Turkey is preparing to provide additional financial and medical support to its closest ally in Syria, a group of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias, in an effort to strengthen it by boosting morale.
The FSA militias fought alongside the Turkish army in Operation Euphrates Shield from August 2016 to March 2017 and are now participating in Operation Olive Branch. Some 614 FSA militants were killed in Euphrates Shield, the campaign to push back Syrian Kurdish and Islamic State forces in northern Syria, and so far 302 have been killed in Olive Branch, launched Jan. 20 against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin.
No reliable polling of Turkish public opinion on the FSA has been published, but the general sentiment toward the Salafi-jihadi elements within the force is not positive. Yet, since Operation Olive Branch, government-friendly Turkish media have made obvious efforts to enhance the FSA’s image. Statements by FSA senior officers and tales of bravery by FSA fighters are daily staples. Infographics aimed at highlighting the heroism of FSA members, interviews with commanders and reports of casualties run frequently.
Pro-government media outlets insist that the FSA has been targeted by external powers in sustained efforts to tarnish its reputation. According to the daily Yeni Safak, “Those who cannot launch campaigns against the successful Olive Branch Operation, against our brave army and the public support of the operation find it easier to criticize the FSA, which has been fighting shoulder to shoulder with our soldiers, and to ignore the public support they are getting.”
In a March 25 speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “The FSA is a civilian organization that has come together to defend their country with our support.” He continued, “We have to understand how outrageous it is to insult those fighting for their freedom alongside our soldiers. We are close observers of how the FSA fought so bravely in the Euphrates Shield Operation. So far the FSA has lost 614 of its fighters, with more than 2,000 wounded.”
Opposition media outlets have exhibited a clear anti-FSA attitude. They view the FSA issue from a secularist perspective, assuming the relationship of the Turkish government and Erdogan with the FSA is rooted in their religious, sectarian positions.
FSA fighters have, however, earned themselves appreciation and respect in the fight against the YPG, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). They are now taking advantage of this to demand benefits similar to Turkish fighters killed or wounded in action.
While some Syrians have received Turkish citizenship by benefit of their FSA ties, because FSA fighters are not Turkish, their families cannot enjoy the same benefits as those of Turkish soldiers and police who lose their lives in the line of duty. Thus, there is a need to make separate legal arrangements for FSA members who have taken part in and continue to participate in operations alongside the Turkish army.
FSA fighters have told journalists that those living in Turkey with their families receive a salary of about $130 a month and are given medical care, but that making arrangements for long-term care of those wounded and for the survivors of those killed would contribute to lifting morale and survival.
“We have to do something for the relatives of FSA casualties,” Erdogan said March 21, hinting that the government is working on arrangements to support wounded FSA members and their relatives. “We can make some decisions to support them.” On March 29, the militias were acknowledged by Turkey for the first time in official state documents, in a declaration published after the monthly meetings of the National Security Council, where the FSA members were described as “Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens” fighting alongside the Turkish Armed Forces.
FSA sources told Al-Monitor about the concrete steps Ankara is thought to be taking to improve the welfare of FSA militiamen’s families. The sources said wives and children of FSA fighters killed in Operation Olive Branch, or the mothers and fathers of unmarried fighters, will be given the right to acquire Turkish citizenship. Families of the deceased are to be provided about $7,500 in assistance. Those wounded in battle, regardless of their marital status, will be entitled to citizenship plus $3,750 in cash assistance.
The improved image of the FSA has suffered since the conclusion of the combat phase of Operation Olive Branch. Reports of looting, abductions and human rights violations, especially after the capture of Afrin, received worldwide attention and was much discussed on Turkish social media. Despite this setback, the FSA is gradually becoming more reputable, in part thanks to its image as a local partner of the Turkish army helping fight the PKK-linked YPG. The role of the government and its media allies in this rebranding cannot be denied. The political opposition has expressed concern in a muted fashion about the growing cooperation between the primarily secularist Turkish army and the Sunni-Salafi FSA, but TSK-FSA bonds are likely to continue and perhaps deepen.