Updated: Dec 20, 2020
101. Turkey’s uneasy ties with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Astana process is on the verge of collapse, as Turkey and Russia are lining up on opposite sides in Idlib, which may prove to be the decisive battle in the Syria war.
Syria’s military operations in Idlib “are making Turkey so tense that it summoned the ambassadors of Iran and Russia and warned them that the Syrian army's moves violate the accord reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, which provides for de-escalation zones guaranteed by Iran, Russia and Turkey,” writes Fehim Tastekin.
Moscow has intimated that drones that targeted Russian facilities in Khmeimim and Tartus on Jan. 6 originated from areas controlled by Turkish-backed "moderate" opposition groups. Ankara has denied the charge, arguing that the attacks were the result of terrorist forces gaining a foothold in the region as a result of the Syrian offensive.
Turkey is the main backer of the "moderate" Free Syrian Army (FSA). Power in Idlib also rests with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadi group that is linked with al-Qaeda and includes fellow travelers from Ahrar al-Sham, which lost out in the power struggle with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Both groups see the future of Syria as based on Islamic law, and their rule in Idlib has been characterized by tyranny and torture, as documented by Amnesty International and reported in this column.
In Ankara’s score, the Syrian offensive in Idlib is a violation of the cease-fire agreement and a threat to fragile peace negotiations. “Turkey’s sharp reaction to the uptick in fighting suggests that the agreement struck in Astana, at least as it relates to Idlib, is unraveling," writes Amberin Zaman. “The immediate trigger appears to be the series of mysterious drone attacks on Russian military bases in Syria’s Latakia province since the start of the year. Moscow apparently believes Turkey did not stick to its side of the bargain either, amid accusations that Turkish forces chose to coexist rather than curb when they moved into Idlib last October as peace monitors.”
As Syrian forces advance, and come into conflict with the FSA and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey finds itself in an uneasy alignment with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, putting it at odds with both Russia and Iran.
“The struggle at Idlib is considered by many to be the last act of the war against a jihadi group that is basically controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham under the leadership of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,” writes Tastekin.
“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham labels the Astana and Geneva peace processes as treason, so the cease-fire Russia formulated excludes Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as well as the Islamic State (IS).
From the outset, Russia said the cease-fire covers only ‘moderate’ opposition groups; operations against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and IS will not cease.
Turkey, on the other hand — despite its approval of the Astana process — decided to place Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a different category. Ankara first tried to reshape that organization as it had earlier with Ahrar al-Sham. When that didn’t work, Turkey tried to split Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. When that didn’t work as well, Ankara accepted the facts of life and decided to cooperate.”
The top priority for Turkey is breaking the power of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it considers a terrorist organization, linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. “If the terrorists in Afrin don’t surrender we will tear them down,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Jan. 13.
“According to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sources,” Tastekin reports, “there were three conditions to allow Turkey's army to enter the area without encountering any opposition.
One was that the target would be Afrin, where the Kurds have declared autonomy.
A second would be that there would be no operation against groups controlling Idlib.
The third was that local groups affiliated with Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield would not enter the area. … Turkey’s deployment — approved and escorted by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — was not compatible with Iran's and Russia’s definition of the de-escalation zone. Turkey was indirectly providing a shield for the organizations already dominating Idlib.”
In addition to divisions among the Astana parties, Turkey’s fractures with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sparked divisions within the jihadi group itself.
“In such a risky atmosphere, Ankara is hoping to hold on to Idlib and the triangle of al-Bab, Jarablus and Azaz that Turkey had secured in Operation Euphrates Shield, to use them as a card against Damascus in a settlement process,” Tastekin concludes.
“Such a card would have serious ramifications for the fate of the Syrian president and the future of the Kurds as they seek to build their autonomy in the north. Until he gets the concessions he seeks for these two key issues, Erdogan doesn’t want the Syrian army to approach the Turkish border and face Turkish troops.”