Syrian subgroups merge to form new National Army under Turkey’s guidance

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army pose for a photo near the town of Qabasin, northeast of Al-Bab, some 30 km from Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 03 January 2018
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Syrian subgroups merge to form new National Army under Turkey’s guidance

ANKARA: The National Army, Syria’s largest armed group since the breakout of the civil war in 2011, has reportedly formed under the guidance of Turkey.
About 30 sub-groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have reportedly come together to establish the country’s “National Army.”
The army, founded by the head of Syria’s Interim Government Jawad Abu Hatab, is set to fight against Daesh, the Assad regime and PKK terrorists.
The country’s new 22-000 strong army, or Al-Jaysh Al-Watani in Arabic, includes troops with fighting experience in the provinces of Raqqa, Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Hasaka, Deir Ezzor and Latakia. It is expected to potentially play a significant role in an eventual operation by Turkey in the Kurdish-held Syrian canton of Afrin.
Experts note that the aim of establishing this army is to create an alternative, more inclusive opposition fighting force, bringing in all ethnical groups, especially Kurds.
“During his visit to Ankara in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed this issue,” Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from Istanbul-based think-tank Bilgesam, told Arab News.
Semin said this is an alternative army project to the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but will comprise Kurdish groups that oppose the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF.
According to Turkish news reports, three Turkmen brigades will also take part in the Syrian National Army.
The Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army in northwestern Syria is mainly composed of Sunni Arab and Syrian Turkmen rebels, with few Kurdish groups.
The FSA was used by Ankara as an allied proxy force during its Euphrates Shield Operation between August 2016 and March 2017.
“By integrating the troops it has trained, Turkey will have a greater say in this new army,” Semin said, adding that Turkey has close ties with opposition groups in Syria.
“There are many Kurdish tribes in the regions where YPG is active. So there is a need to integrate them into this national army,” Semin added.
But, Semin, who thinks this is a welcome but belated initiative, underlines that Moscow’s priority for giving the green light to this project is that the army does not engage Syrian regime forces.
Mete Sohtaoglu, an Istanbul-based researcher on Middle East politics, said previously Ankara had decided not to support this plan upon Russia’s objections, but now things seem to have changed.
“Apparently now Turkey wants to take a different path and implement its own decision on Syria rather than looking at the Syrian conflict through Russia’s prism,” Sohtaoglu told Arab News.
“This project gathers three army corps. The first army corps are the ones that were trained in Turkey, while the other two are composed of about 30 groups throughout Syria,” he said.
According to Sohtaoglu, Ankara intends to turn the territories under its control into one single entity militarily and politically that will be affiliated with the Syrian transitional government.
“This regular army initiative will be also supported by Turkish aerial and ground forces, which will increase its influence. At the end of the day, they have been fighting in Syria for seven years with their high-capacity weapons, missiles and rockets,” he said.
Sohtaoglu also noted that during the political transition process and the resolution of the “Assad problem,” all armed groups will lay down arms and be put under the auspices of the new regime.
“Then the army will be restructured. But currently Russia doesn’t want to see any military forces against Assad, including the YPG,” he added.


Ankara’s handling of EU programs for Syrian refugees under scrutiny

Syrian refugees wait at the main bus station in Istanbul. The Facility for Refugees in Turkey is the main mechanism to financially support around 4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and it is endowed with $6.78 billion. (Reuters)
Updated 15 November 2018
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Ankara’s handling of EU programs for Syrian refugees under scrutiny

  • One of these two EU-funded programs addresses Syrian children’s school-related needs, and is also supported through grants from the US and Norway

ANKARA: The European Court of Auditors (ECA), a Luxembourg-based financial watchdog, emphasized in a report published on Tuesday the difficulties in properly tracking the EU funds provided to Turkey to address the needs of refugees while living outside camps.
The Facility for Refugees in Turkey is the main mechanism to financially support about 4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and it is endowed with €6 billion ($6.78 billion) that will be disbursed in two installments for financing various projects addressing the urgent needs of refugees and their host communities.
The ECA criticized the transparency level of two cash-assistance humanitarian programs — valued at about €1.1 billion — where it was not possible to properly track the flow of money going to the beneficiaries from registration until payment.
Ankara reportedly declined to disclose the beneficiaries’ names, and instead gave anonymous banking details.
One of these two EU-funded programs addresses Syrian children’s school-related needs, and is also supported through grants from the US and Norway. The other program, the Emergency Social Safety Network, is intended to provide assistance for food and rent.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Bettina Jakobsen, a member of the ECA and chief auditor of the report, said the Turkish authorities referred to their national legislation on data protection as a basis for not granting access to the UN partner or ECA access to beneficiary data.
“We consider that this lack of access to final beneficiaries’ data de facto limited the scope of our audit and the related level of assurance we can provide,” she said.
“At the time of the audit, no issue of fraud or corruption has been reported. We have not experienced any other difficulties when carrying out our audit procedures and the cooperation with the Turkish authorities was good.”
In the context of the second tranche, the ECA recommends that the European Commission insist that the Turkish authorities grant full access to the beneficiaries’ data.
“The commission should also scale up monitoring and reporting on the facility. In addition, the ECA is also carrying out legality and regularity audits, and considering the scale of these projects, an audit of the legality and regularity of the related payments may take place in the coming years,” Jakobsen told Arab News.
During a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Jakobsen said the lack of access to such key information was unprecedented in her career and this was the first time the institution had faced such a refusal, leading to some “doubts.”
However, Ayselin Yildiz, UNESCO Chair on International Migration at Yasar University in Izmir, said she was surprised that the European authorities are pushing Turkey not to respect data protection rights.
“Of course, the procedures of allocation and spending of the funds have to be transparent and accountable, but it does not require sharing the details of individual data with third parties,” she told Arab News.
Yildiz, who has coordinated and worked on several EU-funded projects on refugees, also noted that the two cash-assistance programs in question are shuffled through UN agencies, the World Food Programme and implementing partners.
“They must have their own internal control and monitoring mechanisms. These issues had to be set well in the beginning in grant agreements and I question why this has occurred as an obstacle for cooperation two years after the launch of the program,” she added.
“Beyond the trust and accountability problem between the EU and Turkish authorities, we should question if the consent of Syrian refugees has been taken on the conditions of benefiting from these funds and whether they had agreed to share their personal data, which is very sensitive for their future migration journey,” Yildiz underlined.
It was not the only challenge the auditors encountered in monitoring Turkey’s management of European taxpayer money going to Syrian refugees. The report also found that the interest generated on the money in the bank did not reach the refugees or return to the EU taxpayer, but was kept by the implementing partners.
However, the report also welcomed the fact that “all the humanitarian projects audited provided helpful support to the refugees, mainly through cash-based assistance, and most of them achieved their intended outputs.”
The commission will consider the recommendations of the audit report while implementing the next tranche of the assistance between the end of 2018 and 2019, which will amount to €3 billion, to prevent any risk of the funds being misused.
Laura Batalla, the secretary-general of the European Parliament Turkey Forum, said the EU funding for refugees has delivered tangible and measurable results in record time, which has had a positive impact on the livelihood of Syrians living in Turkey.
“Therefore, it should be hailed as a success. The EU and Turkey should, however, take into account the recommendations made by the Court of Auditors to achieve the maximum potential of the facility. Improving transparency is essential in this regard,” she said.
The Turkish government has not yet issued any public statement about the EU audit report.