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Merger solidifies opposition in Syria, boosts Turkey's forces

In the days before Ankara began its offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria, it arranged a merger between the Syrian opposition's National Liberation Front and the Syrian National Army, strengthening Turkey's numbers for the battle.

ALEPPO, Syria — News of the recent merging of the Syrian opposition's National Liberation Front (NLF) into the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) has raised questions about the meaning and outcome of the merger in the short and long run. This is especially pertinent now that Turkey has begun its battle against Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates River, and as wary eyes keep watch on hostilities in supposedly peaceful Idlib province in the west.

Syrian interim government leader Abdul Rahman Mustafa announced Oct. 4 that the NLF was joining the SNA to form a single army under the umbrella of his government’s Ministry of Defense. Speaking to the press in Sanliurfa, Turkey, Mustafa said the army seeks to free Syria from corruption, sectarianism and dictatorship, and to defend Idlib, Hama and the countryside of Latakia. He added that the unified SNA will strive to "return Syrian land to Syrians."

Moderate opposition forces formed the interim government in 2013 as a rival to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The NLF-SNA merging effort goes back to August 2018. But Turkey put the plan on a fast track this month to beef up its numbers for the battle it launched Oct. 9 against Kurdish fighters, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), along a 480-kilometer (300-mile) segment of the Syrian-Turkish border. The YPG had been a US ally that fought against the Islamic State. However, Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group, as it does the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara began its incursion against those groups soon after the United States withdrew special forces personnel who had been patrolling in Syria between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Following the merger, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris, interim government’s defense minister, said Oct. 4, “We stand with full force, determination and support of our brothers in the Republic of Turkey in fighting all terrorist organizations, including the PKK-linked People's Protection Units."

This merger is the largest in the armed opposition factions’ history, bringing the number of SNA fighters to 80,000, according to Mustafa. The combination of forces obviously gives Turkey an important advantage in its battle east of the Euphrates. Yet what benefits can this merger bring to the opposition? Did the military map change in terms of the opposition factions’ distribution following the merger? 

SNA spokesman Yusuf Hamoud told Al-Monitor, "The merger has followed multiple steps, and it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the opposition-held areas.”

The SNA has a firm grip on northern Aleppo, in addition to Afrin, and has obtained financial and logistic support from Turkey on a regular basis since the SNA was formed in December 2017.

NLF spokesperson Capt. Naji Mustafa told Al-Monitor, "The main goal behind the merger is to ensure further military organization and centralized control and to move from a factional state of fragmentation into a state of a highly efficient military institution.”

The NLF was formed in May 2018 and has 25,000 fighters deployed in Idlib, where clashes against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) take place now and then. HTS is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Russia. Though Idlib was part of a de-escalation agreement forged by Turkey, Iran and Russia, HTS areas within Idlib are still considered fair game.

Hamoud noted that the army seeks to eliminate “radical forces,” in addition to battling “the Assad regime and separatist forces.” Commenting on the SNA bringing additional military reinforcements to Idlib, he indicated that “such a step would be considered later on.” 

It appears the SNA will focus on the operation east of the Euphrates, while also pressing HTS in the west to disband peacefully.

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