Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army
The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), officially known as the Syrian National Army (SNA; Arabic: الجيش الوطني السوري, romanized: al-Jayš al-Waṭanī as-Sūrī; Turkish: Suriye Millî Ordusu) or simply the National Army (Arabic: الجيش الوطني, al-Jayš al-Waṭanī; Turkish: Millî Ordu), is an armed Syrian opposition structure mainly composed of Syrian Arabs, Syrian Kurds and Syrian Turkmen rebels operating in northwestern Syria. Though concentrated in Turkish-occupied areas, originally as a part of Operation Euphrates Shield, the TFSA also established a presence in the Idlib Governorate during the 2019 northwestern Syria offensive, and consolidated its presence when the National Front for Liberation joined the SNA on 4 October 2019.
|Syrian National Army|
(Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army)
الجيش الوطني السوريParticipant in the Syrian Civil War, as part of the Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War
Logo of the Syrian National Army
Flag of the Syrian National Army
(President of SIG)
(Prime Minister of SIG)
Maj. Gen. Salim Idris
(Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff)
Brig. Gen. Adnan al-Ahmad
(Deputy Chief of Staff)
Brig. Gen. Fadlallah al-Haji
(Deputy Chief of Staff)
|Headquarters||Azaz, Aleppo Governorate|
|Area of operations||Syria's north (Turkish-occupied northern Syria)|
|Battles and war(s)||Syrian Civil War|
The formation of the National Army was officially announced on 30 December 2017 in Azaz. The official aims of the group are to assist the Republic of Turkey in creating a "safe zone" in Syria, and to establish a National Army. They are strong opponents of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and have also fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian government's Syrian Arab Army. The TFSA has a law enforcement equivalent, the Free Police, which is also backed by Turkey.
The TFSA, which includes at least 25,000 fighters according to one of its senior commanders, mostly consists of Arabs and Turkmen. In comparison, the number of Syrian Kurds among the TFSA is relatively small. In January 2018, senior TFSA commander Azad Shabo said that there were "dozens" among the FSA units such as the Azadî Battalion, while Almodon Online reported about 500 Kurdish fighters overall, including in non-FSA formations such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Levant Front and the Army of Grandchildren. By February 2018, a TFSA commander said that 350 Kurds were part of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
By the end of June 2017, most Turkish-backed FSA groups reorganized themselves into three main military blocs: the Victory Bloc, the Sultan Murad Bloc, and the Levant Bloc. However, a number of other groups remained independent. On 30 December 2017, the groups unified to form the National Army. By this time, three "legions" were established as part of the SNA: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Legions. On 15 March 2018, rebel factions in northern Homs countryside formed the 4th Legion, though they later evacuated to northern Aleppo. Factions also evacuated from the Rif Damascus and Damascus Governorates to northern Aleppo.
On 4 October 2019, the National Front for Liberation joined the National Army's command structure, planning to become its 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th legions. Both NFL and SNA fighters were uninformed of the merger, which took place in a press conference in Urfa, southern Turkey, amid Turkish plans to launch an offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces.
According to a research paper published this October by the pro-government Turkish think tank SETA, "Out of the 28 factions [in the Syrian National Army], 21 were previously supported by the United States, three of them via the Pentagon’s program to combat DAESH. Eighteen of these factions were supplied by the CIA via the MOM Operations Room in Turkey, a joint intelligence operation room of the ‘Friends of Syria’ to support the armed opposition. Fourteen factions of the 28 were also recipients of the U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank guided missiles."
- National Army
- 1st Legion
- Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade
- Samarkand Brigade
- Army of Grandsons (also part of the Victory Bloc and the Sultan Murad Bloc)
- Conquest Brigade (also part of the Levant Front)
- 1st Division
- Tala'a Victory Brigade
- Muntasir Billah Brigade
- 21st Combined Force remnants (northern Aleppo branch)
- Ahrar al-Sharqiya
- Division 14
- 2nd Legion
- 5th Brigade
- 145th Brigade (also part of the Victory Bloc, and a member group of the Elite Army 14th Division)
- Sultan Murad Bloc
- Jaysh al-Islam (Rif Damascus & Damascus Governorates branches)
- Men of War Brigade
- 3rd Legion
- Levant Bloc
- al-Rahman Legion (Rif Damascus & Damascus Governorates branches)
- Glory Corps
- 3rd Brigade (Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement elements)
- National Front for Liberation
- 4th Legion
- 5th Legion
- 6th and 7th Legion
- 4th Legion (2018)
- Ahrar al-Sham (Homs branch)
- Right Brigade
- Several minor units
- Victory Bloc
- Elite Division (also part of the 2nd Legion)
- Army of the Grandsons (also part of the 1st Legion and the Sultan Murad Bloc)
- Free Men of the East
- Elite Army (northern Aleppo branch)
- 14th Division
- 141st Brigade
- 145th Brigade (also part of the 1st Legion's 5th Brigade)
- Elite Battalion
- 14th Division
- 1st Brigade
- Sham Legion
- Authenticity and Development Front (northern Aleppo branch)
- Sultan Murad Division
- Hamza Division
- Army of Grandsons
- Al-Mu'tasim Brigade
- Northern Brigade
- Revolutionary Knights Brigade
- Free Syria Brigade
- Swords of Shahba Brigade
- Manbij Revolutionaries Gathering
- Soldiers of Mercy Battalion
- Martyr Alaa Abu Zaid Battalion
- Honest Dawn Battalion
- Sirajuddin Battalion
- Supporters of God Battalion
- Omar Abu al-Hasan Battalion
- Commandos of the Sunna Battalions
- Commandos of Islam Brigade
- Zubayr ibn al-Awwam Battalion
- Al-Rafidayn al-Aeamila Battalion
- Qiba Martyrs Battalion
- Northern Commando Battalion
- Jarabulus Martyrs Battalion
- Martyr Alaa Barir Battalion
- Revolutionary Knights Brigade
- 23rd Division (northern Aleppo branch)
- Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade
- Northern Hawks Brigade
- 9th Special Forces Division of Aleppo
- Mustafa Regiment
- 1st Commandos Brigade
- Revolutionaries of Syrian Jazeera
- Sultan Othman Brigade
- 1st Division of Aleppo
- 51st Brigade
- Descendants of Saladin Brigade until July 2017; since then "Saladin Brigade" remnant faction
- 2nd Army (northern Aleppo branch)
- 1st Regiment
- People of the Homeland
- Martyr Mashaal Tammo Brigade
- Qamishli Shield
- Afrin Shield
- Military councils
- Al-Bab Military Council
- Mare' Military Council
- Qabasin Military Council
- Akhtarin Military Council
- Menagh Military Council
- Tell Rifaat Military Council
- Deir ez-Zor Unified Military Council
- Raqqa Military Council
- Other Turkish-backed rebel groups in the area
- Army of Glory elements
- Liwa Ahrar Ras al-Ayn
- Army of al-Jazeera and Euphrates
- Eastern Shield Army
- Sons of Hasaka Union
- Revolutionary Council of the Albo Batoush tribe
- Kurdish Tribal Council in the Aleppo Countryside
- Kurdish Liberation Movement (formerly the Kurdish Revolutionary Battalion of Sons of Hasaka Union)
- Unified Syrian Army (northern Aleppo branch)
- Azaz Revolutionaries Battalions
- Harakat al-Qiyam
- Deir ez-Zor Liberation Brigade
- Liberation Brigade
- Dhi Qar Brigade
- Al-Mu'tasim Brigade
- Revolutionary Shield Brigade
- Dignity Battalion
- Abbas Battalion
- Sons of Islam Movement
- Brigade of God
- Omar Battalions
- Ali ibn Abi Talib Battalion
- Ansar Battalions
- Descendants of Mustafa Battalion
- Sword of Justice Battalion
- Badr Brigade
- Special Forces Brigade
- Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas Battalions
- Euphrates Commando Battalion
- Muhajir Brigade
- 64th Brigade
- Muhammad Brigades
- Ahrar al-Tabqa Gathering
- Suqour al-Sham Brigades
- Glory to God Brigade
- Lions of Islam Brigade
- Bara Battalion
- Glory Battalions
- Ahrar al-Sham (Rif Damascus & Damascus Governorates branches)
- Lions of the East Army (Eastern Qalamoun branch)
- Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo (Eastern Qalamoun branch)
- Al-Qaratayn Martyrs Brigade
- Company of the People of the Levant
- Hold on to God Union
- Men of Qalamoun
- Strangers Brigade
- Qalamoun Shield Brigade
- Al-Nabek Martyrs’ Brigade
- Ibn Taymiyyah Brigade
- Martyr Abu Jaafar Brigade
- Martyr Ali Diyab Brigade
- United in the Love of God Brigade
- Al-Qastal Martyrs’ Brigades
- Qalamoun Liberation Brigades
- Sham Liberation Army
- Western Qalamoun Union
- Levant Liberation Division
- al-Ghouta Martyrs Battalion
- Omar Haider Brigade
- 11th Special Forces Division (formerly part of the Southern Front)
Connection with Turkey
The Turkey-backed FSA are the main non-Turkish Armed Forces component of Operation Euphrates Shield. The name is a misnomer, as they are distinct from the Free Syrian Army; their wages are paid for by the Turkish government, they operate alongside the Turkish Armed Forces. Their chain of command has no connection to the Free Syrian Army. Injured Turkey-backed FSA troops have been treated in Turkey. The Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army are also distinguishable from other Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups because they have attacked YPG and other SDF units, which the FSA generally has not done (besides occasional skirmishes on Afrin's southern border with Idlib-based groups), while they have refrained from attacking the Syrian Arab Army, the main opponent of most FSA groups.
The Free Police have more overt connections to Turkey, reportedly wearing Turkish police uniforms decorated with the word "Polis" (Turkish for "Police"), while Special Forces wear distinctive light blue berets also worn by Turkish Gendarmerie. Some wore a Turkish flag patch on their uniforms at the inauguration ceremony on 24 January 2017. The Free Police also receive five weeks of training in Turkey.
On 18 April 2018, the TFSA's Raqqa Military Council, which consists of 6 groups, was announced in the city of Urfa in southeastern Turkey.
2016: Operation Euphrates Shield
The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA)'s first known engagement was a joint operation with the Turkish Armed Forces. In the first day, they took control of Jarabulus from ISIL. After this, they expanded northeast, meeting with units of the Syrian Democratic Forces north of Manbij. The TFSA successfully pushed the SDF out of the Jarablus area and captured all its settlements, the Euphrates river was used as a demarcation line, with forces on the opposing sides. On at least one occasion, American troops came to form a joint operation with Turkey; however after the TFSA's Ahrar al-Sharqiya Brigade's verbal attacks ("crusaders", "pigs") against them, the US troops withdrew, being escorted from the area by US-backed units in the TFSA, including the Hamza Division and the al-Mu'tasim Brigade. A U.S. defense official confirmed the event, but said that U.S. soldiers were still deployed in the area. The joint forces pushed ISIL to the south. After this success, Turkey-backed FSA made contact near Mare with the SDF forces from the Afrin Canton. Contact between the two saw Turkey-backed FSA attack some SDF-held towns with Turkish artillery support. The attacks were repelled, with casualties on both sides.
In February 2017, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Armed Forces advanced to besiege al-Bab. By 27 February, the Turkey-backed FSA and Turkish Armed Forces seized al-Bab. As of February 2017, 470 fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army died in Operation Euphrates Shield, while the Turkish armed forces lost 68.
As of March 2017, the TFSA and the Turkish army were effectively blocked from moving further east by advances of the SAA. This occurred when the SDF's Manbij Military Council handed over some territory bordering the Turkish positions to the SAA, creating a buffer zone. As a result, the TFSA failed to achieve other stated goals, including capturing the SDF-held city of Manbij and participating in the Coalition offensive on Raqqa.
On 24 September 2017, the Hamza Division announced the opening of a military academy in the city of al-Bab. According to Abdullah Halawa, military commander of the group, 2,200 fighters will undergo 2 months of training in the academy, with the goal of forming a "Syrian National Army" in northern Syria.
2018: Operation Olive Branch
On 20 January 2018, Turkey launched a new operation in Afrin Region, against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. The TFSA conduct ground offensives against the YPG and SDF supported by and in conjunction with Turkish armed forces (TAF/TSK) air strikes, artillery, armored units, and special forces units. The first phase of the operation is to capture the entire Afrin-Turkey border. On 1 February, the TFSA captured the strategic town of Bulbul after a fierce battle with the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG). In early March, the second phase of Operation Olive Branch was launched after successfully clearing the entire Afrin-Turkey border. On 3 March, after fierce fighting, the TFSA captured the town of Rajo. On 8 March, the TFSA captured Jinderes, meaning that they now have control over all major roads leading to the city of Afrin. On 13 March, TFSA forces reached Afrin city and encircled it. On 18 March, the TFSA took full control of Afrin, marking their second big victory after Operation Euphrates Shield. Since the capture of Afrin city, TFSA forces have been busy clearing the recently captured areas of mines and providing security and stability to the region. As of 13 June TFSA forces have dismantled 240 mines and 1,231 IEDs.
2019: Operation Dawn of Idlib and Operation Peace Spring
By 16 August, the TFSA sent considerable reinforcements to the frontlines of Hama and Idlib, where the Syrian Arab Army was launching an offensive against HTS and various rebel groups. They included a large number of fighters from the Turkish-held regions of Northern Syria. Following this, rebel forces launched another heavy attack on the government-held village of Sukayk.
On 9 October 2019, Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, had launched what they called Operation Peace Spring against SDF to eradicate what Turkish President Erdogan called "the threat of terror" against Turkey. On the 13th of October, Peace Spring forces captured the border town of tal Abyad. After the conclusion of Second Battle of Ras al-Ayn on the 20th of October, SDF fighters retreated from the border town of Ras al Ain during the cease fire, which was brokered by the United States and Turkey.
Internal conflict between TFSA factions
On 26 March 2016, Ahrar ash-Sham ordered the anti-YPG Kurdish FSA group Liwa Ahfad Saladin to remove the flag of Kurdistan from their posts and threatened military action if they did not. However, Liwa Ahfad Saladin's commander denied the incident ever occurred and stated Ahrar ash-Sham to be its ally.
On 27 September 2016, several Ahrar al-Sham fighters publicly burned a FSA flag in Azaz. The Ahrar al-Sham spokesman denied involvement and the incident sparked pro-FSA demonstrations in the city.
On 14 November 2016, the Levant Front and the Sultan Murad Division clashed at the Azaz border gate with Kilis, Turkey. Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a former member of the Levant Front, joined the fighting after they said the Levant Front leaders was "acting like gangs".
On 3 April 2017, Ahrar al-Sham reportedly attacked Liwa Ahfad Saladin in Qabasin and captured more than 8 of their fighters, including a commander. Hours later, the prisoners were released after negotiations, although tensions between the two groups remain.
On 13 April 2017, clashes broke out between the Levant Front and the Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade 100 kilometers north of Aleppo after both groups said the other was committing corruption. The Sultan Murad Division, the Hamza Division, and the Northern Hawks Brigade sided with the Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade during the clashes.
On 14 May 2017, two separate clashes in Jarabulus and Gandura pitted the Ahrar al-Sharqiya Brigade against the Sultan Murad Division and the Sham Legion. The fighting stopped after the intervention of the Turkish Army.
On 22 May, the Levant Front attacked the Sham Legion near Azaz. The Levant Front said the Sham Legion was conspiring with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, part of Tahrir al-Sham. The LF besieged the Sham Legion headquarters, captured a number of their fighters, and seized several ammunition dumps.
Between 24 and 25 May, 5 FSA factions including the Levant Front, the Hamza Division, and the Sultan Murad Division conducted a joint attack on the Revolutionary Knights Brigade between Azaz and al-Rai and captured more than 20 of their fighters, in addition to killing and wounding at least 10. The FSA factions said the Revolutionary Knights Brigade was affiliated to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and Tahrir al-Sham and partaking in smuggling, looting, extortion, and abuses of civilians.
On 2 June 2017, defectors from the Northern Brigade's Commandos of Islam Brigade joined Tahrir al-Sham, giving them a presence in TFSA territory. However, Capt. Kuja stated that he is still part of the Northern Brigade.
Between 4 and 15 June, heavy fighting broke out between TFSA factions led by the Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham and its allies in and near al-Bab. By 15 June, 33 people were killed and 55 injured in the infighting. On 8 June, between 60 and 70 TFSA fighters, including several Sultan Murad Division commanders, defected to the Syrian Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces during the clashes.
On 3 July 2017, Mahmoud Khallo, commander of the Descendants of Saladin Brigade, declared that his unit would not participate in a planned Turkish-led offensive against the YPG and SDF in the Afrin Canton and the Shahba region. Following the announcement, the group was attacked by multiple Turkish-backed groups, which captured the group's positions and warehouses with vehicles and equipment. On 14 July, Khallo himself was captured by the Levant Front, which said he was affiliated with both al-Qaeda and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and was tortured. The Levant Front then handed him over to Turkish security forces, who interrogated him. After being released soon after, Khallo protested against his unit's treatment and criticized that "Turkey was apparently only interested in using the Syrian militias to further its own strategic goals". He also said that Liwa Ahfad Saladin, now without weapons, would set up a political party.
On 25 March 2018, following the capture of Afrin a week earlier, clashes broke out between the Hamza Division and Ahrar al-Sharqiya in the city, resulting in the latter group capturing around 200 fighters from the former. A ceasefire agreement between the two groups was signed on the same day under the auspices of Turkey.
On 18 November 2018, at least 25 militants were killed and dozens wounded in heavy clashes between Turkish-backed insurgent factions in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin. The clashes primarily occurred in the Mahmudiya and Villat neighborhoods, killing 14 fighters from Ahrar al-Sharqiya and nine from the other groups.
Reports of war crimes
According to Kurdish sources, Kurdish local politician Hevrin Khalaf was executed near Qamishli by Turkish-backed troops, her death was later confirmed by the SOHR. SOHR further reported that at least 9 civilians had been executed by the Turkish-backed troops.
On 3 October 2018, the Glory Corps attempted to seize 4 houses inhabited by displaced families from Arbin in Afrin city to use as headquarters, but were stopped by the Sultan Murad Division and the Turkish-backed military police.
On 27 January 2019, Glory Corps and Sham Legion fighters kidnapped a doctor from his clinic in Afrin and tortured him, and said he was a member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD); the Sham Legion denied its fighters were involved.
After the SNA captured the border town of Tell Abyad and its surroundings during the offensive in northern and eastern Syria in October 2019, Glory Corps fighters reportedly kidnapped several young men from Bir Atwan village, west of Tell Abyad, and beat and humiliated them. On 22 October, fighters from the group trampled and mutilated the body of what appeared to be a Women's Protection Units (YPJ) fighter they killed in the countryside near Kobanî, laughing while they did so.
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