Syrian insurgents threaten Ankara to lay down arms until salary payments resume

Rebel militias in Syria rise up against Turkey

PHOTO/ANAS ALKHARBOUTLI - A member of the Turkish-backed Syrian militia in the northern Syrian city of Manbij

Turkish-backed militias in northern Syria staged a new demonstration against Ankara in Afrin province on Wednesday. Marches against Erdogan's government have intensified in recent weeks in several parts of the country in the face of repeated complaints about the conditions to which pro-Turkish mercenaries are exposed on Syrian soil.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, an amalgam of groups fighting the al-Assad government, have been at the forefront of the protests. The organisation's demands are entirely in response to the deep economic needs of the fighters, hence the organisation's main demand to Ankara is an improvement in their salaries. The pay that each militia member receives from Turkey is around 400 Turkish liras, equivalent to around 50 dollars.

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Meanwhile, the militiamen claim an unequal distribution of earnings with the rest of the Ankara-backed armed factions. "Some leaders are blessed with cars and money, and we are a loaf of bread that we cannot insure," said one fighter, quoted by the Emirati broadcaster Al Arabiya. Another complaint is the delay in payments. "For more than two months and as such, we address our voices to Turkey, 400 Turkish liras every two and three months, and sometimes we don't see it...", says another.

According to local sources, Turkey paid the funds to organisations of Turkmen origin, such as the Syrian rebels of Sultan Murad and Sultan Suleiman Shah, known as the Al-Amshat faction, who have their centre of influence in the province of Afrin. The Arab nationalist factions do not. However, members of each group took to the streets again in protest at the lack of fluidity in the collection. 

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Protesting militias had so far threatened Erdogan's government to lay down their arms until salary payments are resumed, but the mobilisation in Afrin has gone a step further. The call reflected the deep divisions within the Ankara-backed factions, related to each group's ethnic differences. While the divisions are not only ethnic, they also reflect inequalities between militia leaders and those at the lower echelons of the militias.

For this reason, chants containing accusations against the factional leaders themselves were heard during the Afrin rallies. As the outrage of the rank-and-file fighters grows, the likelihood of direct clashes between the mercenaries of the different groups is increasing due to the inequalities that have developed over the past months and the discontent within their ranks. 

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Meanwhile, the province of Afrin has been harassed by Ankara-backed Syrian insurgents. The UN estimates that more than 150,000 Kurds who inhabited the area have left Afrin since 2018, when Syrian rebels from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army arrived. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused these factions of perpetrating war crimes against the region's inhabitants.

From Afrin to Libya: sending in mercenaries

Faced with the appalling conditions of pro-Turkish fighters on Syrian soil, many of them have decided to leave Syria and join the Turkish-led mercenary ranks. The Ottoman authorities have rewarded those who have decided to take this step with better conditions, even though the situation practically forced them to do so. In this way, Turkey has capitalised on discontent among Syrian rebels to win supporters in various campaigns.

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Armenian forces took several Turkish mercenaries prisoner during the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Following this event, it became known that Turkey had sent batches of mercenaries to support Azerbaijan during the fighting. The Armenian news agency Armenpress quoted one of the militants as saying: "We went to Nagorno-Karabakh together with the Turkish state. We have victims. The commander of the Al-Amshat brigade took our money and the money of the victims' families. We don't even have money for food. We don't accept this.

Another frequent destination has been Libya. The latest batch of mercenaries was sent by Turkey last February. Up to 140 fighters reached Libyan soil to hinder the implementation of the transitional government, but the recent political agreement in Libya and the new institutions have initiated, with UN backing, the export of mercenaries.