Why Turkey got anti-Assad rebels to fight Kurds

Syrian rebel groups often based some of their movements in Turkey itself, and could be used to fight the SDF, but had to first be told they were fighting to liberate their own lands.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters sit inside a military vehicle near the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, October 12, 2019 (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters sit inside a military vehicle near the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, October 12, 2019
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
One of the most misunderstood, but important, parts of the Turkish operation in eastern Syria is the use of former Syrian rebel groups against Kurdish fighters, a method of getting the last independent Syrian groups to fight each other and bury their dreams amid the rubble of towns in eastern Syria.
The Syrian National Army, a collection of mostly Arab Syrian rebel groups, was unleashed by Turkey in the first days of its operation and its units have been blamed for most of the human rights violations in eastern Syria.
Conveniently, when Turkey and the US discussed a pause in Ankara’s bombardment of border areas, it was these Syrian groups, many of them religious extremists vowing to “kill the infidels,” that kept attacking the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.
Turkey has been supporting Syrian rebel groups for years, but in 2016 it realized these groups would give a good cover to Turkey’s expanding operations in northern Syria. Ankara launched operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 to stop the SDF – which was supported by the United States – from expanding areas it had liberated from ISIS in northern Syria. Ankara told Washington it didn’t want the SDF connecting to the mostly Kurdish region of Afrin and creating a corridor of Kurdish forces stretching along Turkey’s southern border.
Ankara decided that while it had the support of Syrian rebel groups, who often based some of their movements or communications in Turkey itself, they could be used to fight the SDF, but they had to first be told they were fighting to liberate their own lands. In this way Turkey got a dozen Syrian rebel groups to aid in Operation Euphrates Shield around Jarabulus. They were prodded to fight the SDF, which Turkey views as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and which Turkey calls a “terrorist” group.
But why would Syrian rebel groups that signed on to fight the Assad regime waste their lives fighting other Arabs and Kurds and not fighting the regime? Because they were angry and jealous that the SDF had become so successful and they were told the PKK was an “atheist” organization. They were also angry at the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a part of the SDF which is also linked to the PKK, for not helping the Syrian rebels in Aleppo. The YPG controlled Afrin in northwest Syria and was not part of the Syrian rebellion. While it didn’t fight alongside Assad either in eastern Syria or Afrin, its main goal was not fighting Assad, but rather controlling its own territory. From Assad’s perspective this was great, the Syrian rebels and the Kurds would fight each other and Assad could ride to the rescue with his Russian ally.
Russia began working with Turkey and Iran in 2017 to broker ceasefires in Syria, and Russia also was pleased to see the Syrian rebels redirect their energies alongside Turkey to fight the YPG, which was linked to the Americans.
In this way, Turkey could sign a ceasefire with the Syrian regime in places like Idlib and pull the Syrian rebel groups from the front line to fight in Afrin. In 2018, around 20,000 Syrian rebels signed up to fight in Afrin. But this time, they had become the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. Eventually, just days before the October 2019 offensive into eastern Syria, they would be re-branded fully with more groups as the Syrian National Army.
Little by little, Ankara redirected the energies of all the remaining Syrian rebel groups, except Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to fight the mostly Kurdish YPG and SDF. Doing so sowed animosities between Arabs and Kurds and also between the more far-right Islamist elements of the Syrian National Army and the more secular SDF.
BY THE fall of 2018, the Syrian rebel groups around Manbij were already running around, shouting jihadist slogans and waving swords, claiming they would behead Kurds. By October 2019, they would make the same threats before attacking areas near Sere Kaniye in northeast Syria.
Turkey’s goal with the Syria National Army was to use it to be the shock troops or cannon fodder, sent in first to fight the SDF while Turkey used airstrikes. The Syrian rebels would die so Turkey could get the spoils. The spoils would be an area that was largely free of civilians so Turkey could embark on a campaign to resettle millions of Arabs in areas that were once Kurdish in northeast Syria. Turkey promised this at the UN in September and told the US that it had to do this to make sure its “security concerns” were addressed. To address its “concerns,” therefore, a bunch of extremists had to be sent into eastern Syria to loot and destroy civilian areas. They began by murdering an unarmed female Syrian activist on October 12 in northern Syria. Since then, the groups have gone on to commit other abuses, allegedly targeting homes of the Christian minority. Locals fear the extremists, and some 200,000 people have already fled.
The Syrian rebel units benefit Turkey because their abuses have plausible deniability. Turkey, a NATO power, can claim its army is not responsible, it is always some other “group” that committed the abuses. The final goal is that the Syrian rebellion will be redirected to take over parts of eastern Syria, where Russia and Turkey will eventually agree to a partition plan. Then the Syrian rebels will work with the Assad regime that controls parts of eastern Syria, which the regime took from the SDF, and the Syrian rebellion will end occupying Kurdish areas, working with Assad.