Turkish public opinion divided over military alliance with FSA
On February 4, most Turkish newspaper headlines shouted Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdagthe statement of “American soldiers wearing people’s protection units [YPG] badges are also targets ”in Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in Afrin, Syria.
The United States has supported the Kurdish YPG in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, but Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not forgotten images of American soldiers wearing YPG badges, which date back to June 2016.
But the patch images aren’t that important to the Turkish public, who are more bewildered by recent images of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Turkish rebel group backed by the military and opposed to the Syrian president’s regime. Bashar al-Assad.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) fought alongside the FSA in Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS in Syria. The public didn’t pay much attention to the FSA then. Now, however, with Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds in Afrin, the importance of the FSA is increasing. The change began on January 19, the day before Turkey launched the Operation Afrin, with footage broadcast of 20 buses carrying FSA fighters across the Syrian border. Most Turks were surprised to see that so many fighters could be mobilized so quickly.
Public confusion was heightened by comments from prominent opposition figures – for example, Ozturk Yilmaz, the former Turkish consul general in Mosul, Iraq, who was held captive by ISIS for 101 days. Yilmaz is now vice-chairman of the main opposition group in the current AKP government, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Yilmaz said on January 25 that it was necessary to examine the origin of these groups which Turkey supports and which oppose the Syrian regime, including the FSA, which was al-Qaeda. This comment struck a chord within the AKP and generated waves of anger against the CHP, so much so that anyone who dares criticize the Afrin operation or the FSA could now face legal action.
“While you sleep in your warm bed, the FSA fighters and my soldiers are killing the terrorists you support“Erdogan said, referring to Yilmaz and the YPG.
President of the CHP Kemal Kilicdaroglu also voiced concerns on Jan. 29 about the military’s alliance with the FSA. He asked why the brave Turkish soldiers were placed behind the FSA and why their accomplishments were somehow attributed to the FSA.
The same day, pro-AKP columnist for the daily Sabah Hilal kaplan wrote a column with the headline “We will defend the FSA” and said that the FSA was Syria’s true national force.
Erdogan echoed Kaplan’s statement a day later, declaring: “The FSA, like the national forces during our war of independence, is a civilian establishment. The FSA’s fight alongside our brave troops is a fact of which we can be proud. Erdogan’s praise for ASL and AKP obsession with badges Erdogan continued on February 3, “Look who’s next to the ASL now. They are neck and neck with the Turkish armed forces. [FSA members] to have on the arms? It is the Turkish flag. And what is the YPG [wear]? It’s the American flag.
AKP’s collective efforts to present the FSA as a multi-ethnic force fighting alongside the Turkish military against the US-backed YPGs make for an attractive appetizer for domestic consumption. But it wasn’t until December that Erdogan said: establish the FSA together with you? “
A retired Turkish colonel told Al-Monitor: “Yes, the Pentagon and the CIA have helped train Syrian rebels in Turkey. But the training and weaponry were limited compared to what they had done for the YPG. Once the United States abandoned FSA, Turkey struggled to control them and used them for Operation Euphrates Shield. But it is still difficult for regular armies to maintain control over militias. If Afrin is a long-term commitment, over time the relationship will inevitably generate higher costs. [than returns] for the Turkish armed forces. The colonel added that the AKP’s relatively recent love for the FSA and the militia’s constant praise is dangerous due to the unpredictability of the FSA.
Indeed, the news of the FSA leaves the public perplexed. While Erdogan is determined to claim that these are Syrian forces defending their own land, the daily Yeni Safak shared a video of an FSA fighter from Rize, a Turkish town on the Black Sea coast. A senior AKP official told Al-Monitor: “There are Turkmen brigades within the FSA, and a handful of Turks have joined them. Faced with strong reactions, Yeni Safak deleted the tweet on the ASL fighter by Rize.
Yet AKP members make powerful public statements praising the FSA. For example, an outspoken AKP parliamentarian Burhan kuzu commented: “The FSA is a local and national militia. So what do the Turkish public think about the FSA after all?
Musa Ozugurlu, a journalist who lived in Syria during the civil war, told Al-Monitor: “We can look at the views of three distinct groups on FSA. First there are the Islamists, who consider the FSA to be holy fighters. Since this group mainly considers the [Shiites], the Syrian Armed Forces and the YPG as non-believers, the FSA is engaged in a holy war in their eyes. Ozugurlu’s analysis is crucial here to underline the hypocrisy of the government’s predominant rhetoric of “local and national” forces against the Islamist quest for jihadist fighters. The ASL also represents here the rise of tensions within the AKP between ultranationalists and radical Islamists.
Members of the second group described by Ozugurlu are nationalist forces who see the FSA through pragmatic lenses and believe it is using its power against the YPG. A pro-AKP history professor told Al-Monitor: “Iran and the United States use foreign militias or mercenaries – why not Turkey?
Ozugurlu places those concerned about the FSA-TSK alliance in the third group. Kurds, Alevis, secular and leftist groups fall into this category in Turkey. Ozugurlu said: “I have seen the FSA using terrorist methods in Syria. The FSA has no ideological vision or any kind of backbone, really. It is an army in name only. They don’t have a proper command and control system because their commanders are rarely on the ground in Syria. They lack local support and are just mercenaries willing to work for the highest bidder. The main concern here is what will happen to the FSA forces after the Turkish involvement in Syria ends.
Omer Gergerlioglu, human rights activist and columnist for T24, told Al-Monitor: “There is a correlation between sympathy for the FSA and support for Operation Afrin. Those who support the operation also applaud the FSA. The Kurds are relatively divided on this point. For supporters of the [pro-Kurdish] People’s Democratic Party, the FSA brings back bitter memories of Kobani. On the other hand, Huda-Par [the Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party in Turkey] thinks the FSA is fighting the Americans, so it’s not criticizing an alliance with the FSA. Gergerlioglu also pointed out a crucial rift between radical Turkish and Kurdish Islamists in Turkey. “Members of the Islamist Felicity party are divided. Kurdish members fear that prolonged involvement in Afrin could generate conflict between the Kurds and Turkey inside Turkey.
Turkey’s engagement with the FSA could offer some national security benefits, but these benefits are difficult to assess without proper oversight of the funding, training, and arming of these militias, and clear accountability for their actions in war zones. For now, Erdogan and his cronies are taking the easy route in praising the FSA and continuing their harsh anti-American rhetoric, focusing on the badges attached to uniforms.