Elizabeth Tsurkov is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, where she specializes in Syria and Iraq, and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, a Philadelphia-based think-tank. A doctoral student in political science at Princeton University, she has also worked as a consultant with the International Crisis Group, the Atlantic Council, and the European Institute for Peace, among other institutions. (July 2019)
When US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal from Syria of the US forces that had been working with the Kurdish-led SDF, Turkey sought to capitalize on the Kurds’ loss of American protection by beginning a military operation in northeastern Syria. After the Turkish-led invasion began, its Turkish-backed militias rapidly gained notoriety after their members were filmed in a series of videos that showed them chanting extremist slogans and carrying out field executions. One US official labeled them “thugs and bandits.” The latest Turkish operation compelled the SDF’s leadership to invite Syrian regime forces into large swaths of northeastern Syria. Thus these fighters, who present themselves as revolutionaries fighting the regime, helped Assad regain a foothold of vast territory without firing a single bullet. But who exactly are the roughly 35,000 Syrian men fighting on Turkey’s behalf in Syria?
The Assad regime’s heavy reliance on Alawis in the army units and militias dispatched to the front-lines, coupled with the community’s relatively small size, have resulted in disproportionate losses of the sect’s young men. In addition, corruption and war-profiteering, mainly benefitting high-ranking regime officers and mukhabarat (secret police) agents, reinforced the image of Alawis as corrupt, privileged and rich, in the eyes of Sunnis. The Alawis are fully aware of this image and are quick to reject it. “We are a community that sacrificed many of its youth, and lived, and is still living, in poverty,” said Samira, a twenty-five-year-old university student. “The ugly, barbaric way people picture us is applicable to barely one percent of us.”