Mar 22 2018

Syrian rebels backed by Ankara seek unified army

Turkey’s capture of the northwest Syrian city of Afrin from Kurdish forces has raised hopes among the Syrian rebels it backs who now see themselves as a growing power in the region, able to take on al Qaeda-linked militants in Idlib province and gain a strong hand in peace negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Guardian newspaper said.

Turkey and its Islamist Syrian allies of the Free Syrian Army seized the town of Afrin on Sunday after a two-month campaign backed by air strikes against the People’s Defence Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia trained by the United States. Turkey sees the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years.

The YPG denies any direct link to the PKK.

The Turkish victory in Afrin busted the myth of the superior fighting skills of the YPG, which, backed by U.S. air strikes and artillery has driven Islamic State (ISIS) out of most of northeast Syria, the newspaper said. It also boosted the morale of the 20,000-strong Syrian rebel force that is armed and financed by Turkey.

But the newspaper said critics, even within the Syrian opposition, see the Turkish-backed rebels as nothing more than mercenaries. But those within the force praised Turkey’s success in bringing military discipline to disparate fighting groups.

“I mean, even Bashar al-Assad didn’t succeed in uniting us,” the Guardian quoted one rebel official as saying. “We are militarily and politically weaker than the regime, which is using scorched-earth tactics and areas are falling while we are accusing each other of betrayal.

“The people now hate all the rebel factions, and this will change when there is a unified army,” he said.