The Syrian fighters vowed to kill “pigs” and “infidels,” paraded their Kurdish captives in front of cameras and, in one graphic video, fired several rounds into a man lying on the side of a highway with his hands bound behind his back.
They are part of the self-styled Syrian National Army, the shock troops in Turkey’s offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces who were abandoned last week after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria.
The Syrian fighters, trained and funded by Turkey, present themselves as heirs to the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But while they include some Islamic extremists and past members of some Syrian rebel factions, many are Arab and Turkmen fighters from northern and eastern Syria who have an ax to grind against the Kurds and a reputation for violence and looting.
“The main problem with these forces is their criminality,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute who has interviewed dozens of the fighters and said they appeared to be driven by a desire for power and money rather than by any specific ideology.
“Hatred of Kurds, a sense of Arab chauvinism, complete intolerance for any dissent, and just a desire to make a profit is what’s driving most of the abuses,” she said.
Since Turkey began funding the force in 2016, its fighters have yet to battle Assad’s troops.
Instead, they have mostly fought in Turkey’s cross-border offensives against Islamic State and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia that had partnered with the United States and battled Islamic State extremists with far greater success.