Idlib turns into ‘tick­ing bomb’ amid Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham dom­i­na­tion

Rebel group and Tur­key have un­easy re­la­tion­ship

Arab News - - News Middle East - Menekse Tokyay Ankara

The de­ploy­ment of a Turk­ish con­voy with 15 ar­mored cars and trucks laden with lo­gis­ti­cal ma­te­ri­als to Syria’s last ma­jor rebel bas­tion Idlib is caus­ing con­cern about an in­com­ing mil­i­tary of­fen­sive.

The con­voy re­port­edly en­tered Syr­ian ter­ri­to­ries from the Kafr Losin bor­der cross­ing and is aimed at sup­ply­ing Turk­ish ob­ser­va­tion posts.

Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is still the dom­i­nant rebel group in Idlib, re­cently re­in­forced its mil­i­tary foot­print in the re­gion by in­creas­ing its pres­sure on rad­i­cal ji­hadis.

But HTS has opted for a prag­matic ap­proach to­ward Ankara after al­low­ing the cir­cu­la­tion of Turk­ish lira as an al­ter­na­tive to the de­val­ued Syr­ian cur­rency, even though Syria lists the group as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

It was the Shura Coun­cil, linked to the HTS-backed Sal­va­tion Gov­ern­ment in Idlib, that de­cided to re­place the Syr­ian pound with the Turk­ish lira after con­ven­ing a meet­ing in early June.

HTS has been crit­i­cized by its ri­vals for sid­ing with Tur­key after it was al­legedly in­structed by Ankara to pre­vent lo­cal at­tempts to block the strate­gic M4 high­way, where Turk­ish and Rus­sian sol­diers con­duct reg­u­lar pa­trols.

HTS ended its in­fight­ing with a chal­lenger group led by Huras AlDin in Idlib through a cease-fire after the death of 30 mil­i­tants. But it still continues a wide-rang­ing crack­down on al­ter­na­tives to its re­gional dom­i­na­tion as well as on de­fec­tors within its ranks. It has ar­rested some of its se­nior mem­bers, such as Abu Malek Al-Tali and Abu Salah Al-Uzbeki, over charges of in­sur­rec­tion and de­fec­tion.

Ay­din Sezer, an ex­pert on Turk­ish-Rus­sia re­la­tions, said that the on­go­ing sit­u­a­tion in Idlib was like a tick­ing bomb.

“Any­thing can hap­pen at any time, in­clud­ing a provo­ca­tion which would mo­bi­lize the Syr­ian regime’s army or the Turk­ish armed forces,” he told Arab News. Un­der the As­tana, Sochi and March 5 Moscow deal with Rus­sia, Tur­key com­mit­ted to elim­i­nate all ter­ror­ist groups in the re­gion in­clud­ing HTS.

“In the lat­est deal in March, Moscow re­port­edly gave a dead­line to Ankara to erad­i­cate them in six months,” Sezer added. “We al­ready reached the fourth month of this pe­riod. I per­son­ally think that Rus­sia pre­vented Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s regime from tak­ing any of­fen­sive against Turk­ish troops in this time frame.”

Ac­cord­ing to Sezer, the re­cent at­tacks by HTS and re­lated groups to­ward Rus­sian bases were some at­tempts of provo­ca­tion against the Krem­lin.

But, for the time be­ing, the pri­or­ity of Ankara is to pre­vent any refugee ex­o­dus from Idlib to­ward its bor­ders and to avoid the anger of any Al-Qaeda-in­spired group to­ward Tur­key.

Interior Min­is­ter Su­ley­man Soylu,

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and his wife Emine Er­do­gan re­cently do­nated dozens of bri­quette houses to dis­placed Syr­i­ans seek­ing shel­ter at camps close to Turk­ish bor­ders, with the aim of keep­ing them within Syr­ian ter­ri­tory in the event of a pos­si­ble vi­o­la­tion of a cease-fire in the re­gion. Orwa Ajjoub, an af­fil­i­ated re­searcher at the Cen­ter for Mid­dle East­ern Stud­ies at Lund Univer­sity, said that HTS had man­aged to de­velop a sort of in­ter­de­pen­dent re­la­tion­ship with Ankara.

“In Jan­uary 2019 for ex­am­ple, in re­turn for Tur­key’s si­lence re­gard­ing the HTS of­fen­sive against the Na­tional Front of Lib­er­a­tion sup­ported by Tur­key, HTS leader Abu Muham­mad Al-Jolani ex­pressed his sup­port for the po­ten­tial Turk­ish op­er­a­tion in north­east Syria to up­root the PKK (the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party),” he told Arab News.

Ajjoub said that the power dy­nam­ics shifted after the Turk­ish mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in May, with­out which the Syr­ian regime would have prob­a­bly ad­vanced to Idlib, while the lat­est de­vel­op­ments, with the in­tro­duc­tion of the Turk­ish lira, had al­ready started to cor­ner HTS with an in­creased de­pen­dency on Tur­key.

“This should not sug­gest, how­ever, that Tur­key’s need for HTS is over. As the most po­tent group in Idlib, HTS pro­vides se­cu­rity, sta­bil­ity and gov­er­nance in Idlib. It, fur­ther­more, can achieve Tur­key’s com­mit­ment to Sochi and As­tana by elim­i­nat­ing rad­i­cal ji­hadi groups.”

But Navar Sa­ban, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst from the Istanbul-based Om­ran Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies, said that if Tur­key con­ducted any op­er­a­tion against HTS right now it would need to offer a “Plan B” for the ad­min­is­tra­tion and se­cu­rity ser­vices in Idlib that were cur­rently be­ing pro­vided by HTS.

“Turks are not in a po­si­tion to pro­vide th­ese kinds of ser­vices to the province,” he told Arab News. “It is the main rea­son that Tur­key doesn’t con­duct a large-scale op­er­a­tion against HTS. They keep a mon­i­tor­ing eye on them be­cause, al­though HTS is not a well-ac­cepted group, it keeps many gov­er­nance re­spon­si­bil­i­ties un­der its con­trol.”

Ex­perts were skep­ti­cal about Rus­sia’s po­ten­tial re­ac­tion to Tur­key’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in Idlib and the in­ter­de­pen­dent re­gional dy­nam­ics.

“For Rus­sia, the Turk­ish mil­i­tary reinforcem­ents in the north can­not be seen but with a sus­pi­cious eye,” said Ajjoub. “Nev­er­the­less, I do not think that Ankara will break the March 5 deal, which came after the killing of more than 40 Turk­ish sol­diers.”

BACK­GROUND HTS ended its in­fight­ing with a chal­lenger group led by

Huras Al-Din in Idlib through a cease-fire after the death of 30 mil­i­tants. But it still continues a wide-rang­ing crack­down on al­ter­na­tives to its re­gional dom­i­na­tion as well as on de­fec­tors within its ranks.


Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan ad­dresses a press con­fer­ence after the Cab­i­net meet­ing at the Pres­i­den­tial Com­plex in Ankara on Mon­day.

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