Jaish al-Thuwar commander defects to Sultan Murad Division in northern Aleppo

By Oliviero Reusser

On the 13th of August, a video surfaced showing "Abu Udai Menagh", a high-ranking military commander with the SDF-aligned rebel group Jaish al-Thuwar (JaT), defecting to the Sultan Murad Division. The two factions are longstanding enemies, but have a weird relationship. JaT used to be one of the mainstream rebel groups, fighting alongside other groups against the Syrian government. When ISIS took over many areas and other Islamist groups gained more and more power, JaT began to deepen their already friendly relationship with the Kurdish-led YPG (People Protection Forces), before eventually being one of the founding members of the Syrian Democratic Forces. They have about 3000 men and operate in Afrin and the wider so-called "Rojava" region in northern Syria as enemies of the other big rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham but also smaller FSA-affiliates such as Faylaq al-Sham or the Free Idlib Army. The Sultan Murad Division is a rebel group composed of mostly Syrian Turkmen and enjoys a lot of Turkish support in terms of training, supplies and even air support. Often considered a Turkish proxy, it sees the SDF as a PKK-offshoot and opposes it. However, its relationship with Islamist groups varies: while the relationship with more "moderate" groups such as Ahrar al-Sham is good, its not so good with the now rebranded former official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, HTS. JaT and Sultan Murad often clash on the frontlines between Euphrates Shield and SDF-held territory, especially east of Afrin near Azaz and Mare and west of Manbij.

The defecting commander gave the SDF collaboration with the Syrian government, and, by extent, with Russia and Iran, as reason for leaving the umbrella group. As he joined the revolution to fight the government, he ultimately rejects them and is opposed to the two groups working together. Another reason is the presence of Kurdish fighters from Turkey and elsewhere among the SDF's ranks. Notably, the commander was one of the leading individuals when SDF forces captured the town of Tel Rifaat and other nearby Arab villages with Russian air support. He can be seen in the video below talking to the cameraman.

Later during the day, the Menagh Military Council, a faction formed to eventually take back the Menagh airbase, which was also captured by the SDF in early 2016, released a statement, declaring that they do not recognise the defection of Abu Udai Menagh. They promise to spill his blood wherever they find him and warn any faction covering for him will pay the price. According to several activists, the people of Azaz also wish for revenge on the "traitor of the revolution". While this may just be political posturing, even less has led to infighting between rebel groups in Syria; its not out of the realm of possibility that we will soon see clashes between the two groups Sultan Murad and the Menagh Military Council over this latest disagreement.