Throughout the Syrian civil war, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been the armed opposition group mostly aligned with – and most dependent on – Turkey. Turkey hosted the FSA’s initial military headquarters, facilitated collaboration among FSA field commanders, welcomed supportive Western/Gulf representatives in the early stages of the war, and launched a ‘train and equip programme’ in 2014 for vetted fighters to accelerate the overthrow of the Assad regime, together with the US.
After 2015, when Turkey shifted to its strategy of containing the PYD-led Syrian Kurds by creating buffer zones in northern Syria, it used FSA groups as irregular forces in its hybrid military operations: Operation Euphrates Shield, 2016; Operation Olive Branch, 2018; and Operation Peace Spring, 2019. These groups were renamed as the Syrian National Army (SNA). Turkey supplies the SNA with training, salaries and weapons in exchange for its participation in Turkish military operations in and outside of its buffer zones. On balance, it is fair to say that Turkey has come to control the SNA after a period of centralising and restructuring the force.
The ease of collaboration between Turkey and the SNA in northern Syria, as well as Turkish-supported consolidation of the SNA, can be explained partially by the presence of considerable ethnic (Turkmen) and/or religious (Sunni Arab) elements on both sides. These elements are compatible in their socio-cultural views and have a shared perception of who constitutes the enemy (regime forces and, more recently, Syria’s Kurds in the form of the PYD and YPG). Collaboration and consolidation are, however, recent characteristics of the SNA-Turkish relationship. From the outset of the war, the FSA was fragmented and subject to geopolitical politicking, with a number of Gulf states competing for influence. Operation Euphrates Shield (2016) boosted the FSA-Turkish partnership substantially when FSA groups performed adequately as part of the Turkish-military led operation. The 2017 centralisation of several FSA groups into three corps (the 3rd corps, 4th corps and special forces) and a new hierarchical structure for the SNA gave Turkey an even tighter grip on the organisation’s composite groups, although these technically continue to report to the Ministry of Defence of the Syrian National Council and its Chief of Staff, General Salim Idris. This new SNA structure recently became the core of the Turkish proxy architecture in Syria by integrating Idlib’s National Liberation Front (NLF, see Box 1) groups into it. In addition, selected armed groups of Syrian Turkmen are said to execute special operations and covert tasks on behalf of Turkish intelligence (MIT) as part of a separate arrangement between these groups and Turkey.