Turkey negotiating jihadist quiet withdrawal from Idlib de-confliction zone
A way from any media coverage, the Turkish government is having talks with commanders from Hayat Tahrir al- Sham (HTS), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups previously allied with al-Qaeda.
HTS is in full control of the city of Idlib in north-western Syria, which was recently incorporated into the Russian-Iranian-Turkish engineered “de-conflict zones” agreement of the Astana process. The deal stated that a contingent from all three countries would enter the war-torn city to impose a ceasefire but Turkey alone would send troops to eradicate HTS from Idlib, with the full blessing of Moscow and Tehran.
However, before entering into all-out war, Turkey is trying to reach a back-door political understanding with HTS that calls for its quiet evacuation from Idlib city. On October 8, HTS militants escorted a Turkish reconnaissance unit into Idlib and at least three meetings between the jihadist group and Turkish officials took place. This shows that, regardless of all the rhetoric, the Turkish government is involved in negotiations with, at minimum, the very same group it has been mandated to crush and that many say it helped create early in the Syrian conflict.
Ankara agreed to establish a buffer zone from the village of Atme (north of Idlib, east of the Turkish border) through Darat Izza (30km north-west of Aleppo) all the way to Anadan on the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway. Simultaneously, HTS would evacuate the area, facilitating the Turkish buffer zone and further safeguarding the borders from any jihadist or Kurdish influence.
The emerging agreement raised eyebrows among the Syrian opposition, which already entertained doubts over the links between officials in Ankara and the former al-Qaeda affiliate in the Syrian battlefield. Formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, HTS was once hailed as the most powerful player in the Syria war, renowned for inflicting heavy losses on both regime forces and the Islamic State (ISIS).
Unlike ISIS, however, HTS’s core group was almost entirely Syrian, giving it mass appeal on the streets of opposition-held areas that no other jihadist group ever enjoyed. Militias that once praised al-Nusra’s fighting acumen have since walked away, terrified by its brutal campaign against all opponents. Prominent groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Noor al- Din al-Zenki Movement, suffered heavy losses at the hands of HTS, although, technically they were fighting on the same side and were backed by the same patrons in Ankara.
The recent agreement between Turkey and HTS aims at achieving multiple objectives for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It protects his borders from further Kurdish advances and minimises the future flow of Syrian refugees. Turkey is seeking to control the summit of Sheikh Barakat Mountain, a former radar point for the Syrian Army, which would give it a bird’s-eye view of the Kurdish city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River.
That position would allow Turkey to check the advance of Kurdish militias, which is a prime objective of the Turkish government. The Turks previously wanted to march on Afrin, which falls within the Russian fiefdom of the Syrian patchwork, but decided instead to isolate the city and besiege it economically.
Ultimately, Erdogan hopes to carve out a buffer zone in northern Syria, similar to that created in the summer of 2016, where the millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011 can be relocated.
To achieve that, he needs either to eradicate HTS, reach an agreement with it or implode the group from within by sowing seeds of discord within its ranks and encouraging fighters’ defection to other jihadist groups. Syrian expert Charles Lister said the end objective was to create a “manageable competitor (out of HTS) rather than an adversary.”
Several Turkish-backed groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, would rather wage war on HTS than reach an agreement with its Syrian commander, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, who was reportedly seriously wounded in a recent Russian air strike. Others are more reluctant, fearing the military might of his fighters. During the summer, they literarily crushed Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful group in Idlib, sending shockwaves throughout the armed opposition.
Erdogan realises that a quiet understanding would be more beneficial for Turkey — and far less costly — than a full-fledged military operation, like the one last year that led to the taking of Jarabulus and Azaz on the Syrian border and al-Bab, 40km north-east of Aleppo.