Sirwan Kajjo
Jun 30 2018

Twin explosions mark new tensions in Afrin

Two car explosions that rocked the center of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin this week suggest growing contentions among the rebel groups in charge of the city.

The twin explosions that occurred simultaneously targeted a Turkish-backed rebel group in downtown Afrin, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One of the blasts went off near the headquarters for Turkish forces in Afrin, the UK-based group reported.

Local sources said at least 11 people were killed in the attacks, including six civilians and five rebel fighters. Dozens more were wounded.

An obscure Kurdish group called the Afrin Falcons has claimed responsibility for both attacks.

“We are a group of young Kurds from Afrin… who have decided to rely on our own abilities and begin the struggle to liberate Afrin from the plague of terrorism,” the group said in a statement published on social media.

The group said it had no affiliation with any other Kurdish armed or political groups and that its “struggle was independent.”

The group’s first post on its Facebook account dates back to June 8.   

But activists in the city ruled out any involvement of such a group in the attack, saying the vicinity where the explosions took place has a large military presence.

“Anti-rebel armed groups can’t carry out an attack of this magnitude in a heavily guarded area,” said a Kurdish activist in Afrin who refused to be named for fear of retribution.  

“This group (Afrin Falcons) took credit for the attack, perhaps because it wants to tell the public that rebels can’t provide security in Afrin,” he told Ahval.

Afrin was seized on March 18 by Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels after a two-month-long operation, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, that aimed at dislodging the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Kurdish city.  

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a three-decade conflict with Turkish armed forces for greater autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. Ankara considers both Kurdish groups to be terrorist organizations.

After Afrin came under the control of Turkish-backed rebels, the YPG vowed to start a new phase of resistance in Afrin against Turkey and its Syrian proxies, consisting of guerrilla warfare and special operations. The group has since carried out many small-scale attacks, targeting Turkish soldiers and rebel fighters in the countryside of Afrin.

“At this point, the YPG doesn’t have the strategic depth that allows it to send attackers into the city center of Afrin. It can only operate on the periphery of Afrin,” said a Kurdish military official based in northern Syria. He insisted on anonymity.

Recently tensions have increased between two major rebel groups over power and revenue sharing and this, according to local sources, might have led to the Wednesday attack.

Al-Shamiya Front and al-Mutasim Brigade have had several clashes before this week’s attack, the Syrian Observatory reported. One of the explosions occurred just outside the headquarters of al-Shamiya Front, it said.

“These rebel groups fight each other on nearly a daily basis,” said Sheikho Bello, a human rights lawyer from Afrin who fled the city when rebels took control of it. He currently lives in the Shahba region where thousands of Afrin residents have settled since rebels have captured their city.

Abu Abdulrahman al-Ka’akeh, a top preacher of the Jaish al-Islam group, an ally of al-Shamiyah Front, was among those who were wounded in the Wednesday attack in Afrin.

A media activist expressed his pleasure with targeting al-Ka’akeh in a post to his channel on Telegram.

“Good morning tidings… al-Ka’akeh fell and nobody prayed for him… Allah is great and will get the right of every oppressed who was killed because his (al-Ka’akeh’s) fatwas,” said Alaa al-Ahmed, a journalist closely affiliated with al-Rahman Legion, which is closely allied with al-Mutasim Brigade. The post was deleted few hours after the explosions.   

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Another activist affiliated with Jaish al-Islam accused al-Ahmed of being involved in the “assassination attempt” that targeted al-Ka’akeh.

“It is worth mentioning that the sheikh (al-Ka’akeh) was threatened by journalist Alaa al-Ahmed minutes before the explosion occurred. Then suddenly the post was deleted,” said activist Mohamad Alkholy in a Facebook post.

A Turkish-backed military police force that was recently formed in Afrin is reportedly investigating the attack.

Since the early days of the capture of Afrin, infighting among rebel groups has been routinely reported.  

The New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report earlier in June in which it said Turkish-backed rebel forces “have seized, looted, and destroyed property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria.”

With continued intra-rebel fighting and YPG’s occasional attacks, experts believe that insability in Afrin would drag out for a long time.

“The next phase in Afrin would be characterized by more violence,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syria researcher who closely follows Islamist groups in Syria. “Despite being under Turkish command, these rebel groups have different agendas and they all compete for a solid control over the city.”

“The YPG would be the only group benefiting from rebel infighting and instability in Afrin, because it increases its popularity. People currently compare the security situation in Afrin now to when it was under the YPG rule. There is clearly a big difference,” he told Ahval.