ISTANBUL - In Turkey, questions are being raised about the makeup of the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting with Turkish forces in Syria. Opposition deputies accuse the forces of being composed of jihadists, which threatens to have wider regional consequences.
A recently published video shows U.S. Special Forces being forced out of a Syrian town captured by the Free Syrian Army not long ago, to the chants of “Death to America” and “No to U.S. imperialism.”
The FSA forces are part of the Turkish-backed intervention into Syria, aimed at removing Islamic State.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking Monday before leaving for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, downplayed the incident. Erdogan said it was rebel anger toward Washington over what he called its "failed Syria policy." Opposition parties in Turkey say it is further evidence of the Ankara-backed forces' links to radical Jihadist groups.
Ankara has dismissed such concerns, saying all the groups it is backing belong to the moderate opposition.
Political columnist Kadri Gursel of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper says such concerns are well-founded, even though the groups involved are linked to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
”These are eight to 10 groups equipped, armed and trained by Qatari and Saudi money organized by Turkey and also helped by the CIA. I do not subscribe to this moderate presentation; they are jihadists, all of them are jihadists and jihadists do cannibalize each other. And we can see former ISIS militants turn to moderate Islamists overnight.”
Ankara has been reluctant to give detailed information on the makeup of the FSA elements it is supporting in Syria. Critics point out that understanding the rebel forces is complicated by the tendency of fighters to rename their organizations or simply join another group.
With FSA forces securing increasing territory, most notably the border town of Jarablus, how they behave will be a key test, says Turkish columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website.
“They now have Jarablus under their control, and Turkey says that it will not be Turkey running the place, but the people themselves, and their army, the Free Syrian Army. Now how they behave there, and what kind of restrictions or liberties or freedoms they allow, this will also determine also how the West and Russia look on some of Turkey’s allies,” said Idiz.
Analysts say Moscow and Tehran have given tacit approval of Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, offering only mild criticism.
That could change with Erdogan announcing Turkish-backed rebel forces may expand their operation to control as much as 5,000 square kilometers of Syria.
Such an expansion would take Turkish armed forces and the Free Syrian Army elements it is supporting close to the Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces.
Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served extensively in the region, warns a deepening Turkish military role carries serious risks for Ankara.
“In the worst case scenario, this military operation inside Syria can spiral out of control. There can be all sides in military conflict around this small area, al- Bab Manbij,” said Selcen.
Analysts warn Ankara may then find it more difficult to control the Free Syrian Armed forces.