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Last battlefield: The future of Syria’s Idlib after HTS militant takeover

The Syrian government is ready to fight in Idlib if militant groups don’t leave the area, assistant regional secretary of the Arab Socialist Baath Party Hilal Hilal said on Thursday, January 17.

“It is absolutely not our fault that [militants] are here. Why should we tolerate their presence on our soil now? They can leave our territory and go to any other country … These groups have two options: either to leave Syrian soil or face the power of the Syrian Arab army,” Hilal told reporters.

His statement came after an alliance of jihadist groups called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), which is dominated by Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, sealed its grip on Idlib on January 10.

HTS, which has a fighting force of between 12,000 and 15,000 militants, according to a report by the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, reached a ceasefire deal with what was left of the rival National Liberation Front, directly backed by Turkey, following days of deadly fighting. The agreement also provided for prisoner exchange.

“This morning, HTS and NLF signed an agreement to put an end to ongoing fighting… and establish the control of the Salvation Government in all areas,” the group’s propaganda channel Ebaa said, announcing the deal.

The self-proclaimed Salvation Government is an HTS-dominated body which now administers most of Idlib province and parts of the neighboring provinces of Aleppo and Hama.

The deal sees Islamist factions Ahrar al-Sham and Suqur al-Sham stand down, as areas they once held come under HTS administrative control.

These include the two major towns of Maarrat al-Numan and Ariha, where NLF spokesperson Mohammed Rashid said rebel fighters would however remain.

Joshua Landis, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Defense Post that ultimately, Turkey’s Syrian proxy militias were too weak and divided to be able to defend the region against HTS.

“It is a sign that, like the U.S., Turkey will ultimately relinquish the region to the Syrian Army or HTS, whichever is stronger,” he said.

On January 14, HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani claimed the group was not seeking to dominate the Idlib region, but rather wanted to create a unified civilian administration that would bring stability and end lawlessness.

“We don’t have the aim of ruling the liberated north. We want to hand over all our areas to a civilian government,” he told the HTS-affiliated Amjad news agency.

Despite HTS claims that it is an independent entity and its attempts to distance itself from al-Qaeda, many experts say the organization is simply attempting to muddy the waters and confuse intelligence agencies.

“Throughout its numerous iterations, HTS has not altered its ideology and is still widely thought to maintain links with al-Qaeda,” the U.S.-based Soufan Center said on January 14.

Isam Khatib, director of the civil society organization Kesh Malek, which is currently headquartered in Gaziantep, Turkey but was formed in Aleppo and operates in northwest Syria, argued that the current situation in Idlib serves both Turkish and Russian interests.

He told The Defense Post there are dozens of military groups in Idlib, and none of them is strong enough to cope with HTS, especially given the internal fighting between them.

“Having HTS as the only and dominating military actor in Idlib will make it easier for Ankara to control the situation by organizing the fighters of the dissolved groups (like Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) in one body under Turkey’s command, like what they did in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch Operations,” Khatib said.

He also noted that with one dominating power in Idlib, it would be easier to secure major highways, M4 and M5, as envisioned under the Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib signed in September, and it would also be easier to dissolve one group rather than having to deal with “chaotic military actors.”

“While for Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, terminating the moderate and non-extremist opposition groups (military or civilian) and supporting or nourishing extremists has been their main strategy since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, to show that it either us or extremism,” Khatib said.

Original promises under the Idlib deal

In September, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement on Idlib, which was sealed to prevent the government of President Bashar al-Assad from an offensive to retake the northern region from rebels, a move can have disastrous humanitarian repercussions, as the province is home to some 3 million people.

At the time, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was concerned that militants concentrated in Idlib were threatening the Aleppo province, the city of Aleppo, and Russian military bases in Tartus and Khmeimim.

Under the deal, Moscow and Ankara agreed to create a 15–20-km demilitarized zone along the contact line between the armed opposition and government forces.

As part of the agreement, jihadists, such as HTS, were also supposed to withdraw from the planned demilitarised area by October 15, but never did.

Additionally, by October 10, the groups were supposed to withdraw all heavy weapons, including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, guns, and mortars – a point in the deal proposed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin said.

Control of the demilitarized zone was supposed to be conducted by mobile Turkish and Russian military police units.

Moreover, transit between Aleppo and Latakia and Aleppo and Hama was expected to be restored no later than the end of 2018 – another idea from the Turkish side.

When the Turkey-Russia deal was signed, Putin said the Syrian government “by and large” supported the terms agreed.

On December 17, however, Muhammad Fadi Sadun, the acting governor of Idlib, told RIA Novosti that Turkey was not fulfilling its commitments under the agreement.

“We see that the Turkish side does not follow its obligations in terms of influencing armed groups to withdraw weapons from the demilitarized zone. As far as we know, they can influence, but do not take sufficient measures to implement the agreement,” he said.

“As far as we know, on November 13 or 14 there was supposed to be a transfer of government facilities and the beginning of territory patrols, but more than a month later we see that the Turkish side could not fulfill any of its obligations. On the contrary, there is information that some of the weapons were brought into the demilitarized zone,” he said, noting that the Syrian Army was “forced” to respond to shelling.

After the militia ceasefire deal, HTS now controls about 80 percent of opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria, in addition to all crossing points connecting Idlib with its surroundings, such as the main M4 and M5 highways going through Idlib and the two highways connecting Damascus with the northern borders with Turkey.

Kenan Rahmani, advocacy manager at The Syria Campaign, a U.K.-based human rights organization, told The Defense Post it was difficult to understand Turkey’s “imperceptible” reaction to the HTS takeover of Idlib. He noted, however, that HTS’s “expansion” does not immediately affect the Turkey-Russia deal, which was primarily focused on the demilitarization zone.

“Furthermore, HTS does not pose a threat to the Assad regime, it is more of a threat to Syrian opposition groups and civil society living in Idlib. The consequences of its increasing control will be more human rights violations and a deterioration in the humanitarian situation,” Rahmani said.

“HTS have assassinated prominent civil society activists like Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneid, leaders in the pro-democracy civil society organization Radio Fresh. They have also arrested other activists simply for protesting and expressing their opinions. Syrians have long called on HTS to stop these abuses.”

Grigory Lukyanov, senior lecturer at the School of Political Science of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told The Defense Post he didn’t see Turkey as unable to deliver on its promises.

“One can say everything is going ‘according to plan,’ as was planned in 2017, when the format of ‘de-escalation zones’ was agreed on by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since then, only one such zone has remained in Idlib, but it will see the same fate as all the others before it,” he said.

Turkish statements and Moscow’s reaction

On January 10, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was taking all the necessary measures to prevent attacks by radical groups.

“Our officials have taken the necessary steps for the cessation of armed conflicts in Idlib,” he said, adding that Turkey and Russia could jointly intervene militarily against terrorists “if need be.”

Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Chief of General Staff Yaşar Guler, Land Forces Commander Umit Dundar, and Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan discussed on January 12 measures needed to maintain the ceasefire in accordance with the Idlib deal.

“All types of efforts have been made to maintain the ceasefire and stability under the Sochi agreement. Our close cooperation with Russia continues in this manner,” Akar underscored.

On the same day, Turkish troops and tanks carried out military exercises on the border with Syria.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has been more outspoken than the Ministry of Defense about the situation in Idlib. Lately, the latter has been reporting 1-5 instances of ceasefire violation in Idlib every day.

On January 11, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova reaffirmed Moscow’s commitment to the Idlib deal but voiced some concerns.

“An increase in the number of ceasefire violations is of major concern,” she said during a briefing. “There have been more than 1,000 such cases since September 2018. The ceasefire must not be disrupted and all radical groups and heavy weapons must be fully withdrawn from the demilitarised zone.”

“At the same time, this should not serve as a pretext for the Idlib de-escalation zone becoming a refuge for thousands of Nusra terrorists. We presume that the establishment of the demilitarised zone, as well as the de-escalation zone itself, is temporary.”

A few days later, on January 16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was progress in resolving Syria’s seven-year conflict and that the focus should remain on Idlib.

“The Syrian settlement is progressing, though of course more slowly than we would like,” he said. “The fight against terrorism must be completed. Now the main hotbed of terrorism is Idlib.”

What drives Turkey’s decisions

Simultaneously with the Idlib developments, Turkey has been threatening to launch a cross-border offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria.

The announcement last month by U.S. President Donald Trump that he was ordering a full troop pullout from Syria has left Washington’s Kurdish allies more exposed than ever.

The mostly-Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the core of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, is the primary partner-force of the U.S.-led Coalition to defeat Islamic State.

Ankara considers the group, and its political wing the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, to be the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, designated a terrorist organization by Ankara and its Western allies for its decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government. But the U.S. and its Coalition allies do not consider the YPG a terrorist organization.

On January 10, Ankara warned it would launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces if the United States delayed its withdrawal.

HTS leader al-Julani said in an interview on January 14 that his group “supports Turkey’s stance regarding the elimination of YPG/PYD and the liberation of Eastern Euphrates areas.”

He also said that HTS would never be an obstacle.

“We consider the PKK to be an enemy of this revolution. It controls areas inhabited by large numbers of Sunni Arabs,” he told the HTS-affiliated Amjad media outlet, referring to the YPG. “We would not stand in the way of an operation against an enemy of the revolution.”

Lukyanov, who is also a researcher in the Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, said there may have been two main reasons why Turkey did not support the NLF in its fight with HTS, and one of them has to do with this offensive.

“In the northeast, in the zone controlled by the SDF and by the Kurdish armed forces, in the light of the military operation declared by the Turkish side, it will need the most combat-ready and trained units, including both the Turkish regular forces and those pro-Turkish ‘groups’ of the Syrian opposition,” he said.

“Due to the naturally limited resources, the Turkish leadership chooses the most important direction for itself in the current circumstances, and this is not Idlib, but the northeast taken by the Kurds. For several years now, the threat of ‘Kurdish terrorism’ has been the main rationale for the Turkish military presence in Syria, which is costly for the state budget that is not seeing the best of its days.”

Marika Sosnowski, a Middle East researcher who has taught the history and politics of the region at a number of Australian universities, agreed that Turkey’s interests in the Syrian-Kurdish area trump those it has in Idlib.

“The U.S. withdrawal from the Kurdish controlled northern area makes it easier for Turkey to assert control over a buffer area along its border into Syria,” she said.

“Simultaneously, Turkey’s relationship with Russia (and by default, the Syrian government) trumps its relations with its proxy group(s) in Idlib. As clashes between HTS and Turkish backed groups increased in previous weeks Russia and Turkey may have come to some sort of deal regarding control of Idlib in exchange for a Turkish presence in the Syrian/Kurdish border areas.”

Following the Russian Syria intervention in 2016, Turkey shifted to a policy of prioritizing countering direct threats to it – with the YPG seen as the chief one among them – while abandoning the goal of trying to remove the Assad regime from power, Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow specializing in Syria at the Forum for Regional Thinking, told The Defense Post.

“While it is clear that Turkey prioritizes fighting the Kurds over assisting the Islamist rebels it backs in Idlib, I still think Turkey could have exerted more pressure on HTS and temporarily refocused on Idlib to prevent this collapse of the rebels it backs, the National Liberation Front. It is unclear to me what is behind Turkey’s decision not to do so,” she said.

Future of Idlib

On January 14, a report about the alleged upcoming offensive appeared in the Arabic-language service of Russia’s state-funded Sputnik News Agency. According to Al Masdar News, which is sympathetic to the Syrian government, the article claimed that the Syrian Arab Army and their Russian allies have already begun making preparations to launch the offensive from the government stronghold of Mhardeh and nearby Al-Zalaqiyat.

A “military source” was quoted as saying that the Syrian Army has dispatched a large amount of military equipment to the front-lines in both northern Hama and southern Idlib.

The source declined to say where forces would be launched from, but Sputnik said the area has historically been the most important axis.

Idlib residents have not yet attempted to flee despite the HTS control of the area, but they are “definitely on high alert and deeply concerned” about the possibility of HTS abuses and the Assad regime and Russia using the current situation as a pretext to launch attacks, according to Rahmani from the Syria Campaign.

“The U.S. and Turkey must take action to empower democratic governance as an alternative to HTS, and to help Syrians who want to confront HTS to be able to do so more effectively,” he added.

Kesh Malek’s Khatib said civilians are “extremely worried and afraid of what is next,” and keep guessing who may start bombing them next. There is also fear that humanitarian donors may stop providing aid out of fear that it may be diverted.

This is “In addition to tens of other questions which pushed some civilians to move to the ‘Turkey controlled areas’ in Afrin and other areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and others to look for any opportunity to leave Syria asap [as soon as possible],” Khatib said.

The possibility of a political solution

On January 13, the Syrian National Coalition, a coalition of opposition groups headquartered in Istanbul, slammed HTS attempts to “get its hands on” the whole region.

“It’s necessary to find a radical solution which puts an end to its presence in Idlib and in any other regions,” the SNC said in a statement at the conclusion of a meeting on the latest developments in Syria.

It also called for an agreement with Turkey to protect civilians, ”and prevent the regime and its supporters, the Russians and the Iranians, to lead a genocide under the pretext of the terrorist presence in the region.”

However, according to Tsurkov, it may be too late for a political solution.

“The only way to prevent the eventual regime takeover of Idlib, which would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, is for Turkey or less extremist rebels in backs to regain control of Idlib. I don’t see any political solution for Idlib, only a military one – either Turkey gains dominance over it, or the regime and Russia will,” she said.

But Lukyanov argued that Idlib still has two options going forward.

The first option would be for HTS leader al-Julani to join negotiations with the assistance of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that have already started a “rehabilitation process” for Assad and Syria’s return to the Arab League.

“No matter how fantastic this may sound, this option cannot be ruled out. Let’s recall the experience of a political settlement in Tajikistan, which was implemented with the direct participation of Russia, and we will immediately realize that this is possible,” Lukyanov said.

But if the Gulf mediation project fails, nothing would prevent Damascus – acting with the full support of all the guarantors of the Astana process – from conducting a military operation in Idlib with the goal of fighting outlawed terror groups, he noted.

According to Sosnowski, however, dialogue with HTS is not something Syria or Russia are keen to do.

“Sadly most of the signs, as I read them, point to a Russian/Syrian offensive in Idlib (at a time that suits them) and a Turkish incursion into Kurdish areas,” she said.

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With reporting from AFP. This post was updated with new comments on January 23.

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