From the summer of 2016 to early 2020, the Turkish military launched four expeditionary military campaigns into northern Syria. The first campaign, Operation Euphrates Shield, marked the first time that a NATO nation deployed conventional formations to confront Islamic State (IS). The second and third campaigns, namely Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring, targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and affiliated groups in Syria. The latter, which took place in northeastern Syria, also led to serious divergences between Turkey and its traditional Western allies. The final campaign, Operation Spring Shield, was a punitive measure targeting the Syrian Arab Army and adjacent paramilitary units following the killing of 36 Turkish troops by a joint Russian–Syrian air campaign (Hurriyet, February 29, 2020).
Turkey’s security and foreign policy has traditionally refrained from interfering in intra-Arab affairs. Syria was the turning point, however. Several years after the eruption of the Syrian civil war, Turkey began to pursue the demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime. This ambition had to be altered with more sober national defense priorities that, first and foremost, involved eliminating terrorist threats from Turkey’s doorstep, including IS, and denying a PKK-led statelet along the Turkish-Syrian frontier.
Through these Syrian expeditions, the Turkish military has not operated alone. Turkey has closely supported the armed opposition, centered on the Free Syrian Army (FSA). With the FSA graduating into the larger Syrian National Army (SNA) in October 2019, Ankara is now investing in the SNA as an institutionalized military entity to ally with the Turkish military in northern Syria (Anadolu Agency, May 20, 2017; Anadolu Agency, October 9, 2019).
The Road to the SNA’s Formation
Following Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish military boosted its train-and-equip program to improve the FSA’s combat capabilities until it became the SNA. The SNA can best be described as a confederation of armed opposition groups with some 40 factions that all took part in the October 2019 merger. At present, the SNA is estimated to be capable of mobilizing 70,000 fighters (SETA, October 11, 2019).
The SNA is also an Arab-dominated entity with broad geographic representation from all corners of Syria (SETA, October 11, 2019). However, the Turkmen factor in the organization is important. Before the October 2019 merger, Syrian Turkmen, who are of Turkish origin, had some 10,000 to 15,000 fighters in the armed opposition ranks (SETA, December 31, 2018).
These battle-hardened groups punch above their weight and have high discipline and motivation. Back in 2016, during Operation Euphrates Shield’s final assault in al-Bab, Syria, for example, the Sultan Murat Division, which is a well-known Turkmen combat formation, captured the areas around the silos in the south of the city. From a military standpoint, the division courageously placed itself in a multi-front engagement zone between IS militants, who were in the north holding the town center, and the Syrian Arab Army, which was approaching from Tadif in the southeast. The division’s maneuver enabled the Turkish campaign in al-Bab to result in the capture of the most critical high-ground in the area of operations, Aqil Mountain.
What’s Next for the SNA: Implications for ‘Post-War’ Syria
The SNA’s trajectory, especially in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War, was the most critical issue that Turkish decision-makers needed to address. Several groups among the former FSA, now in the SNA, fought alongside the Turkish military in its Syrian expeditionary campaigns. Turkey trained them, armed them, and strategically invested in them. In other words, they are hard to leave behind. Yet, some problems have arisen with the Turkey’s indigenous ally in Syria.
Open-source intelligence suggests that Turkey has begun implementing its own security sector reform within the ranks of the armed opposition. In late 2020, Hamza Division, a former component of the U.S. train-and-equip program in Syria and part of the pro-Turkey coalition, for example, opened its first special forces military academy in the northern Syrian town of Azaz (Anadolu Agency, December 4, 2020). The Sultan Murad Division, likewise, has operated a military training center in the town of Afrin that was captured from the PKK and its offshoots in Operation Olive Branch in 2018 (Sultan Murad Division Twitter Account, January 4).
Despite its roadmap toward institutionalizing the SNA, Turkey faces various wildcards and challenges. First, there are intra-SNA rivalries that make, or should make, cohesion a major concern for Turkey. Some SNA factions have developed violent enmities and vendettas that plague unity. Ahrar al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sharqiya, for example, have clashed with each other multiple times (SETA, October 11, 2019).
Second, the diverse ideologies within the SNA raises concerns of their acceptability among Western countries. Not every actor within the SNA shares the same worldview. Their struggle against the Syrian Arab Army and the al-Assad regime unites them in the interim. However, their objectives in a political settlement in post-war circumstances are different.
Most importantly, Turkey’s traditional Western allies do not have positive views regarding certain SNA parties. Ahrar al-Sham, for example, remains among the largest of the factions within the SNA, but is considered to be the ‘Syrian Taliban’ by some experts due to the group’s Salafist ideology combined with geopolitical ambitions limited to the Syrian battleground (SWP, May 2016). In addition, some experts have also depicted the SNA party, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, as an “extremist group” (WINEP, October 18, 2019). Regardless of whether these assessments are accurate or not, these views represent the mainstream strategic viewpoint in the West that deeply influences the policy communities when it comes to any post-war scenario. Further, these perceptions are likely to remain and limit Turkish international diplomacy and strategic communications capabilities amid its growing strains with the Western capitals.
Finally, there are the limits regarding turning the SNA into a part of the anticipated security sector reform in Syria in the aftermath of the civil war. Compared to the West, Russia and Iran, which are the two patrons of the Syrian al-Assad regime, have even more negative stances regarding Sunni armed opposition groups in Syria. Add to that the sectarian stance of the predominantly Alawite elite of the Syrian Arab Army, integrating any SNA components into the future Syrian Arab Army would be extremely daunting, if not completely impossible. Furthermore, Ahrar al-Sham still considers overthrowing the Baathist al-Assad regime to be its principal ideological objective. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the entire SNA would be willing to sign a broader social contract for a functioning post-war status quo.
If the bulk of the SNA were not to directly take part in the security sector reform in a post-war scenario, then Turky would have to deal with an immense DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) burden. This could be even more daunting than integrating the SNA into a broader Syrian security sector. Disarming thousands of paramilitaries who have been fighting for more than a decade is, simply, a near-impossible task. What is worse, Syria has already become the largest black and gray arms depot of the world. Thus, these groups can make the battleground even more violent if they choose to do so.
Disarming the SNA factions, which would be the first condition of any DDR process, is simply beyond the realm of Turkey’s realistic options. Furthermore, there is the war economy plaguing the entire conflict-torn country. Armed groups across Syria ranging from pro-Baath regime militias to the armed opposition factions, enjoy certain economic benefits from the fighting that they have been doing for years. Convincing them to adapt to a normalized, peace-time economy is, therefore, difficult. Even beyond this, all of the SNA factions’ loyalties cannot be taken for granted should Turkey ask them to lay down their arms.
The SNA: Challenges Ahead for Turkey’s Least Worst Option
The SNA remains Turkey’s most ambitious project in northern Syria. Its warfighting capabilities have evolved through the years, and have reached a substantial level at present. Turkey has even transferred some of these paramilitaries to the Libyan front.
The SNA’s available manpower can be compared to that of the Syrian Arab Army, although the SNA lacks the organic strategic enablers that al-Assad’s troops enjoy, including, first and foremost, an air force, missile forces, chemical warfare capabilities, and heavy armor. Since Hafez al-Assad’s time, the Baath regime in Syria has offered little room for the Sunni majority in the elite units of the Syrian Arab Army. Thus, as the civil war erupted and quickly gained a sectarian character, the armed opposition had to digest thousands of fighters with little warfighting skills. Many extremist networks have exploited this vacuum, the most prominent of which was IS.
At present, Turkey’s efforts to unify, discipline, and train an armed opposition may bear fruit if the post-war security sector reform process is wisely managed. However, if DDR efforts fail the day may come for forcibly disarming the SNA constituents. At that point, the Turkish administration would have to deal with an uphill battle.