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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

The Turkish intervention in Idlib does not solve the issue of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham’s dominance

Hassan Hassan examines recent moves by Turkey in Syria and finds several points of contention

Turkish soldiers stand near armoured vehicles during the Turkish army's Idlib operation near the Turkey-Syria border. Ilyas Akengin / AFP
Turkish soldiers stand near armoured vehicles during the Turkish army's Idlib operation near the Turkey-Syria border. Ilyas Akengin / AFP

On Saturday, Turkey announced its intention to launch a major offensive to oust the former branch of Al Qaeda from northwestern Syria. The decision was preceded by several war declarations from Turkish-backed rebel factions against the group known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and previously as Jabhat Al Nusra. The rebels and Turkey left no room for doubt that such a bold offensive was underway.

Two days later the situation took dramatic turns. First, news emerged on Monday that Hayat Tahrir Al Sham escorted Turkish forces inside the rebel-held north west, as part of an effort by Turkey to establish monitoring sites for a ceasefire between the rebels and the regime. Then, a day later, an Islamist group ceded administrative control of a Syria-Turkey border crossing to the Syrian opposition’s interim government, in the zone that Turkey established last summer in northern Syria, further east.

The Turkish entry is supposed to be part of the Astana process’s de-escalation plan, agreed with Russia and Iran. De-escalation zones are designed to exclude Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, and only apply to non-jihadi rebel groups. Also, the Russian-sponsored process is envisioned as a way to temporarily de-escalate the conflict, rather than a way for the opposition to build political and governance structures.

But events since the weekend speak of different dynamics at play. In the space of two days, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham turned from being the subject of an imminent military campaign to practically being a partner, in a zone that Russia and Iran want to be free of the former Al Qaeda franchise. The breakthrough for the opposition’s interim government, even though not directly related to the de-escalation zone in Idlib, is relevant to the Turkish campaign in the north west.

For more than a year, the interim government pleaded to the armed groups in Idlib, including Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, to allow it to relocate to their areas. As The National reported in June, Jawad Abu Hatab, the body’s chief, presented the jihadi group with an offer that would give it and other jihadi and Islamist groups control of the police and the courts in exchange for allowing his government to operate from Idlib.

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The offer was declined, but the opposition continued to push for a way to spare Idlib possible destruction if the regime and its allies turned to it next. Especially since the regime’s recapture of eastern Aleppo, the possible fate of Idlib came to be the centre of speculation. Jabhat Al Nusra increasingly tightened its control over the rebel stronghold, using a combination of clashes and coercion to weaken and subdue its rivals. By July, the group emerged as the unrivalled dominant force in Idlib and surrounding areas.

The Idlib conundrum became even more complex. On the one hand, any offensive against the rebels in Idlib would cause a humanitarian disaster for the two million civilians living there. It would increase pressure on Turkey as a new wave of refugees would head to its borders. On the other hand, the growing presence of what many view as an Al Qaeda organisation troubled Syrians as well as outsiders.

Something had to happen to reverse the influence of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham. Increasingly, it became clear that only Turkey had the leverage to oversee such a process. A Turkish-backed offensive, though, seemed far-fetched: the rebels were too weak to dislodge the group, Turkey was too distracted by the expansion of Kurdish interests inside Syria, and the United States had no partners to carry out such a task. Meantime, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham counted on the brotherly jihadi sentiments within groups like Ahrar Al Sham to prevent a rebel alliance backed by a foreign country.

Against this backdrop, Turkey’s establishment of a protected zone in that region in coordination with Hayat Tahrir Al Sham seemed inescapable. Despite reports of a Turkish intervention, it was clear from the outset that neither Turkey nor Hayat Tahrir Al Sham was interested in a fight. The group quickly established contacts with Turkey and appointed a new coordinator with Turkish officials to ensure continued lines of communication.

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In theory, the Turkish presence provides an opportunity to work closely with the group’s rivals to slowly create an alternative, something that never materialised with remote support. Multiple well-placed sources assert that Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is keen to persuade foreign countries that it has indeed abandoned Al Qaeda. One of the its top officials recently revealed that the group dispatched representatives to regional countries in a bid to build friendly ties with them, naming Turkey as one of those countries. This means that Turkey might be in a position to change the group’s behaviour with time.

But the Turkish model in the other zone to the east provides little room for optimism. Warlordism and thuggery continue unabated there. Turkey failed to centralise the operation to prevent the emergence of ragtag militias that extremists could exploit. Talk of armed groups releasing ISIL members for money is all too common in that area. Additionally, that the interim government was willing to leave Jabhat Al Nusra in control of the police and courts does not bode well for the effectiveness of such an effort.

In this context, the Turkish intervention is an opportunity since it promises to ensure the safety of two million people. But it does not solve the issue of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham’s dominance. It only kicked the can further down the road, if not worse.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy