The Syrian rebel commander Abu Ahmed was smiling. His troops had played a key role in Turkey’s assault on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, a fight they have won.
Abu Ahmed is a senior officer in the 10,000-strong rebel force that, with Turkish backing and instigation, took control of Afrin on Sunday after a two-month battle. His name has been changed, along with others, to freely discuss their sensitive relations with their backers in Ankara.
Amid the series of defeats at the hands of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backers, victory in Afrin is one of the rare successes for rebel fighters in recent years.
Their quick victory in a fight against an adversary trained and armed by the US, which had ousted Islamic State from vast tracts of territory, underlined the growing power of a rebel army in Syria’s north, armed and paid by Turkey, that now comprises three legions and controls a growing swathe of territory.
Throughout northern Syria, bands of disparate rebel groups have fallen in line behind the Ankara-backed project, which has imposed military discipline on fighters that Washington, while covertly backing, had deemed too fractious and weak to defeat Isis.
“I mean, even Bashar al-Assad didn’t succeed in uniting us,” said one rebel official. “We are militarily and politically weaker than the regime, which is using scorched-earth tactics and areas are falling while we are accusing each other of betrayal.