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Who Are Turkey’s Proxy Fighters in Syria?

Muhammed Nur /Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Members of the Syrian National Army participating in Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, Ras al-Ayn district, northern Syria, October 13, 2019

A small Turkish flag was standing on the desk of the offices of the Turkish-backed faction in a residential area of Şanlıurfa, in southern Turkey. The men in the room, most of them veteran fighters from eastern Syria, were expecting me and did their best to locate a Syrian revolutionary flag in time for our meeting in the summer of 2019. They could not find one. Everything about the meeting, its location, décor, and content, indicated to me that the men in the room were not the ones in charge. They hoped soon to launch an offensive on northeastern Syria, but had no idea when the real decision-makers, Turkish officials, would give them their marching orders.

The creation of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), also known as the Syrian National Army (SNA), was the result of a strategic shift in Turkey’s position in Syria. In the early years of the civil war, Turkey aimed to remove Assad from power. Following Russia’s direct intervention in the war, in September 2015, the balance of power decisively shifted in favor of the Assad regime. Turkey therefore adjusted its ambitions to advance a narrower set of interests. At the top of Ankara’s priorities were the aim of preventing the entry of additional Syrian refugees and a desire to combat the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the leading component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella that also includes Arab and Syriac militias. The YPG is a Syrian-based offshoot of the armed movement inspired by the teachings of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan that has waged a bloody insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s. Because the SDF worked closely with the US military in the campaign against ISIS in Syria, Ankara watched with growing concern as the Kurdish-led militia gained control over large swaths of that country.

Already, back in August 2016, Turkey had decided to take action to prevent the SDF from linking two enclaves under its control, Efrîn and Manbij in the Aleppo hinterland, and to expel remaining pockets of ISIS fighters from this border region. That operation, codenamed Euphrates Shield, was the first in which Turkey deployed factions that would go on to become the Syrian National Army as a supporting force alongside the Turkish military. A second operation in early 2018, named Olive Branch, used these factions to expel YPG forces from Efrîn and bring it under the control of Turkey and its Syrian factions. The latest operation, named—apparently without irony—Peace Spring, was set in motion after US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces stationed near Syria’s border with Turkey that had been working with the SDF. Turkey sought to capitalize on the YPG’s loss of American protection by beginning an operation to drive it out of northeastern Syria.

After the Turkish-led invasion began, these 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 SDFs 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 across a vast territory without firing a single bullet.

But who exactly are the roughly 35,000 Syrian men fighting on Turkeys behalf in Syria? I have maintained regular contact with some of these fighters since as early as 2014. Most are Sunni Arabs, displaced from their homes in the course of the war. Multiple interviews I have conducted by phone, instant-messaging, and face to face in Turkey with these fighters since 2014 reveal them to be a motley crew of often traumatized and impoverished men who feel pushed into fighting on Turkeys behalf for financial gain. Some of these fighters join the factions to rob and loot, but those who did not have that motive increasingly realize that Turkeys interests do not align with their hopes of toppling the Assad regime, as Ankara signals its willingness to cooperate with the Assad regime. Individuals like this, I have found, struggle to rationalize and justifyto themselves and their communitiestheir actions and affiliation with these factions, which are much-despised by fellow Syrians, particularly by civilians living under their rule.

 

The Decision-Makers

Except for a few skirmishes, the Turkish-backed factions have not fought the Assad regime. All three operations carried out by Turkey involved “de-confliction” arrangements with Russia (and, by extension, the Assad regime) before they began. These arrangements continue: the areas under SNA control are not bombed by the Assad regime or Russia, unlike rebel-held areas. While SNA-held northern Aleppo borders on regime-held territory, the Turkish-backed force has not launched any authorized offensive against the regime and the frontlines have been static.

Turkey maintains authority over its proxy in the use of force in military action. The fighters’ salaries, training, and supervision in battle are also provided by Turkey. Speaking from a checkpoint he was manning in Tel Abyad, a town captured from Kurdish-led forces in the latest SNA offensive, a fighter with an SNA faction named Faylaq al-Majd from Idlib whom I will call Muhammad (the names of all Syrian subjects in this article have been changed to protect them from possible reprisal) explained the fighters here are like donkeys, following their masters. And the commanders are also donkeys, following Turkish orders and even if this harms the interests of the [anti-Assad] revolution, they dont care.

All decisions, big and small, in the National Armyare made by the operations room run by Turkish intelligence,confirmed Mazen, a veteran rebel from Rastan, in the northern Homs countryside, now fighting in the ranks of the Levant Front, another SNA faction. He was echoing all my interviewees in admitting that decision-making was out of the hands of the Syrian commanders themselves. Mazen underwent training by Turkish military personnel in Turkey and Syria.

 

The Fighters

The Turkish-backed fighters are a mix of former rebels and newly recruited fighters. Turkey relied on already existing Syrian rebel factions, some of which once received support from the CIA-led Military Operations Command or the Department of Defense Train and Equip Program. The CIA-run program, codenamed Timber Sycamore, was shut down in late 2017, while the Train and Equip Program in northwestern Syria failed back in 2015. Among the groups that once received US-directed support were Levant Front and the Hamza Brigade (which later merged with other rebel groups to form the Hamza Division). Turkey took over the payment of salaries to the fighters prior to the 2016 operation and significantly augmented their ranks. The factions grew in size, from dozens and hundreds of fighters to thousands. The largest rebel groups incorporated into the SNA, the factions that make up Ahrar al-Sharqiya and Jaysh al-Islam, did not enjoy Western support.

Other factions, and particularly ones bearing Ottoman or Turkish names, were created in anticipation of the 2016 operation. The post-2015 recruits tend to be younger, enticed into joining the battle by the wages on offer. Many were recruited as minors, as young refugees living in Turkey who had not completed even primary education, which was disrupted as a result of the war.

The majority of the fighters today appear to be newer recruits, without any previous experience fighting the Assad regime. The fighters and commanders in the ranks of the SNA interviewed for the article estimated that the fighters who enlisted into the ranks of the factions for the 2016 operation, and then in another recruitment drive before the 2018 Efrîn invasion, make up 60 percent of the force. These fighters—known, ironically, as the 2016 revolutionaries”—“mostly joined for the salaries, not for the revolution,said Mustafa, a commander in the Hamza Brigade, who had himself joined the Syrian armed opposition in 2013, at the age of fourteen.

The fighters in the SNA are overwhelmingly Sunni men of humble backgrounds, much like the anti-Assad Syrian rebels. Almost all of them have lost homes, relatives, and friends to the Assad regime; a few have counted similar such losses to ISIS and the Kurdish-led SDF. The majority are internally displaced persons, from across Syrias governorates. They now live in a narrow stretch of land along the Turkish-Syrian border. While 83 percent of Syrians now live below the country’s poverty line of $6 per day, displaced persons are particularly vulnerable: they are disconnected from traditional sources of income such as farm work or family-owned shops, they have a limited support network where they now live, and they have to pay rent. This makes the displaced more likely to join armed groups.

When Turkey first created the framework of its Syrian factions, before the Euphrates Shield Operation, the salaries offered to fighters were extraordinarily high: $300 per month, paid in Turkish lira. Over time, salaries have declined. By the beginning of 2019, salaries had been cut to about $100 distributed every seven to eight weeks. That rate, of about $50 per month, is insufficient to cover even basic necessities, so fighters commonly have to rely on taking loans, family support, and criminal activities such as looting in order to make ends meet. Commanders, according to an accountant with an SNA faction known as the al-Mutasim Brigade to whom I spoke, make at least $300 monthly.

Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images
Turkish-backed militiamen patrolling a street after seizing control of the town from Kurdish fighters, Tel Abyad, northern Syria, October 20, 2019

Un-Governed Space

The governance of areas under SNA control in northern Aleppo and in the newly captured areas in northern Raqqa and Hassakeh is closely tied to Turkey. Turkey pays the salaries of local councilors, teachers, and doctors, in addition to the salaries of the local police, military police, and armed factions. Although a military police force does exist in the area, it is largely incapable of preventing abuses of civilians committed by the SNA or infighting between factions. Lawlessness is rampant, and very few fighters have faced repercussions for their criminal activity. Aymann, who serves in the military police in Efrîn, said that a number of fighters had been punished for theft in military courts, but when it comes to commanders, its impossible… The factions are stronger than the military police.If the MPs attempt to arrest commanders, he said, they will be met with force.

Although all armed actors in Syria have been involved in violations against civilians, the levels of criminality in areas under SNA control are particularly high, according to civilians I’ve spoken to living there, many of them displaced from what had formerly been rebel-held areas reconquered by the regime. Locals, as well as SNA members themselves, connect this high level of criminality with the nature of the factions and the type of fighters who belong to them—individuals driven by financial motives, most of them lacking ties to the community.

The fighters supplement their meager wages through various schemes. Control of permanent checkpoints between SNA-held areas and rebel-held areas, regime areas, and SDF-held territory, is highly prized as a source of toll revenue—leading to numerous episodes of factional fighting. In the unstable truces that follow such rounds of infighting, the factions generally divide control of the crossings among themselves, sometimes breaking up their commands into hours per day or a few days at a time. Cars passing through these checkpoints have to pay the guards, either in cash or by other means. Those transporting medicine, for example, pay the fighters by giving them a cut of the goods they’re moving—typically, stimulant pills like Tramadol—I was told by Mohsin, a long-time rebel from Aleppo city, now fighting in the ranks of the al-Mutasim Brigade.

Other profit-making schemes abound. In addition to the established checkpoints, fighters also set up temporary checkpoints and extort cash from passersby. SNA commanders also demand protection money from businesses, such as car dealerships, owners of restaurants, gold sellers, owners of factories. Its just like a mafia,said Mohsin. Some groups also kidnap civilians, usually wealthier individuals or ones with relatives abroad, demanding ransom payments.

While abuses are prevalent across SNA-held areas, the Kurds who have remained in Efrîn suffer particularly badly. After every SNA operation, there has been looting of civilian property by fighters. In Efrîn in 2018, though, the pillaging was far more extensive and more highly organized than usual. So many of the guys [fellow SNA fighters] were looting, I could not stop them. The Turks could not stop them either. The [looters] beat us and shot at us,said Mansour, a commander with the 9th Brigade, an SNA faction. The mass exodus of civilians during that military operation, and their inability to return, provided the factions with a lucrative opportunity to confiscate homes and then move into them or rent them out to Arab families displaced from formerly rebel-held pockets further south. In what was once a Kurdish-majority district, most inhabitants, according to residents of Efrîn, are no longer Kurdish.

Digla, a Kurdish woman still living in Efrîn, told me she felt lucky. Though arrested shortly after the Turkish-backed takeover of the area by the Sultan Murad Brigade, I was barely touched, as opposed to other women held with me,she said. “Women as old at seventy were beaten and tortured.” She attributes her better fortune to being a known opponent of the PYD, the political party associated with the Kurdish YPG militia, which had previously ruled the region. Even so, Digla was detained for a month.

Eventually released, she returned to an Efrîn she found transformed—and heavily looted. Now 90 percent of the Kurdish women are wearing the hijab, afraid of being harassed. I was harassed and threatened many times. I still keep the hijab off in the city, but in the countryside, where the situation is worse, I wear it,she reported. You have fighters who look like theyre thirteen warning you to dress properly, but at the same time, they take drugs and do [religiously] prohibited things.

Efrîn used to be a place full of life,said Samer, a journalist from Idlib who visited Efrîn prior and after the Turkish takeover. “Now shops close early. You see graffiti on the walls of the different factions, marking their territory.” Muntaser, a fighter with the Hamza Division, a group implicated in multiple abuses in Efrîn, admitted that such violations are commonplace, but he blamed it on other factions. Civilians suffer at the hands of some factions, while others treat them well. Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Lord have mercy, they are filthy extremistsThey oppress the civilians a lot.Digla put it this way: “We are constantly afraid. They can arrest us at any moment. There is no law.

The countryside around Efrîn is even more lawless. “At night, there are robberies,” she said. “They enter your house and you cant resist. People who resist are beaten or even killed.There is no accountability, she said, because the factions threaten and beat people who file complaints, so people prefer to stay silent or flee.” Rape is a crime of war that Syrian rebel groups have largely refrained from committing, but reports of rapes perpetrated by SNA fighters circulate among local Kurds and Kurdish media outlets. Disturbingly, two SNA members, Qassem and Mohsin, confirmed to me the incidence of such cases and could name specific Kurdish and Yazidi women they know who were raped by SNA fighters in Efrîn.

Mohsin, who participated in the offensive on Efrîn, said that the locals hate and fear the factions. Referring to the reports about rape of Kurdish women by SNA fighters, he admitted that in Efrîn, “There is rape of the bodyAnd then they [SNA] raped their Kurdish nationality,” referring to the linguistic and cultural rights of Kurds, which have largely been undone under Turkish rule. “Their rights are raped.” As a result, “most of the youth left the area, the rest, a minority, are adapting to the situation.

The fighters of the SNA factions generally seem aware of their public image. You feel embarrassed belonging to this side, especially since you cant change anything,said Qassem, an SNA member. The reputation of certain factions, such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, made up of fighters from eastern Syria and particularly Deir Ezzor, is so poor that even civilians displaced from Deir Ezzor to SNA areas are tainted by association. People assume that the moment you speak with a Deiri accent, youre with Ahrar al-Sharqiya,said Khaled, an activist from eastern Syria living in al-Bab, the home to many Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters.

In smaller villages in Arab- and Turkmen-majority areas, as well as the town of Marea, the fighters are usually local and get along with the population, reported Aymann, the military police officer. But in places like Azaz, al-Rai, and Jarablus, as well as al-Bab and Efrîn, the fighters are often outsiders, and in these towns, the factions operate prisons where torture is rampant. Popular channels on the messaging app Telegram, such as Al-Bab, the Nightmareand Jarablus, the Nightmare, routinely share reports about abuses perpetrated by the factions.

 

What Motivates the Fighters?

In their official public image, SNA fighters present themselves as an extension of the Syrian rebellion and label themselves revolutionaries.In private, they freely accuse those fighting alongside them of fighting simply for money, and some admit to doing so themselves, justifying this by listing the prices of goods, rent, electricity, and water they must pay to provide for their families. While none admit to being involved in criminal enterprises themselves, they accuse other fighters in their factions of joining to rob civilians and loot with impunity. Abdullah, a fighter with the Hamza Brigade, said that some fighters only joined… for war spoils and money.Joining the SNA is also a form of protection, valuable in a lawless region.

Some of the fighters are simply “drug addicts and criminals,said Mohsin, the SNA fighter with the al-Mu’tasim Brigade. Others are motivated by power. Young fighters, in particular, enjoy social media displays of driving in cars, brandishing weapons and going into in residential areas late at night, firing their guns, enjoying the impunity afforded them. And still others are driven by a desire for revenge against the YPG, among them former rebels from Aleppo city, which in 2016 was besieged and its residents starved because of the YPG’s decision to cut the only supply route into the city. This followed years of back-and-forth shelling between rebel- and YPG-held neighborhoods in the city, while others were displaced from their towns when the YPG exploited the regimes offensive on Aleppo to make its own gains against the fledgling opposition. These rebel fighters from eastern Syria decided it was unsafe to return to their homes after the SDFs takeover of previously ISIS-held territory.

Sheer racism plays a part, too. The Assad regime’s official pan-Arab Baathist ideology, which made Kurds second-class citizens, influenced Arab Syrians as a whole. The SDF’s hegemony and its Kurdish-dominated administration are particularly irksome to Arabs, who at times refer to Kurds as shoe-shinersand street-cleaners.Digla reported that children of the Arab fighters told me to my face things like, You are whores, we hope you go to helland ‘We will kill all the Kurds.’” She paused to reflect: “Imagine what hatred they teach them at home for them to be talking like this?

But are these fighters mostly extremists, as some US officials have alleged? Recent videos by SNA fighters have shown them participating in jihadist chants and songs. Some SNA fighters clearly hold bigoted views—manifested, for example, in the desecration of Yazidi temples in Efrîn, the destruction of shops that sold alcoholic beverages in Efrîn, and the de facto enforcement of the hijab on the women of Efrîn. Islamist rhetoric, which includes referring to SDF fighters as atheists” or “apostates,” has clearly infected some fighters’ attitudes. When asked about these chants and videos, these fighters (and people from their communities) often claim they’re simply putting on a show, posing as holy warriors, whereas, in reality, they drink alcohol, smoke, and use drugs.

This talk about jihadists make no sense. We dont have ISIS here or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [the jihadist group dominating rebel-held Idlib]. The guys here are all hopped up on [stimulant] pills,said Muhammad, the Faylaq al-Majd fighter, to prove that his brothers in arms are impious. There is something to this: if the fighters were jihadist true-believers, they could and likely would head to Idlib to join the various jihadist organizations operating in the area and take on Assad’s “infidel” regime forces.

Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
An SNA fighter loading ammunition into a magazine, Ras al-Ayn district, northern Syria, October 15, 2019

Cognitive Dissonance

The fighters’ self-presentation as revolutionaries fighting the oppressive Assad regime conflicts with reality. Instead, the SNA forces have largely avoided confrontation with the Assad regime, and seem resigned to being used by Turkey to advance its strategic goals in Syria. A few still harbor hopes that Turkey will allow them to fight Assad, or that they can trick their Turkish masters into letting them fight the regime. Saleh, a former member of the 20th Brigade, an SNA faction largely made up of displaced fighters from eastern Syria, insisted that the current invasion of northeast Syria will enable them to take on Assad, and that even if Turkey forbids it, they will engage regime forces. We dont care what Turkey says,he told me, after entering northeastern Syria with the invading forces.

Others justified working with Turkey by noting the absence of any other possible allies. Issam, a member of the SNA who works in mine-clearing operations, wrote in broken Arabic from his home in Efrîn, which was confiscated from a Kurdish family: “Currently, no one stands by our side except Turkey. Where are the Arabs? Where is Europe? So therefore we must stand by Turkey the way it stood by us.A few days later, though, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey does not oppose the regimes takeover of areas in northeastern Syria, he remarked with chagrin that the [Syrian] National Army is going to just protect the Turkish border. This is the task.” “In our land, we have no decision [-making power].

But other fighters seem more cognizant of their powerlessness to affect the trajectory of the war, let alone achieve their goal of toppling the Assad regime. Yet they feel trapped by their obligation to support their families. Many SNA fighters, though none of the commanders, with whom I spoke expressed a desire to quit the factions—if other employment was available—both because they feel uncomfortable about fighting on behalf of another country and dissatisfied with the poor compensation. The harsh fact these displaced young men with limited education and skills face, though, is that there are few other opportunities in this war-torn region.

I was deported from Turkey to Idlib, and because I was wanted by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham for opposing them, I had to flee to northern Aleppo,explained Hassan, a native of Deir Ezzor. “The only job I could find was with Ahrar al-Sharqiya.” As a result, he had participated in the latest Turkish assault and witnessed fellow fighters carrying out field executions, including of the Syrian-Kurdish politician and womens rights activist Havrin Khalaf.

For many of these young men, aware of their predicament and unable to delude themselves that they will eventually be allowed to take on the Assad regime, the trauma and guilt are only too apparent. They eagerly spent hours on the phone with me, detailing the violence and abuses they’ve seen. The disgust was palpable in their voices—they often resorted to the use of third person when describing the actions of the factions, disassociating themselves. Mazen, the Levant Front fighter, remarked “they [the SNA fighters] are employees of the Turkish state to protect its border.Then he switched to the first person: “The Turks are using us as cannon fodder. Weve become mercenaries.