Two Syrian armed opposition fighters waving the Syrian revolution and Turkish flags in the town of Azaz in Aleppo countryside, 1/2/2018 (AFP)
AMMAN—Throughout the Syrian Revolution, there have been persistent popular calls for the Syrian opposition factions to unify as a single military body that can guarantee the gains made over the past eight years and extend the goals of the revolution: freedom and equal effective citizenship for all Syrians, regardless of their religious, ethnic, and ideological affiliations.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), announced the integration of the National Front for Liberation (NFL) into the Syrian National Army (SNA). As a result, SNA now includes the vast majority of Syrian opposition factions in Idlib Province and the northern countryside of Aleppo, with the exception of Jaysh al-Izza and, of course, the internationally-designated terrorist organization, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The announcement was made by the Minister of Defense of SIG, Major General Salim Idris, and the President of SNC, Abdurrahman Mustafa. However, the fact that the announcement took place in the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa, alongside high-ranking Turkish generals and next to Turkish and Syrian Revolution flags, has raised legitimate questions about the motives behind the new formation of SNA and its goals.
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The formation of SNA dates back to early December 2017. The then head of SIG, Jawad Abu Hatab, announced in the city of Azaz, northwest Aleppo city, the unification of 30 military factions from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the newly-created Syrian National Army. It included approximately 22,000 fighters, according to Abu Hatab, distributed across three legions and spread throughout the regions of Afrin and the northern countryside of Aleppo, both of which were under Turkish tutelage. SNA defined its goals as to “bring down the [Syrian] regime, liberate our lands from the criminal regime and constitute the core of a military body for all of Syria.”
Subsequently, 11 Syrian opposition military factions from northwest Syria announced the formation of the NFL, with the goal of “adhering to the enduring principles of the Syrian Revolution and seeking to realize them,” as noted in a statement issued by the NFL.
While the armed factions operating in Idlib and the countryside of Hama formed the backbone of the NFL, it also included the Martyrs of Islam Brigade. This brigade was active in the city of Daraya, in the Rif Damascus, until its fighters were forced to move to Idlib in the aftermath of the Syrian government taking control over the city in August 2016.
Also, in May 2018, Ahrar al-Sham Movement and Nour e-Din al-Zanki Movement joined NFL, before HTS seized control over northwest Syria at the beginning of 2019 and forced Syrian opposition factions to hand over their weapons and evacuate their fighters to the city of Afrin in Aleppo province.
Despite the fact that Turkey is the main, if not the only, supporter of SNA and NFL, the two military bodies remained fully detached from one another until October 4, 2019, when Major General Idris announced the integration of the NFL into the SNA.
This came at the same time as Turkey finished preparing for its military operation in areas east of the Euphrates against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which consists mainly of Kurdish elements aligned to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Ankara considers an extension of the internationally-designated terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Furthermore, Abdurrahman Mustafa said that SNA (which includes NFL) “will continue its efforts to liberate Syrian territory from all types of subjugation, sectarianism and dictatorship, and will achieve peace and stability in accordance with the principles of territorial integrity.” He, however, made clear that the priority of SNA is SDF-controlled areas east of the Euphrates, where the Syrian people have been subject to “massacres,” as he said, and “SNA will eliminate oppression and provide assistance to the Turkish military operation against terrorism in the region.”
SNA is effectively spearheading the Turkish military operation, “Operation Peace Spring,” that was launched on October 9. It is also noteworthy that SNA was first established three weeks prior to Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, 2018, against Kurdish forces in Afrin, in which the SNA participated.
Nonetheless, the spokesperson for SNA, Major Yousef al-Hmoud, stressed that the recent integration process is the result of increased cooperation between the leaderships of SNA and NFL during recent attacks by Russian and Syrian government forces in the countryside of Idlib and Hama. “SNA, in coordination with NFL’s military operations room, sent military reinforcements to the frontlines in order to stop the advancing Syrian forces” in the region, al-Hmoud told Syria Direct.
He further added that “the idea was ready and explored, but it materialized through the statement of the head of SIG and Minister of Defense [of SIG].”
A military leader of Ahrar al-Sham, based in the countryside of Idlib and invited by SNA to join “Operation Peace Spring,” told Syria Direct that it is likely that the new SNA’s goal, following the end of fighting in east Euphrate, is “the elimination of HTS from wide swathes of areas around Idlib.”
Also, speaking on the possibility of complete integration of various groups under the banner of the SNA, al-Hmoud said that, “there will be support for SNA to achieve real integration so that it can form a unified body per military structure.”
This idea was confirmed by two military leaders from NFL, stating that the process of “fusing within a national military corps will take place in the coming period, [given that] SNA and NFL are currently preoccupied with Turkish military operation against Kurdish units in the eastern Euphrates.” However, in a conversation with Syria Direct last Thursday, they noted that the NFL leadership had not yet shared all the details of the new merger with them.
Although Major al-Hmoud stated that “the unity of the military decision will have many considerations for all countries concerned with the Syrian issue,” Jaysh al-Izza remained outside the umbrella of SNA.
Since the beginning of 2017, Jaysh al-Izza emerged as a military faction opposed to the Russian-sponsored political process through the Astana talks.
According to a commander of Jaysh al-Izza, Colonel Mustafa Bakour, “the Astana and Sochi agreements and the involvement of some factions in these talks played a major role in the deprivation of fervor of Jaysh al-Izza to join formations created under the auspices of the sponsors of the Astana and Sochi process.”
In a statement to Syria Direct, he explainedthat Jaysh al-Izza “rejects international scenarios for the fate of the region, such as the project of the demilitarized zone, the opening of international roads without [fair deal], and conducting joint patrols between the Turkish forces and Russian [military] police.”
Bakour revealed that the Jaysh al-Izza had agreed in May to join NFL after its formation, but “procedural differences prevented us from completing the project of accession,” he said, without explaining what those differences were.
Commenting on the recent mergers in the national army, Bakour said, “gathering the forces of the revolution under one banner to achieve the goal of overthrowing the regime, releasing detainees, returning displaced persons to their homes and holding war criminals accountable is good work and we support it.”
At the same time, he stressed the possibility of “dispensing the external support controlling the work of the opposition factions-which had a negative impact on the revolution-through popular support.”
In the same vein, the commander ruled out the possibility of confrontation between SNA and HTS, as the leaders of “Tahrir al-Sham have the dynamism to act in difficult situations.”
Like most supporters of the Syrian Revolution, Bakour hopes “the national army is able to bear the burden and achieve the goals of the revolution.” However, the clear motives behind the formation of SNA and the developments of the “Operation Peace Spring”, do not seem to be reasons for optimism.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani and Nada Atieh.