Caliphate In Miniature: Rift Between Turkey And Al-Qaeda In Idlib

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Caliphate In Miniature: Rift Between Turkey And Al-Qaeda In Idlib

In the second half of April and early May, the Syrian province of Idlib became the epicenter of a military political drama developing between Turkish forces and their al-Qaeda-linked allies.

The escalated tensions even led to a military incident on the M4 highway, near the town of Nayrab, when the Turkish Army and militant groups directly controlled by Ankara clashed with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its supporters. At least 11 members and supporters of the al-Qaeda-linked group were killed by live fire from Turkish troops and strikes by Turkish unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

This incident happened during a failed attempt to remove the camp of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham supporters, which had been established to block the highway and prevent the movement of joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the area. The creation of a security zone along the M4 highway, the withdrawal of radical militant groups from the zone and joint patrols in the area were among the key provisions of the Idlib ceasefire deal reached by the Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow on March 5. Since the start of the implementation of the deal, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party and other radical groups have been working to sabotage them. Seven joint Russian-Turkish patrols took place in a small area between Saraqib and Nayrab, as the situation in southeastern Idlib was moving closer to conditions in which the resumption of full-scale open military hostilities there would become inevitable. The number of ceasefire violations increased and both the Syrian Army and Idlib radicals were blaming each other for the apparent collapse of the de-escalation deal.

However, by May 5, the situation had changed. The protest camp near Nayrab disappeared. The Russian Military Police and the Turkish Army held their first extended joint patrol along the M4 highway passing the location of the former camp. On May 7, the sides held their second extended patrol, which became the longest one since the signing of the ceasefire deal in March. For the first time, the Russian Military Police reached the eastern entrance to the town of Ariha. These extended patrols became an important breakthrough in Turkish-Russian cooperation over the situation in southeastern Idlib despite the fact that the security zone agreement was still far from its full implementation.

The interesting fact is that this step forward was not due to Ankara’s anti-terrorist efforts in Greater Idlib, but came as a result of a deal reached by Turkey and the leadership of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The terrorist group de-blocked the M4 near Nayrab. In turn, Turkey reportedly agreed not to oppose Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s decision to open a commercial crossing between the militant-held part of Idlib in western Aleppo near Maaret Elnaasan. Earlier, Ankara and militant groups directly controlled by it had sabotaged this initiative. Turkey seeks to control all economic and social life in northwestern Syria. Meanwhile, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sees the commercial activity between Greater Idlib and the rest of Syria as an important source of income through various fees and trafficking of goods.

Neither Turkey nor Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are interested in military operations by Syria, Russia and Iran in Idlib. Therefore, in face of the threat of the new Syrian Army advance and the resumption of the Russian air bombing campaign, they reached a tactical agreement to prevent this scenario. However, this did not annihilate their mid- and long-term contradictions.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham enjoys the direct protection of the Turkish Armed Forces and indirectly receives financial support from Ankara. But the group is too large and too influential to be an ordinary Turkish puppet. In fact, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leadership and its close allies are working to turn Greater Idlib into their own ISIS-style emirate. While publicly they make loud statements about the goals of the so-called Syrian revolution and the need to ‘liberate’ Damascus from the ‘bloody Assad regime’, in fact, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has long since abandoned any plans of major expansion through direct attacks on the Syrian Army. They have been tightening their military, security and political grip over the militant-held part of Greater Idlib. If the situation develops in this direction, Idlib will have every chance of becoming a foothold for international terrorist groups operating all around the world, primarily in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. A network of training camps, weapon trafficking and financial flows for terrorist organizations recruiting new members and planning terrorist operations will all contribute to the growing influence and wealth of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Some global and regional players would be happy to use this opportunity to pursue their own geopolitical goals.

Turkey, which controls the border and is a key regional player keeping ties with Idlib militant groups, may become one of the main beneficiaries of this scenario and the Erdogan government could have agreed on this if the world were the same as it was back in 2011. However it is not.

The weakening of US influence in the Middle East, the shrinking global economy, the fragmentation of global markets and the collapse of the remote chance of Turkey joining the European Union as well as Turkey’s own diplomatic and political pretensions towards regional leadership turned Moscow into its key economic, diplomatic and security partner. Therefore, Ankara is forced to consult the interests of Moscow in its policy because without the military technological, diplomatic and economic cooperation with Russia Turkey has no chances to turn its own geopolitical ambitions into reality.

The current agreement between Turkey and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is rather a result of the tactical convergence of interests rather than a solid alliance. Even if they are able to prevent the resumption of the Syrian Army advance on Idlib, the tensions between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey will increase because they have different strategic interests. It is likely that within the next half year, Ankara will increase pressure on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and their allies in order to undermine their influence and bring most of the political, administrative and military influence in the Greater Idlib region to ethnic Turks and representatives of groups directly controlled by Ankara.

All of this would be done under the pretext of restoring peace and stability as well as securing democratic elections to form the ‘legitimate’ local authorities. In the event of success, Turkey will consolidate control over northwestern Syria and form a controlled group of persons that will represent the militant-held area in negotiations with the Damascus government. This group must have no links to radicals. The goals of these possible negotiations are to reach a peace agreement and guarantee a wide autonomy for the militant-held part of northwestern Syria in the framework of the comprehensive agreement between Ankara and Damascus. The characteristics of this autonomy will depend on the military political situation in the country at that moment. However there is no doubt that control of the Syrian-Turkish border will be among the key points of contradictions.

On the other hand, Ankara and Damascus may reach no comprehensive agreement because of the complicated military political situation in Syria. This could happen if the security situation deteriorates in the government-controlled part of Syria and Damascus starts losing control over particular regions; for example, due to the increasing activity of ISIS. In these conditions, Ankara will return to the idea of a direct annexation of the northwestern part of Syria. It will justify this move by the need to protect civilians and claiming that Damascus is not able to effectively battle the international terrorism.

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  • Karen Bartlett

    Thanks for your continued efforts to get the truth to us, South Front.

  • gustavo

    Beutiful cease fire agreement Russia-Turkey for terrorists and Turkey. Congratulation Mr Putin.

  • Willing Conscience (The Truths

    Wow, I hope all the SF readers pay attention to this article because it’s surprisingly frank for a change, I could happily subscribe to SF if this was their normal style of journalism, sadly it isn’t.

    There are a few things they seem to have gotten wrong though,

    “Since the start of the implementation of the deal, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party and other radical groups have been working to sabotage them.”

    Incorrect, the Turkistan Islamic Party [ TIP, Chinese Uighurs and Russian hating Chechens] don’t ever fight against Turkish interest, NEVER EVER and NOT ONCE, in fact they’re one of the very few groups in HTS that do actually support Turkey, and they support them 100%. And they’re also the one group of designated terrorists that Turkey does actually supports whenever they can if they can [they can’t legally], they shot down that Russian jet back in 2015 for blowing up the Uighurs and Chechens, so that’s just how highly Erdogan thinks of them.
    I suspect members of HTS will eventually turn on the TIP and start killing them, they’re probably spying for Erdogan and feeding him info on HTS activities, and HTS will be fully aware of it, I can see a split coming soon, the TIP may have to go it alone without HTS’s help, :].

    And this is another inaccurate comment I have issue with,

    “If the situation develops in this direction, Idlib will have every chance of becoming a foothold for international terrorist groups operating all around the world, primarily in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East.”

    That would be impossible, how could HTS get reinforcements, equipment or cash into Syria, Turkey controls the only border they can cross and if Turkey and HTS were fighting that would be impossible, there’d be no reinforcements for HTS, just for the Turkish backed opposition. So they could never establish a stronger foothold in Syria, just try desperately to retain the one they have, and that wouldn’t do anything to help international terrorism gain footholds anywhere else around the world either, in fact it’d probably inhibit some of their fanatics from trying to do the same thing as HTS has done, got itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
    And from Assad’s perspective that’s the best thing that could happen, a fight erupting between Turkey and HTS/Al Nusra, the old divide and conquer trick, keep trading with HTS and keep the highway closed to Turkey, that’s the best way to divide and conquer now, make HTS more powerful and weaken Turkey in the process.
    The Turks are Assad’s only real threat up in here in Idlib, the Turks do have legitimate political influence and huge resources to back them up, but HTS has neither, so make HTS more powerful to divide and conquer. And it looks like Assad’s already doing that, he’s doing business deals with his rivals, but only his weaker rivals, not his strongest opponent, sadly Russia’s the only one doing deals with Assad’s strongest opponent.

    But apart from those 2 minor points this articles actually very good, it doesn’t come to the same conclusions I would in some cases but they at least they provide us with enough info to make up our own minds. And that’s exactly what a good news story should do, provide enough relevant facts, offer some intelligent speculation and then come to conclusions, and just so long as they provide enough relevant facts so that we can come to our own conclusions [which might not be the same as SF’s] I’m happy with that.
    News without relevant facts isn’t news at all, it’s just propaganda, this type of article is the sort of news us SF readers really deserve, and we deserve more of it.
    More please SF, I’m still hungry, you’ve been starving me for way too long, my tummy’s been grumbling way too much lately, I really need a 3 course meal next, and I also think Iran should be the main course.

    • Poppadop

      Terrific points. South Front could be correct about some of HTS wanting to dig into Idlib and launch smaller operations, through Turkey, out from there. It would just require Turkey’s usual support for the “moderate” terrorists. While it is a less ambitious plan than what Erdogan’s administration seems to have been aiming for, it might be preferable to Turkey fighting its disobedient proxies and having less to fight Syria…

      Why not do both? Let HTS have its lower-intensity criminal network while TIP, Turkish troops, etc. work on the grander “Neo-Ottoman Empire” project…?

  • Konrad Ingvarssen

    Interesting article. I’m wondering about something. Back almost a decade now there was a lot of money flowing to militant groups from various sources, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Now that hope of victory for the rebels is gone, has this money dried up? Are there still supporters out there who see HTS as a chance to fund a “real”, but local, Islamic state (as opposed to the one ISIS tried to start). Does anyone with money care enough about HTS’s vision of Islamic politics to want to fund it? Does anyone see it as beacon of hope to Muslims who are fed up with their own national rulers, be it in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or wherever, rulers whom they perceive as unjust, corrupt, decadent and unfaithful despots who deprive them of justice, hope and the possibility of progress?
    I’m asking this question because I’m interested in the future of “political” Islam. There are a lot of people still fighting and dying to bring a more “Islamic” political structure into being in the area. There’s the militants in Egypt, the remains of ISIS, some groups in Libya, in Syria there’s HTS, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and others. I’m concerned mostly with Sunni groups here. These groups look to the foundations of their faith, the dictates of the Koran, the records of life of the prophet Mohamed and the early generations of leaders who knew him and followed after him. They claim legitimacy because of their supposed greater fidelity to that early faith, and I think communities of devout and thoughtful Muslims who are interested in avoiding the decadence and decline of the post-Christian West (and their own political leaders) will have to take those claims seriously. I am not Muslim myself, but I want to understand how such Muslims think and express themselves politically. After the failure of ISIS, what is the future for them? If not that kind of Islam, of which HTS is a part, then what? Maybe that question is impossible to answer, but it will be answered eventually by some frustrated young Muslim person who is fed up with the constricted life that has been forced on them by their supposedly Muslim rulers.

    For example, Erdogan came to power in Turkey at least partly on an Islamist agenda. The irony that he is now sending Syrian Islamic militants to fight and die in Libya so that Turkey can get its hands on a natural gas there is probably not lost on most of those same militants. They took up arms in a “holy war” to oppose what they saw as an unjust regime in Syria. Now they are fighting other Muslims in Libya, a Muslim majority country, so that Turkey, a Muslim majority country, can get more natural gas and oil. At least that is the story I have heard, and I kind of believe it.