Idlib agreement defers rather than defuses province’s threat

Irrespective of either humanitarian hopes or Turkey’s immediate manoeuvrings, Idlib remains a deeply conservative enclave within a war-torn region.
Friday 21/09/2018
Syrian rebel fighters from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" rest under an olive tree along the frontline near the village of Abu Dali in the Idlib province countryside on September 1, 2018. (AFP)
Syrian rebel fighters from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" rest under an olive tree along the frontline near the village of Abu Dali in the Idlib province countryside on September 1, 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - Following the agreement between Russia and Turkey to forestall offensive action against Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib, the territory remains in limbo, subject to the competing ambitions of Turkey and its rebel occupiers.

Under the terms of the agreement, a 15-20km demilitarised zone is to be established along the Idlib border. Within the province, Turkey has assured Russia that three of Idlib’s more widely recognised jihadist groups -- Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Uighur-dominated Turkistan Islamic Party and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Tanzim Huras al-Din -- will move from the region’s civilian population and their long-held positions in the province’s north to southern Idlib.

It was not clear how Turkey might achieve this. Analysts have pointed to efforts by Ankara to exploit existing fissures within the groups.

The three groups mentioned are far from the only armed opponents to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule in Idlib. As Turkey assumes extended responsibility for the province, questions can be asked about Ankara’s responsibility for actions undertaken by the rebels under its watch.

Various other armed rebel groups are active in Idlib province. Most fall under the Turkish-aligned banner of the National Liberation Front, led by Muslim Brotherhood ally Fadlallah al-Hajji. Here, groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Faylaq al-Sham and Jaysh al-Ahrar, as well as those that fought with the formerly CIA-sponsored Free Syrian Army, such as the 2nd Coastal Division and the Victory Army, have aligned themselves with Ankara’s interests.

HTS has approximately 10,000 fighters and controls approximately 60% of Idlib’s territory and its withdrawal from the province’s front line would leave a considerable vacuum.

“I think we’re really going to see a push for governance by the (Muslim) Brotherhood-aligned groups,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity in Washington. “These are the groups that Turkey feels confident presenting to Russia. These are the groups they’re comfortably allying with.”

That so many of the groups share the deeply conservative religious viewpoints of organisations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) indicates both the challenges they pose to Turkey and Idlib, where that have deeply embedded themselves. US envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, termed the province “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”

Consequently, no matter what agreement has been reached on the future of Idlib or how long it may remain in place, the threat posed by the province remains.

“That is the big question.” Heras said. “That’s what has many people concerned. There are two broad schools of thought on this.

“On the one hand, you have those who argue that civilian society within Idlib is at risk of being radicalised. Then you have a situation like in Yemen or Afghanistan where the presence of these groups is accepted locally, their end vision is widely shared and you can’t differentiate friend from foe.

“Then you have the other argument that points to specific transnational jihadist groups and their operatives within Idlib and the potential threat they pose to the US and Europe. This side of the debate holds that it’s enough to recognise and target these groups and leave Idlib to look after itself.” Heras said.

Irrespective of either humanitarian hopes or Turkey’s immediate manoeuvrings, Idlib remains a deeply conservative enclave within a war-torn region. While Turkey may seek to temper the extremes of the province’s radicalism, it does so only by Moscow’s good grace.

“Turkey needs to have something really significant to show by October 15 (Russia’s deadline),” Heras said. “Not something significant within just Idlib, but something really big. Something it can hold up to the world and say look: 'This is what we’ve achieved.'”