Syrian rebels build an army with Turkish help, face challenges

AZAZ (SYRIA): A “National Army” being set up by Syrian rebels with Turkey’s help could become a long-term obstacle to President Bashar al-Assad’s recovery of the northwest – if they can end factional rivalries that have long blighted the opposition.
The effort is at the heart of plans by the Turkish-backed opposition to secure and govern a strip of territory that forms part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria.
The presence of Turkish forces on the ground has helped to shield it from government attack.
Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recover “every inch” of Syria, and though he has now won back most of the country, the Turkish presence will complicate any government offensive in the northwest.
Turkey’s role has gone beyond supporting allied Syrian forces to rebuilding schools and hospitals. At least five branches of the Turkish post office have opened in the area.
Colonel Haitham Afisi, head of the National Army, says setting up the force has been no easy task over the last year.
“We are at the beginning. We face many difficulties but we are working to overcome them,” Afisi told Reuters in an interview in the town of Azaz near the Turkish border.
Recently, he had to issue an order instructing fighters to stop “randomly opening fire”, wear uniforms and cooperate with a newly established military police that represents “the force of law and justice and not a rival to any other faction”.
Factions have also been banned from operating their own jails and courts and from carrying out extra-judicial arrests.The project has also faced attack: a number of recruits were wounded on Aug. 5 when their graduation ceremony in the city of al-Bab was shelled. Afisi said it was the work of an “enemy of the revolution, be they internal or external”. The perpetrator had been identified, but he declined to say it who was.