National Army: A marriage of convenience, or a strategic asset?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Dia Odeh – Murad Abdul Jalil – Taim Hajj
In a large hall topped by the Turkish flags alongside the Syrian revolution’s in the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa on the Syrian border, the Head of the Syrian Interim Government, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, announced the formation of the Syrian National Army (SNA), affiliated to the Ministry of Defense and headed by Chief of Staff, Salim Idris.
The Army, merging the National Army factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo and the factions of the Free Army operating in Idlib, was promoted as a “unified military body” representing all opponents of the regime and the “terrorist” groups in northern Syria.
However, the formation which occurred amid ground and political developments storming the Syrian file triggered many questions related to the timing of the announcement, the purpose and the extent to which it will affect the Syrian military arena.
In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the importance of merging factions in northern Syria, tries to determine its role in the current stage, especially in light of the battle of the east of the Euphrates as illustrated by its structure, and to anticipate its future in the post-war stage in Syria.
Syrian National Army: Factional Structure having no Central Command
On the fronts of areas east of the Euphrates, the Syrian National Army has engaged in its first military operations, after announcing the latest merging, under the “Peace Spring” operation, launched by the Turkish army against the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This operation is meant to control border areas, most notably Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad in the northern countryside of Raqqa.
Participants are not only members belonging to the eastern region, or factions having origins in Deir ez-zor or al-Hasakah and their countryside, but also the fighters from Homs, Rif-Dimashq, Eastern Ghouta, Idlib and Deir ez-zor, constituting the military structure of the “Syrian National Army” after leaving the “Settlement” areas, which are now subject to the total control of Russian and Syrian regime forces.
The name gives the impression that the Army is a national body, having the protection of the homeland, borders and the security of the citizen and participating in military operations against the enemy as its main objective and not being driven by political, ethnic or ideological agenda. But, the matter is quite different for the political agenda does really exist, and Turkey is responsible for the service, military and economic sectors in the area where the army is operating.
What is the structure of the new Syrian National Army?
Since the formation of the Army has been announced on December 30, 2017, by the Interim Government, three National Corps (seven after the merging process) have emerged from the National Army. These have been subdivided into brigades, followed by military and “national” police responsible for solving disputes between military factions of the same body, ensuring security and the protection of citizens living in northern and eastern Aleppo countrysides.
Prior to the announcement of the recent merging process with the National Front for Liberation factions, the military structure of the National Army included a unified military command for all the factions in the Euphrates Shield area (northern and eastern Aleppo countrysides). Three legions emerged, namely Sultan Murad Division, al-Jabha al-Shamia and National Army Corps.”
After the formation of the corps, the factions were stripped of their names, distributed among three divisions in each corps, three brigades within each division, and each brigade included three battalions of fighters.
The new Army includes the National Army, which was formed in December 2017, as well as the National Liberation Front, formed after merging 11 factions of the Free Army in Idlib governorate in May 2018.
Following the merging process, the National Army is made up of seven corps, three for the National Army and four to be formed out of the National Front, accounting 80,000, according to the Syrian Coalition to which the Interim Government is affiliated.
However, can the National Army be considered an integrated military institution?
Enab Baladi addressed this question to Sasha al-Alou, researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, who said that having the current structure the “National Army” cannot be considered as an integrated military institution, or even an integrated and professional military group.
Non-integrated military institution
Al-Alou clarified to Enab Baladi that the “National Army” lacks the basic elements of the military establishment, first and foremost, a unified central command that imposes effective military decisions within a clear military structure and arrangement as any army, and this is lacking in the General Staff or the Ministry of Defense, which are considered as formal bodies.
According to the al-Alou, “the heterogeneous structure between civilians and military elements within the ranks of this army was imposed by the nature of militarization during the Syrian revolution, in addition to the factional and regional structure on which the composition of the army is based, amid the multiplicity of ideologies and loyalties. All this prevents the formation of a true doctrine, not to mention the lack of training, rehabilitation and logistics.”
Perhaps the most important thing of the above, as the pillars that the “National Army” lacks to reach the form of a military institution, is the absence of political reason, both within the leadership of this army or through a similar political institution, according to Alou. He insisted that “the National Army is not subject to any political institution, and institutions of the political opposition have no authority over its formations, so it is not true to say that it is a military institution or even an integrated military grouping.
Coalition of factions
Al-Alou described the structure on which the “National Army” was built as factional, for each faction and unit inside this Army has maintained its own structure in exchange for merger inside operation rooms to carry out any mission. Thus, the process of merging these factions was not about dissolving and restructuring, but rather a matter of consolidating and coordinating efforts and giving a name. “So it can be considered as a coalition of factions.”
According to the Syrian researcher, the roles the National Army is playing depend on its multiple affiliate factions, different areas of influence and control and different loyalties and ideologies.
Al-Alou pointed out that a single role that the army is playing as a cohesive military structure can’t be identified. The role the National Army’s formations are playing in Aleppo countryside is similar to the internal security forces, which are united only to face any threat to their areas. This role is very different from the one the National Army’s formations are playing in Idlib and Hama countryside, whether confronting the regime forces or others imposing themselves as de facto forces in their areas of influence, or formations fighting battles for other countries.
According to the Syrian researcher, the multiple roles the member factions are playing in the National Army make it difficult to determine whether it is a national army or not, given the criterion of value that requires the implementation of priorities within national borders.
Al-Alou added that “in view of the battles and tasks some formations are responsible for, we will find that they transcend national borders depending on non-Syrian or revolutionary priorities. Thus, the term “National Army” remains a formal nomenclature that may not always correspond to the content.”
Salim Idris … The cornerstone of the states’ strategy to build a “national army”
Sacking following military disagreements, resignation for lack of resources, and commissioning the establishment of a national army in the north are the three phases that may summarize the career of military academician Major General Salim Idris, which was punctuated by many ambiguities and questions besides the accusations against him for his dependence on foreign policies.
After 35 years Idris had with the army of the regime, on July 20, 2012, the engineer began working for the opposition factions from Idlib, after defecting from the Syrian regime and securing his family in the Officers’ Camp in Turkey.
He is known for his moderation and rejection of religiously and ideologically militant groups and factions, as well as his experience in management and military academy, being a master of three programming languages. He holds a B.A. degree in Electronic Engineering from the University of Aleppo since 1982, in addition to a master’s degree in Information Technology from the Higher Institute of Transport Sciences and Communications in Germany in 1987.
These qualities have made Idriss the focus of attention and consensus among countries, which describe themselves as supportive and friendly to Syria, especially the United States of America, from the early days of defection. All this led him to head the General Staff of the Free Army only three months after defection, in December 2012.
Idris, who was born in 1958 in the town of al-Mubarakiya in western Homs countryside, served as Head of the Free Army, benefiting from his proximity to the United States and the military support it provided to him, particularly ammunition and military equipment, to form a regular national army in accordance with a unified command hierarchy.
Idris’s goal and ability to build an organized military force made him the focus of attention of former US President Barack Obama, who bet on him to confront extremists and radicalism and defeat the Syrian regime. An article by David Ignatius published on May 1, 2013, in the pro-US administration newspaper The Washington Post described Idris as the new strategic cornerstone of the US administration.
However, the US ally did not live up to the promises of providing quality weapons and money to the General Staff for the formation of an organized army. Idris began to show his uneasiness about this lack of support through media, before he was suddenly dismissed from his position in February 2014 by the 30-person Supreme Military Council.
Idris rejected the dismissal order and considered it illegal. Thus, he drew significant accusations against the president of the coalition at the time, Ahmad Jarba, who fired him, describing the latter as Syria’s new dictator.
In an interview with Al Araby TV in the program entitled “In Another Story”, last March, Idris attributed the reasons for his failure to form a national army to the opposition of faction leaders on the ground, especially the Islamist ones, as to avoid any damage to their interests; as well as to the unwillingness of the countries supporting the Syrian revolution to help form an army capable of overthrowing the regime. He stated: “No one wants to form a national army, neither the US nor Britain, and they also used their resources to prevent such thing from happening.”
Salim Idris reiterated his keenness to form a national army for the Syrian revolution, in various media statements, which led the Prime Minister of the Interim Government, Ahmad Tohme, to appoint him Minister of Defense in early 2015.
It did not take Idris more than four months to resign due to the lack of resources to form an army, and his belief that he has nothing to offer to the Syrian people, the revolution and fighters on the ground, as allying countries did not provide the necessary support, according to his statements in an interview with Al Araby TV.
However, after four years of absence, Idris suddenly reappeared on August 31, when he was again appointed as Defense Minister in the Syrian Interim Government, headed by Abdurrahman Mustafa.
The new appointment, unlike the last one, was the result of the will of the supporting countries, led by Turkey, with US approval, to integrate the fighting factions affiliated to the Free Syrian Army into a single national army headed by Idris, who considered at a press conference dedicated to the announcement of the merger, on October 4, that the formation of the army came late.
Idris achieved his goal eight years after the revolution, however, he realized other achievements that do not seem to be in line with his early objectives. He summed up these during a recent television interview in “standing up against the regime’s military machine and protecting 65 percent of the territory that was controlled by the factions before losing the battle when Russia intervened.”
Serving national interests or Turkey’s objectives?
How does the National Army set its compass?
The new National Army’s stated objectives are allegedly to “liberate the country from tyrants, preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and defend the coast and Idlib governorate,” adding to that the statements of Interim Government’s Defense Minister, Salim Idris, about the army’s goal of securing safe spaces for the return of refugees. However, the political and military context in which the army was formed leaves many questions about the possibility of implementing those stated objectives.
Political and military circumstances
On September 15, Turkey hosted a tripartite summit of leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to discuss the Idlib file, after which Russian President Vladimir Putin announced during his participation in the plenary session of the Valdai International Discussion Club, on October 3, that large-scale combat has already ended in Syria.”
In recent months, Ankara has held rounds of talks with Washington to pave the way for its military operation east of the Euphrates, which began on October 9, days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had phone conversation with his US counterpart, Donald Trump. This conversation was considered as a green light for Turkey and the Syrian National Army to be strongly involved in the military operation.
The merger and announcement of the formation of the new National Army came in light of the Turkish-US intention to establishment of a safe zone in north-eastern Syria. This was followed immediately by Turkey’s announcement of the start of the Operation Peace Spring to remove the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) away from its southern border, and pave the way for the implementation of the Turkish vision for the safe zone project.
Common interests or implementation of goals?
In order to depict the nature of the relationship between the National Army and Turkey, Enab Baladi tried to communicate several times with the spokesman of the National Army Major Yusuf Hammoud, however, he apologized for giving statements due to his “preoccupation with the battle east of Euphrates.”
Military analyst, Colonel Ahmed Hamada, claimed that Turkey is training and supporting the National Army because there is a convergence of goals and interests between both parties, considering that the decision-making space for the National Army is determined by the facts and common strategic interests with Turkey, which imposes consultation and coordination.
Hamada predicted that the future of the relationship between the National Army and Turkey will change with the end of military operations in Syria, and “will be a relationship based on interests and chosen by the people who knows its best interests.”
Goal: Military operation east of Euphrates
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll via its Facebook page and asked the fans: “According to you, what is the reason behind the announcement of the merger of factions into the National Army?”
82 percent of more than 1,500 respondents considered that the reason was to start the Turkish battle in the east of the Euphrates, i.e. Operation Peace Spring; while only 18 percent of them believed that the objective was to protect northern Syria.
The comments on the poll were in line with the voting rates. Most of the comments included accusing the National Army of being subordinated to Turkey. Thus, part of the commentators considered the newly formed army as “a tool in the hands of the Turks.”
Possibility of merger and reconstruction
What future awaits the National Army?
As the Syrian revolution enters its ninth year, and with ongoing attempts to reach a political solution, after years of military operations in various regions, several questions remain without answers, especially the ones related to the traits of the new Syrian state, the military establishment and its future structure, chiefly with the existence of two armies, namely Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the National Army, which differ in structure and doctrine.
While Russia and Iran control the SAA, Turkey is the most prominent contributor in the formation of National Army and the decision-making process regarding its military movements. This was clearly demonstrated recently in the operation east of the Euphrates against the Kurdish SDF and before that in Afrin.
When it comes to the political solution in Syria, the situation is linked to several options, most urgent of these is the Syrian Constitution which is supposed to be drafted by the constitutional committee, in addition to the fate of armed groups on the ground, whether organized or unregulated, and the possibility of dissolving or integrating into a military institution, as a step towards ensuring security and ending conflicts.
According to Syrian researcher Sasha al-Alou, the possibility of merging the National Army or the formations of the military opposition in general into the SAA is available and one of the options offered within any political solution and within the restructuring of the Syrian military’s establishment in general.
Al-Alou indicated that the talks about a possible merger is suggested since “the formations and factions of the National Army are eventually Syrian opposition armed formations and include tens of thousands of fighters, whose presence and weapons have become a reality that cannot be overcome within any political solution. Otherwise, they will end up divided and become a source of threat, due to the excessive training they received on how to use arms during the years of the revolution. ”
As for the form and mechanisms of the integration, al-Alou pointed out that the process depends primarily on the form and terms of the political solution, in addition to the nature of the international and regional forces active in drafting it.
According to the Syrian researcher, the integration process is not unlikely, especially as it was implemented during the past years following the Russian intervention and the loss of many areas of opposition in favor of the Syrian regime
Moscow has worked on the policy of reintegrating some elements of the opposition factions and military groupings into specific corps within the Fifth Corps, following heavy weapons disarmament operations as part of the settlements imposed by force on many areas, most notably Daraa, Ghouta and the countryside of Homs.
However, the difference between what Moscow has worked on and what can be done after a political solution, explains al-Alou, is that “the mergers are conducted in an inconvenient context and conditions and under the supervision of one party only, which is Moscow. So, the merger becomes closer to a process of subjugating the elements of these factions, including dissident military elements and civilians, in order to reinforce the SAA, rather than undertaking real mergers and restructuring steps.”
Dedicated restructuring programs
Security and political reconciliation is a prerequisite for the implementation of a post-conflict reintegration of armies, preceded by phases of disarmament and demobilization, which require simultaneous economic progress, the rule of law and a transitional justice.
The restructuring of armies following armed conflicts, especially those involving parties carrying weapon and with different political views, depends on the form and nature of the political solution to those conflicts.
Al-Alou insisted that the right political solution must provide the appropriate environment for the restructuring operations, which are considered as unified procedural programs, the details and mechanisms of which vary according to the milieu and form of the conflict.
According to the Syrian researcher, the restructuring programs have many aspects, including the reintegration of fighters affiliated to militias in society, and other sids related to recruiting others fighters into the SAA.
Some of the other mechanisms are related to reforming and restructuring the security services (SSR), in addition to other processes linked to the military institution, most importantly the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration steps, known as the DDR programs. These are considered as the first and most important step to build the peace process during post-conflict eras, while introducing the process of democratization.
However, according to al-Alou, these programs are complex and carry several political, military, security, humanitarian, social and economic dimensions. Thus, this restructuring system is designed to deal with post-conflict security problems resulting from leaving former combatants without jobs or support networks, which forces them to take up arms again, during the transition from conflict to peace, and then moving forward towards development. “
Al-Alou clarified that despite the existence of fixed programs for the restructuring of armies, either the SAA or the armed groups, “the whole operation with its various programs is subject to politicization as well international and regional monopoly in accordance with dominant political circumstances and the conflict environment, in which it is applied, especially in the Syrian context.”
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