On 10 September 2020, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) published a video documenting a metal theft on the Afrin railroad. The VDC reported that members of the al-Hamza/al-Hamzat Division dismantled the tracks of the line located in the Rajo district, administratively affiliated with Afrin, adding that the video was filmed somewhere on the Rajo-Afrin-Ekbis road.
On 14 September, North Press posted exclusive photos of reported sabotage of the railroad near Rajo town, adding no further information about the incident.
For its part, Al Modon published a report revealing the names of the armed opposition groups involved in dismantling and selling parts of the railway. The outlet named as the perpetrators The Sham Legion/Faylaq al-Sham, Harakat al-Tahrir wal Bina (Liberation and Construction Movement)—whose members mostly hail from the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and the Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation and its affiliated factions. The outlet added, “All these formations are involved in assaults on public properties and facilities, including cutting down trees and dismantling the rails.”
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) investigated the reported rails theft in the Afrin district, where perpetrators robbed chunks of the line running between Rajo and Meidan Ekbis. To this end, STJ matched live ground and aerial footage with satellite imagery, corroborating the incident.
STJ obtained further insights on the incident from seven informed sources. Based on the information collected, seven armed opposition groups dismantled no less than 22 km of the railway tracks. Furthermore, the perpetrators sold some of the cut-up bars in al-Bab, Idlib, and Hama between July and August 2022. Over the same period, the Turkish military used parts of the unhinged tracks to fortify their stations, especially those in the Jabal al-Ahlam area. These fortifications followed Turkey’s announcement of an intended new military operation into northern Syria.
The sabotaged railway is a historical relic as it once served as a transit point for the Anatolia-Baghdad railroad, established in 1914. The railroad started at Aleppo city and advanced through Tall Rifaat, Qatmah, and then Rajo and Meidan Ekbis after it crossed Afrin 40km north of its center, all the way to İslahiye town in Gaziantep Province, south of Turkey.
Notably, this is not the first rails theft that local armed groups stand behind in Afrin. In 2020, STJ investigated footage several media outlets posted in October and verified their reports of the wreck members of the Sultan Murad Division inflicted upon a railway in the Hasan Mishkeh area.
In 2017, members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) sabotaged and dismantled parts of the Afrin railway near Qatmah town. Nevertheless, the sabotage was of limited scale and continued only for a short time.
Rails Sabotage Continues amidst Turkish Inaction
Monitoring and documenting violations in the Afrin region in the aftermath of the 2018 Turkey-led Operation Olive Branch, STJ verified the sabotage of rails extending between Rajo and Meidan Ekbis. However, the perpetrators targeted only small parts of the rails at the time. The sources STJ met with recounted that sabotage stopped because the Turkish authorities ordered the involved factions to refrain from dissembling the railway. Indeed, the cuts of the tracks ceased almost entirely until the factions resumed action in 2022, targeting substantial lengths of the rails and tearing apart those which extended over at least 22 km.
Three sources from the opposition’s Syrian National Army (SNA) that STJ met with for the report have pointed to the following factions as the culprits of the recent sabotage of the Afrin rails:
- The Ahrar al-Sharqiya/Gathering of Free Men of the East, led by Ahmad Ihsan Fayyad al-Hayes and nicknamed Abu Hatim Shaqra.
- The Eastern Army/Jaysh al-Sharqiya, led by Hussein Hamadi.
- The Sultan Murad Division, led by Fahim Issa.
- The al-Hamza/al-Hamzat Division, led by Saif Abu Bakr.
- The Suleiman Shah Brigade (also known as al-Amshat), led by Muhammad al-Jasim, and nicknamed Abu Amsha.
- The Special Forces Division, led by Abdullah Halawa.
- The Sham Legion/Faylaq al-Sham, led by Munther Saras.
The first source, a commander within the al-Hamza/al-Hamzat Division, told STJ that the division’s commander, Saif Abu Baker, ordered the 2018 sabotage of the Rajo and Meidan Ekbis rails. He added that the factions stopped dismantling the tracks under Turkey’s instruction, only to resume it on a larger scale in 2022. The source stressed that the armed groups unhinged the railway metal for commercial ends, as each sold the chunks they obtained.
The source added:
“In 2022, [the factions] dismantled the rails extensively because the Turkish military was not as strict about the issue as before. [Turkey] changed several of the intelligence officers in charge of the matter, while its priorities also changed. I would not say that Turkey greenlighted the dismantling of the rails. However, what happened resulted from its negligence and the impunity it fostered.”
The second source, a commander from the SNA’s 1st Legion, narrated:
“After the Turkish military and armed opposition groups controlled the area in 2018, the Turkish Intelligence received a report on the railroad sabotage. Therefore, the issue made it to one of the annual meetings. The governor of Hatay and Afrin, several Turkish intelligence officers, and the factions’ commanders attended that meeting. The present Turkish officials highlighted the importance of the railway as an Ottoman symbol and a future project in the region. They demanded that the factions stop sabotaging the rails. Indeed, the dismantling of the tracks decreased markedly, with only smaller chunks torn apart and secretly.”
The source added:
“In early 2022, the [factions] started sabotaging the rails extensively. I am not certain why. However, what matters is that Turkey’s interest in the issue subsided that some factions are even fearlessly dismantling rails located near Turkish military stations.”
STJ interviewed a third source, who is a commander within Ahrar al-Sharqiya. He said that the factions refuted having any role in the 2018 rails sabotage and soon announced capturing a network of vandals and thieves as the perpetrators of the attack on the railway.
Notably, STJ obtained exclusive footage from late 2022. The images show the rails in Afrin, extending between Rajo and Meidan Ekbis, missing parts (Location:36.651051, 36.735199).
Image (1&2)- The two photos show Rajo-Meidan Ekbis railway missing tracks. Credit: STJ.
STJ obtained similar exclusive footage of missing tracks nearly a hundred meters from the location mentioned above (Location: 36.728367, 36.651779).
Image (3)- The photo shows Rajo-Meidan Ekbis railway missing parts. Credit: STJ.
Image (4)- Satellite footage matched with the live image above.
 “Rajo: Strategic Area that Resisted Occupation during the Ottoman Era” (In Arabic), Anadolu Agency, 5 March 2018. https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AC%D9%88-%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%85%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%87%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%AB%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-/1080044