November 25, 2011

Turkey and the Free Syrian Army: A Potential Game Changer For The Region

By Stratfor Global Intelligence

Director of Analysis Reva Bhalla discusses the risks Turkey will likely consider in deciding how far it wants to go in supporting the Syrian opposition.

Syrian activists claimed Wednesday, Nov. 16 that army defectors belonging to the Free Syrian Army fired machine guns and RPGs at an Air Force Intelligence base in Hastara, just north of Damascus, around 2:30 a.m. local time. They also claimed to have targeted military checkpoints in the suburbs of Douma, Qaboun, Arabaeen and Saqba. There has been no independent confirmation of these claims, but the reports are directing attention toward the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and just how far the Turkish government is willing to go in supporting this group of army defectors.


The Free Syrian Army is a group of mostly Sunni conscripts and mid- to low-rank officers who fled to Turkey. This group, led by a Col. Riad al-Asaad, has, with the permission of the Turkish government, set up a base of operations in southern Turkey and has announced the creation of what it calls a temporary military council to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

This group of army defectors is operating under extremely heavy constraints considering that the Syrian security apparatus is dominated by the country’s Alawite minority, the vast majority of which view the current struggle as an existential crisis against the Sunni majority. Unless serious cracks in the army occur among this Alawite command, it will be very difficult for lower ranking Sunni members to find the opening they need to wage a successful coup. Another factor greatly hampering this group is that they need a sanctuary to organize and sustain an armed resistance within effective operating range of the main areas of resistance.

Turkey’s willingness to host the Free Syrian Army raises the question of whether Turkey would be willing to go further in supporting an armed opposition in Syria. Speculation has been raised over whether the refugee camps in southwestern Turkey, where the Free Syrian Army leadership is located, could be extended into a staging ground for Syria’s fledgling armed opposition. Turkey has many options in terms of arming, advising and training these forces, and an idea that has also been raised prominently in the Turkish press and in private talks among Turkish officials is that of Turkey establishing a military buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border with Arab League and possibly U.N. backing. Speculation over how far such a buffer zone would actually extend into Syrian territory varies greatly and there is no clear indication that Turkey is close to a decision on this matter.

Though Turkey has been trying to demonstrate that it has real clout — beyond rhetoric — in pressuring Syria, there are also risks in escalating matters and going so far as to commit forces to the problem. First, it’s important to keep in mind that the areas where the opposition is concentrated — in Homs and Hamas, as well as the Damascus suburbs and Daraa in the southwest — are a fair distance from the northern border with Turkey.

Second, Turkey’s primary security imperative in dealing with Syria is to ensure the instability in Syria does not reach a level that would encourage Kurdish separatist activity from spilling across the border. So far, Kurdish protesters in Syria have been relatively contained. And while there are several thousands of Syrian refugees living in Turkish refugee camps, Turkey is no longer facing an imminent crisis of refugees flooding across the border since most of the Syrian military’s crackdowns have been focused much further south.

Further Turkish escalation would make Turkey vulnerable to Syrian and Iranian militant proxy attacks, a factor that is likely weighing heavily on the minds of the Turkish leadership as they are already dealing with a significant rise in PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) activity and are more interested in focusing their military assets on uprooting PKK cells in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Syria and Iran may not have a great deal of influence on the PKK’s command structure based out of Qandil mountain, but there are a number of splinter factions that could be exploited to demonstrate to the Turks the repercussions of pushing the al Assad regime over the edge.

If Turkey were to seriously contemplate further escalation in Syria and absorb the risks associated with such action, it would be more likely in response to their concerns over the Kurdish threat than their concerns for Syrian citizens. This is why it will be extremely important to watch for signs of unusual Kurdish militant activity in Turkey that the Turkish leadership could trace back to Syria. That would be the game changer that could lead to more serious action from the Turks.

Courtesy Stratfor Global Intelligence (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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