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Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army

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Syrian National Army
(Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army)
الجيش الوطني السوري
Participant in the Syrian Civil War, as part of the Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War
Logo of the Syrian National Army
Logo of the Syrian National Army
Active2017[1]–present
AllegianceSyrian opposition Syrian Interim Government[1]
HeadquartersAzaz, Aleppo Governorate
Area of operationsTurkish-occupied northern Syria
Size~ 35,000[2]
Part of Syrian opposition
Allies Turkey
National Front for Liberation
Opponent(s) Syrian Democratic Forces
International Freedom Battalion
 Syria
Tahrir al-Sham
 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Battles and war(s)Syrian Civil War

The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (abbreviated as TFSA), partially reorganized as the Syrian National Army (Arabic: الجيش الوطني السوري‎, romanizedal-Jayš al-Watanī as-Sūrī, Turkish: Suriye Millî Ordusu) by the Republic of Turkey since 30 May 2017,[3] is an armed Syrian opposition structure mainly composed of Syrian Arab and Syrian Turkmen rebels operating in Turkish-occupied northern Syria, originally as a part of Operation Euphrates Shield[4][5]

The formation of the Syrian National Army was officially announced on 30 December 2017 in Azaz.[1] The official aims of the group are to assist the Republic of Turkey in creating a "safe zone" in Syria, and to establish a National Army.[6] They are strong opponents of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and have also fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian government's Syrian Arab Army.[5] The TFSA has a law enforcement equivalent, the Free Police, which is also backed by Turkey.

Composition[edit]

Fighters of the al-Bab military council, which is part of the TFSA's Hawar Kilis Operations Room, during the Battle of al-Bab

The TFSA, which includes at least 25,000 fighters according to one of its senior commanders, mostly consists of Arabs[7] and Turkmens. In comparison, the number of Syrian Kurds among the TFSA is relatively small. In January 2018, senior TFSA commander Azad Shabo said that there were "dozens" among the FSA units[8] such as the Azadî Battalion,[9] while Almodon Online reported about 500 Kurdish fighters overall, including in non-FSA formations such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Levant Front and the Army of Grandchildren.[10] By February 2018, a TFSA commander claimed that 1,000 Kurds were part of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.[11]

By the end of June 2017, most Turkish-backed FSA groups reorganized themselves into three main military blocs: the Victory Bloc, the Sultan Murad Bloc, and the Levant Bloc. However, a number of other groups remained independent.[12] On 30 December 2017, the groups unified to form the Syrian National Army. By this time, three "legions" were established as part of the SNA: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Legions. On 15 March 2018, rebel factions in northern Homs countryside formed the 4th Legion, though they later evacuated to northern Aleppo. Factions also evacuated from the Rif Damascus & Damascus Governorates to northern Aleppo.

Member groups[edit]

Syrian National Army
Hawar Kilis Operations Room
Military councils
  • Al-Bab Military Council
  • Mare' Military Council[10]
  • Qabasin Military Council
  • Akhtarin Military Council
  • Menagh Military Council[59]
  • Tell Rifaat Military Council[60]
  • Deir ez-Zor Unified Military Council[61]
  • Raqqa Military Council[62]
Other Turkish-backed rebel groups in the area

Connection with Turkey[edit]

The Turkish Army bombards the SDF using heavy artillery in the northern Aleppo countryside in July 2017. The Turkish Armed Forces often directly support the TFSA during military operations.

The Turkey-backed FSA are the main non-Turkish Armed Forces component of Operation Euphrates Shield. The name is a misnomer, as they are distinct from the Free Syrian Army; their wages are paid for by the Turkish government, they operate alongside the Turkish Armed Forces. Their chain of command has no connection to the Free Syrian Army.[dubious ][4][83] Injured Turkey-backed FSA troops have been treated in Turkey.[84] The Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army are also distinguishable from other Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups because they have attacked YPG and other SDF units,[85] which the FSA generally has not done (besides occasional skirmishes on Afrin's southern border with Idlib-based groups), while they have refrained from attacking the Syrian Arab Army, the main opponent of most FSA groups.[citation needed]

There have been moves by Turkey to consolidate the units within their sphere of influence into one formal army, with a suggestion that it be called the "Syrian National Army".[86]

The Free Police have more overt connections to Turkey, reportedly wearing Turkish police uniforms decorated with the word "Polis" (Turkish for "Police"),[87] while Special Forces wear distinctive light blue berets also worn by Turkish Gendarmerie. Some wore a Turkish flag patch on their uniforms at the inauguration ceremony on 24 January 2017.[88] The Free Police also receive five weeks of training in Turkey.[88]

On 18 April 2018, the TFSA's Raqqa Military Council, which consists of 6 groups, was announced in the city of Urfa in southeastern Turkey.[62]

Operational history[edit]

2016: Operation Euphrates Shield[edit]

The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA)'s first known engagement was a joint operation with the Turkish Armed Forces. In the first day, they took control of Jarabulus from ISIL.[89] After this, they expanded northeast, meeting with units of the Syrian Democratic Forces north of Manbij. The TFSA successfully pushed the SDF out of the Jarablus area and captured all its settlements, the Euphrates river was used as a demarcation line, with forces on the opposing sides.[90][91] On at least one occasion, American troops came to form a joint operation with Turkey; however after the TFSA's Ahrar al-Sharqiya Brigade's verbal attacks ("crusaders", "pigs") against them, the US troops withdrew, being escorted from the area by US-backed units in the TFSA, including the Hamza Division and the al-Mu'tasim Brigade.[92] A U.S. defense official confirmed the event, but insisted that U.S. soldiers were still deployed in the area.[93] The joint forces pushed ISIL to the south. After this success, Turkey-backed FSA made contact near Mare with the SDF forces from the Afrin Canton. Contact between the two saw Turkey-backed FSA attack some SDF-held towns with Turkish artillery support. The attacks were repelled, with casualties on both sides.[94]

Turkish-backed fighters in combat during the Battle of al-Bab

In February 2017, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Armed Forces advanced to besiege al-Bab.[95][96][97] By 27 February, the Turkey-backed FSA and Turkish Armed Forces seized al-Bab.[98][99] As of February 2017, 470 fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army died in Operation Euphrates Shield, while the Turkish armed forces lost 68.[14]

Free Syrian Army fighters near Jandiris district northern Aleppo’s countryside, 11 February 2018

As of March 2017, the TFSA and the Turkish army were effectively blocked from moving further east by advances of the SAA. This occurred when the SDF's Manbij Military Council handed over some territory bordering the Turkish positions to the SAA, creating a buffer zone.[100][101] As a result, the TFSA failed to achieve other stated goals, including capturing the SDF-held city of Manbij and participating in the Coalition offensive on Raqqa.[102]

On 24 September 2017, the Hamza Division announced the opening of a military academy in the city of al-Bab. According to Abdullah Halawa, military commander of the group, 2,200 fighters will undergo 2 months of training in the academy, with the goal of forming a "Syrian National Army" in northern Syria.[103]

2018: Operation Olive Branch[edit]

On 20 January 2018, Turkey launched a new operation in Afrin Region, against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. The TFSA conduct ground offensives against the YPG and SDF supported by and in conjunction with Turkish armed forces (TAF/TSK) air strikes, artillery, armored units, and special forces units.[104][105][106] The first phase of the operation is to capture the entire Afrin-Turkey border.[107] On 1 February, the TFSA captured the strategic town of Bulbul after a fierce battle with the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG).[108] In early March, the second phase of Operation Olive Branch was launched after successfully clearing the entire Afrin-Turkey border.[109] On 3 March, after fierce fighting, the TFSA captured the town of Rajo.[110] On 8 March, the TFSA captured Jinderes, meaning that they now have control over all major roads leading to the city of Afrin.[111][110] On 13 March, TFSA forces reached Afrin city and encircled it.[112][113] On 18 March, the TFSA took full control of Afrin, marking their second big victory after Operation Euphrates Shield.[114] Since the capture of Afrin city, TFSA forces have been busy clearing the recently captured areas of mines and providing security and stability to the region.[115] As of 13 June TFSA forces have dismantled 240 mines and 1,231 IEDs.[116]

Internal conflict between TFSA factions[edit]

Turkish-supplied FNSS ACV-15, manned by a TFSA crew, during operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

On 26 March 2016, Ahrar ash-Sham ordered the anti-YPG Kurdish FSA group Liwa Ahfad Saladin to remove the flag of Kurdistan from their posts and threatened military action if they didn't.[117] However, Liwa Ahfad Saladin's commander denied the incident ever occurred and claimed Ahrar ash-Sham to be its ally.[118]

On 27 September 2016, several Ahrar al-Sham fighters publicly burned a FSA flag in Azaz. The Ahrar al-Sham spokesman denied involvement and the incident sparked pro-FSA demonstrations in the city.[119]

On 14 November 2016, the Levant Front and the Sultan Murad Division clashed at the Azaz border gate with Kilis, Turkey.[120] Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a former member of the Levant Front, joined the fighting after they accused the Levant Front leaders of "acting like gangs".[121]

On 3 April 2017, Ahrar al-Sham reportedly attacked Liwa Ahfad Saladin in Qabasin and captured more than 8 of their fighters, including a commander. Hours later, the prisoners were released after negotiations, although tensions between the two groups remain.[122]

On 13 April 2017, clashes broke out between the Levant Front and the Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade 100 kilometres north of Aleppo after both groups accused the other of corruption. The Sultan Murad Division, the Hamza Division, and the Northern Hawks Brigade sided with the Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade during the clashes.[123]

On 14 May 2017, two separate clashes in Jarabulus and Gandura pitted the Ahrar al-Sharqiya Brigade against the Sultan Murad Division and the Sham Legion. The fighting stopped after the intervention of the Turkish Army.[124]

On 22 May, the Levant Front attacked the Sham Legion near Azaz. The Levant Front accused the Sham Legion of conspiring with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, part of Tahrir al-Sham. The LF besieged the Sham Legion headquarters, captured a number of their fighters, and seized several ammunition dumps.[125]

Between 24 and 25 May, 5 FSA factions including the Levant Front, the Hamza Division, and the Sultan Murad Division conducted a joint attack on the Revolutionary Knights Brigade between Azaz and al-Rai and captured more than 20 of their fighters, in addition to killing and wounding at least 10. The FSA factions accused the Revolutionary Knights Brigade of affiliation to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and Tahrir al-Sham and partaking in smuggling, looting, extortion, and abuses of civilians.[126]

On 2 June 2017, defectors from the Northern Brigade's Commandos of Islam Brigade joined Tahrir al-Sham, giving them a presence in TFSA territory. However, Capt. Kuja stated that he is still part of the Northern Brigade.[127][42][43]

Between 4 and 15 June, heavy fighting broke out between TFSA factions led by the Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham and its allies in and near al-Bab. By 15 June, 33 people were killed and 55 injured in the infighting. On 8 June, between 60 and 70 TFSA fighters, including several Sultan Murad Division commanders, defected to the Syrian Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces during the clashes.[128]

On 3 July 2017, Mahmoud Khallo, commander of the Descendants of Saladin Brigade, declared that his unit would not participate in a planned Turkish-led offensive against the YPG and SDF in the Afrin Canton and the Shahba region.[129] Following the announcement, the group was attacked by multiple Turkish-backed groups, which captured the group's positions and warehouses with vehicles and equipment. On 14 July, Khallo himself was captured by the Levant Front, which accused him of affiliation with both al-Qaeda and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and was tortured. The Levant Front then handed him over to Turkish security forces, who interrogated him.[130] After being released soon after, Khallo protested against his unit's treatment and criticized that Turkey was apparently only interested in using the Syrian militias to further its own strategic goals. He also said that Liwa Ahfad Saladin, now without weapons, would set up a political party.[53]

On 25 March 2018, following the capture of Afrin a week earlier, clashes broke out between the Hamza Division and Ahrar al-Sharqiya in the city, resulting in the latter group capturing around 200 fighters from the former. A ceasefire agreement between the two groups was signed on the same day under the auspices of Turkey.[131]

On 18 November 2018, at least 25 militants were killed and dozens wounded in heavy clashes between Turkish-backed insurgent factions in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin. The clashes primarily occurred in the Mahmudiya and Villat neighborhoods, killing 14 fighters from Ahrar al-Sharqiya and nine from the other groups.[132]

Accusations of war crimes[edit]

In September 2016, after their capture of Jarabulus from ISIL, Sultan Murad Division fighters published pictures of themselves torturing four YPG prisoners of war.[133][134]

In June 2017, the Kurdish National Council accused Turkish-backed rebels of kidnapping 55 Kurdish civilians and displacing hundreds of Yazidis in northern Aleppo.[135]

Several cases of Human rights violations have been reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human rights (SOHR)[136]

In January 2018, the commander of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Abu Khalid Sharqiya, was filmed raping a 13-year-old girl at a refugee camp in Jarabulus.[137]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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