Turkey tries managing Syrian rebel factions without disturbing status quo - analyst

Ankara’s efforts to create a proto-state in north Syria fail to materialise on the ground, due to conflicting interests among rebel factions and Turkey’s tactics to manage them without disturbing the status quo, Haid Haid, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, said in an article for the Carnegie Endowment on Friday.

Haid said that, according to local sources, Turkey was behind rebel group Shuhada al-Sharqiya’s decision to disband itself this week. The rebel group is affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and is located in the Syrian city of Jarabulus, which was seized by Turkish army and Turkey-alligned rebel groups by Operation Euphrates Shield launched in 2016.

“Ankara has been working on creating a proto-state within Syria out of the Euphrates Shield forces, and this incident illustrates its attempt to professionalise its rebel allies, which would further stabilise its areas of influence and potentially allow its affiliates to play a bigger role in Syria’s future,” Haid said.

But, Turkey’s efforts are not effective, said Haid, as, “despite cosmetic unity,” those forces are still fragmented and largely out of control.

After Euphrates Shield military campaign was officially ended in early 2017, Turkey tried to create a formal and central military structure in northwest Syria by unifying rebel forces and professionalising them, Haid said. 

Ankara brought opposition interim government and 33 rebel factions together in October 2017, during which rebel groups signed a document agreeing to be a part of a unified army.

The head of the interim government, Jawad Abu Hatab, said in 2017 that they had unified three army corps totalling 22,000 soldiers.

However, this effort failed to materialise on the ground, said Haid. “Although Turkey’s rebel allies announced their merger over a year ago, they still have separate leaders, structures, agendas, and areas of influence, and the central command of the national army has no control or sway over them.”

Some rebel groups see integration as a threat to their interests, as some still aim to leave the Euphrates Shield region to liberate areas they came from, while local groups aim to maximise their influence in the same region, according to Haid. 

Yet, those groups are also wary of rejecting integration outright as they are dependant on Ankara’s support and have relatives living in Turkey. 

“Therefore, many factions have agreed to merge but continue to take advantage of Turkey’s weak influence on the ground to maintain their influence,” Haid said.

Ankara, on the other hand, has been trying to manage rebel factions without disturbing the dynamics on the ground. “It continues to channel its support and instructions directly to each group rather than through the central command of the national army, keeping them financially dependant on Turkey,” said Haid.

The rivalry between factions also gives Turkey enough influence over them to secure its own interests in Syria, such as establishing a partnership with Russia to create a demilitarised zone in the northwestern province of Idlib to prevent a possible military assault of the Syrian government against this last major rebel held enclave, according to Haid.