In June 2019, the Turkish city of Reyhanli hosted the funeral of Absul Baset al-Sarout, a complex opposition figure in the Syrian civil war. For many, he was a popular icon of the Syrian revolution, even though he called for the extermination of Syria’s Alawites in 2012. Later, he desperately pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) for all intends and purposes, and met his end fighting for a nationalist Islamist group that nevertheless cooperated with Hey’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former Al-Qaeda affiliate. Turkey’s official news agency and the Syrian National Coalition’s General Assembly paid tribute to Al-Sarout as a revolutionary hero, while the Turkish province of Hatay, where Reyhanli is situated, went so far as to drape its coat of arms over his green coffin. The funeral ceremony was, however, harshly criticised by one of Hatay’s Turkish left-wing parliamentarians and proved controversial among Reyhanli’s mixed population of Arabs, Turks and Alawites. For the purpose of this brief, Al-Sarout’s life and funeral offer a useful example of how interwoven secular/Islamist, national/transnational as well as moderate/radical armed opposition groups in Syria have become, and of how Turkey supports a broad range of such groups regardless of their ideological orientations.
More precisely, this brief analyses Turkey’s strategic relations with Syrian armed opposition groups with a focus on recent events in northern Syria, especially the areas of Idlib, Afrin and the Azaz-Jarabulus corridor. It seeks to understand why Turkey supports certain groups, what it expects in return, and what its support is likely to mean for the course of the war and the prospects for peace.
At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Turkey advocated for the peaceful inclusion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the Assad regime. When that strategy fell on deaf ears in Damascus, Ankara shifted its focus to overthrowing President Assad by supporting the Syrian armed opposition. After 2015, the poor battlefield performance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the rise of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), including its People’s Protection Units (YPG), that Turkey views as a PKK franchise, caused a second strategic shift in Turkish foreign policy, namely a refocusing on containing and reducing the gains of the PYD-led Syrian Kurds. This strategy has been operationalised through a hybrid warfare approach that combines regular Turkish military forces with irregular capabilities in the form of Syrian armed groups acting as Turkish proxies. The approach has been relatively effective in carving out substantial areas of Turkish influence and/or control along the Turkish/Syrian border and in disrupting the emergence of a continuous area controlled by the PYD-led Syrian Kurds.
Despite the linkages and regular changes of allegiance between many groups in the Syrian civil war, the armed opposition can be divided roughly into three main categories:
(1) Secular revolutionary groups – Starting with the Free Syrian Army that was founded in 2011 in Turkey by Sunni-Arab defectors of the Syrian Arab Army, this category contains groups that do not have an overt religious agenda (which is not to say their members are not religious) and that were formed early on during the protests and ‘revolution’ against the regime. This category includes Turkmen proxy groups represented by the Syrian Turkmen Assembly (STA) based in Al-Rai (northwest Syria, earlier in Istanbul). The FSA was an umbrella term for a network of mostly decentralised and irregular armed groups but in 2017 Turkey gradually turned it into a centralised organisation with clearer command and control structures. These FSA groups, which participated in Turkey’s military operation Euphrates Shield, were effectively rebranded as the Syrian National Army (SNA).
(2) Nationalist Islamist groups – The historical antecedent of the nationalist Islamist groups can be traced back to 2013 when seven FSA-aligned armed groups set up the (Syrian) Islamic Front (IF). While it officially sought to establish a Syrian Islamic state in which governance was supervised by religious scholars and based on sharia law, it distanced itself from Salafi-jihadi doctrine. The result was a Syrian-focused agenda with religious – but not radical extremist – overtones. This distinction resulted in the groups being labelled by some as ‘moderate Islamists’ (note a). In 2014, 19 moderate Islamist groups united in the Faylaq al-Sham (Sham Legion). Largely replacing the IF, Faylaq al-Sham consisted of Islamist groups of all shades (from conservative and Salafi-oriented to Muslim Brotherhood inspired) that viewed both the Assad regime and extremist groups as their enemies. Complicating things further, in 2018, several influential nationalist Islamist and FSA-affiliated armed groups in Idlib united to form the National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF is a nationalist-Islamist formation in Idlib that operated under Turkish auspices. In October 2019 it merged with the Syrian National Army, which technically operates under the direct command of the Syrian Interim Government but in reality, it takes orders from Turkey.
(3) Salafi jihadist groups – This category is limited to Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). Initially formed as the Syrian branch of IS, JAN switched its allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2013. In mid-2016, the group rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and distanced itself from Al-Qaeda by limiting its area of action to Syria in the hope of avoiding US and Russian attacks and sanctions (note b). With its presence gradually reduced to Idlib, the group renamed itself Hey’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in early 2017. The creation of HTS produced a split between those who prioritised a jihadist vision of Syria (the ‘black’ faction) and those who prioritised the Syrian revolution’s vision from a conservative Islamic perspective (Nationalist Islamists, the ‘green’ faction). When HTS started to pursue policies that were not in line with the doctrine of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, jihadist elements of HTS broke off to form Tanzim Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion).
Note (a): It paid off in the sense that the US, UK and France blocked a Russian initiative in the UN Security Council in May 2016 to label Ahrar-al Sham – the leading ‘moderate Islamists’ member – as a terrorist organisation. See:
Biding Its Time:The Strategic Resilience of Ahrar al-Sham, Stockholm: FOI Swedish DRA, 2016.
Note (b): The US continued to view the group as a terrorist organisation nonetheless and HTS as an Al-Qaeda affiliate. See: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Terror Organizations, online; Amendments to the Terrorist Designation of al-Nusra Front, 2018, online (both accessed 6 July 2019).
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