Syrian National Army administratively marginalized in its control territories

Members of the National Army (NA) at a military training camp in Aleppo’s northern countryside (Anadolu Agency)

Members of the National Army (NA) at a military training camp in Aleppo’s northern countryside (Anadolu Agency)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

The Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) controls large parts of Aleppo countryside and the cities of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in northern Syria. However, the SNA has been barely functional in local administrative issues, supposedly within its powers, mostly leaving the final say to Ankara.

The lack of coordination, infighting between opposition factions, and denying displaced Syrians access to SNA-controlled areas are some of the issues revealing the SNA’s failure in the local administrative context. 

 Quneitra’s displaced residents denied entry 

The SNA faced popular protest after fighters from its affiliate Sultan Murad Division denied displaced residents from Umm Batnah town, central Quneitra, from entering its controlled areas on 20 May. The displaced found themselves stranded at al-Bab city after exiting a regime checkpoint opposite Abu al-Zendan crossing in eastern Aleppo countryside. News spread that the displaced residents’ entry was prevented under a decision from the Turkish intelligence for security reasons. 

Popular protests were held at al-Bab city demanding the entry of the displaced, but fighters from the Sultan Murad Division shot fire at protesters gathered at Abu al-Zendan crossing, prompting protesters to call the division members shabiha (thugs), a description used in Syria to refer to armed militias that helped the regime in suppressing peaceful demonstrations during the Syrian revolution.  

Umm Batnah’s displaced people’s case is one of many cases that the SNA must handle independently from the Turkish supporter, activists, and political analysts said, inviting the SNA to pursue those responsible for carrying out explosions in areas under its control. 

 Turkey’s involvement in domestic issues in northwestern Syria

Abdul Wahab Assi, a researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the continued absence of a national decision could lead to “fragmentation in the SNA’s structure and realignments and then to a continuous clash or tension between military factions or blocs over resources, power, and political rhetoric.”

Assi added that the lack of a genuine willingness on the part of the factions is hampering any attempt to transform rivalry to close cooperation. The hesitation of some factions to take serious steps or actions that would contribute to the development and formulation of a national decision for fear of clashing with other factions is also a barrier to any independent decisions by the SNA.

Military expert Colonel Adeeb Elewi explained that Turkey is interfering in sensitive local Syrian files because it considers the region an important territory for its national security. He pointed out that the entry of the displaced without former security coordination with the military command of the SNA, by preparing lists of the names to enter the region before their arrival, could result in a security breach because those people could be undercover agents for the regime.

For Elewi, “the SNA’s grave mistake in the case of stopping or preventing the displaced from entering its regions was an administrative one.”

The Turkish role in the SNA’s areas is perceived in the pursuit of people wanted for security reasons, mainly members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the Islamic State (IS), as well as those responsible for carrying out bombings in the SNA areas, who remained loose in most cases.

If captured, the SNA does not disclose information about the investigation process with perpetrators of explosions or the punishment given.

Turkey had taken the lead in some cases, like when Hatay province in southern Turkey announced in June 2020 the arrest of seven people charged of carrying out 11 bombings in the area of Afrin to the northwest of Aleppo that lies under the control of the SNA.

About two months earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the arrest of the Afrin bombing perpetrators, which killed 42 people who could not be identified due to their bodies’ severe burning. Another 61 persons were injured in the explosion, according to the Syria Civil Defence (SCD).

On 24 May, Turkish military police and intelligence carried out raid campaigns in al-Bab city without coordination with other military forces in the SNA.

Turkish or Syrian officials did not comment on the raid campaigns, during which around 30 people were arrested for belonging to or working for IS.

On 21 May, the spokesman for the SNA Major Youssef Hamoud was attacked by members of the civil police on one of its checkpoints in Afrin countryside. Following the incident, Hamoud released a voice recording in which he said that the assault was an individual act and did not represent the civil police service. Still, this incident stands as a clear example of the lack of security coordination within the SNA. 

Factionalism overrides sovereignty

Elewi explained to Enab Baladi that the absence of a domestic decision by the SNA in pure Syrian matters is attributed to “the state of factionalism and division within the SNA and the control of each faction over a specific crossing, besides other unofficial crossings controlled by the factions.”

Unofficial crossings, used for illegal smuggling, link the SNA areas with the territories of the Syrian regime and the SDF.

Meanwhile, researcher Abdul Wahab Assi stressed that “the failure of the SNA to resolve many cases in its areas is originally linked to the absence of a unified military establishment.”

The SNA’s three main legions had fallen into factionalism, meaning that their decisions are based on regional, ideological and economic dimensions, not on a national one, Assi said.

This was evident in the case of the displaced people from Quneitra, who were denied entry by the Sultan Murad Division. A group of these people was eventually allowed by some factions to stay in Afrin, while the rest headed to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) areas in Idlib and part of the western Aleppo countryside. 

According to Assi, the SNA’s administrative subordination to Turkey is also linked to the absence of adequate and central internal resources, which would have encouraged the formulation of more independent rhetoric and decisions without affecting the intersection of interests necessary with international actors such as Turkey.

Elewi added that the presence of an independent central force including all factions with competent members to manage security issues and crossing points helps the SNA to achieve sovereignty.

Elewi stressed that the aforementioned reasons, in addition to corruption, are behind Turkey’s excessive control of the SNA’s decisions and “had there been professionalism and competency on the part of the SNA, the Turkish brothers would not have interfered to this level.”  

It is worth noting that the SNA’s formation was first announced In October 2019 in Şanlıurfa city in southern Turkey by a group of military commanders from the Syrian opposition, under the leadership of the Minister of Defence of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the chief-of-staff, Salim Idris.

The SNA includes the National Army (NA) formed in December 2017 of three legions that consist of a group of divisions and brigades, and the National Liberation Front (NLF) formed from 11 factions of the former Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Idlib in May 2018.

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