of assistance. Turkmen are carrying on their struggle mostly with their own means. They say they get little assistance from the Aleppo Military Council and from other parts of the world.
Once you move east from the Kurdish town of Kobani, you are in Arab and Turkmen areas. But they are not dominated completely by Turkmen and Arabs. There are Kurdish villages in the same area, although not many. A few Kurds also live in villages known to be Arab and Turkmen villages. As to the political affiliations of these Kurds, there are different opinions. According to one viewpoint, Kurds living in Arab-Turkmen areas have forgotten their language, speak Turkish and live in harmony with Turkmen and Arabs. These Kurds, as is the case with the Arabs and Turkmen of the same area, are anti-regime, cooperate with the FSA and keep their distances from PYD [Democratic Union Party] and other Kurdish nationalist movements. But another viewpoint is that this is a tactical position necessitated by having to live with an Arab-Turkmen majority population. Perhaps not as strong as in Kurdish-dominated regions, these Kurds also keep their identities and have Kurdish nationalist tendencies. Should the balance of power change in that region, there may well be sudden and radical changes in Kurdish attitudes.
In discussions with opposition military commanders we understood they have no connection to the Higher Military Council set up in Antalya. Even commanders who in name have decision-making positions in that council say their Chief of Staff Selim Idriss is nothing but a “postman” with no say in the distribution of guns and money coming in. Local commanders insist they are not under the command of Idriss and that there is no command structure. A structure could be established if the Higher Military Council can actually control the financial aid received. But for the time being nobody, including the commanders who are supposed to be members of the council, recognizes Idriss or the council as the superior authority. For them, the council is an entity without any functions.
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