Turkey negotiating jihadist quiet withdrawal from Idlib de-confliction zone

Sunday 15/10/2017
Multiple objectives. An armoured vehicle bearing the flag of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) rebel alliance advances near the town of Maardes in the countryside of the central Syrian province of Hama, last March. (AFP)

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.