Who is the FSA, Turkey's allied force in Syria?


Istanbul (AFP)

The pro-Ankara Syrian forces who helped the Turkish army oust Kurdish militia from the northern Syrian city of Afrin are an umbrella grouping of fighting brigades trained by Turkey into an increasingly effective fighting unit.

Ankara calls these Syrian forces the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but in reality they are made out of different components that crystallised during the course of Syria's seven-year civil war.

Some may have Islamist inclinations but have themselves also fought against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and Al-Qaeda during the civil war.

While the Turkish army itself was involved in the two-month offensive that took Afrin from People's Protection Units (YPG) militia Sunday, it has been reliant on the Syrian armed rebel groups to do much of the fighting.

The groups fighting under Turkey in Afrin may refer to themselves as FSA but "they are divided into several different factions," said Aron Lund, a fellow with US-based think tank the Century Foundation.

"The Free Syrian Army name was always more of a label," he told AFP.

- 'Islamists rather than jihadis' -

The groups taking part in the Afrin offensive notably included the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Hamza Division and Faylaq al-Sham, close to the Islamist group Muslim Brotherhood.

Lund said while several FSA factions can be described as "Islamists", they do not share the ideology of Al-Qaeda or IS.

"It would seem wrong and propagandistic to label these groups jihadis in that sense," he added.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in January lashed out at criticisms of the FSA.

He said it "is not a terrorist organisation but a national structure which is comprised of people from all dispositions, faiths and ethnic origins, defending their own country."

Turkey first employed the FSA in this fashion in the Euphrates Shield operation from August 2016 to March 2017, during which the forces took control of a swathe of territory to the east of Afrin.

Towns captured from jihadists in that operation -- such as Jarabulus and Al-Bab -- are now seeing substantial Turkish influence in rebuilding and a moderate influx of returning refugees.

For pro-government Turkish military expert Abdullah Agar, the "stability" inside areas administered by the FSA since the end of the Euphrates Shield operation demonstrated the merits of supporting the FSA.

"Order has been reestablished. Tens of thousands of people have returned to their homeland... There is now a model region there," Agar told AFP, saying a similar pattern would now follow in Afrin.

Ankara is accused of throwing petrol on the fire by openly supporting groups involved in the Syrian civil war. But it has always insisted that its aim is to secure areas inside Syria to allow the return of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

- 'Huge effort to consolidate' -

The FSA in its current form is a far cry from how it looked at the onset of the conflict.

It was created by a Syrian colonel who had taken refugee in Turkey as a force to take on President Bashar al-Assad and was essentially made up of civilians who joined the rebellion, joined by deserters from the army.

But despite support from the West, this structure gradually lost its way.

This left room for a variety of factions ranging from secular rebels to Islamist groups to take root before being given more cohesion by Ankara.

A retired Turkish general who worked with the FSA during the Euphrates Shield offensive stressed that there had been a "huge effort to consolidate those groups and improve their organisation and discipline", and their wages are paid by Ankara.

Images at the weekend showed some FSA pillaging shops and homes in the city. But the general insisted this only involved a "minority".

"In warfare situations you can see these kind of pictures but not all the fighters behave like that," said the retired general, who did not wished to be named.

The FSA's involvement in fighting also offers a Syrian guarantee to the Turkish intervention, he added. "Turkey has a strong military but it wants to show the world that this is also a Syrian fight against the YPG."