Over the course of our investigation into the murder of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, colleagues of mine at Syrians for Truth and Justice uncovered some interesting details regarding Turkish-backed opposition faction Tajammu‘ Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and its commander. Initially I had highlighted some of this information in a Twitter thread, but as the bulk of that thread has mysterious been made unavailable by Twitter I decided to share the findings here.
Ahrar al-Sharqiyah’s commander Ahmed Ihsan Fayyad al-Hayes (known by the kunya ‘Abu Hatem Shaqra’) was born in 1987 in the town of Shaqra, northwest of Deir ez-Zour city. Here he worked for some time as an agricultural laborer.
It has been reported by some that Abu Hatem belongs to al-Baggara, an Arab tribe with members spread across several countries in the region but primarily found in this same part of Deir ez-Zour governorate. Despite this, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah was not formed and mobilized strictly along tribal lines and the faction includes members from around Syria, not just Deir ez-Zour.
In the years prior to the war Abu Hatem Shaqra had relocated to Jordan where he was working in the construction industry. According to STJ’s sources he returned to Syria in July 2011, joining the opposition during the early stages of the conflict. Rather than heading back to Deir ez-Zour, Shaqra left Jordan for Damascus where by late 2011 he was taking part in insurgent activity. One such action we were told about was as an attack on an SAA checkpoint in Harran al-‘Awamid, to the southeast of the capital city on the outskirts of the Eastern Ghouta region. At some point while still in Ghouta Abu Hatem joined the nationwide hardline Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham and rose up through their ranks.
In late 2013 or early 2014 Shaqra made his way east across the badiyah to Deir ez-Zour, just as large-scale fighting broke out between Syrian opposition factions and ISIS. Abu Hatem’s homecoming was short lived, as the latter managed to conquer wide swathes of Syria’s east, forcing local rebels and their jihadist allies out of the region.
Abu Hatem Shaqra remained part of Ahrar al-Sham for the time being, settling into the northern Idlib town of Sarmada. According to Euphrates Post’s expose on Shaqra he spent the time building connections with opposition fundraisers in order to form his own group. The article uses the vague term ‘gulf financing,’ one commonly employed when discussing the opaque nature of Syrian opposition faction funding and failing to distinguish between state and non-state actors.
As has been gone over elsewhere, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah was founded Jan 2016, initially as a merger of small opposition factions Liwa’ al-Bara’ ibn Malik, Liwa’ al-Ahwaz, Liwa’ Dir‘ al-Ansar and Liwa’ Jund al-Tawheed. Three of these appear to have been active in Deir ez-Zour in 2013 or prior. Brief attempts have been unable to identify a ‘Jund al-Tawhid’ active in the Euphrates basin, uncovering a group of the same name active in the eastern Aleppo countryside that may or may not be the same. Previous profiles of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah agree that many of the faction’s initial fighters were at one point affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham.
Just within the last week, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah has come into conflict with Division 20, a faction made up of fellow ‘easterners,’ looting several of their bases and taking members of the group prisoner. Such behavior is far from shocking to say the least, and just further highlights the massive shortcomings of Turkey’s Syrian National Army unity efforts.
For more information on the group’s subsequent controversial abuse-filled history see the links shared at the bottom.
Currently the group maintains a headquarters in al-Ra’i, military or security facility in al-Bab, presence north of Manbij, in Rajo and Afrin city’s eastern side (Mahmoudiyah/Villas st.), as well as in recently captured town of Suluk and the frontlines with the SDF to the southwest. According to pro-opposition outlet al-Khabour, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah has recently come to operate a prison in the Tel Abyad area. The location is unspecified but given the group’s activity it is likely in or around Suluk.