How Important is Turkey’s Support of the Free Syrian Army?

This week, the New York Times reported that Turkey has begun to actively support the Syrian Free Army by providing shelter in a camp guarded by the Turkish military. From the Times:

Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

Two questions immediately emerge: 1) How will the provision of sanctuary affect the rebels’ chances of defeating Assad; and 2). What are the long-term regional consequences of providing sanctuary to a rebel organization? The answer to both questions: rebel group sanctuary can be a game-changer.

 

Regarding the first question, a number of scholars have previously found that external sanctuary is associated with insurgent success. Jeffrey Record, for instance, reviewed a number of insurgencies and found that rebel groups that secured sanctuary abroad were likelier to succeed. Dan Byman, Peter Chalk, et al also identified sanctuary as the most important type of support an insurgent group can receive, as it allows rebels to move and organize freely, to import weapons, and to train for operations. However, they write,

Foreign assistance in the form of international sanctuaries, while often extremely useful to guerrillas, can also have a negative impact. In moving abroad, insurgents risk cutting themselves off from their base of popular support. Resting and recuperating across a border, while providing obvious benefits, also carries the danger of operational isolation from potentially lucrative political and military targets.

This seems particularly true in the Syrian case, where the Free Syrian Army’s contact with local activists and rebels is contested. From the Times:

 

Though many analysts contend that defectors’ attacks in Syria appear uncoordinated and local, Colonel As’aad claimed to be in full operational control. He said that he was in charge of planning “full military operations” while leaving smaller clashes and day-to-day decisions up to commanders in the field. Nevertheless, he is in daily contact with the commanders of each battalion, he said, spending hours a day checking e-mail on a laptop connected to one of four telephones — including a satellite phone — provided to him by Syrian expatriates living in the United States, Europe and the Persian Gulf.

In sum, sanctuary can help an armed insurgency, but it certainly carries a number of risks and does not guarantee success by any means.

 

So how will these developments affect the conflict in the longer term? Recent research is pessimistic. According to Idean Salehyan, providing sanctuary to a rebel group makes a conflict more likely to escalate to civil war—and one that lasts longer than the average civil war. Moreover, providing sanctuary increases the chances that the civil conflict will escalate into an inter-state one (in this case, between Turkey and Syria) or perhaps even wider.

Now, this research assumes that the rebel group is viable and not just a small and disorganized group. We don’t really know whether the Free Syrian Army is the real deal yet. Rebel groups have massive incentives to over-represent their size and strength in such situations. As the Times reports, the movement’s claims that it consists of thousands of followers and dozens of battalions have not yet been verified. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe the group is coalescing. Recent attacks against government troops within Syria suggest that there is at least some coordinated contact among operatives on the inside. Apparently the Syrian Free Army is actively recruiting new members on a regular basis. With the accumulation of weapons, the ability to organize freely, and the fact that many previously nonviolent Syrian activists are now openly calling for armed uprising against the increasingly brutal state, the Free Syrian Army has considerable sympathy and support within the country. And Turkey’s decision to support the group is also telling: in a new paper, Salehyan, David Cunningham, and Kristian Gleditsch argue that states are more likely to support rebel groups when they gauge the groups to be moderately strong. This suggests that Turkey, at least, may view the Free Syrian Army as a viable entity.

Ultimately, research tells us that if the Free Syrian Army is the real deal, then Turkey’s provision of sanctuary heightens the risk of protracted civil war breaking out in Syria. Before this development, civil war was already a risk. But now the risk is much higher. Before territorial protection, the group was no more than a radical flank accompanying a nonviolent campaign. But their new sanctuary will certainly help them build their strength, if not their operational effectiveness, to become a full-blown insurgency.

The good news is that there is still a committed civilian-led uprising occurring in Syria, and although the regime’s extreme violence has dealt some severe setbacks to this movement, it is still quite active and disruptive. This is good news is because recent research shows that civil resistance activities—even when conducted in the context of armed conflict—can enhance the possibilities of more durable civil peace and democracy after the conflict ends. In other words, although some people may choose to use violence to confront the regime, the conflict does not have to devolve into a purely violent one. And if civilian-led nonviolent resistance does remain the centerpiece of the anti-Assad campaign, we can be much more optimistic about the outcome and aftermath of the conflict.

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