Weapons formerly in the hands of the Turkish-controlled Syrian National Army (SNA) were used by ISIS during uprisings including last January’s major outbreak in Hasakah (Heseke), North and East Syria, according to evidence collected by Conflict Armament Research (CAR).
The new report by CAR focuses on markings found on rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers used by members of the group also known as the Islamic State during attempts to break out from the detention facilities where they are being held by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The key piece of evidence is what CAR call a ‘highly unusual’ tilde symbol (~) used in the secondary markings etched onto the weapons. CAR’s analysis suggests that the SNA systematically uses this symbol to mark its weapons, which then ended up in the hands of ISIS cells.
Hundreds lost their lives in the January 2022 ISIS uprising
The marking constitutes the clearest evidence yet that ISIS received material support from the SNA, though the CAR state it is still unclear precisely how these weapons were transferred from the Turkish-backed militias to ISIS. The January 2022 uprising in the SDF’s Ghweiran prison, in which some of the weapons featured in the report were used, was the largest ISIS operation since the group lost direct territorial control in Syria in 2019. During a ten-day conflict to restore control of the detention facility, at least 121 SDF fighters and five civilians were killed, along with 374 ISIS fighters. 1,100 ISIS members were re-arrested, while 45,000 civilians were displaced. Other weapons were seized from ISIS cells planning attacks elsewhere, including against notorious ISIS hotspot Hol Camp.
The SNA, which is made up of scores of brigades and militias, has been deployed by Turkey in conjunction with the Turkish Armed Forces to invade and occupy swathes of Syrian territory formerly under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The SNA is technically subordinate to the Syrian Interim Government, a Turkish-sponsored body which lobbies on behalf of the SNA in Geneva and other foreign capitals. In practice, they are trained, armed, funded and commanded by the Turkish government. The SNA number “at least 35,000 full-time fighters, all under the near-total control of Turkey’s Ministry of Defense and National Intelligence Organization (MIT).”
The SNA stand accused by the UN of “myriad violations of human rights and international humanitarian law… using language comparing their ‘enemies’ to ‘infidels’, ‘atheists’ & ’pigs’ when referring to civilians, detainees & property… the displacement of the entire Yazidi population in Sere Kaniye and large swathes of the Kurdish population,” as well as the murder, rape and torture of civilians, often targeting Kurds and Yazidis on an ethnic basis.
The SNA assaulted and executed Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalef, among other war crimes
Meanwhile, reporting by the Rojava Information Center has indicated that at least 80 former ISIS members are being sheltered in the ranks of the SNA, including top commanders, while US airstrikes regularly target top ISIS figures hiding out in zones of SNA control. When sanctioning SNA militia Ahrar al-Sharqiya for committing a range of war-crimes, the US Treasury cited their harbouring of former ISIS members as a factor.
The SDF has long accused the SNA of providing material support to ISIS cells in its territory. Now, CAR state their “analysis strongly suggests that these nine weapons were all at one point in the custody of Turkish-backed SNA forces.” Their analysis of the numbers etched onto the weapons indicate the nine weapons belonged to six separate SNA brigades, including Sultan Murad Division, the Muttasim Division, Suqour al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, and Liwa Samarkand.
The US-allied SDF are likely to demand answers as to how these weapons ended up in ISIS’ hands
While the “diversion mechanisms through which ISIS sourced these weapons via the SNA are unclear”, the CAR also note that “researchers in Syria have reported on existing links between some SNA factions and IS weapon smugglers.” The new report by CAR, who describe themselves as “generat[ing] unique evidence on weapon supplies into armed conflicts in order to inform and support effective weapon management and control,” is likely to provoke further calls for investigation into the extent and nature of links between the SNA and ISIS, and by extension the chain of command between the SNA and the Turkish intelligence services.