Since August 2016 Turkish troops have been fighting in northern Syria in an effort to gain control of the Syrian side of the border. The main object here is to clear the Syrian side of the border of armed groups that fire into Turkey and assist in smuggling operations. By mid-2018 the Turks had taken control of about 3,800 square kilometers of northern Syria, mostly in Aleppo province (north of the city of Aleppo). Originally the Turks were intent on chasing ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) factions from the border. By 2017 all the ISIL forces were gone from the border, largely due to the efforts of American backed Kurdish forces (the SDF). The westernmost border province, Idlib, is largely controlled by Syrian rebel forces. But the Turks have established fortified outposts on the Syrian side of the border with Idlib and the Turkish side of the Idlib border occupied by Turkish border guards, soldiers and police and heavily patrolled.
Most of the Turkish forces in the Turkish controlled part of Syria are not Turkish but various factions of the FSA (Free Syrian Army). Turkey is trying, with mixed success, to turn FSA into a reliable paramilitary force that is loyal to Turkey
Nominal strength of this FSA forces is about 10,000 Arab and Turkoman Syrians. The Turks only have a few thousand of their own troops and police in Syria and are trying to gain more control over the FSA, which consists of dozens of factions that vary a great deal in their reliability and combat capability. Nevertheless, the FSA, provided with uniforms, weapons, advisors and support (pay, benefits and medical care), have fought well and about 85 percent of the “Turkish” casualties in the Turkish controlled area have been suffered by the FSA forces.
Turkey does not want to get involved in large-scale military operations in Syria and is especially keen to keep Turkish casualties down. So far about 125 Turkish troops have died in Syria, in addition to over 700 FSA fighters. Turkey has tried to control the FSA via the payroll, as the Turks offer regular pay for FSA men working with the Turkish army. The problem is the corruption in the FSA leadership. This has always been a problem and the main reason why the United States stopped supporting the smaller FSA force operating in southern Syria (with support from bases in Jordan). Not only did U.S. backed FSA leaders steal some of the money provided for pay and other support, but the FSA fighters would frequently sell weapons and equipment to black market dealers and claim it as lost in action. But more and more of these “lost in action: weapons showed up in use by Islamic terrorist groups and that made it difficult for the Americans to justify support of the FSA. The Turks have exercised tighter control but even with that, it was difficult to keep track of who was who in the FSA units on the Turkish payroll. Eventually, if the Turks do establish a border security zone on the Syrian side they plan to put all FSA members through two months of training, conducted by the Turks and subject these new FSA units to more scrutiny.
In March 2018 Turkey announced it would offer Turkish citizenship to the families of FSA rebels killed while supporting Turkish operations in Syria. Families also receive a free apartment and a $12,000 payment plus reduced monthly payment to take care of widows and orphans or, for unmarried men, his parents. FSA rebels who are disabled in combat now have the option to become a Turkish citizen. The disabled also receive a $3,800 payment and a monthly pension. FSA fighters already receive pay and other support from Turkey as well as medical treatment in Turkish medical hospitals. Most of the “Turkish” forces fighting in Syria are and will continue to be FSA and most of these have families living as refugees in Turkey.
The Turks can’t take direct control of the FSA units because what holds these many FSA factions together are the men who organized and lead them. There has always been a degree of mistrust and antagonism between Arabs and Turks and that is still a problem for the Turks. In fact, there’s an old Turkish saying, going back centuries, that translates as “Don’t involve yourself with the affairs of the Arabs.” In Syria, the Turkish officers and troops are constantly reminded why that old saying is still valid.