Syrian rebels seek relevance by joining Turkey's offensive
BEIRUT – Col. Moataz Raslan once flew MiG jets for the Syrian air force, until he defected to join rebel ranks fighting to oust President Bashar Assad. Today, he is a commander fighting alongside Turkey against Kurdish self-rule in north Syria.
After seven years of war, Syrian opposition forces are struggling to stay relevant in a country that's been carved up into spheres of interest by major powers. They've been beaten by the government, betrayed by jihadists and al-Qaida, abandoned by the U.S. and routed by the Islamic State group in north Syria.
Now in their alliance with Turkey, nearly 10,000 opposition fighters have turned their guns against Kurdish forces.
It is a project that primary serves Ankara's national security interest: uprooting the Kurdish YPG from territories it controls along the border. But in return, the alliance gives the veteran armed opposition — which controls only small patches of territory, most of it under threat — an opportunity to hold new ground and a foreign power ready to support them, including with vital air forces.
It may be a costly gamble for rebels, who have already lost over 100 fighters in battle against the YPG, according to one war monitoring group.
Ankara says the Turkish-led campaign, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, is aimed at establishing a so-called security zone that would push the Kurdish YPG about 30 kilometers from their border. The Turkish-backed forces have been battling to try to capture the town of Afrin from the Kurdish fighters.
The rebels who have joined it hope that by holding and governing that territory, they'll gain credibility to be taken seriously in the court of international opinion and leverage to use in any future negotiations over Syria's future.
"I tell myself that Olive Branch is going to be the start of restoring the revolution to the way it was," said Raslan.
If Olive Branch successfully uproots the Kurdish militia from the area, the Syrian rebels, with backing from Turkey, would be in charge of a solid area in the north of Aleppo province all the way to the neighboring rebel-held province of Idlib, even if Turkey installs an allied Kurdish force to administer Afrin itself.
Many of the opposition members have been fighting alongside Turkey since 2016 when Turkish forces first pushed into northern Syria to drive back IS and contain Kurdish expansion.
Since then in areas they have seized, Turkey has allowed the rebels to be the face of governance, while exercising influence through its security apparatuses, said Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Center for a New American Security.
For many of the participating groups, their function is reduced to serving as a "foreign legion" for Turkey, said Heras.
"Are they prepared to serve Turkey's national security interests in Syria forever?"
But some rebels argue they have their own reasons to fight the YPG. They say the Kurdish drive to grab territory for self-rule has displaced thousands of Arabs and Turkmens and is dividing Syria. They also fault the YPG for not sharing their goal of ousting Assad's government.
"As we suffer, the Turkish brothers suffer," said Brig. Gen. Ahmed Othman, a commander in the powerful Sultan Murad Division, a leading Turkish-allied faction.
Since defecting from the air force in 2012, Col. Raslan has fought against nearly every side in the Syrian war. His path reflects the trajectory of the armed uprising — first scoring some major victories against Assad, then coming done amid factionalism, the rise of jihadi groups and, above all, lack of meaningful international military support.
Raslan was appointed the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army's military committee for the province of Raqqa, in eastern Syria, and helped lead the battle that drove government forces out of the provincial capital, also called Raqqa, in 2013.
But less than a year later, he was driven out of the city when Islamic State group militants took over. He spent the next four years both fighting the government and trying to stay clear of al-Qaida's expanding reach in Idlib.
His mission now, he believes, is wipe out what he calls Kurdish separatists.
"Our strategic aim is to keep the liberated areas contiguous and reach a confrontation point with the regime so that we can achieve balance on the ground to force a peaceful solution," he said.
The Syrian opposition fighters also risk running head-long into conflict with their former backer, the United States.
The U.S. made clear it would battle Turkey and its allies if they crossed further east into Kurdish-run territory, where American forces are based, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened. Lt. Gen Paul E. Funk said from the frontline in Syria on Wednesday that it was not his job to worry about Turkish vows to expand its operations. "My job is to fight," he said.
Rebel commanders say the groups which have fought and worked with Turkey since 2016 are the seed of a national army in the post-Assad future they seek.
Still, for the moment, Turkey is calling the shots. Airstrikes by its warplanes have given vital backup for the opposition forces who serve as the front-line force in the assault.
The Afrin battle, now in its third week, has been a struggle, with stiff resistance from the YPG. According to the Turkish military, at least 18 Turkish soldiers have been killed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said 141 opposition fighters have died.
Othman contested the reported high death toll and said casualties were in single digits. But he acknowledged the difficulty of the fight. In Afrin, the terrain is mountainous, and the YPG has had years to prepare against potential assault, building trenches and military fortifications, he said.
Now amid international pressure for Turkey to show restraint, airstrikes have stopped. The Syrian government, which has also protested the Turkish operation in Afrin, said it deployed its air defense systems in northern Syria. Russia, which saw one of its airplanes shot down by rebels in Idlib, reportedly asked Turkey to close the airspace above Afrin.
Still, more rebels are lining up beside the Turks.
Tarek Muhram of the Zinki group, which refused to join previous Turkey-backed operations, said his group has now sent fighters to join Olive branch.
"Fighting the U.S.-backed (Kurdish militia) is in the interest of the Syrian rebellion," he said. "I find the Turkish presence necessary not because I love them but because their presence prevents government airstrikes."