An Unprecedented Air Raid in Afrin

At around dawn this past Tuesday, a rapid series of airstrikes pulverized a military headquarters located on a hill overlooking Afrin’s Cuma plain. This attack, carried out by the Russian Air Force against Turkish-backed Islamist opposition faction Faylaq al-Sham, was the first of its kind. Since the Afrin region was captured by Turkey and its proxies in March 2018 it has not been targeted by Russian or Syrian regime air raids. Furthermore, these airstrikes likely represent the first time the base of a Turkish proxy located in the Afrin or Euphrates Shield regions has been attacked by manned aircraft. While it is difficult to ascertain how this August 31st attack factors into the logic of the cryptic and transactional Russian-Turkish relationship, it occurred within the context of increased rocket and artillery attacks on Afrin over the past several months, as well as a Turkish drone campaign in Syria’s northeast, with some strikes falling in close proximity to Russian troop deployments.

According to opposition media, the Faylaq al-Sham facility was struck five times early in the morning of August 31st.  Video footage shot from the ground at the time appears to confirm three different strikes, at the very least.

(Source)

The headquarters targeted is located at 36.373383, 36.806161, on a hill approximately two kilometers north of the village of Îska (or Iskan). The gif below shows the base, located at the northern end of the hill, before and after the airstrikes.

The base appears to have consisted primarily of two long buildings running along the northern and southern edges of the rectangular plot, in addition to smaller buildings sitting at the eastern and western ends, together surrounding a large central open space.

The airstrikes dealt significant damage to the northern and southern buildings, collapsing full portions of the former.

Portions of the roof of the northern building collapsed (Source)

Several vehicles parked at the eastern and western ends of the facility were also damaged or destroyed.

No casualties were reported in the airstrikes. According to opposition-affiliated outlet Step News Agency, this was due to Faylaq al-Sham evacuating the base prior, following a tip off by Turkey. This development suggests that Russia informed Turkey of its intentions beforehand. 

Analysis of three-meter pixel satellite imagery captured by Planet Labs Inc. shows that construction of this Faylaq al-Sham headquarters began in mid-June 2020.

Its layout bears resemblance to some of the other Syrian opposition bases recently built across Northern Aleppo.

A recently constructed Furqat al-Hamza base along the Turkish border, near the town of Hawar Kilis (Source)
A recently constructed Furqat al-Sultan Murad base near the town of Tell al-Hajar (Source)

Perched at the top of the same hill, under a kilometer to the southwest, is another, much larger military facility. This appears to be a Turkish military base in early stages of construction; its layout mirrors others located elsewhere in Aleppo and Idlib. Judging by three-meter pixel satellite imagery however it seems that construction on this base has paused for unknown reasons.

The larger hilltop base as seen by the Şadêrê-Celemê road (Source)
The hill bearing the two military bases as seen from the south, April 2020 (Source)
The hill bearing the two military bases as seen from the north, Jan 2020 (Source)

Formed in 2014, Faylaq al-Sham is at this point one of the most significant factions within the Syrian opposition. Its longevity arguably stems from two factors. Firstly, the group’s Islamist orientation (originally formed by factions with links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood) places it in the middle ground between jihadists and the less ideological factions, in turn allowing for it to become a key arbitrator between groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and FSA-branded groups. Additionally, Faylaq al-Sham has long enjoyed a close relationship to Turkey, resulting in consistent and significant funding. The faction plays a central role in Turkey’s Syria policy, with its leaders manning key positions in Turkish facilitated opposition alliances and its fighters escorting Turkish convoys in Idlib.

Historically Faylaq al-Sham’s primary area of operations has been within ‘greater Idlib,’ the area encompassing Idlib, as well as opposition-controlled portions of the Latakia, Hama and Homs governorates. Additionally, faction has maintained a presence in northern Aleppo since its formation. This is not the first time Faylaq al-Sham facilities have been targeted by Russian airstrikes. On October 26th, 2020, the Russian Air Force struck a Faylaq al-Sham training camp in the Idlib town of Kafr Takharim, killing dozens of fighters.

Currently, Faylaq al-Sham is part of Idlib-based opposition coalition the ‘National Front for Liberation’ (al-Jabhah al-Wataniyah lil-Tahrir). Additionally the group’s ‘Northern Sector’ is the 1st Legion, 14th Division, 141st Brigade of the ‘Syrian National Army’ (al-Jaysh al-Watani al-Suri), the umbrella organization encompassing all factions active in Turkish-controlled Aleppo and northeastern Syria. Nominally, the NLF was subordinated to the SNA in October 2019, however there’s little indication this affiliation has since held any meaning in reality.

Faylaq al-Sham occupies key territory in the south of the Afrin region, controlling the lucrative Deir Balout and al-Ghazawiyah crossings into Idlib. It’s unclear whether the group’s presence in this part of Afrin is subsumed under the NFL or the SNA brand, or whether this distinction meaningfully exists. While the Afrin location would point to the SNA label being more relevant, the NFL have engaged in training exercises in southern Afrin multiple times over the last two years.

The location of the base in relation to the Deir Balout and Ghazawiyah crossings (Base map by LiveUAmap)

While it is difficult to prognosticate on whether this unprecedented Russian airstrike in Afrin is a sign of further things to come, what is clear is that between this, the increase in rocket attacks on Afrin, and the ongoing Turkish drone campaign in Syria’s northeast, we are entering a new period within the ever-evolving ‘Sochi’ framework.

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