How many Syrian rebels have died fighting Turkey’s war in eastern Syria?

Turkey’s TRT says that the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “hinted at the formation of a new army in Syria to help secure the territory gained” and that it would “secure the area from the YPG/PYD.

People sit on belongings at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain in Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People sit on belongings at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey launched a major operation on October 9 in eastern Syria, claiming it needed to create a “safe zone” against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It has argued for more than a year that it needs to clear the border area and the town of Manbij of these Kurdish fighters, who it says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and whom Ankara views as “terrorists.”
But Turkey doesn’t want to do most of the fighting itself. Instead, it recruited groups of Syrian rebels, some of them extremists, to attack the Kurds.
Turkey’s TRT channel says that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “hinted at the formation of a new army in Syria to help secure the territory gained,” and that it would “secure the area from the YPG/PYD, which is affiliated with the PKK.” On December 30, 2017, Turkey inaugurated this “Syrian National Army” (SNA) to fight in Afrin against Kurds and backed by Turkey. It “started Operation Olive Branch as part of Turkey’s border mission in the northern Syrian city of Afrin.”
The growth of the SNA was part of a three-step vision by Turkey. It was to “train and unite the various Free Syrian Army troops under one command to solve the issues of factionalization,” TRT says. Turkey didn’t unite them in 2013 to oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but only in 2017 to fight the YPG. They were to serve Turkey’s interests. Turkey also wanted to use them to fight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist group in Idlib. On May 28, 2018, the original 30 groups that formed the SNA were joined by another 11 groups; and together, on October 4, these groups formed the full SNA that exists today, Turkey’s Anadolu media says.
Many of the SNA groups, called Jaish al-Watani in Arabic, had been involved in looting in Afrin, alleged attacks on religious minorities and abusing civilians. They often fight among themselves and behaved more like armed gangs and militias than like an “army.” But for Turkey, this proxy force was to be injected into a front line from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniye) on October 9. One group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, drove inland on October 12 to the M4 highway in Syriam, where it set up checkpoints and began murdering detainees, including a Kurdish woman politician named Hevrin Khalaf.
Bellingcat, the online investigation site, created a video about the killing of Khalaf, showing an Ahrar al-Sharqiya cameraman at the site of the murder. Men shout, “God is great” after murdering the woman. Turkish right-wing media celebrated the killing as the “neutralization of a terrorist.” But Turkish media are more reticent to report the number of casualties among the SNA. The SNA groups, because there are dozens of them, only selectively report casualties.
IN THE FIRST three weeks of Turkey’s offensive, slightly more than 412 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella group that includes the YPG, were reported killed. This number appears to reflect official SDF data. Meanwhile, 93 members of the SNA were reported killed, but pro-SDF social media say the numbers are more than 300. They describe the SNA as “terrorists,” just as Turkey describes the YPG as “terrorists.”
Trenton Schoenborn, who tracks casualties and other details in Syria, wrote on November 1 that, using social media, he had verified the deaths of 107 SNA members. He had also verified 149 members of the SDF killed. But we now know the SDF number was higher.
“These numbers do not count civilian deaths or victims of war crimes,” he notes.
Schoenborn had also noted that within the first week of the fighting, there were around 43 known SNA casualties and 26 SDF deaths.
It is unsurprising that casualties are not well known in the fog of war, but the nature of the SNA mitigates against actually providing information on their operations, casualties or basically anything about themselves. Because they were cobbled together to provide plausible deniability for the actions of the plethora of militant groups under the SNA umbrella, there is no accountability or systematic collection and dissemination of information. This is despite the fact that they have been around for almost two years and have the experience of Afrin to underpin their role near Tel Abyad and eastern Syria. Further, renewed clashes on Tuesday near Bab al-Khayr led to more casualties among the SNA.
OVERALL, THE SNA and its Turkish backers do not want to reveal casualty figures, because it would shed light on the fact that young men are being sent to die for no reason in a war Turkey began but in which Turkish forces do not seem to fight. The front line at Tel Tamir and other areas seems to be primarily SNA fighters. Turkey appears to hold back its own forces from the operation. This is convenient. The US has backed the SDF, Turkey has backed the SNA, and Russia has backed the Syrian regime army, the SAA.
In a sense, then, the battles that are being fought are being fought by three Syrian armed forces. The SDF, in other circumstances, would not be fighting the SNA, but Turkey’s interests are to remove the SDF from the border area.
Turkey claims it wants to then settle millions of refugees in a small area. But Turkey has not been able to settle so many in other areas of Syria it occupies, around Afrin, Idlib and Jarabulus.
Although the SNA fighters celebrate and loot villages and have been given free rein to commit as many abuses as they want, their overall accomplishment is unclear.
The SNA was ostensibly created to unify Syrian rebel groups, but they don’t appear to be integrating very well into a more professional force. Instead, it is raised up before each Turkish-backed offensive, and used to take over areas previously held by Kurdish forces. In this case, in eastern Syria, it has also attacked Christian villages and a peaceful women’s collective called Jinwar.
In addition, the SNA may be suffering higher casualties than necessary due to ill coordination with the Turkish army, unclear goals from Turkey and also because of lack of coordination among its units. It may not have been trained or armed properly for its missions.
This raises questions about the sacrifices it is making for Turkey. Turkey gets what it wants in terms of a “safe zone,” but what does the SNA get for all its dead and wounded?
Backers of the SNA point out that criticism of its actions should be tempered with a comparison with the Assad regime’s crimes. Many Syrians who joined the Syrian opposition and rebel groups did so to oppose the regime. They have suffered greatly, so supporters say Kurds should not be complaining in eastern Syria; they are only now suffering, and it is less.
The discussion doesn’t fully explain how destroying areas around Tel Abyad and forcing 200,000 people from their homes, people who have already fled the October fighting, help to achieve anything against the Assad regime. All that is being achieved is that several proxy forces are fighting each other, while Assad, Russia, Iran and Turkey win, and the US gets to secure the oil fields nearby. None of the major powers want to lose soldiers in Syria, but local Syrians are still dying.