The devil’s advocate: How Turkey is seeking to save its Syrian proxies
Turkey steadily unites its controlled armed groups of the Syrian National Army in a bid of exempting them from responsibility for multiple crimes committed against humanity.
On July 28, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the Turkish-backed faction Ahrar Al-Sharqia that committed the outrageous murder of the Syrian Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf in 2019, vowing to keep pursuing accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations in the country. The decision made at the initiative of Biden-led American administration which can hardly be considered as friendly towards Turkey seemingly made Ankara worry for the fate of its allies in northwestern Syria.
Clearly realizing a potential threat of further sanctions, Ankara was quick to take what can be called preventive measures. Virtually after the secret visit of Turkish defense minister to the Syrian border city of Azaz five armed groups of the SNA announced on September 9 their full merger, forming a new faction named the Syrian Front for Liberation. It included the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division, Hamza Division, Al-Muatassim Brigade, Suqur Al-Shimal Brigade and 20th Division.
The series of mergers continued when the SNA joint operations room Azm claimed that six groups, namely Sultan Murad, North Brigades, 9th Division, Muntasser Brigade, 112 Brigade, Sham Revolutionnaries, agreed on their complete unification under the name of the Movement of Revolutionnaries. The official statement that was released on the occasion of the establishment of the new movement read that the true aim of this move was to reduce the number of groups operating as part of the Azm coalition.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that in both cases armed factions emphasized that they broke away from their past names, flags, and emblems in an obvious attempt to cover their own traces and escape justice in a new military formation which hasn’t spoiled its reputation yet.
Many experts believe that the situation on the ground will remain as it was even after the groups were transformed and rebranded. The armed factions will apparently act in the same way and under the command of the same leaders who are responsible for atrocities against civilian populations. Except this will be under another names.
Such attempts taken by Ankara to save its proxy forces in Syria can undermine the efforts of the international community to effectively investigate war crimes and bring perpetrators to justice.
Even Salem Al-Meslet, the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, surprisingly confirmed how effective the impact of sanctioning Ahrar Al-Sahrqia was to help rein in the lawless pro-Kurdish groups. And this is despite the fact that this body was designed to support the Free Syrian Army (currently the SNA).
In fact, Turkey had and has something to be worried about. Ahrar Al-Sharqia constitutes one of the long list of Turkish-affiliated Syrian factions accused of extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture of civilians, seizure of private property, robberies, and destruction of archeological sites.
The human rights organisations reported that the list includes the most of armed groups active in the northwest of Syria, including Hamza, Sultan Suleiman Shah, Sultan Murad Divisions, etc.
The UN commission of Inquiry on Syria documented a myriad of violations committed by the SNA factions towards national minorities as Kurds, Yazidis, Armenians, and others living in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria.
Syrian armed groups are also blamed for a huge number of enforced disappearances of women. According to Missing Afrin Women Project, more than 150 women and girls were kidnapped at the hands of the SNA fighters only in Afrin since 2018.
It’s no secret that Turkey aims to finally join all opposition forces together, including jihadist organisations like the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Idlib province, under the aegis of its controlled SNA.
With this aim, the Turkish leadership will trying hard to hide loyal criminals and bandits behind the SNA and clear their reputation, using all means, particularly disinformation campaigns as it was on the second anniversary of Hevrin Khalaf’s killing. The pro-opposition accounts and media outlets published false information about the US plans to lift sanctions from Ahrar Al-Sharqia over the lack of evidence.
Although Ankara positions its politics towards Syria as supportive of freedom and the true opposition in Syria, such maneuvers have nothing to do with the goals it announced.
In turn, Europe and the United States should take into account in their diplomacy towards Syria that the murderous opposition forces are therefore doomed to failure and have no chance of survival in a long run.