Turkey air cover has turned FSA groups under its command into a more effective fighting force
Under Turkish tutelage FSA becomes better organised, but its mission shifts
Since the moniker “Free Syrian Army” was first used nearly seven years ago, it has been a movement marked by loose coalitions and often deadly competition between groups.
But militants in northern Syria say that one of the effects of Turkey's two year-intervention in the war has been to provide increasing order in areas controlled by the rebel groups under its patronage, a force that now has as many as 20,000 fighters.
The groups have continued to use the acronym FSA to describe their alliance, even as their primary mission has changed and they have become a more effective fighting force, at least when backed by the Turkish military.
Turkey began to provide covert support to rebel groups in northern Syria at least as early as 2012, funneling weapons and aid across the border in concert with other foreign backers.
The redirection of foreign support inevitably changed the nature of Syria’s conflict.
The FSA groups that Turkey initially backed fought the Syrian government in hopes of overthrowing President Bashar Al Assad, but the rebel groups it now supports are largely engaged in clearing the Syrian side of the two countries’ border of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey regards as terrorists.
“In 2012 I was a member of the FSA,” said Firas Mierzafi, a Syrian fighter from Idlib. “In 2013, I moved to Ahrar Al Sham,” he said, referring to a different opposition group.
But by 2017, rebel infighting had paralysed Idlib and the campaign against the Syrian government, Mr Mierzafi said. Idlib had also simply become a dangerous place to live, as criminals and armed groups kidnapped with impunity and no single group could impose social order.
“We didn’t want to continue in this disordered situation. Factions were going against one another. We joined the revolution to topple the regime, not to fight one another,” he said.
So Mr Mierzafi left Idlib and joined the Al Hamza Division, a Turkish-backed group that was participating in Operation Euphrates Shield, a campaign along the Turkish border in Aleppo province further east. Euphrates Shield marked the first major deployment of Turkish troops to Syria since the war began.
Mr Mierzafi, who is currently participating in Operation Olive Branch, the latest Turkish-backed operation, cited financial support provided to rebels by Turkey as a crucial factor in the operation's success.
“Our brother Turks will take care of the injured and of the families of the martyrs,” he said. “After seven years, our fighters are very poor. They are no more able to feed their children.”
Fighters said Turkish government support for the families of fighters who are killed includes free apartments, cash, and Turkish citizenship.
“On the other hand, the injured of the groups in Idlib get nothing. The families of the martyrs are paid nothing and left to homelessness,” Mr Mierzafi said.
Whether the Turkish-backed FSA will again take on the Syrian government directly remains to be seen – for now, they are preoccupied with the YPG, though they insist that it is the same fight.
“We are fighting for the same cause of liberating our lands from the regime and the (YPG), but with better conditions,” Mr Mierzafi said.
The YPG has links to the Syrian government, but has also received extensive backing from the US as an ally in the fight against ISIL.
But commanders of the FSA now echo Turkish leaders when speaking of their next objective: moving further eastward against the YPG, which still controls hundreds of kilometers of the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.
“This is a terrorist and a separatist party,” said Mustafa Waddah, a commander of the Zinki Movement, another group that is part of Operation Olive Branch. “We have achieved a substantial proportion of our goal, but there is more future work to come.”
The vast majority of the rebels Turkey backs are Syrian Arabs, and there have been claims and counterclaims of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses across northern Syria.
“We will liberate Arab towns from the (YPG)," Mr Waddah said.
Videos from the Kurdish city of Afrin last week showed Turkish-backed fighters looting everything from livestock to automobiles from the city after the FSA and Turkish forces drove out the YPG as hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced.
Mr Waddah said his group was working to stop such crimes.
“With the liberation of each new area, there are some of the corrupt who take the chance for personal illegal gains,” he said. “We erected more checkpoints and put an end to all thefts."
Turkey has also turned the FSA groups under its command into a more effective fighting force, including with the provision of air cover - something it was unwilling to do when the FSA was fighting the Syrian government.
“We also received artillery coverage and some trained special forces that were used to storm territory along with FSA,” said Muhammad Al Hamadin, a member of the FSA and spokesperson for Operation Olive Branch.
Mr Al Hamadin acknowledged that Turkey had “its own interests” at heart in securing its border, but denied that his men had become mercenaries.
“Liberating Afrin from the (YPG) is like liberating any Syrian land from the regime or ISIL,” he said. “We will be satisfied only if we get Syria rid of oppression and help people live in dignity and freedom.”