As Turkey’s anti-Kurdish YPG-PYD-PKK Operation Olive Branch continues in northern Syria, one must look to what the future holds for Ankara’s proxy terrorist force which flies under the flag of the so-called “Free Syrian Army”.
In reality, there is no formal group called the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA). Instead its name and flag are used by various terrorist militias throughout Syria who don’t bear any direct relationship with one another, apart from holding an often haphazardly defined Takfiri ideology which seeks the illegal overthrow of the Syrian government. Moreover, most so-called FSA fighters are little more than mercenaries of various patron nations and non-state financiers.
Throughout the Damascus countryside and parts of Idlib Governorate, the Syrian Arab Army continues to make steady gains against miscreants calling themselves FSA. However, it is in Turkish occupied areas of Syria where self-styled FSA fighters pose the biggest long term threat to Syria. As part of Operation Olive Branch, Turkish FSA proxies have abandoned many of their positions in Idlib and have been transferred further east in order to engage the pro-US terrorist group YPG on behalf of their Turkish masters.
However, once Turkey and its proxies inevitably win their sought after territory from the YPG, the question then becomes one of how Syria can remove the Turkish occupiers and the FSA. One should make no mistake that while it is strategically important that NATO member Turkey uses its armed forces and FSA proxies to fight a proxy force aligned with the United States, for Syria, it becomes of matter of substituting one enemy terrorist army with another. In this sense, an intractable US proxy force is gradually being supplanted with a Turkish one. However grim this may sound, this is a step in the right direction as ultimately Turkey does cooperate with Russia and Iran (however unevenly this cooperation at times manifests itself), while the US cooperates with no co-equal or regional power.
For Turkey, there is a medium and long term road to compromise that could result in a “win-win” situation for both the Turkish and Syrian governments. The reality is that Turkey cannot pay for its FSA forces in Syria forever unless they serve as a full scale occupying force in Syria. Turkey is therefore faced with the prospect of paying for and protecting their FSA proxies in order for them to permanently occupy parts of northern Syria, or else abandon them in the long-term–something which would result in an easy Syrian Arab Army liberation of FSA held territory. For Turkey, there are ultimately far more cost effective ways to project its power in the wider post-Ottoman world.
If the Syrian Arab Army were to liberate territory currently being held by the Turkish supported FSA, it means that surviving FSA fighters would likely seek refuge in Turkey. This is something Turkey does not need: an influx of heavily armed and deeply angry young men who are little more than mercenary Takfiris.
There is however, a way out. When Turkey eventually withdraws from Syria, which in the medium term it likely will do, Turkey could reshape its FSA fighters into a force that would give Turkey’s President Erdogan the neo-Ottoman prestige he craves while also relieving both Syria and Turkey of the tumour that would be a post-conflict FSA.
Post Syria, Turkey’s most ambiguous foreign adventures are in Qatar and Sudan. In Qatar, Turkish troops arrived shortly after the Saudi led boycott of the small Persian Gulf state. Qatar and Turkey are both sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and as a “reward” for continued investment in Turkey, Erdogan sent Turkish soldiers to Qatar in order to stave off a would-be Saudi/Emirati attack.
Even more recently, Turkey reached an agreement with the Sudanese government to re-build and modernise the old Ottoman Red Sea port at Suakin. The Suakin project is set to be one of Turkey’s most ambitious overseas investment and construction initiatives for decades and as such, it will require protection from would be saboteurs. Given that both Saudi Arabia which is located a short warm water boat ride across the Red Sea from Suakin, as well as Egypt have very poor relations with Ankara, there are clear motives for those who would wish to make Turkey think twice about its economic and manpower investment in Sudan.
The answer could be a semi-permanent protective force guarding Turkish investments in Sudan. Ankara could also set up something similar for other Turkish allies with smaller armies, notably Qatar. In this sense, the FSA could be refashioned from a proxy terrorist group operating within Syria to a“Turkish Foreign Legion” which would help to aid Turkish allies and foreign Turkish investments in areas where it might otherwise be unpopular to send Turkey’s army, which maintains a large force of young conscripts.
As the FSA of northern Syria is already a Turkish mercenary force motivated as much (if not more) by the promise of Turkish Lira than by ideology, it would only make sense for Turkey to have a primarily Arabic speaking defence force to do the ‘dirty work’ of projecting power in the wider post-Ottoman world, that the regular Army might be reticent to do.
Turkey is currently undergoing Ottomanisation 3.0. Erdogan’s first attempt to re-Ottomanise its Arab neighbours has not fared well, not least because it put Turkey at odds with its two oldest regional rivals: Iran and Russia. Now that Turkey is cooperating with Russia and Iran, not just in Syria but well beyond, Turkey is in the midst of a pivot whereby old Ottoman territories continue to hold a significant attraction to those in Ankara. More importantly, Turkey is looking increasingly to go where it is wanted (Qatar and Sudan and politically speaking, Palestine) rather than where it is not (Syria and previously Iraq).
While admittedly imaginative, this solution is one of the best ways for Turkey to reconfigure its Ottoman ambitions from something hostile to something positive, all the while solving the problem of what to do with the FSA in the long term.