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 Free Syrian Army by providing shelter in a guarded camp. 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.

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

  1. Lorenzo from Oz October 30, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Another move in Turkey’s contest with Iran for influence in the Middle East, given the Assad regime’s alliance with the Islamic Republic. Providing sanctuary for insurgents to increase influence, pressure another regime, etc has long been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics.

  2. Nawrs Majid October 31, 2011 at 7:41 am #

    The best approach would be providing sanctuary for defected soldiers so that they won’t have to be part of the Syrian brutal campaign against the civilians, nor be forced to use their arms to defend themselves. This way we can limit the chances of civil war and, at the same time, deprive the regime from its main source of power.

  3. Rex Brynen October 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    By many definitions, Syria is already a civil war. The Syrian security forces have almost certainly suffered a few hundred deaths, and the aggregate numbers of deaths in context of armed confrontations may already exceed 1,000 (which is an arbitrary break-point that bizarrely ignores overall population size, and hence the intensity of conflict–but nonetheless the one that is often used).

    I doubt very much that Turkey considers the “Free Syrian Army” to be a viable entity at this point (a danger from inferring from quantitative generalities). Rather Turkey is investing in the possibility of it becoming so, while signalling Syria as to its new, tougher policy.

    It is also not clear that sanctuary is intended to allow the group to enhance its operational capabilities. Sanctuary might also be an effort to provide Turkey with the leverage to potentially limit/influence the group’s use of force (this was a perennial problem for the PLO, for example, other than in pre-1970 Jordan and pre-1982 Lebanon). In other words, we have plenty of cases where sanctuary (especially when provided by strong states) was a strategy of co-opting insurgents as much as it was war-fighting through proxies.

    I think the biggest issue in Syria will be whether the regime’s coup-proofing efforts have been sufficient, or whether a single high profile/large scale military defection might cause a cascading failure within the Syrian military (which is overwhelmingly Sunni). It is for this reason that the regime has tended to rely on a relatively small number of especially loyal units, while confining others to barracks. It also explains why the regime has sought, at times, to limit the level of violence (fearing that mass atrocity not only invites stepped-up international pressures, but also increases the chances of military defections). The current rate of repression in Syria, as awful as it is, is only about 5% of that exercised by the regime in 1982 (where 10-20,000 people were killed in February alone in the rebellious city of Hama).