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Syrian Rebels See Chance for New Life With Turkish Troops

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Amid the criticism over President Trump’s Syria policy, there is one former American ally that has welcomed his decision to pull back Kurdish-led forces and allow Turkish troops to create a safe zone in northern Syria: the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Ensconced in several small enclaves of Syria near the Turkey border that are protected by Turkish forces, the Free Syrian Army (now named the National Army) is ready to deploy 14,000 soldiers as ground troops for Turkey in such an operation, Yousuf Hammoud, a spokesman, said on Monday.

Mr. Trump’s decision, announced late Sunday, has been sharply criticized by politicians of both political parties in the United States as a desertion of the Kurdish-led forces — the most reliable American partners in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria. But fighters and veterans of the Free Syrian Army point out that they were also abandoned by Mr. Trump when he cut support to their force in 2017.

Now, the Free Syrian Army, which has largely been marginalized in the conflict, sees a chance to regain lost territory in its struggle against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

“A new hope is born for our people who were sent into exile from their homes, whose houses, work stations and land were taken away,” Mr. Hammoud said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose country hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has long called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to shelter those fleeing the war and has raised his demands in recent months for a safe zone to resettle refugees along the Turkish border. Some rebel fighters of the factions that make up the National Army have been packing their bags in anticipation.

“We really need the safe zone for the civilians,” Abdul Naser Jalel, a division commander of the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep near the Syrian border. “A big part of the people will go back to their houses and their lands and we are preparing for that.”

Hisham al-Skeif, a former civilian leader of the anti-Assad uprising and a spokesman for a faction of the rebel army, said the creation of the safe zone had been negotiated to avoid clashes. Free Syrian Army soldiers would be on the ground, backed by Turkish forces, but would avoid areas where United States forces and their Kurdish-led allies were based, he said.

“We are allied with the Turks, and we are convinced this is for peace and not war,” he said. “We always say we never want to fight.”

Mr. al-Skeif said Free Syrian Army soldiers and Turkish troops were expected to occupy a strip of territory between the two border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, where most residents are Arabs. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been allied with the United States, were reported to have withdrawn from the towns on Monday.

The operation to create a safe zone, if successful, would be a boost for Mr. Erdogan, who is under political pressure at home from splinter groups in his own party and growing public resentment against Syrian refugees.

Syrians have mixed feelings. Some dislike seeing another foreign power further invading their land, but for the Free Syrian Army and many refugees, Turkey represents the best hope.

The Free Syrian Army once seemed a lost cause, including to some of its own fighters. Formerly many thousands strong, trained and equipped by the United States and allies until two years ago, it came close, according to supporters, to toppling Mr. al-Assad’s government.

Born out of the 2011 uprising, led by military defectors and ordinary citizens who took up arms as the government began a violent crackdown against protesters, at its height the Free Syrian Army had extensive popular support.

For Mr. Jalel, 35, a former captain in the Syrian special forces who defected to join the uprising in 2012, the Free Syrian Army still represents the original ideals of the Arab Spring democracy uprisings that roiled the Middle East.

“For us, as the Free Syrian Army, we think the civilians are our family,” he said. “We are the civilians.”

But the rebel army was weakened by infighting and attacks from radical Islamist groups — the Islamic State and the Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat al Nusra — which were better funded and far more ruthless. In 2014, Free Syrian Army factions fighting the Islamic State on one side and the Syrian military the other suffered heavy losses, and nearly collapsed when the United States ended its support in 2017.

It has since regrouped with Turkish support, headquartered in the Syrian town of Azaz. The group’s true size is unclear, but it claims to have 30,000 to 40,000 fighters, a collection of rebel factions in a small area that Turkey has carved out and placed under its control around the towns of Jarabulus, Al-Bab and Azaz and the district of Afrin.

Under Turkish management, the group has struggled to maintain credibility. In early 2018, it provided the ground troops for the Turkish army to seize Afrin from Kurdish-led S.D.F., and was criticized in a United Nations report for human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and looting.

Mr. Jalel said his forces had caught many of the culprits, saying they were not members of the Free Syrian Army but opportunists who had exploited its advance.

Mr. el-Skeif acknowledged that abuses had occurred in Afrin. He attributed them to revenge because the Kurdish-led forces have occupied Arab towns and villages, ousting members of the Free Syrian Army from their homes.

Other elements of the Free Syrian Army, in northern Syria’s Idlib Province, regrouped under a Turkish-backed coalition known as the National Liberation Front. But last year they lost sway to the more powerful Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al Nusra, now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the province.

The vestiges of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib have lost a sense of the original broader goals of their anti-Assad uprising, veterans said.

“Now it is a fight for land, not for freedom and dignity as before,” said Fares Bayoush, a former senior commander of the Free Syrian Army who worked closely with American military and intelligence officials and had to flee attacks from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

He and other Free Syrian Army veterans criticize the United States, which in their view allowed extremist groups to grow so strong that they obliterated more moderate groups like theirs.

The United States then began supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, because they proved adept in combating the Islamic State, while at the same time ending its support for the Free Syrian Army.

Free Syrian Army members resent S.D.F. control of majority-Arab areas. Like Mr. Erdogan, they see the Syrian Democratic Forces as a sister organization of the P.K.K., a Communist-styled party that has been waging an insurgency in Turkey for three decades. The proof, they say, is evident from the portraits of the P.K.K. leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ offices and bases.

“A Kurdish minority is ruling the majority,” Mr. al-Skeif said. He complained that they had been fighting the dictatorship of Mr. al-Assad only for it to be replaced by the personality cult of Mr. Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd.

“We were seeing Assad’s picture before, and now we are seeing Ocalan and he is not even Syrian,” he said. “We were studying Assad’s life in university, and now they are studying Ocalan in schools and universities and he is Turkish.”

Mr. Jalel pulled up photos on his cellphone of 52 new recruits at his training base last week in Jarabulus to show the continued public support for the rebel army. The army recruits were 18- and 19-year olds who have grown up in the tented camps of displaced people that surround the town.

“As long as we have the civilians and a free army, with a small piece or a small town of Syria, we will liberate all of Syria again,” he said.

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