How Syria’s last rebels are being destroyed in Turkey’s operation - analysis

The bizarre tragedy of the ‘revolutionaries’ who once fought Assad – now being sent to attack Kurds in eastern Syria – has played out over many years.

 TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighter gestures to the camera at the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Monday.  (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighter gestures to the camera at the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Monday.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkey launched an offensive into northeast Syria on October 9, giving different reasons to different audiences for why it had to attack a peaceful area of the embattled country. To the US, it claimed it had “security concerns” because of the presence of Kurdish forces, which it claimed were “terrorists.” To the UN, it said it was going to resettle millions of refugees. It also claimed it would return the area to its “true owners,” by which it meant Arabs.
A mix of religious extremism, nationalism and the fog of war have underpinned Turkey’s strategy. Very few Turkish soldiers appear to have participated in the operation, with Ankara opting instead to use Syrian rebel forces, whom it shoehorned into the Syrian National Army, to do the heavy lifting.
Because it has relied on these forces, who are a mix of jihadists and rabble, it has been embarrassed again and again as they loot homes, murder civilians, mutilate dead bodies and shout ISIS slogans about beheading kuffar or infidels. They fire mortars at medics and at US patrols. They even seized Syrian regime soldiers and Russia had to help get the soldiers released. At every turn, they are undisciplined and are barely able to carry out their missions.
The bizarre tragedy of the Syrian rebels, the “revolutionaries” who once fought Assad, being sent to attack Kurds in eastern Syria, has played out over the years. Turkish media doesn’t hide how it all happened. An article at Anadolu spells out how the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was formed to fight the Assad regime, became the Syrian National Army (SNA), which Turkey uses against Kurdish forces, often labeling those forces “PKK terrorists.” The report notes that the FSA lost large parts of Syria in 2016. Turkey decided to use it as auxiliaries in Operation Euphrates Shield to block the advance of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
From that moment, Turkey realized that these Syrian rebel groups, ineffective at fighting the Syrian regime or Russians and Iranians, could be perfect cannon fodder for fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as the same as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
In December 2017, 30 FSA groups were formed into a Turkish-backed unit for Operation Olive Branch. They were unleashed to attack Kurdish forces in Afrin, a peaceful area of northwest Syria. Soon 160,000 Kurds had fled and the Syrian rebel groups looted and destroyed areas of Afrin.
FROM TURKEY’S point of view, this was a success. The YPG had been removed, and US-SDF tensions rose because the YPG is a part of the SDF. Also, Turkey could work closer with Russia and Iran because it wasn’t sending fighters against the regime. In September 2018, Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire deal in Idlib. Turkey set up more observation points there and agreed to keep the Syrian rebel factions under control. Last May, 11 more rebel groups were formed into a National Front for Liberation, and on October 4, all 41 of these groups were baked into the SNA.
Turkey needed the SNA to include all these disparate groups under one banner before it invaded northeast Syria. Once they had signed onto the operation, they could be dumped into Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad, the frontline towns that Turkey wanted them to take. Soon they were moving into areas along what Turkey calls a “safe zone,” attacking civilians and shooting at cars on the M4 highway, 30 kilometers inside Syria. They pulled an unarmed woman from one car – Hevrin Khalaf, a coexistence activist and Kurdish politician – dragged her by the hair, and shot her down.
More and more incidents like this occurred between October 12 and 17. Prisoners were executed; the bodies of dead female Kurdish fighters were dragged by their hair. Women were called “whores,” and imams said Kurds should be killed as “kuffar” or infidels, and their women taken. This was ISIS-style language.
The SNA was created to fight against the PKK, and Turkish media said it would fight “Daesh and al-Qaeda under one command.” It was meant to “secure areas” taken from the PKK – not to fight against Assad. However, members of the SNA have to justify their existence as more than just a tool of Ankara.
Of interest here is the fact that Ankara told the West it needs to secure a “safe zone” due to security concerns – but it told the UN that it wants to re-settle that zone, and it told the Syrian regime that it has no long-term goal to remain in Syria. And Syrian rebel factions were told that by fighting and dying in the “safe zone,” they might help get their families re-settled and they could use it as leverage in discussions with the Syrian regime and in Geneva meetings.
The Syrian rebels, however, seem to know that to get any scraps from the table, they first must work for Ankara. That means sacrificing “martyrs” in eastern Syria, and also making sure to clear areas that Syrians can come to, because Turkey’s domestic politics requires Syrians to leave. In addition, the Syrian rebel groups have increasingly adopted Turkey’s language, calling the PKK “terrorists.”
BUT WHAT is the end result so far for the NSA? It has lost fighters. It has been used as a kind of buffer between Turkey and the SDF. It suffers casualties and gets little in return. Every operation by Ankara brings it further away from Damascus. Turkey purposely doesn’t train or arm it well, leaving many of the factions to act like little more than armed gangs or militias. It isn’t even well matched to fight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the group that controls much of Idlib. Turkey has never supported the SNA to take areas from HTS, which is Syria’s version of al-Qaeda. If anything, the SNA is to be used as a kind of police force in areas taken from the SDF, far away from Damascus.
The more that armed Syrian rebel groups can be pushed into Tel Abyad, the less trouble they make for Turkey in Idlib province – and the more Turkey can work closely with Russia and Tehran. The end result is Turkey’s slow hijacking of the Syrian rebels to pivot them away from key areas of Syria to areas that Ankara is concerned about. Turkey has successfully combined them under one umbrella so that none of them can operate independently.
But Turkey also didn’t turn them into a competent or well-controlled and well-trained force. This is because they are not expected to have a long-term role. If Turkey’s goal was that they would play a role in a successful post-war Syrian state, then they would be properly regulated. The SNA appears to be so unreliable that their actions continue to embarrass Turkey.
Bellingcat, the open-source investigation site, has determined clearly that the group involved in murdering Khalaf was Ahrar al-Sharqiya. It notes that these are “rebels backed by Turkey.” The BBC calls these groups “Turkish-backed forces” and notes that the UN has said Turkey could be held accountable for their crimes. “Turkish-backed militias are killing civilians,” says Time magazine.
The media coverage has harmed Ankara’s image, leading to questions of why Turkey, a NATO member, would use violent, uncontrolled militias known for abuses. Money and “hatred for Kurds,” drives the Syrian rebels, Associate Press says.
TURKEY NEEDS the UN and NATO to support its operation, but it doesn’t want to get too much into the quagmire of eastern Syria. It’s not entirely clear if the formation of the SNA has brought more fighters to the ranks of the dozens of groups involved. It was supposed to have expanded from around 10,000 to 20,000 fighters as it grew from its various components from 2016 to 2019. Turkey claims it has some 3.6 million Syrian Arab refugees and that there are also several million Syrians in Idlib province – but few seem to be joining. Still, Turkey says at least a million refugees can be pushed into the new “safe zone” it has created.
Out of six million, only a few thousand want to join the SNA? This illustrates that after years of war, most Syrians know that they are being asked to fight someone else’s war in eastern Syria. Turkey never tried to train and recruit people systematically. Instead, what it ended up with is a series of blunders. This is not because Turkey is incompetent. Turkey is a high-functioning modern country. It has a successful army.
So why is the SNA so unsuccessful? Why do they gravitate toward looting and shooting prisoners? It’s not that hard to train people not to loot and to tell them it is unacceptable. Clearly, Turkey never expressed an interest in reforming the Syrian rebel groups and chiseling them into a successful, regulated group. They just wanted to give them some berets and redirect them to eastern Syria, hoping to smash them into the American-backed SDF and that they would fight to the death.
Turkey and Russia worked on a ceasefire agreement that appears to create a kind of “fighting space” in the “safe zone,” a sort of boxing ring for the SNA, SDF and Syrian regime army (SAA) to be allowed to fight with small arms and mortars over villages near the M4 highway. Outside this cauldron of conflict, there may be other sustainable ceasefires. But this area will be “reserved for fighting” – like a kind of macabre zoo of war for Russia, the US and Turkey to watch various forces slug it out.
The SNA, SDF and SAA have cynically been plunged into this mess – not because it was necessary to create a safe zone, but because it serves the interests of the great powers. A real safe zone could have been created with patrols and the settlement of some refugees with processing, paperwork and progress.
But the goal for each major power is different. The US wants Turkey in Syria with hopes it will eventually joint Washington’s Iran-sanctions pressure campaign. Russia wants Turkey in Syria for its S-400 deal. Turkey wants to be in Syria to distract the Syrian rebels and refugees.
There is never a Syrian at the base of all these agendas. If the recruits to the SAA, SDF and SNA were asked what they want, they probably would not all decide to die, fighting with arms from Russia, the US and Turkey for some far-off village near the M4 highway that none of them had ever heard of before it became their shallow grave.
But history has decided they must die in the last act of the Syrian conflict, hostages to a part of the war none of them wanted and to causes that are not their own.