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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Idlib is now in Ankara's crosshairs as it tries to secure its borders

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham's dominance in northwestern Syria is interfering with Turkey's plans to create loyalist forces to keep the YPG at bay, writes Hassan Hassan

Fighters from Jabhat Al Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, in 2014. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Fighters from Jabhat Al Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, in 2014. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Last week, Turkish officials met members of Jabhat Al Nusra and presented them with an ultimatum: the group had to either dissolve itself – and members join other factions individually – or face a rebel assault backed by Ankara.

The objective, according to reports in Arabic media, was to protect Idlib, where the group is perceived to be dominating, from an attack by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. An insider source confirmed the visit, saying that at least two members of the group were “summoned” to Istanbul to hold meetings with officials there. "They were given very serious conditions to meet," he said. "They left displeased, to say the least.”

The move follows a series of developments involving Turkey’s new policy in northwestern Syria after the expulsion of the Kurdish militias from their stronghold in Afrin.

The Turkish proposal was designed to address the issue of Jabhat Al Nusra’s dominance in Idlib, where the group was exempted from a de-escalation deal in various areas agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. Since the expulsion of Kurdish militias from Afrin, Idlib has become more beneficial for Turkey than before. The reason is related to its proximity to Kurdish towns in northwestern Syria, which provide another layer of security for Turkish-backed forces and help create a contiguous sphere of influence for Ankara.

But Jabhat Al Nusra, known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham after rebranding last year, presents a dilemma for Turkey. On one hand, the group’s dominance creates an awkward situation for Turkey: it makes Idlib vulnerable to a regime assault and continues to raise Western concerns about a sanctuary for an Al Qaeda organisation. On the other hand, the group has reached out to Turkey and reassured it about its future intentions. The group also has a communication channel with Turkey that has enabled the two to co-ordinate, particularly since October.

Despite an existing agreement with Russia and complaints from the Syrian regime, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham’s militants escorted Turkish forces as they entered Idlib to establish checkpoints as part of the de-escalation monitoring process. The turn of events in October followed earlier rumours that Turkey was planning to expel the group from Idlib with the help of rebel forces opposed to it.

The meeting with Turkish officials last week was connected to two other efforts by Turkey in that region and builds on the events in October.

The first is an agreement between Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and rebel factions to end two months of fighting in Idlib. The truce happened in the backdrop of a meeting in Istanbul and was part of Turkey’s push for the two sides to end infighting and discuss ways to resolve the conundrum presented by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

The second is a stated effort by Turkey to “professionalise” rebel militias operating in northern Syria with military-style legions. This effort became more pronounced with the operation in Afrin, where Turkey, at least publicly, insisted on the involvement of fighters as part of a “national army” rather than as whole militias.

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Read more from Hassan Hassan:

Turkey is planting the seeds for future catastrophe in Syria

How Qatar made a conscious decision to engage with extremists

The ISIS triangle which allows militants to disappear

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While the forces were far from disciplined or organised military units, a new Turkish approach was clear. Turkey has demonstrated in recent months that it was no longer committed to the sponsorship of a rebel faction as a standalone proxy. In the past, for example, Turkey worked with groups like Ahrar Al Sham as proxy forces and invested in their survival as such.

When Ahrar Al Sham’s leadership was decapitated in an attack in 2014, for example, Ankara quickly helped to revive the remaining group with logistical and financial support. By contrast, Turkey stood by as the same group came under assault by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham last year. It also refused to back Ahrar Al Sham when it and other forces declared war against Hayat Tahrir Al Sham in February.

In other words, Turkey has shown no interest recently in playing the old game of supporting ragtag militias to fight the Syrian regime. Instead, it has moved to create loyalist forces organised under new units for the main purpose of securing its borders and ensuring that the YPG, the Kurdish militias that it regards as an affiliate of the PKK, do not carve out sanctuaries in northern Syria.

Idlib has become a vital terrain to achieve this objective. Also, Turkey considers an all-out fight against Hayat Tahrir Al Sham to be a side issue that could distract from the priority of containing the YPG and carries the risk of creating a vacuum that might benefit the regime or the Kurds.

The possibility of a war against Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is also reduced because the group is willing to do what it takes to avoid confrontation with Turkey. This was evident in its outreach effort, admitted by one of the group’s top leaders. Despite rumours of an imminent confrontation in October, the group escalated the situation and instead cooperated with Turkish forces inside Idlib. Additionally, the group has evacuated some of its checkpoints in Idlib or is “disappearing”, as one source in the area described it, which indicated the group is not wedded to the control of territory, at least publicly.

Ankara appears to hope that the group will dismantle itself and be incorporated into other formations. Turkey does not seem to be keen to consider the alternative, namely a serious push to weaken the group and replace it with other forces. Such a scenario carries unpredictable and unwanted risks for Turkey. It also does not want to give up a pocket central to its goals of dealing with the Kurdish militia threat in the northwest.

So far, Turkey has been able to maintain the status quo there. But soon it will find itself obliged to make hard choices regarding its approach to the former official branch of Al Qaeda and its long-term interests in northern Syria.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC