Ahrar al- Sharqiya, also known as Tajammu Ahrar al-Sharqiya is an armed Syrian rebel group active in the Aleppo Governorate. It was formed in 2016 by former al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham members who were displaced following fighting in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate in eastern Syria between ISIL, YPG units and the Syrian government. This establishment also followed an announcement from a senior Shura Council Member, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who was also a part of al-Nusra. This caused internal strife within al-Nusra due to his hard-line stance against IS (Puxton, 2018). His links with the group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, are strenuous, as there is no solid evidence as to whether or not he was involved with the group following the announcement of its formation in 2016 (Puxton, 2018) and despite these tensions, there are reports that the group is involved with smuggling ISIL members from areas of Eastern Syria to places such as Idlib for rates of up to $50,000 per person (Browne, 2018).
History & Foundations
The group was originally a unit under Ahrar al-Sham in the Deir ez-Zor area in eastern Syria, which took part in battles against the Syrian government and their allies up until 2016 when it split from Ahrar al-Sham to take part in Operation Euphrates Shield (Baladi, 2018). As aforementioned, Shura Council member Abu Maria al-Qahtani announced the formation of the group in 2016 following accusations of causing internal strife within al-Nusra which he was later dismissed from the group. However, the extent of his involvement with Ahrar al-Sharqiya is unknown and there are speculations that his involvement has been little to none (Puxton, 2018). As a component member of the Syrian National Army, the group took part in the 2016 Operation Euphrates shield, and it was their first known joint operation with the Turkish Armed Forces, in which they took control of the city of Jarabulus from ISIL (Perry, 2016).
Objectives & Ideology
The group's ideology is almost entirely dedicated to fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government which stems from its original unit as it was a part of Ahrar al-Sham. This opposition to Bashar al-Assad's government has shaped the group's actions in eastern and northern Syria where it is active, and the group has also taken part in combat engagements against the Syrian Armed forces and their allies, as well as the SDF and also the Islamic State. The group’s ideology is actively rooted in an anti-Western sentiment and the group as a whole has confronted and blocked American forces who were embedded within the Syrian pentagon-backed Liwa al-Mu'tasim rebel group (Weiss, 2016). The group has also been accused of integrating former IS members into its ranks with a former IS commander, Abu al-Baraa al-Ansari, being one of these reported commanders (Rojava Information Centre, 2019).
Military & Political Abilities
The group has extensive military abilities which range from being able to take part in large-scale combat such as the aforementioned operation Euphrates Shield and also operation Olive Branch. In Operation Olive Branch, the group fought alongside and was backed up by the Turkish Armed Forces against the YPG (People's Protection Units – Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) (Al-Khalidi, 2018). This operation included Turkish air assets and artillery, and this could indicate a larger capability for Ahrar al-Sharqiya to conduct more lethal military operations since many of their operations are conducted with the tactical and logistic support of the Turkish army and air force (Al Jazeera, 2018). Photographs of the group – which they publish on their Twitter account – regularly feature images of both light and heavy weaponry including RPGs (Rocket Propelled grenades), as well as sniper rifles and HMGs (heavy machine guns) (Ahrar al-Sharqiya, 2021).
Approach to Resistance
The group is extremely violent and has been accused of many war crimes, as well as the murder of multiple civilian and political figures. For instance, the group was accused of targeting and murdering Kurdish activist and politician Havrin Khalaf in north-eastern Syria in 2019, in which her armoured vehicle was fired upon by Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters. The group published photographs of the attack, as well as videos in which they executed two unidentified prisoners. This has been described as a war crime by several Kurdish activists as well as Genevieve Zingg who is a Legal Fellow at the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (Stocker, 2019).
International Relations & Potential Alliances
Ahrar al-Sharqiya has an entrenched international link to Turkey, which is its main supporter outside of Syria. The Turkish military has not only provided logistical support but also direct military support to the group and this has only enabled the growth of its lethality (Ajjoub, 2022). The group has also come into combat against several other groups including other Turkish-backed mercenary groups, such as al-Jabha al-Shamiya and also Ahrar al-Sham, over property which they had stolen from civilians (ANF News, 2018). Even though the group has been in opposition and has directly fought against the Islamic State on multiple occasions in northern and north-eastern Syria, this comes in contrast to reports that the group has integrated multiple former IS fighters (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 2019) as well as a former IS commander (Rojava Information Centre, 2019).
Works Cited (MLA-style)
Ahrar al-Sharqiya (2021). https://twitter.com/ahraralsharqia/status/1398654812049248259?s=20. [online] Twitter. Available at: https://twitter.com/ahraralsharqia/status/1398654812049248259?s=20.
Ajjoub, O. (2022). HTS, Turkey, and the future of Syria’s north. [online] Middle East Institute. Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/hts-turkey-and-future-syrias-north.
Al Jazeera (2018). Turkey launches ground and air push on Kurd-held Afrin. [online] www.aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/1/21/erdogan-operation-in-syrias-afrin-has-begun.
Al-Khalidi, S. (2018). FSA commander says 25,000 Syrian rebels back Turkish force in Syria. Reuters. [online] 21 Jan. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-ria-turkey-rebels/fsa-commander-says-25000-syrian-rebels-back-turkish-force-in-syria-idUSKBN1FA0OK.
ANF News (2018). Clash between Bubena tribe and Ahrar al-Sham gangs in Afrin. [online] ANF News. Available at: https://anfenglish.com/rojava/clash-between-bubena-tribe-and-ahrar-al-sham-gangs-in-afrin-28536.
Baladi, E. (2018). ‘Ahrar al-Sharqiya Brigade’: The Potential Spearhead of East of Euphrates Battles. [online] Enab Baladi. Available at: https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2018/11/ahrar-al-sharqiya-brigade-the-potential-spearhead-of-east-of-euphrates-battles/.
Browne, G. (2018). Rebels make thousands smuggling ISIL fighters across Syria. [online] The National. Available at: https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/rebels-make-thousands-smuggling-isil-fighters-across-syria-1.702312.
Perry, T. (2016). New Syrian rebel advance against IS may take months, commander says. Reuters. [online] 26 Aug. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-rebels-idUSKCN1102PI.
Puxton, M. (2018). Syrie: Ahrar al-Sharqiya, ces anciens d’al-Nosra devenus supplétifs de la Turquie. [online] FranceSoir. Available at: http://www.francesoir.fr/politique-monde/syrie-ahrar-al-sharqiya-ces-anciens-dal-nosra-devenus-suppletifs-de-la-turquie?platform=hootsuite.
Rojava Information Centre (2019). Database: over 40 former ISIS members now part of Turkish-backed forces – Rojava Information Center. [online] rojavainformationcenter.com. Available at: https://rojavainformationcenter.com/2019/08/database-over-40-former-isis-members-now-part-of-turkish-backed-forces/.
Stocker, J. (2019). Turkey-backed Syrian rebels kill Kurdish politician, execute prisoners. [online] The Defense Post. Available at: https://www.thedefensepost.com/2019/10/13/turkey-backed-syrian-rebels-kill-kurdish-politician-execute-prisoners/.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (2019). (S.A.) and (H.A.) .. from ISIS members in Deir Ezzor to fighters in the ranks of ‘Ahrar al-Sharqiyyah’ in Afrin. [online] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Available at: https://www.syriahr.com/en/150540/.
Weiss, M. (2016). Syrian Rebels Taunt U.S. Troops. The Daily Beast. [online] 30 Sep. Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/syrian-rebels-taunt-us-troops.