Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Meria Special Report: Northern Storm and the Situation in Azaz

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Meria Special Report: Northern Storm and the Situation in Azaz

Article excerpt


This MERIA special report is the product of a reporting trip undertaken by its author to the town of Azaz between December 18-22, 2014. Visits by researchers and journalists to northwest Syria have become rare in the past year because of the accompanying risks. As a result, it has become difficult to gain a clear picture of the situation on the ground in the rebel-controlled areas. This, in turn, has impoverished discussion among policymakers, specialists, and the public regarding the vital area of Syria policy. This report is intended to contribute to the process of remedying this.

With Western air forces engaged over the skies of Iraq and Syria, and the war in those countries nowhere close to conclusion, good information and analysis, systematically acquired and well-presented, is of real importance. As such, the Middle East Review of International Affairs is pleased and proud to offer this report to its readers.

Our center places a great emphasis on the importance of the combination of systematic field reporting and cogent analysis. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi's work here offers an example of this. The author uses his examination of the minutiae of life and of social and political arrangements in a single northern Syrian border town to cast light on broader, significant processes under way within the Syrian rebellion. The logistical arrangements necessary for the production of such a report are by necessity complex. The report amply justifies the efforts undertaken.

-Jonathan Spyer (Editor, MERIA).


Situated in the northern countryside of Aleppo province, the town of Azaz-the center of the Azaz district-is the nearest major settlement to the Bab al-Salama border crossing that leads into the southern Turkish city of Kilis. At the present time, Azaz town is controlled by the group Liwa Asifat al-Shamal ("The Northern Storm Brigade"), which is affiliated with the Islamic Front rebel coalition. Also present within Azaz town but lacking any governing authority is Syria's al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. To the east of Azaz town lies the smaller settlement of Sawran, beyond which is a frontline, an area of no-man's land of about 800 meters to a kilometer, and then the localities of Doudyan and Dabiq to the northeast and southeast, solely controlled by the Islamic State (IS). Northern Storm also solely controls the town of Sawran.

To the south of Azaz lie the other major north Aleppo localities of Tal Rif'at and Marea, under the authority of Islamic Front groups (Liwa al-Fatah and Liwa al-Tawhid respectively). South of Tal Rif'at is the important military front of Handarat contested between regime forces (including irregular paramilitaries such as the Muqawama Suriyya) 1 and a number of rebel groups. Northern Storm is among the participants on the Handarat front, alongside groups including Jabhat al-Nusra,2 Jama'at Ansar al-Islam,3 the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din, 4 and even the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm.5

Together, Handarat and Sawran constitute the two military fronts on which Northern Storm fights besides maintaining control of Azaz town. That said, it should be noted that Northern Storm's main military base, to which fighters and commanders regularly return for recuperation and rest, lies to the north outside the main town. Finally, of interest in this overview is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)'s autonomous canton of Afrin to the west of Azaz, guarded by its People's Protection Units (YPG). No power sharing arrangements exist here with other rebel groups, but a state of neutrality exists at least between Northern Storm and the canton of Afrin. 6


Northern Storm was first founded in 2011 by a local called Ammar Dadikhi. The brand was an evolution from the more generic notions of an "Ahrar al-Shamal" ("Free Men of the North") brand in the north Aleppo countryside-indeed, some very minor "Ahrar al-Shamal" remnant graffiti can still be found inside Azaz town. …

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