Documents and sources: The development of the Turkish-backed FSA militats

The Turkish invasion of northern Syria on October 9 has brought increased scrutiny on the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. Who are the units within it? What about their videos showing atrocities and sectarianism.  What follows is some key details about the origin of the Syrian militant groups supported by Turkey and what Turkey intends to do with them.

TRT January 17, 2018

On the eve of Turkey’s invasion of Afrin it helped create an umbrella group for Turkish-backed groups that would be sent to fight in Afrin. Later these Syrian rebel groups would be accused of widespread looting and attacks on civilians. They became integral to Turkey’s military occupation of Afrin. TRT profiled them. They write:

December 30, 2017, the National Army was officially established, and started Operation Olive Branch as a part of Turkey’s border mission in the northern Syrian city of Afrin. The National Army is a new army composed of 36 different opposition groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has divided into three army corps. Currently, it is in its first phase, which includes about 10,000 troops primarily from the Euphrates Shield region.

Why was it formed? Turkey explains:

First, the National Army aims to train and unite the various FSA troops under one command to solve the issues of factionalisation among opposition groups; and help transition to a regular, more professional army. Second, it aims to establish a united force against Al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Idlib. “This formation is also to facilitate operations against the PYD, Daesh and Al Qaeda under one command,” Aqidi says. Third, the National Army will be responsible for consolidating the territories the opposition has gained, and finally, when a permanent political solution is found to the Syrian crisis, the National Army aims to take over as the armed forces of Syria.

February 2018: When Tahrir al-Sham forces accompany Turkish army in Idlib

Turkey was revealed to also be working with HTS in Idlib. “It was also identified that 30 vehicles belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces traveled the same route alongside Tahrir al-Sham fighters on Oct. 12, 2017. It was understood this was the Turkish military convoy that established the first observation point in Syria. All these examples indicate that the Tahrir al-Sham fighters play a role in making it easier for the Turkish military to establish observation points.”

Turkey-Russia sign Idlib agreement, September 19, 2018

The agreement between Turkey and Russia over a ceasefire in Idlib included mention of various groups that were in Idlib. Turkey had established observation points.

A demilitarized zone 15-20km deep would be established. All radical terrorist groups will be removed by October 15 from the zone. 

Anadolu, October 9, 2019

On the eve of Turkey’s attack on the SDF on October 9, Anadolu, another pro-government media, explained the origins of the SDF.

The FSA regained its power after Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016. Before Operation Olive Branch, 30 groups affiliated to the FSA in the north of Aleppo united under SNA on Dec. 30, 2017. On May 28, 2018, 11 groups of Idlib origin came together under the name National Front for Liberation. Syrian opposition groups SNA and the National Front for Liberation united under the interim government’s Defense Ministry on Oct. 4.

They list the following units in it: Sukur al-Shamal brigade, Ahrar al-Sharqiyya, Army of uqaba, Faylaw al-Sham, Sulta Suleyman brigade, Sultan Mehhmet FatiH brifade, Al-Waqqas brigade, al-Hamza squad, Sultan Murat brigade, Liwaa al-Fath brigade, Smarqnad brigade, 23rd squad, Ninth squad, Al-Mustafa Squad, Awwal al Magaweer, Al-Muntasir Billah brigade, Fastiqim brigade, Jaishu al-Islam brigade, Sultan Osman brigade, Rijal al-Harb brigade, Al-Shamal brigade, Fifth regiment, Al-Shamiyyah front, Al-Mutasem brigade, Al-Sharqiyya army, Al-Jazeera revolutionary, Fifty-first brigade, Al-Shamaliyya brigade, Al-Ahfad army.

SNA says it does not fear Turkey is using it against the PKK, November 3, 2019

Fears that Turkey was pushing the NSA to do all the fighting in eastern Syria and sacrifice hundreds of men for a Ankara goal that has nothing to do with fighting Assad, the SNA put out a statement. It was published at Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi’s website and notes the following:

“One should remember that Turkey’s struggle against Kurdish ‘terrorist’ organizations goes back decades. The problem necessitates a forward Turkish presence in Syria and the Russian-Turkish memorandum does not fundamentally resolve that problem. In truth, the problem remains as long as the Syrian government and the U.S. support the SDF, and a definitive resolution will not come before the Syrian crisis is definitively resolved. Turkey’s foreign policy is defined by more than just combating terrorist threats. For example, the issue of the large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is prominent on the Turkish scene, and one should not forget that the ‘Peace Spring’ operation has aimed to create a new safe zone to settle Syrian refugees and displaced persons (while preserving the virtual safe zones of Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch and expanding the safe zones to include the northwest of Syria). The creation of a new safe zone and settlement of refugees and displaced persons give Turkey and the Syrian opposition leverage in negotiations for the constitutional committee and negotiations for the definitive solution to Syria’s crisis. In conclusion, Turkey’s alliance with the revolution is not a short-term security partnership but rather a long-term alliance driven by Turkey’s strategic interests. The culmination of this alliance is a political solution the Syrian people are satisfied with.

State Department briefing, November 6, 2019

A senior US State Department official critiqued the Turkish-backed groups.

The problem is that the people doing the fighting are these ill-disciplined Arab militias, some of whom we’ve worked with in the past when we were arming the opposition, but many of whom are (a) ill-disciplined, and (b) relatively radical, and their ideology is essentially Islamic ideology.

William Roebuck’s memo, November 7, 2019

A memory by William Roebuck,  Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and a Senior Advisor for Syria Engagement, titled “Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria and De-Stabilize our D-ISIS Platform in the Northeast,” critiqued the Turkish-backed units.

Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing, relying on widespread military conflict targeting part the Kurdish heartland along the border and benefiting from several widely publicized, fear-inducing atrocities these forces committed. Our military forces and diplomats were on the ground in the northeast at the time. The Turkey operation damaged our regional and international credibility and has significantly destabilized northeastern Syria.”

He also discussed Afrin: When the attack on Afrin occurred last winter, we told people, based on Washington’s guidance to reassure our partners ‘We can’t do anything about Afrin (which Turkey and its jihadi mercenaries attacked last year, dispossessing 170,000 people) because we aren’t there; no troops or air power. But we are here in the northeast. We are your close partner. Afrin can’t happen here.’”

What can only be described as war crimes and ethnic cleansing. As more news emerges from northeast Syria of Turkish/Turkish supported groups/organizations (TSO) atrocities and expulsion of citizens, the reputational risks to the US and criticism of our decisions will rise…This de-populating of Kurdish areas benefited from several well-publicized, fear-inducing atrocities the TSO committed in the early days of the military operation that accelerated civilian flight….The TSO gangs must be withdrawn.

January, 15, 2020

More than 2,000 Syrian rebels have been recruited and sent to fight in Libya. – The Guardian.

Faces of Migration study

“The newly taken areas in Northeast Syria, acquired by Turkey as part of its latest operation “Peace Spring” launched in October 2019, stretching from the town of Tell Abyad to Ras Al-Ain east of the Euphrates River, have followed the same path. On top of the accusations of demographic engineering, as well as atrocities committed against civilians by groups allied with Turkey,22 the emergency response is limited to the deliveries crossing from Turkey and at Turkey’s behest. The most recent operation, whose aim was to drive YPG militants away from the border and create a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees in Turkey, has also further aggravated the needs of the people in the area, with 68,000 people remaining displaced in other parts of the Northeast as of early December as a direct result of the operation.” – Faces of Migration study

March 21, 2020

Turkish-backed groups turn off water to 460,000 people in eastern Syria by stopping pumps at Allouk station. The Sultan Murad group is involved with turning off the pumps. On March 25 “Yesterday, two engineers travelling with a Russian Military Police escort attempted to reach the station to restore flow, but were denied access by Turkish-controlled forces, who claimed they were scared of contracting corona.” Later the group turned some of it back on. In statement from Damascus, Fran Equiza, UNICEF Representative in Syria, said that the water supply from the Allouk station – the main source of water for some 460,000 people– has been interrupted.

UN Commission of inquiry March 3

“The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army of carrying out war crimes such as murder, pillaging, and targeting of Kurdish women in Turkish-controlled areas. The Commission found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Turkish-backed groups ‘perpetrated the war crime of murder and repeatedly committed the war crime of pillaging, further seriously contravening the right to enjoyment of possessions and property.'” – See summary at K24.

Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve

“The DIA reported that the Turkish-supported opposition likely consists of between 22,000 and 50,000 fighters from more than 30 different groups, which range from hardline Islamist to more moderate nationalist groups….Turkey likely only mobilized about 6,000 of these forces for the incursion into northeastern Syria because it is also addressing other security objectives in the northwestern Syria provinces of Idlib and Halab (Aleppo).” – Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve

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