Two Syrian groups are at odds over the sudden departure of a high-ranking Syrian commander who reportedly left for neighbouring Turkey last week.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose entity of opposition rebel groups, have presented different versions of the reasons behind General Talal Silo’s departure.
Silo served as the SDF’s spokesperson, and his parting marks the first major defection among the forces’ top ranks. While the SDF refuses to acknowledge the departure as an official resignation, the FSA says his defection has been “in the works for a very long time”. Silo, who belongs to the Turkmen ethnicity, previously served as a high-ranking general within the FSA when the group was first created.
“We had several options in front of us, so the best and most feasible one was for Silo to break away from the SDF towards [Turkey],” Abou al-Farouk, an FSA spokesperson and lieutenant in the north, told Al Jazeera.
The FSA aided Turkish authorities in facilitating Silo’s departure via northern Syria, from where he was ushered to Turkey, according to Abou al-Farouk.
There has been no official comment from Turkey, which perceives the SDF, led by the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), as a security threat for its alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists inside Turkey. The PKK has waged an armed campaign since 1984 that has killed more than 40,000 people.
“In a nutshell, the SDF, who call themselves democratic, have been claiming that they are the representatives of the people – of all the minorities and races – from Arabs to Kurds to Turkmen,” Abou al-Farouk said.
“So when we work on pulling out people like our brother Silo from the SDF, we would have succeeded in making them lose the diversity tactic that they promote,” he added. “In this case, they used Silo’s Turkmen origin to promote that they are representatives of a minority and not just Kurds.”
Initially founded by a group of officers who defected from the Syrian Armed Forces in 2011, the FSA is a conglomeration of armed groups fighting under a larger umbrella, without a unified, central command. Several FSA groups have since shifted alliances, but in 2016, they were mobilised with Turkey’s support to limit the SDF’s influence along Turkey’s southern border.
Founded in 2015, the SDF says it is fighting to establish a democratic and federal Syria along the lines of the Rojava region in the north. Its makeup largely consists of Kurdish YPG fighters and smaller groups of Arab, Turkmen and Armenian fighters.
Earlier this year, the US began arming them before an offensive to recapture Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). The Kurdish YPG and its allies have carved out autonomous regions in the north, and they now control nearly a quarter of Syria.
The FSA and SDF are adversaries, and are currently controlling various parts of Syria, which is in its seventh year of war.
“We’re still working on pulling out Arab leaders within the SDF,” said Abou al-Farouk, noting this has been in the works on a “high intelligence level”.
Silo’s defection comes after months of mounting discontent by Arabs within the SDF, who say they have been sidelined when it comes to decision-making.
They also blame the YPG for discriminating against them, but the YPG has denied these allegations.
Complex proxy war
Silo’s departure reflects the complexities of Syria’s proxy war. While the two groups were created to fight varying enemies – the FSA against Syrian government forces and the SDF against ISIL – each claims to represent the “oppressed”.
Aron Lund, a Syria expert and Century Foundation fellow, said that the SDF will remain relevant as long as it controls territory and has powerful armed forces.
“The fact that they have the US Air Force at their back makes it impossible for Assad’s government to simply ignore them or try to seize their areas with force,” said Lund. “How Assad and his allies decide to handle the SDF problem will probably be determined by what the United States decides to do.”
He further noted that since American policy under US President Donald Trump remains unclear, the SDF would have a much “weaker hand” or “risk military defeat” if the US signals that it wants to leave Syria.
“But American decisions will likely be informed by several factors, including the risk of a jihadi resurgence, Turkish pressure to abandon the SDF, and concerns in Washington over Iran’s influence in an Assad-run Syria,” Lund explained.
The US has come under international scrutiny for arming the Kurdish-led SDF, especially since they have undertaken operations in Arab-majority cities. The fear in shifting these regions’ demography has been a point of contestation, augmented by Silo’s departure and the fact that his position, for the time being, has been filled by a Kurd.
A spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the coalition fighting ISIL in the region does not have any role in determining the internal staffing of the SDF, but indicated that the US would remain in Syria supporting “its partners” for the foreseeable future as “a lot of fighting remains to defeat remaining pockets of ISIL”.
Mostafa Bali, the SDF’s media relations head, reiterated the importance of the SDF in fighting “other terrorist groups”.
“We [SDF] were not just created for the goal of fighting ISIL. We will not simply disappear afterwards,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are still many terrorist factions that remain in Syria, and these are strong. They include Hayet Tahrir al-Sham [former al-Qaeda affiliates] and al-Nusra Front.”
The SDF considers itself the “better, more refined model” of Syria’s future army. According to Bali, the forces will “naturally” remain centred in the Kurdish north.
But Samer Abboud, an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University, noted that there will be a sustained campaign by the Astana powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – to downplay the SDF’s capacity, despite it being “one of the strongest” armed groups on the ground.
“The confrontation with the SDF was put on hold until this later stage because the Kurdish issue is the major one facing the regime and its allies now,” he said, referencing Silo’s defection as the first stage of a “looming” confrontation.
Abboud questioned whether the US would abandon its SDF partners to maintain its relationship with Russia.
“We can’t have it both ways – it’s a threat when it’s around and a threat when it’s not around,” he said of the SDF. “So I think that eventually the US-SDF link could be severed, sacrificed at the altar of US-Russian agreement on Syria.”
However, the FSA’s trust in Turkey has given the group hope.
“In light of the international aggression that happened, we have to coordinate with our biggest ally and supporter moving forward, Turkey, to rebuild ourselves better and stronger to prepare for future battles,” said Abou al-Farouk.