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Routed FSA faction likely to accept Turkish aid, demands

After being ousted from the western Aleppo countryside, the Nour al-din al-Zenki Movement seems to have no choice but to accept Turkey's offer of aid — and meet its conditions.
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki fighters ride on a pick-up truck in the northern Syrian rebel-controlled town of al-Rai, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi  - S1BEUDSXXMAA

ALEPPO, Syria — Talks are underway within the Free Syrian Army’s Nour al-din al-Zenki Movement on the Turkish government’s offer of support. The movement has been examining the Turkish conditions of the deal since Jan. 20.

Turkish financial support for Nour al-din al-Zenki has been irregular, coming from Ankara just a few times, a military source within the movement told Al-Monitor.

The National Front for Liberation has been providing the movement with financial support since it joined its ranks in August. Other funding sources included the Nour al-din al-Zenki-run al-Mansoura crossing separating areas under its control in the western Aleppo countryside from the regime-held areas in Aleppo. The movement’s officials declined to reveal other sources. 

There were multiple encounters between Turkish security officials and leaders of the movement between Jan. 20 and Feb. 5, in the Afrin countryside's Jindires, where the movement headed following its withdrawal from the western Aleppo countryside Jan. 5. The retreat followed fierce battles against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January that ended up with the latter seizing the western Aleppo countryside in four days. During the meetings, the Turks put forward their conditions for financial and military support for the movement.

Speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the same source stated, “The Turkish offer involves financial support for nearly 2,000 fighters of Nour al-din al-Zenki. It consists of a monthly salary of 530 Turkish liras [nearly $100] each … similarly to the other Turkey-backed FSA factions scattered in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas in the Aleppo countryside.”

The source explained that the Turkish conditions "include abiding by Turkish demands and subjugation to the FSA-affiliated National Army command" as well as "dismissing men in command of the movement." These leaders include "Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, his deputy Hussam Atrash, the military commander Amr Salkho and other leaders such as Ahmad Rizk, Ali Saeedo and Suleiman Mahmoud, who Turkey accuses of corruption and opposes their presence in the moment’s command. Other conditions include handing over the leadership to Basheer Miarra and the post of deputy leader to Abu al-Yaman, who are both of the movement.”

Capt. Abdul Salam Abdu Razzaq, a commander in Nour al-din al-Zenki, told Al-Monitor, “The movement’s internal consultations over the Turkish support are positive and there is preliminary agreement among the movement’s fighters and leaders that the required conditions could be met.” He noted, “We have actually embarked Feb. 1 on changes in the movement’s leadership. Said changes in the leadership and organizational structures will be announced at a later stage.”

He said, “We have been rearranging the faction’s ranks since we lost our strongholds in the western Aleppo countryside to HTS and withdrew to Afrin. The battle has been exhausting and cost us many of our military capacities. Based on that, it was necessary for us to revitalize our faction and rearrange its ranks to prepare for the upcoming stage.” He went on, “The arrangements consist of building new headquarters in Afrin countryside, more precisely in Jindires in the western Afrin countryside, and regrouping scattered fighters there,” he said.

In the recent battle in the western Aleppo countryside, Nour al-din al-Zenki lost a large portion of its weaponry to HTS, which took ammunition, small and medium weapons, rockets and tank artillery. HTS also seized armored personnel carriers that the movement manufactured months ago. Nour al-din al-Zenki’s fighters only managed to carry lightweight items other than the clothes they had on as they headed to Afrin.

While more than 3,000 Nour al-din al-Zenki fighters left the western Aleppo countryside, the Turkish offer provides only 2,000 fighters with financial support. Turkey has been limiting its support to a specific number of fighters in all of the FSA factions it backs in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas.

For instance, although it consists of more than 5,000 fighters, Turkey provides only 3,000 fighters of the FSA's al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (Levant Front) with financial support.

Asked about the reason behind the Turkish policy, the FSA commanders said they did not know.

While speaking to Al-Monitor, the movement’s fighters and leaders seemed inclined to accept the Turkish offer in the absence of any other alternative. They have scattered from their strongholds in the western Aleppo countryside, to which they cannot return for fear of being detained or killed. Remaining in their new positions without the financial and military resources to ensure their survival is not an option, either.

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